Tuesday, December 06, 2005


Conference paper

Today I've been working on a draft of the paper I will be presenting next month at the Annual Meeting of the AHA. Here's the panel: Transnational Histories of the American Civil War Era. And here's the proposal for my paper that I submitted, along with my fellow panelists, to the Program Committee back in February. It slipped under the 250-word limit at 248:
In 1842, William Lloyd Garrison, the fiery Boston abolitionist, began to call for the dissolution of the United States, a nation hopelessly corrupted by slavery. In 1844, the American Anti-Slavery Society adopted the principle of “no union with slaveholders” as its motto. In 1861, the union would be dissolved, but not in the way that Garrisonians had desired.

Garrison’s disunionism can be placed in a national tradition of secessionist thought that culminated in civil war, but Garrisonian thinking about disunion also had transnational sources. Calls for disunion were influenced by the language of Daniel O’Connell’s transatlantic movement for Irish Repeal, which peaked in 1843. The coincidence of the Repeal campaign with the appearance of Garrisonian disunionism was not accidental. In the early 1840s, many Garrisonians forged personal ties with a coterie of Irish reformers, some of whom, like Dublin merchant James Haughton, were devoted Repealers. They advocated a “repeal of the union” that joined Ireland to the United Kingdom, while Garrison called for a “repeal of the union” between North and South. In 1842, he declared himself “both an Irish Repealer and an American Repealer,” and Wendell Phillips, another Garrisonian, referred to disunionism as “our repeal” in private correspondence.

Historians cannot understand the timing and texture of Garrisonians’ disunionism without understanding their ties with Irish reformers. Likewise, even the quintessentially American question of whether divided houses can stand was part of wider transatlantic debates in the early nineteenth century, which included Irish Repealers, European liberals, and American abolitionists.
Since submitting that proposal, I've completed the chapter of my dissertation on which it was based. So I'm now paring down a 51-page chapter into an 11- to 12-page (double-spaced) paper, which means throwing many of the chapter's branches into the fire. In the process I've been acutely conscious of Timothy Burke's prophetic denunciations of AHA conference panels:
The formal session is a kind of loathsome ritual of humanities and social science academia, a lacerating gesture of masochism. Three, sometimes four, panelists read dully through a pre-written paper. Every once in a great while, one of them has actually written a shorter version of the paper designed to be read aloud, that has some vague hint of a performative gloss to it. Mostly though presenters just put red lines through paragraphs they want to skip, rush through the end, make amendations on the fly, read prose intended for formal publication.
"Lacerating gesture of masochism." Ouch. That sounds like it would hurt. I'd prefer to give the paper some kind of "performative gloss." So while I do have the chapter file open in another window as I write, I'm starting the draft of the talk from scratch. Here are the opening paragraphs of my current "talk" draft:
In 1842, Garrisonian abolitionists, who took their name from the fiery editor of the Boston Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison, began to call publicly for the dissolution of the United States. The Union, they concluded, was nothing but a sword and a shield for slavery; the Constitution was a proslavery instrument. And as long as Northerners remained in a Union that contained slaveholders, warned Garrison and his supporters, they would bear guilt for the national sin of slavery. Coming out of the Union was the only way to stay innocent and the only way to abolish slavery. In a letter to the Liberator in April 1842, radical abolitionist Henry Clarke Wright summed up this view: “We ought to have laid before the slaveholders, long ago, this alternative. You must abolish slavery, or we shall dissolve the Union.” [1]

In reality, Garrisonians had laid that alternative before the South before, but it was not until the spring of 1842 that the Liberator began to propose disunionism as the “one standard” for dividing “genuine friends of liberty” from false ones. The week before printing Wright’s letter, William Lloyd Garrison proposed that disunion be made the first order of business at the next meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society. In May, he began printing a new slogan in capital letters above his editorials, calling for “A REPEAL OF THE UNION BETWEEN NORTHERN LIBERTY AND SOUTHERN SLAVERY.” Two years later, Garrisonians officially endorsed a more concise motto: “No Union with Slaveholders!” And for the rest of the antebellum period, until the firing of shots on Fort Sumter in 1861 actually did dissolve the Union, disunionism would be the Garrisonians’ calling card. [2]

