abolitionism was a resounding success
A recent column in the NY Time’s “Opinionator” by Jon Grinspan argued that abolitionism was not a successful movement in the 19th century. I have a different opinion so let’s start with what I think is correct in Jon Grinspan’s column. First, he is completely correct that abolitionism – the abandonment of slavery – was not ever a majority opinion in the US. A lot of people, including President Lincoln, were not trying to end slavery in 1861. Second, Grinspan correctly argued that abolition only became a real policy possibility once war began, which was the result of Southern hot heads – not abolitionists.
So where do I disagree with Grinspan? First, Grinspan is taking an incomplete view of abolitionism by having a domestic focus. The US is one of the few nations in modern history that ended slavery via war. Haiti is another, when slaves led an anti-French revolution. But in other places, abolition came in other forms. Most of Latin America abolished slavery after the 1821 revolution. The British Empire abolished slavery in 1833. The Russians abolished serfdom in 1861.
Second, even within the US, slavery was slowly being ended, one state at a time. My own state of Indiana ended it 1823. A cursory inspection shows that the entire North had ended it by the 1840s and the last slave state would almost certainly be Texas, as there were many attempts to make other former Mexican territory slave free. Without war, I suspect a slow and painful, but eventually successful, erosion of slavery would be imposed by the wealthier and more powerful industrial North.
The arc of history was bent by the abolitionists. Many resisted, but thankfully this ended. The abolitionists can only be seen as a failure if we ignore the overall picture and focus on the South.