Although they may not know it, Trump and his supporters are deploying the kind of rhetorical tactics that have long characterized American debates over race and that nearly led, in the mid-19th century, to the destruction of the Union. In arguing that radical protesters endanger U.S. law and order, Trump is echoing the attacks leveled by Southern enslavers against abolitionists. The purpose of such tactics, then and now, is to confuse Americans about causes and effects — and to serve notice that those in power flatly refuse to cede any ground to progressive reformers.
Abolitionism took shape as a movement in the late 1820s. Free Black reformers such as David Walker and Maria Stewart began a campaign in the North to dismantle slavery in the South. They called attention to alarming trends: the continued domination of the national government by enslavers, the exponential spread of slavery into the cotton South and the erosion of free Blacks’ tenuous rights.
A small vanguard of progressive Whites such as William Lloyd Garrison soon joined the abolitionist ranks. Using “moral suasion” — urgent appeals to people’s consciences — abolitionists hoped to build support for measures, such as the restriction of slavery in the federal territories and its abolition in the federally controlled District of Columbia, that would put America on a trajectory toward freedom and equality.
The antislavery movement was met with fierce backlash from those unwilling to change America’s racial caste system. South Carolina politician James Henry Hammond opined to a proslavery New York editor in 1835 that abolitionists could be silenced only by “Terror and Death.”
Anti-abolitionists in the North and South took up the challenge, joining forces in slavery’s defense. They branded abolitionists as lawless agitators bent on “disunion”: on overturning traditional social hierarchies, threatening the sanctity of property rights, fomenting unrest among the enslaved and alienating Southerners from Northerners. At the heart of anti-abolitionism was a zero-sum-game premise that any gains for Black people in American society would come at the expense of Whites.
Such anti-abolition rhetoric was used to justify censorship. When abolitionists attempted in the mid-1830s to distribute their pamphlets and journals in the South, Southern postmasters responded by destroying such literature on the grounds that it would, to quote Postmaster General Amos Kendall, “produce discontent, assassination, and servile war.” When abolitionists flooded Congress with antislavery petitions, proslavery politicians passed a “gag rule” that summarily “tabled” those appeals, prohibiting discussion of them and thereby abridging the constitutional right of American citizens to petition the government for the redress of grievances.
And the rhetoric called forth violence: Abolitionists were physically harassed, threatened, mobbed and in some instances murdered in waves of vigilante violence. Through relentless fearmongering, anti-abolitionists cast slavery as a security issue, insisting that abolitionism was the root cause of American strife, and that, if unchecked, antislavery activism would bring about a dystopian future of race war and civil war.
Abolitionists answered these charges by waging a consciousness-raising campaign to open White Americans’ eyes to the tragic realities of slavery — and the very ways it was corrupting American democracy. Through a range of public appeals, including lectures, editorials, poems, novels, songs and, most importantly, searing firsthand accounts from people such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, who had escaped slavery, abolitionists tried to educate the American public in a simple, powerful lesson: that racism and slavery, not abolitionism, were the root causes of American strife.
Abolitionists insisted that slavery was fundamentally a moral issue — the practice endangered America’s ideals and its fragile experiment in representative government. “We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity,” pioneering Black feminist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper explained, lamenting how slavery had “crippled the moral strength” of White Americans. Only when it had “no privileged class, trampling upon and outraging the unprivileged classes,” could America become “one great privileged nation.”
To the argument that antislavery agitation would foment insurrection among otherwise “contented” enslaved people, abolitionists countered that it was resistance by enslaved people that inspired Northern abolitionism and not the other way around. “The slaves need no incentive at our hands,” Garrison declared — they found their incentive for resistance “in their emaciated bodies” and in their “ceaseless toil.”
Abolitionists also maintained that the end of slavery would bring broad benefits to all Americans by making the country more prosperous, cohesive and secure. “We are fighting for something incomparably better than the old Union. We are fighting for unity; unity of idea, unity of sentiment, unity of object, unity of institutions, in which there shall be no North, no South, no East, no West, no black, no white, but a solidarity of the nation,” Douglass proclaimed in 1863, the year of jubilee, reflecting on the long process of emancipation and on the hard work that lay ahead.
Slaveholding secessionists scorned such appeals as incendiary and mobilized dystopian images of race war to goad White Southerners into rejecting Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 and seceding from the Union. Even as they violently shattered the nation, secessionists continued to cast abolitionists as the disunionists, arguing that the agenda of emancipation and racial equality was just a Trojan horse for Northerners’ ruthless bid for power.
The demonization of abolitionism persisted into the war. Confederates insisted that the Lincoln administration waged race war — obscuring the fact that it was Confederates who perpetrated racial atrocities. For example, their “no quarter” policy toward Black Union troops resulted in the massacre, by Confederates under future Klansman Nathan Bedford Forrest, of surrendering, fleeing and wounded Black soldiers, women and children at Fort Pillow, Tenn., on April 12, 1864.
Black Unionists by contrast refrained from the sort of retributive violence secessionists had long predicted. “Inasmuch as it was presumed that we would carry out a brutal warfare, let us disappoint our malicious anticipators,” the AME minister and Union army chaplain Henry McNeal Turner intoned, arguing against the killing of rebel prisoners.
Even defeat didn’t really change White Southerners’ tactics. After the war, the defeated Confederates perpetrated systematic anti-Black violence and focused on suppressing Black voting, while telling Northerners that only a restoration of White Southern power would bring peace and security. Radical Republicans who championed racial equality were branded anew as disunionists. They “should beware,” warned a conservative Pennsylvania newspaper, “for the moment they start the disunion programme, based on negro suffrage, that moment will seal their fate as the originators of disunion, war, and all the ills under which the nation has so long suffered.”
In short, the slavery debates established an enduring pattern in American politics, one in which reformers have been met by hate and violence, perpetrated by reactionaries who cynically tell the American people that the only way to dispel hate and violence is by rejecting reform that challenges their power and privilege. That pattern has been sustained by White Americans’ stubborn incapacity to learn the lesson the abolitionists began preaching so long ago: that racism is the root of America’s culture of violence, and only racial justice can bring true fidelity to the law, social coherence and moral order.