How the Antislavery Movement Ignited a Political Revolution

Matt Karp

The antislavery movement of the mid-nineteenth century fused moral appeals against the sin of slavery with demands that spoke to the material interests of ordinary Northerners. Matt Karp, author of “The Mass Politics of Antislavery,” explains how that movement led to emancipation — and what lessons it offers to those trying to forge a political revolution today.

"Anti-Slavery Picnic at Weymouth Landing, Massachusetts" by Susan Torrey Merritt, circa 1845.

Interview by
Meagan Day
Micah Uetricht

In 1856, the black minister Henry Highland Garnet, who had escaped from slavery as a child, returned to the United States after some years in the Caribbean. He found the nation transformed, noting with awe and appreciation “the great spread and intensification of Anti-Slavery feeling at present . . . The most promising sign of the coming downfall of Slavery is, that the people are beginning to think and talk, and above all, to vote and pray aright for it.”

The transformation in political consciousness that Garnet witnessed in 1856 is the subject of Matt Karp’s essay in Catalyst, “The Mass Politics of Antislavery,” which traces the development of the movement against slavery in the decades leading up to the Civil War. This movement included militant abolitionists, but also many ordinary white Northerners and small farmers — a diverse coalition pulled together by the nascent Republican Party.

Founded in 1854, the Republican Party was part of a movement that brought abolitionism from the fringe to the center of American politics by fusing moral opposition to slavery with appeals to the material interests of those who might otherwise have been indifferent to the antislavery cause. Indeed, hatred of “the Slave Power” became the driving force within the Republican movement, which never lost sight of abolitionism, even as it sought to expand its appeal and broaden its base.

Jacobin’s Meagan Day and Micah Uetricht spoke to Matt Karp, an associate professor of history at Princeton University and a Jacobin contributing editor, for a forthcoming episode of the Jacobin podcast The Vast Majority. Below is an abridged transcript of their conversation.


MU

Let’s start with a basic question: Why should the average Jacobin reader today care about the Civil War?

MK

It’s important for the young left to know, and for the old left to remember, that the Civil War was the most important and transformative political event and political revolution in American history, and a landmark in the world history of slavery, abolition, labor, and democratic struggle.

I think it begins by taking the measure of the enormity of American slavery in particular, and its position in the nineteenth-century world. It’s easy to forget — actually, these days it isn’t so easy to forget that slavery was a big deal in American politics and American life. It’s something we’re coming to terms with. But what people might not know is that in the mid-nineteenth century, there were more enslaved people and slave products in world history than at any point before, even at the peak of the slave trade or at the peak of the geographic extent of slavery, which had come earlier. In the mid-nineteenth century, right before the emergence of political antislavery in the United States, slavery was actually by some economic measures stronger, more dynamic, more powerful, and therefore more brutal and oppressive than it had ever been.

Some scholars call this the “second slavery,” a resurgent slave system that was producing raw materials for an industrializing Atlantic world. The fight against that system represented probably the most significant international struggle of the mid-nineteenth century. And the decisive front was in the United States, where the antislavery political movement succeeded in electing an antislavery president, which triggered a reactionary slaveholding succession and ultimately a war of emancipation. In comparative context, this was second only to Haiti as the most revolutionary process of emancipation in the Americas, in the sense that it was uncompensated, it was rapid, it was violent, and it was executed in large part through the military presence of former slaves, hundreds of thousands of whom joined the Union Army.

So, for all those reasons, and then when you add to that the fact that the Reconstruction era coincided with the enormous expansion of democracy in the South — even if it was ultimately beaten back — I think this convulsive era should be understood by the Left as a left-wing revolution of sorts. Even if an unfinished one, even if a flawed one, it’s still the best thing that the United States has got in its history.

MD

You title your article “The Mass Politics of Antislavery.” “Mass politics” is a hard term to define, but if you could talk about the difference between how abolition came about in the United States versus how it came about in Britain, that would help illustrate what you mean by it.

MK

In Britain, the fight against slavery and the slave trade going back to the eighteenth century absolutely involved a certain mass politics — petitions, local organizations, rallies, print media. But what distinguished American mass politics, and the way that I use the term in the essay, is that it involved electoral mass politics.

So it involved not just petitioning — in Britain’s case — a largely aristocratic and mercantile ruling class to do the right thing, but in America actually uprooting the political ruling class, the slaveholding class and its Democratic Party allies in the North, by defeating them at the ballot box and replacing them at the helm of the state. And that was inherently a much more tumultuous and threatening form of mass politics.

