(Henry Mayer, All on Fire. William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery, St. Martin's, 707 pp., $32.50)
IN 1984, in Biloxi, Mississippi, deep in the heart of the old Confederacy, the future Senate majority leader Trent Lott declared that "the spirit of Jefferson Davis" now lives in the Republican party.
It's a mystery quite how the party of Abraham Lincoln, born in the moral outrage of the great northern abolitionists, could become in the minds of some of its most visible modern leaders the party of Davis. To some, Davis's legacy may seem one of support for states' rights. To others, however, he remains a Southern slaveholder, Democrat, and president of a Confederacy born in rebellion and secession.
Or perhaps it's not such a mystery. From their 1854 beginning, the Republicans were the party that fought slavery, imposed Reconstruction, and opposed segregation, while the Democrats were the party of Jim Crow, race baiting, and Dixiecrats. But for many years, "progressive" historians have been telling a story of America's "steady march to liberalism," in which all good comes from Democrats and all evil from Republicans. And not only have Democrats learned this false lesson and claimed an undeserved reputation on race, but even Republicans have absorbed their enemies' lesson--until at last they find themselves claiming Jefferson Davis as one of their own. In order to construct their progressive story, these left-leaning historians--Henry Steele Commanager, Allen Nevins, Claude G. Bowers, and the Arthur Schlesingers--were forced to pass over innumerable Democratic sins: Andrew Jackson's treatment of native Americans, southern populists' racial demonizing, Woodrow Wilson's segregationism, William Jennings Bryan's support of the Ku Klux Klan, and Franklin Roosevelt's indifference to anti-lynching legislation.
Simultaneously, they were compelled to ignore the efforts the conservative "stand patters" made to improve race relations. New York boss Roscoe Conkling escorted Mississippi's Hiram Revels, the first black senator, down the aisle to his swearing in when no one else would--but his courage has found few admirers among reform-minded historians. In the 1880s, as a young congressman, Henry Cabot Lodge introduced a voting rights bill--but he's known to history primarily as Woodrow Wilson's antagonist in international relations. "Uncle Joe" Cannon, the tyrannical speaker of the House in the early 1900s, backed every civil rights measure introduced during his long tenure--but he's more famous for liking tariffs and trusts.
Presidents Grant, Harrison, Harding, and Coolidge tried to outlaw lynching, protect voting rights, and increase tolerance--but all receive "failing" or "below average" grades from historians who disapprove of their economic policies. Textbooks record that Eisenhower sent troops to Little Rock to enforce the Supreme Court's 1954 anti-segregation decision in Brown--but always with the caveat that he did so "reluctantly and late." They make less mention of his peaceful desegregation of the nation's capital or his success in passing the first civil rights bill in almost a century despite Democratic efforts to weaken it.
SO COMPLETE has been the victory of this view of American history that even Republicans turn away from their past: No serious candidate invokes the names of Grant, Harding, Cannon, or Coolidge. Yet African-American activist Frederick Douglass stood up for Grant in his day. His political descendants did the same for other Republicans. If progressive historians had been less willing to relegate race to secondary importance in explaining the past, or if Republicans had proved less apt pupils, the GOP could cite with telling effect a long train of heroes in the fight against racism--beginning with William Lloyd Garrison.
In his marvelous new study "All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery," Henry Mayer has rescued this nineteenth-century abolitionist from common distortions. Historians have typically depicted Garrison as marginal at best and a firebrand fanatic at worst, typical of the abolitionist troublemakers who made more difficult the work of practical politicians like Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and Stephen Douglas.
But Garrison, in fact, is one of the rare examples of a presumed extremist who proves more practical than the temporizers. All he needed to make his vision a reality was a complete shift in prevailing public opinion--and Garrison did more to bring that shift about than any other figure of his time. Mayer believes Garrison's greatness was his ability to understand that by eschewing both compromise and conventional politics, he could--through logical analysis, agitation, confrontation, and grassroots organizing--move public opinion his way.
Born in 1805, the descendant of indentured servants, Garrison derived his profound religious faith from his mother and his passion for abolition from an early Quaker mentor, Benjamin Lundy. After trying his hand at shoe-making and carpentry, he was apprenticed to a printer at age thirteen--quickly rising to become a professional printer, writer, and newspaper publisher.
