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The Struggle for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction

The Struggle for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction

by James M. McPherson, J. M. McPherson

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In The Struggle for Equality, the renowned Civil War historian James McPherson offered an important and timely analysis of the abolitionist movement and the legal basis it provided to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. This work remains an incisive demonstration of the successful role played by rights activists during and after the Civil War, when they


In The Struggle for Equality, the renowned Civil War historian James McPherson offered an important and timely analysis of the abolitionist movement and the legal basis it provided to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. This work remains an incisive demonstration of the successful role played by rights activists during and after the Civil War, when they evolved from despised fanatics into influential spokespersons for the radical wing of the Republican party.

The vivid narrative stresses the intensely individual efforts that characterized the movement, drawing on letters and anti-slavery periodicals to let the voices of the abolitionists express for themselves their triumphs and anxieties. Asserting that it was not the abolitionists who failed in their efforts to instill the principles of equality on the state level but rather the American people who refused to follow their leadership, McPherson raises broad questions about the obstacles that have long hindered American reform movements in general.

This new paperback edition contains a preface in which the author explains some of the changing perspectives that would lead him to write several aspects of this story differently today. The original hardcover was a winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Award in Race Relations.

Editorial Reviews

Reviews in American History
The Abolitionist Legacy shows many of the same graces as its predecessor: wide-ranging and careful research, a strong sense of story line, an eye for good quotations, unyielding sympathy for those who devoted their lives to uplifting the freedmen.
Political Science Quarterly
In addition to discussing the complex blend of egalitarianism and paternalism in the thought of white proponents of black advancement, McPherson offers suggestions of the intricate mixture of racial consciousness, individual ambition, and racial romanticism that continues to fuel modern black separatism.
The Times Literary Supplement
Must surely be assigned an important place in the literature of the history of ideas and of race relations in the United States.
Library Journal
These volumes, published in 1975 and 1964, respectively, chronicle the abolitionist movement from before the Civil War to the part it played in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. LJ's reviewer found The Abolitionist Legacy an "ably researched, well-written book" (LJ 12/15/75).
From the Publisher

Winner of the Warren F. Kuehl Prize, Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations

"Must surely be assigned an important place in the literature of the history of ideas and of race relations in the United States."--The Times Literary Supplement

"The Abolitionist Legacy shows many of the same graces as its predecessor: wide-ranging and careful research, a strong sense of story line, an eye for good quotations, unyielding sympathy for those who devoted their lives to uplifting the freedmen."--Reviews in American History

"In addition to discussing the complex blend of egalitarianism and paternalism in the thought of white proponents of black advancement, McPherson offers suggestions of the intricate mixture of racial consciousness, individual ambition, and racial romanticism that continues to fuel modern black separatism."--Political Science Quarterly

Product Details

Princeton University Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
With a New preface by the author
Product dimensions:
5.82(w) x 9.14(h) x 0.81(d)

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The Struggle for Equality

Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction

By James M. McPherson


Copyright © 1992 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-5223-9



THE election of 1860 confronted Garrisonian abolitionists with a dilemma. For the first time an avowedly antislavery party had an excellent chance of winning the presidency. This intoxicating prospect was too much for some Garrisonians, especially those of the younger generation, who forsook the antipolitical traditions of the movement and gave positive support to Abraham Lincoln. A majority of Garrisonians, however, remained true to their principles, refused to give an explicit endorsement to the Republican party (though hoping for its victory), and criticized the party sharply for its antislavery shortcomings.

Garrisonians had always taken an ambivalent attitude toward antislavery political parties. In the 1840's Garrison and Phillips were not entirely displeased by the growth of the free soil coalition. "We look upon the Free Soil movement as the unavoidable result of our principles and agitation," declared Phillips in 1849, "and hail it so far as its formation gives proof of a wider spread of a degree of antislavery feeling in the community." But it remained nevertheless a free soil and not an abolitionist party, unworthy of genuine abolitionist support because it was not "pledged to trample underfoot the compromises of the Constitution."

In 1856 many Garrisonians expressed sympathy for the Republican party and its dashing presidential candidate, John C. Fremont. From 1856 to 1860 there was a growing debate within the American Anti-Slavery Society over the attitude abolitionists should take toward the Republican party. Some Garrisonians became outright Republicans. Most of them, however, continued to shun politics, watching the course of the Republicans critically but sympathetically. I n 1859 Garrison accused the Republican party of being a "timeserving, a temporizing, a cowardly party," but found some hope in the fact that it possessed "materials for growth."