There were very impressive and, in some cases, considerable working-class mobilizations in Britain against slavery, which had an important impact and inspired the American movement. But in the United States, even the limited window of mass suffrage — adult white male suffrage, and adult black male suffrage in some states in the North — allowed a considerably more radical and transformative form of mass politics.

MD

Let’s talk a little bit about Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln. I think that actually helps us understand this concept of mass politics as well. Marx was a great admirer of Lincoln, though it also appears that he thought his leadership was somewhat incidental, or that Lincoln had impressively made the most of a sweeping political development that was much bigger than Lincoln as an individual.

In your piece, you quote Marx saying that Lincoln was “without extraordinary importance,” merely “an average person of good will . . . placed at the top by the interplay of the forces of universal suffrage unaware of the great issues at stake. The new world has never achieved a greater triumph than by this demonstration that, given its political and social organization, ordinary people of good will can accomplish feats which only heroes could accomplish in the old world!”

What does Marx’s perspective on Lincoln’s role tell us about the mass politics of antislavery?

MK

That’s an interesting line from Marx. There have been a lot of debates among historians of nineteenth-century Europe and Marx over to what extent he did or did not espouse democratic politics or understand the importance of democracy. I think that that quote exemplifies the extent to which he thought expanded suffrage, even if still mostly white male suffrage, could produce openings for political and social radicalism.

So I don’t see that as a shot at Lincoln. I don’t think Marx would have been tearing down the Lincoln statues. But I think what Lincoln represents for Marx is something very different from what Lincoln might represent for lots of other Americans. To Marx, he was not a towering individual genius or a spectacular political operator who fused individual morality with political shrewdness — though Lincoln can get high marks from me on all those standard measures, too. What makes him significant for Marx is the extent to which he is part of, but ultimately only part of, a larger movement against slavery in American democratic politics.

Without that movement — cresting in the 1850s and not originally led by Lincoln at all — we wouldn’t have Lincoln’s presidency, and the Civil War itself is unimaginable. That opening in the 1850s is the breakthrough against the preexisting antebellum party system and the slaveholders’ regime, and it’s the critical moment that this essay is exploring. I think it’s also the portion of the story that we should be most interested in right now, because we haven’t really attained that breakthrough at our moment in history.

MU

Can you go over that process of antislavery becoming a mass politics and what that had to do with the Republican Party?

MK

Many Americans are accustomed to thinking about abolition or the politics of antislavery, if they think about it at all, as a desperate, hounded minoritarian movement that rose against a complacent or criminal society, and often met enormous resistance from not just institutional establishment forces but even from ordinary citizens, such that only a heroic individual of courage like a William Lloyd Garrison or a Frederick Douglass could stand against it. I think that pretty accurately described abolitionism in the 1830s, but by the 1850s, the story is very different. In the 1850s, antislavery actually explodes into mass politics, even a majoritarian politics.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary was a free black woman from Philadelphia who moved to Canada, after the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, and edited a newspaper for African American migrants living there. In 1856, just as the antislavery Republican Party was making its debut in national politics, she wrote an article that contains this great line, “Instead of a handful of abolitionists, from motives of humanity, the world beholds millions of abolitionists from necessity.” She’s getting at the transformation of the antislavery movement in the 1850s, the emergence of a different kind of movement that was able to convince literally millions of ordinary Northerners that the threat of the slaveholding class — and ultimately the threat of slavery itself — was more than just a moral outrage.

Of course, the Republican antislavery movement never abandoned the moral argument against slavery, but they fused it to a material politics. They made the case successfully that what they called “the Slave Power” threatened not just the moral principles but the actual livelihoods of Northern voters.

William Seward, who’s probably the most important pre-Lincoln Republican political figure, went through the math and said slaveholders compose not “one hundredth part” of the United States — about 300,000 slaveholders in a country of 30 million. He didn’t do a Bernie Sanders accent, but he made the point: this was an antebellum 1 percent that dominated the federal government, that set its land policy, its infrastructure policy, its trade policy, all sorts of economic structures that favored the slaveholding regime and undermined the material well-being of northerners from Michigan to Pennsylvania to Maine.

The Republicans were able to make that case and connect it to the criminality, the sin of slavery. It was a really powerful moral-material fusion that inspired not just the handful of abolitionists who were already there, but masses of small farmers, workers, and ordinary Northerners.

MU

That’s one of the most fascinating pieces of your article for me, because obviously abolitionism was the morally correct position to take, but you need more than moral correctness to build a political coalition that can actually win. This echoes the constant arguments we’ve been having about whether the Left should try to appeal to working-class whites who might be racist, for example, by trying to win them over to Medicare for All. Talk about that process of fusing the moral case for abolitionism with the self-interest of white Northerners.

