I am excited that PBS (No, I am not going soft – PBS should be denationalized and privatized!) is going to show a three part (Can I say mini-series?) event through their American Experience brand on The Abolitionists.
I have tremendous admiration and respect for the abolitionists and consider William Lloyd Garrison a spiritual mentor or sorts as a blogger. Garrison was one who was determined to be heard through his tiny newspaper, the Liberator, and he was heard. Garrison also applied Declaration and Biblical references to call the nation to repentance on slavery. I believe he shows the importance of Biblical values on the early United States, contrary to the claims of separationists. Garrison also tried to call the nation to renounce racial prejudice and embrace women’s rights. Radical ideas for this day and he was RIGHT! Those against slavery were brave: Some abolitionists paid for their agitation with their lives: Elijah Lovejoy was lynched in Illinois by a mob and Garrison nearly so (watch the show to see). I loved Garrison burning the Constitution in public to protest how it condoned human bondage (That’s in the show, too). The abolitionists called the nation back to its founding principles and there are always those in every generation doing that. Here’s a great book on Garrison.
But I am not sure the abolitionists were effective in ending slavery in the USA. I believe, reluctantly, very reluctantly, that the abolitionists did not end slavery nor would they have done so absent the Civil War. They certainly influenced opinion in the North. But their fervency may have hardened opinions in the South, too. Instead, gradual abolition would have pressured the border states to eventually and gradually abolish the Peculiar Institution and then the border would have moved further south until all or more of the states would have done away with slavery. Or at least enough to pass a constitutional amendment to end it. Of course slavery did not end because of the abolitionists. The Civil War ended slavery although it was probably a unconstitutional war and not necessary to end slavery – some abolitionists called for the North to let the South go in peace (the proper Constitutional position to take) with the slogan: NO UNION WITH SLAVEHOLDERS! The seceding states were no longer in a union to prevent a new constitutional amendment to end slavery. Even that President who shall not be named was willing to place slavery IN the Constitution in the original Thirteenth Amendment to avoid war.
That being said I have three issues with what I expect the series to show:
1. I expect the Biblical basis for abolition will be minimized. The dramatic scenes do not indicate a serious discussion of that and of course we cannot have any hint in a PBS special that we are/were a religious people or a Biblical basis existed for our laws and aspirations.
2. I am fearful of the treatment of John Brown. I consider John Brown a mentally ill psychopath or a terrorist. He sought, unlike the seceding states, extra-legal means to end slavery. One evil does not condone another evil. But he may be portrayed in a more positive light by PBS. Certainly some abolitionists did support Brown (Garrison did not since he was a pacifist) but that does not make it right. I am not ready to abandon the constitutional solution to change the USA. John Brown is not admirable nor worthy of emulation.
3. The Civil War will be portrayed as a war to end slavery (it was not – at first – and the so-called Emancipation Proclamation did not free a single slave) and necessary to do so (yes but that is because the constitutional solution was not adopted by the Sixteenth President who shall not be named nor did the Union simply shed itself of the seceding states!) to end slavery. The Civil War cost at least 750,000 lives and increased the power of the central government by establishing the “principle” that a state could not legally break free from the Union.
In spite of all this, the series ought to watched and be inspired by those (other than Brown and his followers) who bravely spoke up on a leading moral issue of the day. Watch The Abolitionists on PBS.