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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.

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Written by fabiorojas

February 5, 2015 at 12:01 am

Posted in ethics, fabio

4 Responses

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  1. His view also ignores the counterfactual: how would the U.S.’s slavery policy have evolved if there had not been an abolition movement? A lot of social movement outcomes research now concludes that movements’ primary means of influence is shaping the agenda – i.e., creating new policy alternatives and helping to get those policies/ideas on the public agenda. By drawing attention to the problems of slavery and making it a credible political issue, the abolitionists created alternatives that could be taken seriously when the political opportunities presented themselves.

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    brayden king

    February 5, 2015 at 4:12 pm

  2. Following up on Brayden’s point, it is useful to distinguish between the idea of ending slavery and the abolition movement. The idea that slavery is ethically wrong and/or illegal is much older than the social movement against slavery, so someone who wanted to research the movement’s impact would likely want to look at how movement demands changed over time, such as from gradual to immediate emancipation with Garrison, and whether or not that shaped the agenda, as opposed to other factors like slave uprisings. Stewart’s Holly Warriors is a nice historical introduction to the movement, but I suspect a social movement scholar could write a great dissertation on the impact of the abolitionist movement.

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    neal caren

    February 5, 2015 at 4:48 pm

  3. One of the points the author makes is that it was the moderates who made most of this progress. This comports with a lot of political research, but overlooks the fact that moderates are *moderate* relative to some extreme, which partially influences them. Moderates would have held an altogether different set of attitudes were it not for abolitionists.

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    Chris M

    February 7, 2015 at 4:49 pm

  4. Just how cursory was your inspection of slavery in the Union?

    Slavery wasn’t outlawed in the District of Columbia until April 16, 1862, when Congress passed and Lincoln signed the Compensated Emancipation Act. The Act set aside $1 million to compensate the owners of freed slaves (cough cough, northern politicians) and another $100,000 to pay freed slaves to emigrate (Liberia & Haiti were popular destinations).

    Seven months later Lincoln freed slaves in areas held by the Confederate Army. Slaves in Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri were unaffected by the Emancipation Proclamation and remained slaves until the Civil War was over, or nearly over. Voters in those states rejected the proposed Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments.

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    Victor Hastings

    February 22, 2015 at 5:03 am


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