MK

The term “policy” is anachronistic, but the Republicans basically paired antislavery with specific policies, such as the Homestead Act to give away land, the tariffs that they argued would protect the wages of Northern workers, infrastructure to develop railroads and Northern cities and towns. The Republicans were also involved in the politics of public education, public support for agriculture, etcetera. This version of the Republican Party as a party of public goods showed up later during Reconstruction, too, with the establishment of hospitals and schools and a kind of primitive welfare state in the Republican-controlled South. Both white and black Republicans were involved in that.

But something that’s worth meditating on for our moment, too, is that, in some ways, the formal policy goals of the pre–Civil War Republican Party mattered less than the political spirit it had called forth. There’s a great line from William Seward where he says, “Political parties are not defined by their pledges or platforms, but the temper of the people when they call it into activity.” And for Republicans, that temper was a fundamentally antislavery temper.

This wasn’t just a matter of policy, because, for instance, they were not in favor of immediate abolition. They were initially for the restriction of slave states and the confinement of slavery. But they understood that to be a part of a process of ultimate abolition, and many Republicans were very unambiguous about that being the final goal, from Seward to Lincoln to dozens of others. Fundamentally, they embraced a populist and anti-elitist politics that labeled the slave power as a propertied class, a radical aristocracy that dominated the average working family.

It was this revolutionary temper that led to mass rallies of twenty thousand people in towns like Massillon, Ohio, and Beloit, Wisconsin, rallies that would suck in half the countryside to come hear slavery denounced. And in some ways, it was this popular spirit directed against this slaveholding class that convinced Southerners to secede. Their reason for abandoning the Union was not so much that they feared Lincoln’s specific policy agenda but that, to quote one Virginia senator, they feared “the public mind of the North,” which had been transformed through these politics.

I think that’s worth thinking about in the twenty-first century, when we’re trying to make sense of different factions within the Democratic Party, for example. In some cases, the program is no more important than the politics, and often, I think, less important. That’s why I found Bernie Sanders so inspiring, because he had not only the program that everybody knows and loves, he also had this populist anti-elite politics that Bhaskar Sunkara has called “class-struggle social democracy.” Not just “We want these things,” but “We want them through sustained confrontation with the elites that have not given them to us.” I think the antislavery Republican Party shared that spirit of struggle against the slaveholding class.

MD

Right, the fusion of the moral and material reminds me of Bernie’s platform of Medicare for All paired with his challenge, “Are you willing to fight for someone you don’t know?”

Switching gears, the Left is never a monolith, and its strategy never springs forth fully formed. Can you talk a little bit about the nature of the debates that transpired within the abolitionist movement about how broad to make the coalition, how broad was too broad, and what demands to fuse with the demand to end slavery? I think that those debates probably have resonance for our political situation today.

MK

One way to tell the story of the antislavery movement from the 1830s to 1860, and a way it’s often been told by historians of abolition, is a declension narrative in which the radicals continuously lose out to the so-called moderates. This version of the story holds that you had uncompromising radicals like Garrison, and like Douglass in his first incarnation as a Garrisonian, who denounced not just slavery but participation in any politics under the Constitution, which was “a covenant with death.” They held immediate abolition as their only demand.

And it’s true, as the movement transitioned to mass politics, those demands shifted. For a lot of the political abolitionists who started the Republican Party, people like Joshua Giddings and Charles Sumner and Salmon Chase, their coalescence was around a political demand that could maximally threaten slavery while also maximally winning a mass base of voters in the North — “the power behind the throne,” as Frederick Douglass called it after Lincoln’s election. And if you don’t activate that mass base, then you can’t actually credibly threaten slavery, no matter how radical your demands are. This is one illustration of why I say that politics is at least as important and often more important than policy.

So I would argue against the idea that Republican antislavery gradually became corrupted, and that by entering the political process its radicalism attenuated. I mean, if Lincoln had been elected and the South didn’t secede, and Lincoln just said a few mean things about slavery but everyone just kumbaya’d for the next fifty years and slavery persisted into the twentieth century, we wouldn’t be celebrating this as a political revolution. But for me, what was really going on in the 1850s was that the movement was actually bringing in millions without moderating its politics, even as its formal demands were adjusted to capture a majority.

That’s not a declension, but in some ways is fundamentally a radicalization. As Mary Ann Shadd Cary said, you need millions, not handfuls, and I think the Republican experience shows this.

