contributed by Thomas E.Woods, Jr.
North Andover, MA
Every schoolboy's textbook portrays the nineteenth-century abolitionists as peace-loving American heroes, uniquely skilled in Constitutional interpretation and Biblical exegesis, and debated to something called "American ideals." As with so much in standard American history texts, this characterization is not only false, but laughably so.
To begin with, the abolitionists were never particularly concerned about avoiding war, and they habitually engaged in recklessly inflammatory rhetoric that was bound to alienate decent Southerners. William Lloyd garrison, for example, once declared: "We would sooner trust the honor of our country...in the hands of the inmates of our penitentiaries and prisons than in their hands...[T]hey are the meanest of thieves and the worst of robbers...We do not acknowledge them to be within the pale of Christianity or republicanism, or humanity!" Garrison's comment may seem harsh, but compared to much of what the abolitionists had to say about the South, his remark is imbued with a spirit of sectional reconciliation.
Historian Avery Craven was therefore on the mark when he concluded that hatred of the South had supplanted love for the Negro. The Old Guard, a Copperhead newspaper in New York, commented that among the "abolitionized" churches of New England, "far more time has been devoted to the generating of hatred against the people of the southern States than has been consumed in fostering the personal piety of the flocks committed to their charge."
Some of the more astute observers recognized that there was much more to the Abolitionist crusade than merely the ending of slavery. The influential abolitionist George W. Julian of Ohio was frank about this: The abolition of poverty is the next work in order and the Abolitionist who does not see this fails to grasp the logic of the Anti-Slavery movement, and calls a halt to the inevitable march of progress. . . . The system of Southern slavery was the natural outgrowth of that generally accepted political philosophy which makes the protection of property the chief end of government.
Charles Sumner had equally mischievous plans for postbellum society: to elevate the Declaration of Independence that it might "stand side by side with the Constitution, and enjoy with it coequal authority." "Full well . . . I know that in other days, when Slavery prevailed . . . there was a different rule of interpretation," Sumner conceded. This "different rule of interpretation," which it pleased our Fathers to call "constitutionalism," was far too restrictive to allow the kind of innovations of which the scheming Sumner dreamed.
The war, he claimed, had established "a new rule of interpretation by which the institutions of our country are dedicated forevermore to Human Rights, and the Declaration of Independence is made a living letter instead of a promise." Thus the statement that all men are created equal, condemned by John Randolph of Roanoke as a most pernicious falsehood, was to become the central organizing principle for the republic. It is to this polluted source that we may trace the scores of crusaders for equality from forced busing to affirmative action which have been visited upon us ever since.
After centuries of bitter experience, it should now be clear that an abstract commitment to equality and human rights has away of degenerating into totalitarianism and mass murder. The Jacobins spoke glowingly about the Rights of Man during the French Revolution, all the while slaughtering their countrymen by the hundreds of thousands. "If you want to know the effect of metaphysical madness," observed John Randolph of Roanoke, "look to the history of the French Revolution, and to the undoing of the country."
On an individual level, this was most spectacularly true in the case of John Brown. Several years before his raid on Harper's Ferry, Brown and several other men killed and mutilated five men and boys in what became known as the Pottawatomie Creek massacre. The victims, who owned no slaves, were guilty of the high crime of having supported the Missouri faction in the dispute over the Kansas government, and had thus committed a thought crime against human rights. (They had "committed murder in their hearts," Brown said.) Indiscriminate slaughter thus became a legitimate vehicle for vindicating human rights.
Following Brown's execution in 1859, church bells rang all across the North in honor of the fallen martyr. Emerson and Thoreau actually compared Brown to Christ himself. Louisa May Alcott referred to him as Saint John the Just. Among Northern literary figures, Nathaniel Hawthorne stood virtually alone in insisting that there was never a man more justly hanged.
The Rev. Thomas Beecher, the conservative sibling of abolitionists Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, was horrified by the way abolitionists employed the Bible in the service of fanaticism. In the anti-slavery crusade, he wrote, the Bible is torn up to wad the guns of controversy. God's truth ceases to be bread and becomes bullets. It created a particularly insufferable kind of self-righteousness one which made abolitionists capable of singing the words "His truth is marching on" as the South was being looted and burned.
The direct results of abolitionist fanaticism include, at the very least: the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Americans,including civilians; the precedent-setting violation of nearly every norm of civilized warfare; the destruction of America's constitutional order and the growth of a centralized State `a la Rousseau; and the conquest; physical, economic, and cultural, of the Southern states all to accomplish an end that was achieved by peaceful means elsewhere throughout our hemisphere. Any civilized man must recognize in the abolitionists not noble crusaders whose one flaw was a tendency toward extremism, but utterly reprehensible agitators who put metaphysical abstractions ahead of prudence, charity, and rationality. Indeed, with heroes like this, who needs villains?
Mr. Woods holds a B.A. and an M.A.in history from Harvard and is a Founding member of the League of the South. Mr. Woods is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University.
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