The Legacy of Abolitionist
I am not in favor of racism or slavery. Both have social and personal consequences that erode the moral, economic, social, and civic order of nations and peoples. Yet I am appalled at the enormous evil that can be propagated by the human tendency to unforgiving, self-righteous virtue-signaling regarding slavery and racism. Historical ignorance and political distortions of history have contributed to compounding and expanding intolerance, misunderstanding, and fanatical hatred disguised as high virtue. The slavery issues surrounding the Civil War are now barely understood and often distorted. Moreover, the definitions and understanding of racism have been wildly inflated for the purposes of social and political manipulation. The atmosphere of overbearing political correctness and “cancel culture” is darkening our discernment and strangling our abilities for critical thinking and honest expression. Cancel culture is really unforgiveness culture, even a quasi-religious fanatical hate culture.
During the Civil War era, the term “abolitionist” was usually reserved for those who demanded the immediate end of slavery no matter what the consequences to slave-owners, slaves, and economic and civil order. They had a richly deserved reputation for fanaticism. The far more numerous advocates of eventual freedom for all slaves believed the slaves needed some preparation for independence, slave-owners deserved some compensation for the change in laws, and patient and peaceful means should be used to accomplish this. These often called themselves “emancipationists.” They were quite numerous in the both the North and South, one of which was Robert E. Lee.
The theological framework of the abolitionist worldview resulted in a fanatical and self-righteous zeal willing to change society by whatever means. Not every abolitionist was characterized by the ruthless and sometimes savage extremes of its most famous activist leaders, but in its rank and file there was an underlying sympathy that rejoiced whenever bloody and despotic retribution was inflicted on their enemies. Their enemy was not only the institution of slavery, but also slave-owners, and the South. Because slavery and States Rights were institutionalized in the U.S. Constitution of 1787, they despised that Constitution.
The most famous abolitionist, whose murderous rampages helped create an underlying regional distrust so strong as to be a major cause of the Civil War, was John Brown. In 1855, Brown was sponsored by six wealthy New England abolitionists—Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Samuel Gridley Howe, Theodore Parker, Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, Gerrit Smith, and George Luther Stearns—to move to Kansas with the purpose of arming abolitionists there. Five of these were prominent Unitarian Transcendentalists. Brown also became a raider into pro-Southern settlements in western Missouri. At Pottawatomie Creek, Kansas, on May 24, 1856, he led four of his sons and two other men in a midnight massacre of Missouri immigrants in that area, who were suspected of being pro-slavery. Five men were rousted from their homes in the middle of the night and then brutally slaughtered and mutilated with swords. Rather than condemning this Charles Manson-style murderer and terrorist, much of the Northern press made him into a hero of the anti-slavery movement.
In October 1859, Brown led 21 followers in a brief raid on the Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, (West) Virginia, hoping to start a bloody slave revolt in the South. Several innocent people were killed, the first of whom was black. Ten of Brown’s followers were killed when a detachment of U.S. Marines, under the command of U.S. Army Col. Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant Jeb Stuart, arrived on the scene. Brown was wounded and captured with the rest of his men. He was tried and hanged at Harper’s Ferry on December 2, 1859. Again, he became a national hero of the abolitionist movement. What really disturbed Southerners was that so many Northern newspapers and prominent citizens, including several nationally prominent ministers, were praising Brown for heinous atrocities and violent actions that might have resulted in thousands of deaths in an armed slave revolt.
John Brown was very fond of quoting the Old Testament, but his attitude toward Biblical authority was typical of the abolitionists. They believed in higher truths than Scripture. Rev. H. D. King, who once talked with Brown about his religious beliefs, quoted his attitude toward the Bible:
“If any great obstacle stands in the way, you may properly break all the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) to get rid of it.”
King noted that for Brown, “there was only one wrong and that was slavery.”
It may have been King, who was the Baptist preacher who asked Brown, “What is your religion, Sir?” To which Brown responded: “Anti-Slavery!”
In general, the abolitionists were dismissive of Scriptural authority and hostile to more orthodox forms of Christianity. Yet they set themselves up as expositors of the Will of God. The theology of abolitionism can be seen clearly in statements by Unitarian transcendentalist Julia Ward Howe.
“Not until the Civil War did I officially join the Unitarian Church and accept the fact that Christ was merely a great teacher with no higher claim to preeminence in wisdom, goodness, and power than many other men.”