MU

This speaks to this perpetual debate that happens on the Left of whether getting involved in electoral politics means watering down our program, or whether engaging with a bourgeois party like the Democrats necessarily does that. You make the case in your article that the Republican Party was, in fact, the vehicle through which this radical demand was expressed, and that it actually serves to deepen radical politics in the country rather than tamp it down.

It was the Republican Party, which had made antislavery central, winning the White House that led to the secession of the South from the union and thus the Civil War, and eventually the radical emancipation of the slaves.

MK

That’s right, and thinking about it in an international comparative context only underlines that point.

Pretty much every other history of emancipation in the Atlantic world came about either through armed rebellion, in the case of Haiti, or through part of an anti-colonial revolution, which was often triggered by some totally other issue and not by slavery, such as in the northern states, which instituted gradual abolition in the aftermath of the American Revolutionary War. There is simply no other example of an antislavery party using mass democratic electoral politics to win command of the state and to topple the slave power politically, a process then accelerated by the slaveholders’ decision to secede and fight militarily.

It’s possible that if the slaveholding class were not so arrogant and overweening, they would have accepted some form of demotion and tried to play defense instead of offense. But I think what makes the Republicans so radical is that they overthrew a slaveholder class that was precisely that powerful, whose faith in its own capacity and its own significance was so powerful that they chose to secede rather than submit to this alternative political arrangement, which threatened the source of their power.

There are other kinds of Marxist teleologies about how slavery was backward and how wage labor and capitalism would inevitably bulldoze across the nineteenth century. I think all of those teleologies are subject to really complex political conjunctures that have contingent outcomes. I think the 1850s was one time in which things could have gone any number of different ways, and I don’t believe that Republicans were riding the crest of some historic wave that would inevitably produce the Civil War in this moment.

I do think that there would have been some reckoning with slavery over the course of the next hundred years. But that it would happen in this form, with this radicalism, with this speed, with this lack of compensation, which would produce the democratic revolutions of the Reconstruction amendments, the enfranchisement of black soldiers into the army — none of that was foretold in the 1850s.

To go back to Meagan’s question about fights in the Republican Party, they included debates about how far to push that radical edge, especially in the election of 1860. One narrative you hear is that Republicans pulled back from 1856 to 1860 in order to win more moderate votes, and that even without changing their platform they moderated their tone. For the same reason that I’m skeptical about the declension of antislavery narrative, I’m skeptical that there was a significant pullback within Republican politics.

There were factions — a more moderate faction and a more radical bleeding-edge faction. But my understanding is that all through the Civil War era, the Republican mainstream, the center of the gravity in the party, envisioned the ultimate extinction of slavery. It never compromised on that.

MU

You have a section near the end of your essay where you ask whether it was pure coincidence that the largest slave insurrection panic in antebellum American history arrived just weeks after the first Republican election campaign in the late fall of 1856. In that section, you talk about slave revolts kicking off around elections of Republicans, including around the election of Lincoln.

To read it onto our current moment, Meagan and I and others at Jacobin talk a lot about the role of the Bernie campaign in inspiring episodes of militancy. We can’t say Bernie caused them directly, but can we say there’s a mood of militancy that is being encouraged through electoral politics?

MK

Absolutely. There’s an extremely strong case that Jacobin made about the teachers’ strikes in the aftermath of the first Sanders campaign. And, of course, the future here is still unwritten, but I think that the presence of Sanders over the course of these five years, and not just his ideas but his style of politics gaining mainstream attention, while it wasn’t enough in the context of the Democratic Party to rally a majority behind him at the ballot box, it opened up space for more militant actions.

The slave rebellion case is interesting because that’s still more suggestive than researched, and I don’t think we’re going to get a definitive answer on how real these insurrection scares were. But I think, at the very minimum, they demonstrate the extent to which you have to read the significance of your own movement through how your opposition fears you. And I think one way that the Republican movement demonstrated its radicalism to me is the way in which slaveholders loathed it and abhorred it and were terrified by it.

And even if we were to stipulate that these panics and these insurrection scares were entirely dreamed up by slaveholders, of which I’m not convinced, that would still demonstrate that Republicans had transformed the political consciousness of the moment, such that their most hated opponents, the slaveholders themselves, were panicking about the possibilities of the genie getting out of the bottle.

I do think you need to be aware of the extent to which your opponents fear and oppose you, or to what extent they’re able to co-opt what you’re doing and saying. To go back to Meagan’s question at the beginning, this is really crude, but it’s more or less what happened in the British case. British antislavery was obviously a significant thing for the West Indies and was transformative in its own way, but it was accomplished without any actual diminution of ruling-class power in Britain at all, or any profound social convulsion.

