A Political Abolitionist

As the smoke gradually drifts away from the field upon which was fought the long contest over slavery, we begin to see more clearly the significance and the danger of the struggle. On the one side, slavery stands out disconnected from that fear of “ a second Hayti ” which was always with the masters and their apologists. On the other side, the abolitionists begin to emerge both from the cloud of calumny in which they lived, and from the halo of saintship which formed about them when emancipation was suddenly accomplished. The lives of many of the abolitionists have now been written; their letters have been printed ; their differences have been displayed ; their errors have been paraded. Yet, with the single exception of General Birney’s Life of Birney, there has not appeared a good life of one of that class of abolitionists who used political instruments for the destruction of slavery. Readers and even intelligent writers have yet to learn how much was accomplished by the abolitionists who did not consider the Constitution a “ compact with hell,” but strove to assert its free principles by their votes, their speeches, their conventions, and their political combinations. If we are to judge by the number of followers, and by closeness to the spirit of American liberty, the typical abolitionist is not the agitator, but the practical politician ; not William Lloyd Garrison, but Joshua R. Giddings.

It is in a picture of the lifelong labors of a political abolitionist that we find the unusual interest of Mr. Julian’s biography1 of his father-in-law. The book moves from beginning to end, because the subject moved. The author undertakes only to describe those crises — many and important — in which Giddings was a power. The book is singularly free from surmise or cheap commendation or ostentation. The self-restraint of the author leaves much to speak for itself; he hardly refers to himself, although he wielded no dull sword in the battles which he describes. He does not make out that Giddings was the only antislavery champion, nor that to him solely are due the opinions against slavery which welled forth from a thousand generously indignant minds. He takes pains to give credit to our New England Palfrey for his stand beside Giddings. The extracts from Giddings’s early journal, and the letters, especially those from Clay and John Brown, are a contribution to our historical material. Yet one misses the names of some men with whom Giddings was in harness. Chase, a man of far greater influence out of Congress, is dismissed with a few references ; and the famous Ohio senatorial election of 1848, in which the Free Soilers combined with the Democrats to elect Chase, is almost passed over. Even Lincoln is mentioned chiefly to assert that, on the question of the District of Columbia in 1849, “ he placed himself squarely on the side of the South.” This injustice is coupled with a restatement of the familiar errors about the history of slavery which have crept into most antislavery books. To do Mr. Julian justice, however, he falls into comparatively few such errors, because he does not make it his business to supply a background of history for his story. His theme is simply Giddings’s fight against slavery.

For this reason, doubtless, the relations of Giddings to the region which he represented are but slightly set forth, and the general antislavery movement in Ohio is hardly mentioned. But no one can really understand Giddings’s life without a knowledge of the Western Reserve. Set up by a stubborn adhesion of Connecticut to the last western territory to which she could possibly lay claim, the Reserve was at the same time open to civilization and closed to slavery. Lake Erie was a main highway from East to West, and the people who dwelt near it had constant connection with the seaboard ; a stream of settlers came pouring in, most of them, like Giddings’s father, Connecticut Yankees. Yet for half a century no cities grew up; country schools of efficiency abounded ; academies were started; Western Reserve College was founded, as a second Yale. Best of all, the Reserve had no interest in slavery; it was planted subject to the Connecticut emancipation act of 1784, and to the Ordinance of 1787. It was not, like southern Ohio, on one side of a main road for the domestic slave trade ; there was no tradition in favor of slavery; when the time for organization arrived, there was little prejudice to overcome. There were abolition societies in Ohio as early as 1815, but the great movement began in 1834, under the example of Eastern societies ; in 1837 there were more than two hundred such societies in Ohio, with seventeen thousand members. It was in that year that Giddings first became interested in the cause. In 1838 he was elected to Congress.

