Why you should care
Because there were many in the North who wanted to separate from the Union as well.
Welcome to The Thread, OZY’s hit weekly podcast. In Season 3, The Thread charts how a revolutionary idea — nonviolent resistance — changed the course of history. Subscribe now to follow The Thread on Apple or on OZY.
The call to action was sounded the day after Christmas in 1856. The slavery-tolerant James Buchanan had just been elected America’s next president, the nation seemed hopelessly divided over the issue of slavery, and things had never looked more bleak for the legions of abolitionist reformers across the country. The nation’s pre-eminent anti-slavery newspaper, the Liberator, called for all concerned citizens to gather for an urgent debate. Buchanan’s election, the paper argued, would “involve four years more of pro-slavery government, and a rapid increase in the hostility between the two sections of the Union.” Hence the need for an important meeting, one to consider a drastic measure, then unprecedented in American history: “The practicability, probability and expediency, of a Separation between the Free and Slave States.”
Given the manner in which the Civil War played out in American history, we can be forgiven for believing that the solution of secession was entirely a Southern one. In fact, more than four years before the first Southern state seceded from the Union, a group of New England anti-slavery reformers were pushing for the dissolution of the Union, and the secession of its Northern states, on moral grounds. And behind that movement was the editor of the Liberator, a political firebrand who is the subject of this week’s episode of The Thread — the abolitionist and nonviolence proponent William Lloyd Garrison.
We have tried the experiment for almost threescore years, and it has proved a failure.
William Lloyd Garrison
A Massachusetts native, Garrison had little formal education and eventually became an apprentice printer in Boston. What Garrison was more than anything, however, was a rabble-rouser. The outspoken anti-slavery advocate founded the Liberator in 1831, promising to “be as harsh as truth and as uncompromising as justice.” Wiry, bespectacled and prematurely balding, Garrison was not only bold in print but also gave passionate speeches and was prone to daring theatrics. Sometimes they backfired — such as when he put a match to the U.S. Constitution at a rally and set it aflame. “The abolitionists really didn’t like that,” says Bruce Laurie, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “They thought it was sort of counterproductive because most Americans thought of the Constitution as a sacred document.”
For Garrison, setting fire to the Constitution was to make the point that such an arrangement was a “pact with the devil” if those in the North were willing to tolerate slavery in the South to preserve the Union. When sectional infighting between the Northern and Southern states erupted over slavery in the years before the Civil War and others were counseling war, Garrison was equally bold in his proposed solution. As early as the 1840s, Garrison was a proponent of “disunion,” arguing that a house divided against itself shouldn’t even try to stand. “He developed this doctrine called ‘no union with slave owners,’” says Laurie, “by which he meant that the North would secede from the South and it would become a haven for runaway slaves and all people of goodwill.”
Disunion, which Garrison hailed as “a revolution … through the majesty of moral power,” certainly had shock value. It was a way of forcing Americans to confront the issue — and of calling the bluff of Southern politicians, like John C. Calhoun, who were advocating for the secession of the Southern states. Garrison’s radical proposal provoked debates over the years but no real endorsements — some considered it tantamount to treason. Then, after Buchanan was elected, Garrison’s idea started to get aired more widely. Heeding the Liberator’s call to action, a group of New England activists, led by 33-year-old preacher and agitator Thomas Higginson, convened upon Old City Hall in Worcester, Massachusetts, in January 1857 to discuss the possibility of launching a campaign to break up the Union.
The speeches were impassioned. Daniel Mann, an activist (and Garrison’s dentist), argued forcefully that Americans were “on the eve of a new revolution, which shall repeat the triumphs, but show the mistakes of the old.” In his own climatic address to the convention, Garrison argued that the experiment launched by America’s Founding Fathers, and bound by its compromise over slavery, was at an end. “We have tried the experiment for almost threescore years, and it has proved a failure,” he said. “The living and the dead must not be bound together.”
In the end, the resolutions passed in Worcester, and Garrison’s bold ideas, would be largely forgotten in lieu of milestones like the Supreme Court’s famous Dred Scott decision just two months later, which helped preserve and legitimize the institution of slavery and put the country on the path to Southern secession and civil war.