In this talk I want to raise two questions about disunionism and then suggest how taking a transnational perspective on the era of the American Civil War might help us answer them. The first question I want to ask is about timing. Portents of disunion predated Garrisonians’ adoption of the slogan, “No Union with Slaveholders,” but why was it not until 1842 that Garrisonians began making that demand their rallying cry? Part of the answer is that the outlook for abolition looked especially grim in 1842: President John Tyler seemed to support plans for the annexation of Texas as a slave state; Northern Congressmen were bound by a “gag rule” that banned antislavery petitions from the floor of Congress; in January, Southerners called for the censure of John Quincy Adams, who spent his post-presidential career as a Massachusetts Congressman flaunting the gag rule, and the next month, the Supreme Court ruled, in Prigg v. Pennsylvania that slaveholders had a constitutional right to capture fugitive slaves in the North. Later in 1842, Philadelphia erupted in a bloody race riot, after which the black abolitionist Robert Purvis said that he saw “nothing redeeming, nothing hopeful” in recent events. “Despair black as the pall of Death hangs over us.” [3]

To Garrisonians, despairing times called for a desperate measures: disunion. But their critics, both at the time and since, have tended to view disunionism as a flight from reason into fancy. The second question I want to raise is about this interpretation of disunionism. What did Garrisonians intend, what did they mean, when they called for disunion? Answers to that question have tended to be seen through the distorting lenses ground by Garrison’s critics, who were and continue to be legion. Many abolitionists in 1842 were beginning to organize antislavery third parties and to build political coalitions among Northern voters disaffected by the power of proslavery factions in their parties. [4] These political abolitionists believed that the usurpations of the “Slave Power” could best be resisted at the polls and on the hustings. They were therefore fiercely critical of the disunionists, for whom one of the first ways to withdraw from the guilty Union was to abstain from voting. Political abolitionists said such “no-voting” advice was absurd, and many historians have murmured “amen.” Disunionism is still often seen as a priggish and self-centered agenda, which Garrisonians adopted simply for the sake of keeping their hands clean, while political abolitionists are praised for rolling up their sleeves and actually making political gains.

This critical portrait of disunionists often implies that they were essentially no different from Southern secessionists: both were good at throwing tantrums, but bad at proposing real solutions. That comparison is too much of a caricature, but it is not entirely unfair: disunionism can and should be seen as part of a long American tradition of states threatening to take their electoral votes and go home when they found out that they could not play well with other states. Yet disunionism was not merely one more chapter in an exclusively American history of secessionist thought. In the next several minutes I want to suggest that the Garrisonians had another, more immediate model for disunionism, which they found not by looking southward to Southern fire-eaters, but by looking eastward across the Atlantic, where in the 1840s Irish nationalists led by Daniel O’Connell were agitating for political independence from England. Seeing O’Connell’s movement as a model for disunionism, rather than Jefferson Davis’s, helps us answer why Garrisonians became disunionists when they did—thus shedding light on the timing question—and it also suggests a more nuanced interpretation of disunionism. Comparing disunionism to Irish Repeal, I will argue, helps us to see that Garrisonians viewed disunionism as a serious strategy for ending slavery, not just as an attempt to preserve their purity.
And on it goes. My concerns at this stage are two-fold: I may be taking too long to get to the "Irish Repeal" punchline, although from here on out the paper turns decisively towards a discussion of how Garrisonians learned and thought about Irish Repeal, and why they viewed disunionism as a similar movement.

On the one hand, part of me likes setting the talk up this way, by giving the audience a couple of questions to frame my argument. And another advantage of starting this way is that it makes clear right away what the stakes of "transnational perspectives" on the Civil War Era might be: I don't just want to point out that Garrisonians corresponded with Irish Repealers, and end with nothing more than "Isn't that cool?" Rather, I want to suggest right away--even at the risk of overstating things--that a transnational angle on the origins of disunionism helps us understand those origins differently. The disadvantage of starting this way, though, is that the above introduction amounts to 3 pages, or a fourth of the total draft. That may be too much to invest in an introduction. If you have suggestions, I'd welcome any observational reports about the current thickness of the glaze covering your eyes. (Hey, better to have you be bored at the draft stage than to have me "lacerate" the panel's IRL audience. You could have clicked away, but they might be trapped in a chair next to the wall.)


If you're interested in Irish Repeal, which I get into after the above excerpt, here's the Wikipedia entry. There's also a concise biography of O'Connell here.

Here's also an interesting contemporary print by Edward Clay. It portrays a Garrison-like figure on the far right supporting O'Connell, who was a staunch abolitionist. Clay portrays Garrison as an opponent of Repeal because he wants to imply that Garrison is a puppet of English abolitionists. But in actuality, American Garrisonians usually did support for Repeal, and by 1842 they were in rather bad odor with mainstream English abolitionists. A good place to start reading about Garrisonian relations with Irish Repealers and O'Connell is the first chapter of Noel Ignatiev's How the Irish Became White.