For twenty-one years he continued to represent a district of the Western Reserve ; and he was succeeded by another antislavery man. A later member from his district was James A. Garfield. That is, during nearly the whole of the slavery contest in Congress, the Reserve was represented by an abolitionist. Yet this support of a resolute and ready champion was only one of the services which the Western Reserve rendered to the cause of freedom. In 1834 Oberlin College was founded, as a protest against the proslavery attitude of Western Reserve College, and of Lane Theological Seminary at Cincinnati. Here, for the first time in the struggle, an opportunity was afforded to black men and women to show that they were capable of a college education. In the midst of the wilderness, among unfriendly neighbors, beset with poverty which one can now hardly realize, Oberlin grew up, in what was probably the only region in the Union which would have tolerated it. It proved a good school as well as a cheap school, and the odium of negro education and of coeducation did not avail to keep young people away. Soon its former students were found scattered through the Northwest, spreading abolition doctrine, establishing societies, and educating public opinion.

Another service rendered by the Western Reserve was its early and cordial reception of fugitive slaves. Southern Ohio bordered on Kentucky; the Virginia “Panhandle” was the slaveholding territory which reached farthest north. Beyond the Reserve was Lake Erie, and beyond Lake Erie was Canada. Through the counties of the Reserve, for years, moved northward the mysterious wagons, stopping at houses numerous and still remembered, where there was entertainment for man and slave. Many well known fugitives settled in the region; others it was thought safer to send, by secret channels, into the security offered by the English flag. The actual number of successful fugitives was a bagatelle in comparison with that of their brothers in bondage; but the insecurity and annoyance and exasperation caused to their owners were important factors in keeping alive the knowledge among slaveholders that there were men in the North who thought slavery nefarious. On the other hand, the frequent visits of pursuers, the occasional capture of fugitives, were strong object lessons in the real nature of slavery. Among the people of the Reserve there were many who hated abolition, and some who would aid in the recovery of a fugitive ; but, as time went on, the spirit of the community was set more and more firmly against the whole system.

It does not appear from the biography that Giddings was personally interested in either the Oberlin agitation or the underground railroad. From still another movement he held aloof for ten years. As early as 1838, suggestions were made that antislavery men should vote together. In 1840, Birney got nine hundred and three votes in Ohio for the Liberty party, probably nearly every one in the Western Reserve. In 1841 and 1842, Chase was urging upon Giddings the formation of a state party on this issue. Giddings was a Whig, and in 1844 worked for Clay, a Whig slaveholder. Fortunately, the abolitionists persevered. In no State in the Union was their organization so good; and in 1848 they succeeded in electing seven “Free Soil” members to the state legislature. These men were excellent political managers ; they unblushingly carried their influence into the market, and prepared to give the organization of the legislature, several judges, and some other perquisites to that one of the two parties which would unite with them in the choice of a Free Soil Senator. Chase was elected, and thus there appeared the first abolitionist who ever held a seat in the Senate. Even Giddings had been swept into the general political movement, had abjured his Whig allegiance, and did his utmost for the Free Soil national ticket. His district stood by him, and he became a leader in the new party. The immediate fruits of the new movement — an abolitionist Senator and a permanent organization — were in great, part due to the Western Reserve.

What had the member from the Reserve been doing in the ten years previous, and what was he to do in the ten years following ? One of the most interesting parts of Mr. Julian’s book is the series of extracts from Giddings’s journal for his first session of Congress, 1838-39. Here he met John Quincy Adams, “very bald, with low forehead, and nothing about the shape of the head that indicates unusual talents ; yet his physiognomy has something of an intellectual appearance. He is truly regarded as a venerable personage.” Clay was “social and farmer-like.” Before the end of the session Giddings had come forward as an antislavery champion. It is difficult to realize — and the biographer does not help us — what that meant in 1839. There were but two other antislavery men in the House : Adams, who was seventy - two years old ; and Slade, of Vermont, who was no longer aggressive. The professed defender of polygamy would to-day be less despised than was the Western member by his Southern fellows. Nothing but intense conviction could lead a man to take up a cause from which little was to be expected except the dislike of his nearest associates. Conviction Giddings had, and it hardened rapidly under the hammer-like blows to which he was at once subjected. Adams was always ready to accept a provocation, or to appear in times of crises ; Giddings, from the beginning, made it his business to attack, whenever he saw an opportunity to drive home his favorite principles against slavery. His natural sagacity suggested to him that, if he wished to protect himself and discomfit his enemies, he must train himself thoroughly in parliamentary law. The skill which he acquired accounts in considerable part for the fact that he had so frequent a hearing, and that he was so often successful in defeating obnoxious measures. He was still better aided by his quickness in discerning vulnerable points in the armor of the defenders of slavery. He instantly saw that the slave trade and slavery in the District of Columbia could be reached in seemingly innocent debates on appropriation bills. His first antislavery speech in the House was on the impropriety of building a bridge in the District of Columbia while the people of the District fostered the slave trade. A favorite form of attack was to protest against some proposed payment of claims for losses with which slaves were somehow connected. Another subject which Giddings made his own, and about which he waged unrelenting war, was the treatment of the Seminoles. He studied the war, watched for bills bearing upon it, and assailed the whole South as responsible for all the injustice of that transaction. Naturally, such a warrior was marked for attack; and many times he found himself obliged to accept battle where he had offered none.