But it was in 1829, at age twenty-four, that he first came to broad public notice, delivering a stirring address at Boston's Park Street Church in which he dedicated his life to the fight against slavery. His peroration was reprinted on the masthead of all his future papers: "I am in earnest--I will not equivocate--I will not excuse--I will not retreat a single inch--AND I WILL BE HEARD." In 1831, he launched his newspaper, the Liberator, and showed an early capacity to enrage. In 1835, an angry mob would certainly have lynched him had not two burly Irishmen come to his rescue.
But the key to grasping his importance is recognizing how quickly Garrison moved from the fringes of public opinion to the center--or rather, how quickly he moved public opinion, for Garrison never wavered. When, at the July 4, 1854, picnic in Framingham, Massachusetts, Garrison burned a copy of the Constitution, calling it "a covenant with death," few northerners still thought him extreme. Eleven years later, he journeyed to Charleston, South Carolina, as President Lincoln's official representative to observe Union troops retake Fort Sumter.
Garrison knew how to turn events to his advantage. He mockingly asked why--if they thought slavery a moral good--southerners passed laws fining free Negroes who subscribed to the Liberator. And as he tormented his opponents, Garrison pressed to make "immediacy" the dominant faction within the abolition movement. He saw parallels between members of the American Colonization Society (who sought to deport freed slaves to Africa) and Jacksonians (who were forcing Cherokees from the Georgia frontier). Both, he said, were trying to deny the universal and biblical promise of the Declaration of Independence to non-whites.
Having succeeded in making "immediacy" the primary objective of most abolitionists, Garrison worked to make it the primary northern response to the secessionist threats issuing from the South. If southerners would leave a Union that resisted the spread of slavery, he and his followers would withdraw from one that compromised with slavery's defenders. Lacking the legal power to abolish slavery outright, northerners could stop sustaining it by themselves breaking away from a flawed covenant.
IN "All on Fire," Mayer attributes Garrison's stand to the antinomian, "perfectionist" theology of Charles Grandison Finney (founder of Oberlin College) and the Unitarian "breakawayer," Theodore Parker. Garrison beseeched churchgoers to leave congregations that did not denounce slavery. He also urged his followers not to participate in a political system that delayed immediate change.
But Garrison railed loudest against politicians who proposed compromise. He reserved his greatest scorn for Henry Clay, precisely because he considered the Great Compromiser the "tallest and most majestic figure in the nation": "If men of high standing and extensive influence . . . shrink from the battle, by whom shall the victory be won?" He denounced Clay's efforts to hold the Union together through mutual concessions as "moral cowardice."
When Garrison began his work, "cotton Whigs" ran much of Massachusetts. Politicians were beholden to mill owners who turned southern cotton into textiles. Their leader, Daniel Webster, saw preservation of the Union as the means of maintaining ties between northern industrialists and southern planters. But over time, this faction lost influence to the "conscience Whigs," who favored abolition. Together with disaffected Democrats, they laid the foundation for a new northern consensus.
THE "ANTI-POLITICAL" GARRISON was quick to sense this transformation. And so was a shrewd politician from the Illinois prairie. When Lincoln's law partner and political advance man, William H. Herndon, paid a call on Garrison, he expected to find a cantankerous, whining scourge but found himself taken with the fanatic's warmth and wit. (Garrison's friends were already calling him the "happy warrior," from Wordsworth's poem. When vigilantes offered $ 1,500 for the apprehension of anyone distributing the Liberator, he protested that his followers were "worth more.")
Herndon was also surprised at the political acumen of this professed political dropout. They agreed to collaborate, but only along separate tracks. While keeping his distance from all politicians, Garrison took note that Lincoln, although no pure abolitionist, spoke of slavery as a "moral" issue: Douglas had feigned indifference to slavery's spread, and Lincoln had denounced it as an "evil."
While he criticized Lincoln as president for his slowness on slavery, Garrison sensed that the war provided the legal means to destroy the practice. When Lincoln finally issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the uncompromising Garrison did not dismiss it as a "fraud" because it exempted territory the Union controlled. He noted instead that it freed the slaves of rebels, offered blacks military protection, and admitted them into the army. Garrison always accepted what he got and pressed on for what he wanted. Through the remainder of the war, he made the case for immediate emancipation of the million slaves still in the border states.
Whatever Lincoln's hesitations, his willingness to engage black troops, nullify fugitive slave laws, and add the Thirteenth Amendment won him Garrison's open support. Lincoln acknowledged the Union's debt to Garrison when he wrote, "The logic and moral power of Garrison and the antislavery people of the country and the army, have done it all." Of Lincoln, Garrison said, "No man ever did so large a business on so small a capital in the service of freedom and humanity." In 1864, for the first time since he burst on the public stage, Garrison issued a political endorsement, editorializing for Lincoln. He remained an active Republican until his death in 1879.