There were other convulsions in Britain across the early nineteenth century, but the achievement of the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833 did not portend the transformation of the British ruling class, at least not in the way that Lincoln’s election did in the United States. When we think about politics going forward, we have to ask which political movements and energies challenge our most bitter opponents, and which ones they feel quite capable of scooping up and adding to their own lunch bucket.

MD

Let’s turn to the protests today against the murder of George Floyd, and police violence against black people more broadly. One thing to note about them is that they’re strikingly multiracial, which has prompted some debate about racial leadership and the role of white people in movements against racial oppression.

This makes me want to ask you who the Wide Awakes were, and what did it matter that you had this group of young, mostly white men in the mix as radicals against slavery?

MK

The Wide Awakes are a really interesting phenomenon. Maybe the reason Bernie lost is we didn’t have one of those, a marching army with capes.

The Wide Awakes were a militant and primarily working-class, or you could call it lower-middle-class, organization composed of wageworkers and farmers. The Republican Party was primarily rural, but the Wide Awakes congealed in lots of Northern cities where mostly white young men served as the marching vanguard for the Republican campaign in 1860. They had uniforms and sometimes did street battle with Democratic Party street gang affiliates in places like Indiana and Ohio.

The Wide Awakes developed a whole militant internal culture. Some of this is definitely about the politics of masculinity in mid-nineteenth-century America, and some historians have connected the Wide Awakes to the martial culture that then produced the Civil War, in which politics got translated into physical violence very quickly. There were also some things about it that are troubling. This group of primarily white men were not always the most racially inclusive, despite the fact that there were black Wide Awakes, units formed in Portland, Maine, and in Boston, and probably elsewhere.

It’s a complicated case, but I think ultimately what they represent is the extent to which Republican antislavery politics had reached an audience much larger than the old-school, traditional, moralistic abolitionists and had fired up a broader base of millions. When you attain that mass-political penetration of your ideas and your politics, you see not just breadth in terms of ballots cast but militant movements that are created.

Connecting it to the protests now is complicated because the Wide Awakes were so laser-focused on this electoral campaign, and they didn’t really persist after the election. This is in contrast to the much more amorphous character of the current protest movement, whose demands shift based on context and are at this point kind of unmoored from a national political organization, much less a party. I think the main takeaway is that mass politics doesn’t just get you votes. It also gets you to some extent militancy.

MU

Let me ask the classic question that is debated by Civil War–era historians: Who freed the slaves?

MK

I will answer this, but I have to preface it with a lame disclaimer, because in some ways I think that question actually was framed by people who want to produce a simplistic answer. In fact, Jim McPherson, God bless him, wrote an essay called “Who Freed the Slaves?” and the last sentence of that article is “Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves.” You have to give the man credit. He asks historical questions. He doesn’t complicate; he doesn’t do a dialectic. He answers the fucking question.

Whereas I’ve got my hands waving, I’m all over the place. But I think I would say the antislavery movement freed the slaves. That would include antislavery politicians; antislavery voters; the Union Army, which became an armed wing of that movement; and, of course, the slaves themselves, who both took part in the Union Army and destabilized the system of slavery on the ground during the war.

I think a lot of the other answers are actually pretty ahistorical. I think “Abraham Lincoln” isn’t a historical answer. You see people trying to find a line of transmission, like “Lincoln wrote this document, and that empowered the army to do this.” They’re trying to solve it like it’s an engineering problem. Same thing for people who say the slaves freed themselves. While it’s true that thousands of slaves did free themselves, if you’re actually trying to give a historical answer to this question and not an engineering answer, you have to think about the forces that brought a situation about in which slaves could free themselves in the first place.

That’s why I would say that the answer is this antislavery movement — not the abolitionists narrowly, but the broad movement against bondage in America. W. E. B. Du Bois wrote about “the abolition democracy” in the North, which ultimately formed a political alliance with slaves in the South. I think that’s the coalition that freed the slaves.

MU

What’s useful about your article is the way that it focuses on each of those pieces of the antislavery movement, which includes the slaves themselves but understands that what the slaves were able to do was often stoked by the organizing of the Republican Party. So there’s a complex interplay between all of these components of the antislavery movement.

MK

Not to be too polemical, but to say that the slaves freed themselves entirely is to say that all of the other enslaved people that did not free themselves at other points in history, and in other countries, etcetera, failed to free themselves every day that they were enslaved. Which is insane, because this is an overwhelming system of power and oppression that made the individual will to free oneself almost irrelevant. In terms of challenging the system of slavery, obviously that resistance was a necessary ingredient, but not sufficient. You needed, as you need now, a larger political movement to challenge something that powerful.