It was not possible for any man so to live in the field without striking some undeserved blows. Giddings was not only a hard hitter, he was a reckless hitter ; and to this characteristic is due a reputation for inaccuracy which the biographer rather passes over. His controversy with Winthrop, in 1847, illustrates it: Mr. Giddings made statements, which probably seemed to him true, about Winthrop’s zeal in the Mexican war ; Mr. Winthrop, with apparent candor, denied absolutely the charge as made, and never could be persuaded that Giddings was an honest man. In the Seminole speeches and writings there is a rhetorical exaggeration which deprives them of much of their natural force.

Yet that Giddings usually had hard facts behind his speeches is shown by the efforts made to silence him. He was ostracized by Southern men ; they brought against him unfounded charges, such as that he had franked a calico dress home to his wife. Twice, at least, in his place on the floor, he was threatened with violence by bullying Southerners. His well-known physical strength and skill as a shot were of great service to him in his steady refusal to accept provocations to fight duels. The resolution of censure of 1842 succeeded principally because Giddings was not permitted to say one single word in his own defense ; but the Southern members saw their own mistake in admitting that they dared not permit a man to explain his own conduct, and Giddings’s tongue was never again tied.

The manner of this long warfare with the slave power is, after all, of less importance than its effect. Giddings taught the country three lessons which were of inestimable value in bringing about a right sentiment among Northern men. In the first place, he had a constitutional theory which enraged his enemies by its aptness: he accepted the Southern doctrine that slavery was a matter of state law, but insisted on the corollary that the States must protect it themselves, and could maintain it only within their own limits. The converse of the doctrine was that the United States government had no constitutional power over slavery, and hence could not establish it anywhere. This was so plain a contradiction to the practice of the government, both in the District of Columbia and in the Southern territories, that Giddings overshot the mark. Giddings’s second characteristic was his independence of party discipline. Although he remained a Whig till 1848, he committed the unpardonable sin of bolting the party nomination for Speaker in 1846 ; and he led the Whigs who went into the Free Soil party in 1848. It was the same independence which led him to walk out of the Republican convention in 1860, when his Declaration of Independence plank was voted down. Throughout his life he helped to teach the wholesome lesson that principles were more than parties.

Finally, Giddings was gifted with a rare foresight. Not only did he predict the tightening of the slavery chain on the necks of the two parties ; he foresaw the armed struggle. “ And here I will take occasion to say,” said he in June, 1852, “that if this law continues to be enforced civil war is inevitable.” A still more remarkable prophecy is one which had indeed been uttered by Adams, but which Giddings amplified and several times repeated. It is quoted in the biography in a singularly suggestive extract from a speech of 1854 : “ When that contest shall come, . . . we shall then have constitutional power to act for the good of our country, and to do justice to the slave. We will then strike off the shackles from his limbs. The government will then have power to act between slavery and freedom; and it can best make peace by giving liberty to the slaves. And let me tell you, Mr. Speaker, that time hastens.” Throughout his public life, Giddings, as a political abolitionist, sought to hasten that time by using the power of political organization.

  1. The Life of Joshua R. Giddings. By GEORGE W. JULIAN. Chicago: A. C. MeClurg & Co. 1892.