William Lloyd Garrison: The War–Its Cause and Cure

It is striking that the writing of abolitionists in the early days of the Civil War often are zealously insightful. Despite being largely reviled figures at the time, even in the North, they had the best handle on what the nascent conflict was really about and what it would become.

A good example is a column by William Lloyd Garrison that appeared in the May 3, 1861 edition of The Liberator, under the title, “The War–Its Cause and Cure.” After bemoaning that the Founding Fathers had betrayed the principles of the American Revolution by not ending slavery, Garrison criticized the sentiment in the North common in early May 1861 that the conflict should be exclusively about preserving the Union. He wrote:

What shall be said, then, of those who insist upon ignoring the question of slavery as not involved in this deadly feud, and maintain that the only issue is, the support of the government and the preservation of the Union? Surely, they are “fools and blind”; for it is slaveholders alone who have conspired to seize the one, and overturn the other. As long as the enslavement of a single human being is sanctioned in the land, the curse of God will rest upon it. That it may go well with us, let us break every yoke!

Hence, Garrison asserted that peace could not be restored, or at very least maintained after peace was restored forcibly, without an end to slavery. He editorialized:

It alters nothing to say, that the South is guilty of unparalleled perfidy and treason. Granted! But why overlook the cause of all this? That cause is SLAVERY! If that be not removed, how is it possible to escape the consequences? Suppose we succeed in “conquering a peace,” leaving things as they were; in due time, a still more fearful volcanic explosion will follow.

William Lloyd Garrison believed that no more peaceable nationhood was possible between the free and slave states. Hence, he contended the war should continue until slavery was destroyed completely or that a permanent separation of North and South take place. Garrison clearly preferred the former alternative, seeing the Civil War even in its early days as an unprecedented  opportunity to effect emancipation. He wrote:

Now, we solemnly maintain, that it is the most deplorable infatuation to aim to restore the old order of things. No blessing can attend it. God has frowned upon it, and, through judgment, provided a way of escape. Nothing is more clear than that an “irrepressible conflict” between slavery and freedom must continue. It is useless to deny that the Union is dissolved, and every slave State virtually in rebellion against the government. Let there be no more compromise. In humbling the Southern conspirators, let the government, UNDER THE WAR POWER, either proclaim emancipation to all in bondage, or else take measures for a final and complete separation between the free and slave States. Unquestionably, the former course would be justified by the exigencies of the country, and be the readiest way to bring the war to a close, and the traitors to terms. It would also be the greatest boon that could possibly be bestowed upon the South. But if this measure be deemed questionable, then for a free, independent Northern republic, leaving the South to her fate!

Out of the slave system comes this terrible civil war, with whatever ghastly horrors may follow in its train. So Divine Justice has ordered it, that both North and South may be scourged for their transcendant [sic] iniquity in tolerating such a system in the land. Is it not so, Mr. Edward Everett, Mr. Millard Fillmore, Mr. Franklin Pierce, Mr. Stephen Arnold Douglas—Democrats and Republicans all? Say, are they freemen or slaveholders who have perfidiously captured forts, arsenals, magazines, mints, revenue cutters, steamships, and custom-houses, and are now plotting the seizure of the Capital? Men of the North! is it not your mission, in this campaign, to make it possible for a free government and a glorious Union to exist, by decreeing the extinction of slavery as utterly antagonistical to both? No class of human beings living have such claims upon your sympathy, justice, and benevolent intervention, as the slaves of the South. No cause is so sacred as theirs. In Heaven’s name, do nothing to keep them longer in their chains! Do everything rightfully in your power those chains to sunder!

If this war shall put an end to that execrable system, it will be more glorious in history than that of the Revolution. If it shall leave it unscathed, and in full operation, —even though Southern treason may for a time be “crushed out,”—there will be nothing to look for but heavier judgments and an irrevocable doom! “For the sword of the Lord shall devour from the one end of the land to the other: no flesh shall have peace. . . . 0 house of David, thus saith the Lord, Execute judgment in the morning, and deliver him that is spoiled out of the hand of the oppressor, lest my fury go out like fire, and burn that none can quench it, BECAUSE OF THE EVIL OF YOUR DOINGS. . . . Undo the heavy burdens, break every yoke, and let the oppressed go free; then shalt thou be like a watered garden, and like a fountain whose waters fail not; and they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places; thou shalt be called, THE REPAIRER OF THE BREACH, THE RESTORER OF PATHS TO DWELL IN.”

So clearly, William Lloyd Garrison in May 1861 saw slavery as the cause of the Civil War and emancipation as the only cure to end it and avoid renewed sectional conflict. His position was in a distinct minority then among white Northerners, but events in the first year of the war would increasingly convince other people in the free states of its wisdom.

Source: http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?documentprint=577

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at donald_shaffer@yahoo.com
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