[1] Henry Clarke Wright, “The Only Alternative—Dissolution of the Union, or the Abolition of Slavery,” Liberator, 29 April 1842.

[2] “The Annual Meeting at New-York,” Liberator, 22 April 1842. For the disunion slogan, see Liberator, 20 May 1842.

[3] Robert Purvis to Henry Clarke Wright, 22 August 1842, in C. Peter Ripley, ed., Witness for Freedom: African American Voices on Race, Slavery, and Emancipation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 62. On Tyler’s presidency, see Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Slaveholding Republic: An Account of the United States Government’s Relations to Slavery, ed. Ward M. McAfee (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 120-126. On discontent with the “gag rule” and the attempted censure of Adams, see Lynn H. Parsons, “Censuring Old Man Eloquent: Foreign Policy and Disunion, 1842,” Capitol Studies 3 (1975), 89-106; James M. McPherson, “The Fight Against the Gag Rule: Joshua Leavitt and Antislavery Insurgency in the Whig Party, 1839-1842,” Journal of Negro History 48, no. 3 (July 1963), 177-195. On Prigg v. Pennsylvania, see Paul Finkelman, “Prigg v. Pennsylvania and Northern State Courts: Anti-Slavery Use of a Pro-Slavery Decision,” Civil War History 25, no. 1 (1979), 5-35; Eric W. Plaag, “‘Let the Constitution Perish’: Prigg v. Pennsylvania, Joseph Story, and the Flawed Doctrine of Historical Necessity,” Slavery and Abolition 25, no. 3 (2004), 76-101; Fehrenbacher, The Slaveholding Republic, 219-225.

[4] See James Brewer Stewart, Holy Warriors: The Abolitionists and American Slavery, rev. ed. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1997), 97-126; Richard H. Sewell, Ballots for Freedom: Antislavery Politics in the United States, 1837-1860 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1980).

Collective Improvisation:
Caleb, I have no doubt but your point about the Irish repealers influencing the Garrisonian abolitionists is essentially correct. I ran into the lingering affinity in the 19th century Irish-American writer, John Boyle O'Reilly, and, lacking the connection you argue here, I found it difficult to trace its roots. In part, that was because of the very weakness of any Catholic anti-slavery tradition.
I think you've done well to take Tim's criticism of what we ordinarily do in these sessions to heart; and I think that you've set up the issues very nicely. If you can do this thing "performatively," it may be possible yet to persuade convention organizers that we really ought not torment ourselves with having four papers read to us. I'm at a point at which I often avoid going to sessions because I don't want to be seen sleeping through them.

Posted by Anonymous Ralph Luker on 12/08/2005 02:09:00 AM : Permalink  

Two other things, one of which I'm sure that you'll get to: 1) the "no union with slaveholders" may have had limited direct political influence in the North, but as you know it was precisely in the brief period you're discussing that that and comparable sentiments was rending national churches fifteen years before it rent the nation; and 2) there is an issue of agency and effect here, isn't there? In other words, if it were black abolitionists making this argument, I could see the parallels with Irish Repealers more clearly -- both acting as a kind of self-emancipation. But the similarity of cause is less obvious between Northern white abolitionists and Irish Repealers. Did the Irish Repealers actually believe that what they struggled for would have a redeeming effect on England? And did Garrison actually believe that disunion would do _anything_ to emancipate slaves?

Posted by Anonymous Ralph Luker on 12/08/2005 03:51:00 AM : Permalink  

Caleb--I have to get a chapter out this afternoon but thereafter will comment, but from the perspective of one who has given a paper at the AHA!

Posted by Blogger Rebecca on 12/08/2005 10:49:00 AM : Permalink  

Thanks for your comments and questions, Ralph. I'll be chewing on some of these questions, but in the meantime, here's a provisional answer to your last question:

And did Garrison actually believe that disunion would do _anything_ to emancipate slaves?

A better way to put it, I think, is that Garrison thought that calling for disunion would emancipate the slaves. Although he often spoke of disunion as a quest for moral purity on the part of abolitionists, he also sometimes framed it as an expedient strategy (especially in the 1840s; this changed somewhat during the 1850s). Garrisonians argued that giving the South an ultimatum of sorts--"abolition OR disunion"--would force Southerners to choose the former.