In the left wing of the Society there was a group of contentious radicals, led by Parker Pillsbury, Stephen S. Foster, and his wife Abby Kelley Foster, who insisted on condemning the Republican party as no better than any other party. They considered Republicans "the greatest obstacles to the spread of anti-slavery" because the party stood for little more than the exclusion of slavery from the sparsely populated territories. Pillsbury charged that the weak-kneed policy of the party made it "really more dangerous to the cause of liberty ... than any other party ever formed since the foundations of government were laid."

Garrisonians carried their love-hate complex toward the Republican party into the 1860 presidential campaign. Prior to the Chicago convention it appeared that 1860 might be a year of abolitionist-Republican cooperation. William H. Seward seemed to have the nomination in hand, and for a decade Seward had been one of the brightest stars on the antislavery political horizon. A week before the Republican convention Wendell Phillips declared that "the Republican party, so far as it has a heart, means to grapple slavery, and to strangle it.... When William H. Seward enters the Presidential chair, he means that his portrait ... shall be painted with one hand upon the American eagle, and the other on the jugular vein of the slave system."

But to the surprise and disappointment of most eastern antislavery men, Seward was shunted aside for a relatively obscure politician from the Illinois prairies. Eastern abolitionists knew little about Lincoln, and as they searched his record they found little to commend. In his 1854 speech at Peoria, Lincoln had made a revealing statement on the subject of slavery: "If all earthly power were given me, I should not know what to do, as to the existing institution. My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia,—to their own native land. But ... [this] is impossible.... What then? Free them, and make them politically and socially, our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not." In his debates with Stephen Douglas in 1858, Lincoln proclaimed that " I have no purpose directly or indirectly to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so." He reasserted his opposition to the unconditional repeal of the fugitive slave law and to immediate and unconditional emancipation in the District of Columbia.

Such sentiments could hardly endear Lincoln to abolitionists. But antislavery Republicans could also point to statements by Lincoln revealing a deep-rooted moral abhorrence of slavery. In 1858 he had branded the institution as "a moral, social and political wrong ... an unqualified evil to the negro, to the white man, to the soil, and to the State." I n his famous "House Divided" speech Lincoln expressed the belief that "this Government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free" He hoped that "the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction."

Abolitionists were understandably perplexed about this man Lincoln. He was plainly against slavery, but he was just as plainly not for its immediate and total abolition. The Annual Report of the American Anti-Slavery Society considered Lincoln "a good enough Republican for the party's purposes, but far from being the man for the country's need." He was "a sort of bland, respectable middle-man, between a very modest Right and the most arrogant and exacting Wrong; a convenient hook whereon to hang appeals at once to a moderate anti-slavery feeling and to a timid conservatism."

"Who is this huckster in politics?" asked Wendell Phillips a few days after Lincoln's nomination. "Who is this county court advocate? Who is this who does not know whether he has got any opinions?" The National Anti-Slavery Standard, official organ of the American Anti-Slavery Society, warned abolitionists that they could not "without utter self-stultification, vote for a man who is opposed to allowing the negro the rights of citizenship ... and opposed to the unqualified abolition of Slavery in the District of Columbia." Edmund Quincy, the urbane, witty associate editor of the Standard, remarked acidly in June 1860, that for the next few months the country would be flooded with political oratory, mass meetings, tons of campaign pamphlets, and when it was all over the result would be "the election of a new administration pledged to the support of slavery in our Southern States, and this equally, whether success be to the Democrats or the Republicans."

The Republican party made careful efforts to dissociate itself from public identification with the abolitionists and their doctrines. During the campaign Republicans frequently declared themselves the true "white man's party." Horace Greeley proclaimed that the Republican party "contemplates PRIMARILY the interest of Free White Labor, for which it struggles to secure the unoccupied territory of the Union." Democratic orators charged that Republicans intended to abolish slavery as soon as they had a chance. "That is not so," roared Greeley. "Never on earth did the Republican Party propose to abolish Slavery.... Its object with respect to Slavery is simply, nakedly, avowedly, its restriction to the existing states."

Little wonder that abolitionists were sometimes disgusted with Republicans. "The Republican party means to do nothing, can do nothing, for the abolition of slavery in the slave states," said Garrison. "The Republican party stands on a level with the Fugitive Slave law." Josephine Griffing complained that Republican leaders were covertly trying to discourage abolitionists from holding meetings during the campaign, for they feared such meetings might jeopardize Republican success. "Their great effort," wrote Mrs. Griffing, "is to convince the public mind that they are not Abolitionists, and the Abolitionists, that they hate slavery as much as they do. 'For by their sorceries were all nations deceived.'"