BUT GARRISON found "immediacy" harder to argue in debates over Reconstruction after the war. As Mayer notes in "All on Fire," these issues did not carry the same "theological burden" as abolition, and they required yet another change in opinion from an exhausted public. Even after slavery had ended, three northern states still denied the vote to freed blacks, and 93 percent of blacks in the North were still disenfranchised.
The Republicans Garrison had joined would spend much of their future debating how to appeal to those they had set free. Mayer describes the problem the party faced at the end of the Civil War:
This question became one of whether to broaden the party's base with black voters in the South, and risk losing its most conservative and racist voters in the North, or to take a partial victory as a promissory note and expand the party's strength on the basis of other issues.
Until the end of Ulysses S. Grant's presidency, the Republicans tried the first approach. Reaching out to southern blacks was a key component of the Reconstruction plans of Senator Charles Sumner, Representative Thaddeus Stevens, and other "Radical Republicans." It was central in their battle with President Andrew Johnson. With one eye fixed on continued GOP majorities and another on improving the condition of blacks, the Radicals gave southern states a choice: Either grant the franchise to their former slaves or have their congressional delegations reduced.
THE "RECONSTRUCTED STATES" responded by restricting the rights of emancipated slaves. Terrorist bands intimidated those who attempted to vote. Former Confederate politicians and officers were elected to Congress. (The Radicals refused to seat them.) After Johnson vetoed civil rights laws and refused to enforce the rights of blacks, Congress imposed its own reconstruction plan by legislation, constitutional amendment, and, ultimately, impeachment.
Radicals and their black supporters in the South expected the stalemate between Congress and the president to end with Ulysses S. Grant's election in 1868. Grant had allowed two hundred thousand liberated slaves into Union combat forces (part of his strategy to win the war by "attrition") and had sided with the Radicals in their rift with Johnson.
Once in office, Grant repeatedly sent troops to southern polling places to assure African Americans the right to vote. He relentlessly pursued the fledgling Ku Klux Klan and denounced color prejudice as "senseless." He invoked market-based justifications for his attempt to acquire the Dominican Republic, arguing that blacks might use their ability to sell their labor at higher wages there as leverage to persuade southern employers to pay them higher wages.
But Grant nonetheless failed, primarily because it was impossible for him to achieve both sectional reconciliation and equal justice for blacks. Grant described how his efforts on behalf of former slaves in the South eroded his base of support elsewhere:
The whole public are tired out with these annual, autumnal outbreaks in the South, and there is so much unwholesome lying done by the press and people in regard to the cause and extent of these breaches of the peace that the great majority were ready now to condemn any interference on the part of the Government.
The 1876 election of "His Fraudulency," Rutherford B. Hayes, brought to an end Republican efforts to protect blacks. Though he lost the popular vote, Hayes became president when electors in three southern states shifted their votes in exchange for his promise to withdraw all remaining federal troops from the South.
FOR THE NEXT EIGHTY YEARS, Republicans turned to Mayer's "other issues": sound money, tariffs, economic development, civil service, trust busting, and taxes. Some of these may have slowed the economic advance of former slaves. Civil service reform, for instance--a favorite cause among progressive historians--ended the patronage Republicans had used to help blacks. Through his political alliance with Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt appointed blacks to federal posts over local objections.
But having acquiesced in the disenfranchisement of their southern black supporters, Republicans sought to make their party competitive in the region by attracting whites. It didn't work--and Frederick Douglass explained why:
If anything, the South became, with every concession made by the Republicans, . . . more Democratic. There never was yet, and there never will be, an instance of permanent success where a party abandons its righteous principles to win favor of the opposing party.
For their part, the Democrats, from Andrew Johnson's presidency to Lyndon Johnson's, sought to reassemble the Jacksonian coalition of northern machines and southern segregationists. In 1924, Franklin Roosevelt advised Democrats to raise only issues of importance to the entire nation--which meant that they should stay away from the question of integration. Truman did desegregate the armed forces, and Kennedy enforced court orders to integrate southern state universities. Yet all three looked upon civil rights advocates primarily as interests to be managed rather than integral parts of their electoral coalitions.