Mrs. Howe and her husband, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, were early and radical enthusiasts for the abolition movement. Just before John Brown was hanged, Mrs. Howe, who later authored the Battle Hymn of the Republic, had this to say about Brown:
“John Brown will glorify the gallows like Jesus glorified the Cross.”
The abolitionist philosophy that the end justifies the means was also found in the Radical Republicans. The Radical Republicans were often radical abolitionists as well but with a slightly different twist. Though they used idealistic rhetoric in abundance, most of them had little real interest in the welfare of slaves or freed slaves. More typically they were interested in manipulating them to gain political power and to plunder the conquered Southern States. This became most evident during Reconstruction.
The Radical Republicans knew that the Republican Party, coming into power only by a plurality vote because of a split in the Democratic Party in 1860, would lose power if the Southern States were readmitted to the Union—unless there was a radical change in their polity. Therefore, they disenfranchised Confederate veterans in the Southern States and filled the voting roles with newly franchised blacks and recent Northern migrants (carpetbaggers). They had no immediate intention, however, of giving blacks in the Northern States the right to vote. The Radical Republicans were noted for their hypocrisy, corruption, ruthless political tactics, and hatred for the South.
President Lincoln was not an abolitionist. In fact, he hated both the abolitionists and the Radical Republicans, but he had to pay them considerable regard to manage his majority in Congress. Unfortunately, his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, turned out to be a leading Radical Republican collaborator. Both Lincoln and Congress had stated that ending slavery was not the purpose of the war. But Stanton thought it was necessary to destroy Southern society and replace it with a Radical Republican society. Stanton even wanted to prolong the war to further devastate the South. In George B. McClellan’s autobiography, he quotes Major Charles Davies, who was part of a delegation that met with Stanton at the White House early in the war:
“Mr. Stanton stated that the great end and aim of the war was to abolish slavery. To end the war before the nation was ready for that would be a failure. The war must be prolonged, and conducted so as to achieve that.”
In Congress, the leading abolitionist and Radical Republican was Thaddeus Stevens. In a December 1865 speech, he made very clear his objective in reconstructing the South:
“…and so as to secure ascendancy to the party of the Union.”
In other words, he wanted a one-party State. Stevens believed that all the social foundations of the South had to “be broken up and relaid.” Southerners had to be treated as a conquered people and held in subjugation.
The abolitionists were infatuated with every socially destructive fashion known to man: socialism, communism, feminism, egalitarianism, and a host of other “isms.” Coercion and fanaticism were their trademarks.
Presbyterian theologian R. L. Dabney connected the abolitionist philosophically with the French Revolution and the “reign of terror.” At the root of abolitionism was not freedom or liberty, and certainly not any orthodox form of Christianity. It was apostasy. They should not be known by their propaganda but by their fruits. Those fruits were violence, vengeance, cruelty, corruption, greed, deception, bloody revolution, despotism, tyranny, and rebellion against God, marked by arrogant self-righteousness.
Presbyterian leader James Henley Thornwell was equally direct, describing the abolitionists as “atheists, socialists, communists, red republicans, (and) Jacobins” The contest, he said, was between the forces of atheistic radicalism and “the friends of order and regulated freedom.”
The common objective of the Radical Republicans and abolitionists was radical change in society and government. The old Constitutional Republic, with its decentralized and limited federal powers, would be replaced by a centralized democracy with almost unlimited coercive federal powers capable of making sweeping social and political changes. The big-business dominated Radical Republicans believed these changes were the true path to national greatness. To accomplish such radical changes and maintain political power, the conservative and Democratic South had to be destroyed and reconstructed in such a way that Radical Republican political dominance could never be seriously challenged.
John Brown made anti-slavery his religion and became a mass murderer and demagogue who must be assigned some responsibility for a “Civil War” that took the lives of 750,000 soldiers and perhaps 100,000 Southern civilians. Those who are now making anti-racist cancel-culture their religious creed are walking in the same fanaticism. Those who pursue an honorable path to a just and civil society do not seek to dishonor, marginalize, or destroy the heritage and symbols of others. Following the path of self-righteous virtue-signaling and unforgiving hatred will reap the whirl-wind.
“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness…Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight.” (Isaiah 5: 20a, 21 NIV)