The Pillsbury-Foster faction, traditionally hostile to Republicanism, attacked the party even more aggressively than did Garrison and Phillips. Under Pillsbury's influence the Western Anti-Slavery Society, meeting at Salem, Ohio, in late September, resolved that the Republicans were "committed to every constitutional compromise for slavery ever claimed by Calhoun or conceded by Webster ... they are [unfit] to be entrusted with the interests of humanity and liberty." In his attacks on Republicans, Pillsbury reasserted the conventional Garrisonian disunion views, but Stephen S. Foster went further and tried to organize an out-and-out abolitionist political party. Gadfly of the Garrisonians, Foster had for several years considered the disunion doctrine barren of promise for the slave. I n 1860 Foster and John Pierpont, a Liberty party veteran, issued a call for a political abolitionist convention in Worcester, Massachusetts, in mid-September. The convention organized a new party to be known as "The Union Democratic Party" and adopted resolutions affirming that the Constitution, fairly interpreted, prohibited slavery in the states and gave the federal government ample power for its abolition therein. The new party made no nominations, but at Frederick Douglass' suggestion it extended "earnest sympathy and hearty Godspeed" to the Radical Abolitionist party and its presidential candidate, Gerrit Smith.

Rejecting both the nonpolitical stance of Garrison and the political abolitionism of Foster, a number of Garrisonians actively campaigned and voted for Lincoln in 1860. These Republican Garrisonians included some of the ablest men in the Society: Theodore Tilton, vice president of the New York City Anti-Slavery Society and member of the editorial staff of the New York Independent; Sydney Howard Gay, the only non-Massachusetts member of the American Anti-Slavery Society's executive committee and editorial writer for the New York Tribune; David Lee Child, husband of Lydia Maria Child and an expert on the legal aspects of slavery; and Moncure D. Conway, Virginia-born abolitionist who in 1860 held a Unitarian pastorate in Cincinnati and edited a Unitarian-Transcendentalist magazine, The Dial. These four and several other prominent Garrisonians voted for Lincoln in 1860 on the ground that a Republican triumph would be indirectly a victory for the abolitionist cause.

In Massachusetts, the Republican party gave abolitionists something to cheer about by nominating John A. Andrew for governor. Andrew was one of the most steadfast antislavery men in politics. He had helped raise money for John Brown's legal defense, and at a meeting in Boston a month after the Harper's Ferry raid, Andrew had said that he did not know whether John Brown's enterprise in Virginia was wise or foolish, right or wrong; "I only know that ... JOHN BROWN HIMSELF IS RIGHT. (Applause) I sympathize with the man, I sympathize with the idea, because I sympathize with and believe in the eternal right." Conservative Republicans in Massachusetts were opposed to Andrew, but the powerful Bird Club secured his nomination. Samuel Bowles, editor of the conservative Springfield Republican, groaned at the news of Andrew's nomination. "His John Brown sympathies and speeches, his Garrisonian affiliations, his negro-training predilections and all that sort of extreme anti-slaveryism, with which his record abounds, will be trumpeted far and wide in the state to injure him, [and] out of it to harm Lincoln," wrote Bowles.

Andrew toned down his antislavery utterances during the campaign to make them conform with the Republican platform, but Garrisonians were nevertheless delighted by his nomination. Garrison declared that Andrew "represents the highest phase of political anti-slavery feeling as yet developed." One Massachusetts Republican appealed directly to Samuel May, Jr., general agent of the American Anti-Slavery Society, for Garrisonian support of Andrew. Abolitionists should vote for Andrew, he wrote, because many conservative Republicans would not, and it would look bad if Andrew ran behind Lincoln in Massachusetts. "If the Anti Slavery men of Mass. do not do this, they will surely lose all the sympathy they had outside of their immediate body, which I assure you is no small am[oun]t. Andrew has done everything he could for them, & the cause of John Brown, and they will be the most ungrateful of men" if they do not give him hearty support at the polls. May responded enthusiastically, and it is probable that many Garrisonians voted for Andrew.

As the campaign progressed the Garrisonians' critical attitude toward Lincoln and the Republicans seemed to soften. I n August, Garrison had written privately that "the election of Lincoln seems more and more probable. He will do nothing to offend the South." Seven weeks later, however, Garrison declared in the Liberator that because the Republican party stood for the exclusion of slavery from the territories, " it will do no slight service to the cause of freedom; and to that extent, and for that reason, it has our sympathies and best wishes." The Annual Report of the American Anti-Slavery Society was severe in its strictures of Republican shortcomings, but pointed out the other side of the coin as well. "It would be injustice to the party not to say," commented the Report, "that all through the campaign its presses and its speakers uttered many noble sentiments; exposed, with many words of earnest reprobation, the folly and the wrong of slavery.... So that, with all its serious defects, the canvass hardly can have failed to do good service to the cause of freedom."