Buoyed by a changed public opinion, produced by Garrison's spiritual heirs who marched with Martin Luther King Jr., Lyndon Johnson brought an end to Jim Crow and made voting rights a reality for millions of African Americans. His deeds, plus his Republican opponent Barry Goldwater's opposition to the 1964 civil rights bill, hastened a realignment of the two parties with African Americans voting for the Democrats and southern whites for the Republicans. Where Nixon had still carried 32 percent of the African-American vote in 1960, Goldwater's share dropped to 6 percent, and no GOP presidential standard bearer has fared much better since: Nixon, 1968: 12 percent; Nixon, 1972: 13 percent; Ford, 1976: 15 percent; Reagan, 1980: 10 percent; Reagan, 1984: 13 percent; Bush, 1988: 18 percent; Bush, 1992: 11 percent; Dole, 1996: 12 percent.
SEVERAL MYTHS arose after the 1964 election that cloud impressions minorities have of the Republicans' past--and form the image many Republicans hold of themselves.
One myth is that Goldwater's anti-civil rights vote was rooted in racism. More a libertarian than anything else, Goldwater opposed sections of the bill that denied private businesses the right to deny service to any person for any reason. In his home state of Arizona, Goldwater was known as an advocate of integration. His commitment to "voluntary association" blinded him to the reality that where Rosa Parks could sit on a bus was prescribed by state law.
Another myth is that Goldwater represented his entire party's position on civil rights. Twenty-seven of the thirty-one other Republican senators supported the bill. Twenty-one Democrats voted against it, among them Sam Ervin (star of the Watergate hearings), J. William Fulbright (an early Vietnam war skeptic), Robert Byrd (the "constitutional authority" of the Clinton impeachment), and Albert Gore (father of the vice president). Such "right wing Neanderthals" as Karl Mundt, Carl Curtis, and Roman Hruska voted for it. The most eloquent speech came from Republican minority leader Everett Dirksen, quoting Victor Hugo: "Nothing is so powerful as an idea whose time has come."
THE STORY was similar in the House. Understandably, liberal historians and activists have downplayed the role of Republicans in breaking Democratic filibusters and securing final passage. Less understandable is what sustains collective amnesia among Republicans. When he ascended in 1994, the first Republican speaker of the House in over forty years, Newt Gingrich said:
No Republican here should kid themselves about it. The greatest leaders in fighting for an integrated America in the twentieth century were in the Democratic party. The fact is, it was the liberal wing of the Democratic party that ended segregation.
None of Gingrich's consistent efforts on behalf of the nation's capital, its public schools, scholarships for poor children, and Habitat for Humanity could change those impressions. Other Republican officials, apologizing for their party's having been on the "wrong side" of the issue when it wasn't, have fared no better. And some Republican conservatives have even tried to claim the mantle of George Wallace, a man who was neither a Republican nor a conservative. In a 1968 straw poll, even the "country-club" Republican Nelson Rockefeller out-polled Wallace among conservatives, 43 percent to 23 percent. (Given a choice only between two big-spending liberals, they chose the one who did not apply racial tests--proving conservatives of the time were neither racist nor stupid.)
BY FAILING to come to terms with its true history on race, the modern Republican party remains saddled with the worst of all worlds and bereft of a policy. On some occasions, Republicans have acted as though they accepted Democratic caricatures of themselves as "uncaring bigots." And as if to prove they are not, they let stand programs they believe both wrong and unsuccessful, like bilingual education, affirmative action, and racial set asides.
The rest of the time, with the exception of welfare reform and flirtations with "negative income taxes," "enterprise zones," and "school choice," Republicans offer few alternatives to Democratic programs. Republicans show signs of disappointment and even hurt at their opponents' failure to credit them at least for their altruism. But when will such truly Republican notions as community renewal legislation, school choice, and authorization for faith-based entities to compete for public funds--all the profoundly conservative plans that offer real hope to the African-American community--ever receive from GOP leadership the same priority as tax cuts, Social Security, and missile defense?
Much as they insist on their commitment to "inclusion," the Republicans will never recruit minority voters back to what was their natural home until the party stops believing the "progressive" view that has denied the long history of Democratic vices and Republican virtues on black-white relations. Only then can the party return to its original ideas of equality of opportunity and equality before the law. Only then can the party cease to oscillate between behaving as a shamed clone of the Democrats on issues of race, and simply ignoring blacks as a Democratic interest group.
An accurate rendering of our history can teach modern Republicans a lesson in practical politics, and it can teach them a lesson as well in moral leadership. Sometimes the two do come together--and William Lloyd Garrison remains the best person to remind us of that.
Alvin S. Felzenberg writes and lectures about the American presidency.