Garrisonians also believed, however, that without the protecting arm of the Union, slavery could not survive. And they believed that because in the early 1840s, many Southerners were saying so.

One of the things I point out in the larger chapter (and perhaps in the talk) is that the immediate cause for the Garrisonians' disunionism was a petition that John Quincy Adams read to the House of Representatives in January 1842. The petition, which was from some of Adams' constituents in Haverhill, Massachusetts, called for Congress to immediately consider measures to peacefully dissolve the union. (You can read about the petition and the furor it caused online in the Congressional Globe. Click here, then on the 2nd session, and then turn to page 168.)

Southern Representatives were outraged that Adams had read the petition in violation of the gag rule, and even more outraged that it called for disunion. (One immediately asked whether it would be in order to burn the petition publicly on the floor of the House.) Several, including future Virginia governor Henry Wise, called for Adams' censure.

In the two-week-long debate that followed, Joseph Underwood of Kentucky, along with several other Southerners, argued that the Haverhill petition was evidence of an abolitionist plot, probably cooked up by English interlopers. As soon as the “bonds of this Union” were dissolved, he said, “slavery was done in Kentucky, Maryland, and a large portion of Virginia,” since the Ohio River and the Mason and Dixon line would then beckon as foreign borders to which thousands of fugitive slaves could flee for freedom. “The dissolution of the Union,” Underwood concluded, “was the dissolution of slavery.” (See p. 173 in the Globe.)

Garrison seized on that line and quoted it often in the coming months as evidence that disunion meant abolition. I think that illuminates, at least in part, what Garrison and his fellow disunionists were trying to do: force the South to choose disunion (which would result in emancipation anyway) or to choose abolition. Disunion was partly a statement of moral perfectionism (which made it akin to the schisms you refer to in the nation's cross-sectional denominations), but it was also partly a rhetorical gambit based on Garrisonians' assessment of what was going in Congress at the time.

The comparison that I will go on to make between Irish Repeal and disunionism sharpens this interpretation. Many scholars now argue that O'Connell viewed the Repeal movement primarily as a way to force reticent Whigs and Tories in Parliament to reform Irish government. The Garrisonians--at least some of them--were thinking along similar lines about their own situation.

To be sure, there were also Garrisonians--and legions of political abolitionists--who thought this strategy was nuts. Many asked Garrison pointedly why he believed so strongly that disunion would result in abolition (just as, incidentally, many of O'Connell's critics also charged that Ireland would be no better off after Repeal than before). And Garrison didn't always have a good answer, beyond the fact that Underwood and other Southerners said so. But my goal in this talk (and the larger chapter) is not necessarily to make disunionism defensible, but to make it intelligible. It may have been a bad strategy, but it was a strategy, which is more than many historians of Garrisonian abolitionists are willing to concede. The kind of strategy that disunionists envisioned in 1842 and 1843 was no less zany (and no less "political," in a certain sense) than O'Connell's contemporaneous movement in Ireland.

One last point and then I'll wrap up this over-long response. I have to concede that Garrisonians often did refer to disunion as nothing but a moral duty. They often explicitly disavowed the idea that it was a means to an end, and claimed instead that it was purely a way for the North to keep its skirts clean.

But two points should be made: one, this stress on the moral perfectionism of disunionism was not as strong in 1842 and 1843, when the slogan was first taken up, as it would be later in the 1850s (after, it is worth pointing out, Repeal had failed as a strategy on the other side of the ocean); and second, Garrisonians often said contradictory things. It's worth remembering that, because they are so often portrayed as rigidly doctrinaire and blindly consistent. While in one breath saying that disunion was a moral duty, they often said in the next that it was the best strategy for abolishing slavery.

Okay, now this really is my last point: If we stress the "moral perfectionist" side of Garrisonian disunionism, it becomes difficult to explain how so many Garrisonians became staunch unionists during the Civil War. If we neglected the "expedient" strain of disunion that was present at its origins, then this turn towards the Union would later look like nothing but an equivocation. But if we appreciate that there were strategic dimensions to early disunionism (however germinal), then we can better understand how and why the Garrisonians blossomed into unionists once the South seceded. At that point, Southerners had evidently abandoned Underwood's belief that they needed the Union to sustain slavery, so giving them ultimatums about disunion obviously wasn't a useful tactic any more.

Thanks for the feedback, and sorry if I've taxed your patience with a lengthy rejoinder. I'm interested in airing these ideas to see if they work, so thanks for letting me do so here.

Posted by Blogger Caleb on 12/08/2005 02:09:00 PM : Permalink  

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