The attitude of moderate Garrisonians toward the election was best illustrated by Oliver Johnson, editor of the Anti-Slavery Standard. Johnson thought that the Western Anti-Slavery Society had been crippled by Parker Pillsbury's fulminations against all Republicans. "Instead of allowing a fair margin for honest differences of opinion, and thus keeping on good terms with the better portion of the Republicans," wrote Johnson, the Western Society "has selected for special denunciation such men as Sumner, and thereby reduced itself needlessly & recklessly to a small faction of growlers." Despite the deficiencies of the Republican party, Johnson regarded its success "as the beginning of a new and better era. Let Stephen Foster and his sympathizers say what they will, to me it seems utterly preposterous to deny that Lincoln's election will indicate growth in the right direction."

* * *

Hostility toward the Republicans was greater within the Radical Abolitionist party than among Garrisonians. When invited in 1855 to join the antislavery coalition that was soon to blossom into the Republican party, Gerrit Smith scornfully replied: "I wish to have nothing to do with such trash as an anti-Nebraska party. If a disease is raging at my vitals I'd not wish a physician called to attend to a scratch on my little finger." In 1856 the Radical Abolitionists nominated Smith for president on a platform calling for abolition of slavery in the states. Politically it was a forlorn gesture: Smith polled only 165 votes in the entire state of New York. But the Radical Abolitionists did not expect to win elections; they nominated candidates in order to keep their organization alive and to spread knowledge of their principles.

One of the most prominent Radical Abolitionists was Frederick Douglass. I n 1856, however, Douglass had dismayed his fellow party members by coming out publicly for Frémont. I n 1860 there was little point in nominating Radical Abolitionist candidates unless Douglass could be persuaded to endorse the ticket, for without the support of New York's Negro voters the Radical Abolitionist party would amount to almost nothing. Gerrit Smith, William Goodell, and other white Radical Abolitionists watched anxiously for Douglass' reaction to Lincoln's nomination. Initially that reaction was favorable. A week after the nomination Douglass described Lincoln as "a man of unblemished private character; ... one of the most frank, honest men in political life." Douglass would have liked the Republican party to inscribe upon its banners "Death to Slavery" instead of "No more Slave States." But " in the absence of all hope of rearing up the standard of such a party for the coming campaign, we can but desire the success of the Republican candidates."

William Goodell immediately mounted an attack on the Republican party in the columns of the Principia, the official organ of the Radical Abolitionist party. Goodell summarized Lincoln's policy statements on slavery and the Negro, and commented: "If any abolitionist or free-soiler, professing to remain such," could read these statements "and then give his vote for Mr. Lincoln, we can only say that we know not how to vindicate the sincerity of his professions, except by entertaining a less elevated conception of his intelligence." A prominent Ohio Radical Abolitionist declared that Lincoln "ignores all the principles of humanity in the colored race, both free and slave; and as abolitionists claim the right to freedom of the one class, and political equality to the other, how can they be consistent, to say nothing of honest, in supporting such a man?"

Such criticism from his associates caused Douglass to moderate his enthusiasm for the Republican party, and he asked his friend Gerrit Smith for advice on the duty of abolitionists in the election. "I cannot support Lincoln," wrote Douglass, "but whether there is life enough in the Abolitionists to name a candidate, I cannot say: I shall look to your letter for light on the pathway of duty." Smith replied in a letter that was published as a broadside and circulated widely among political abolitionists. He asserted that abolitionists should vote only for those candidates who favored the entire abolition of slavery. The "low condition of the anti-slavery cause," wrote Smith, had been caused by the exodus of Liberty party men into the Republican party. "The mass of those who were once intent on abolishing slavery every where, do not go now for its abolition any where. The calculating policy of non-extension has taken the place of the uncompromising principle of abolition."


Excerpted from The Struggle for Equality by James M. McPherson. Copyright © 1992 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Meet the Author

James M. McPherson is the George Henry Davis '86 Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University. His many books include the Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom and the New York Times bestseller Crossroads of Freedom.

Brief Biography

Princeton, New Jersey
Date of Birth:
October 11, 1936
Place of Birth:
Valley City, North Dakota
B.A., Gustavus Adolphus College (St. Peter, MN) 1958; Ph.D., Johns Hopkins University, 1963

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