Violence against the Press: Policing the Public Sphere in U.S. History

By John Nerone | Go to book overview
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4
The Crusade Against Abolitionism

Garrison's generation proceeded from the premise that there were no moral issues or political differences fundamental enough to paralyze the energies of free government. Forgetting its revolutionary heritage, it believed that moral questions, like political interests, were matters for adjustment, and that in exchange for their promise of good behavior minorities might achieve a majority guarantee of fair play. This assumption meant that the American democracy functioned effectively just as long as there were no absolute moral judgments to clog the machinery. 1

The development of a system of partisan politics was one grand achievement of the antebellum period. Partisanism institutionalized competition in U.S. government on every level. It also steered political competition away from fundamental moral issues. Partisans sought out conflict, but the dynamics of the electoral system--the requirement that the victor win a majority of the electoral vote--compelled politicians to avoid making arguments that would offend many voters. Partisanism encouraged politicians to avoid divisive issues in a way that the patrician politics of the Federalist era did not. It became common for politicians to invalidate one another by calling their opponents "fanatics"; this meant that, in effect, to be committed to a cause was to be, ipso facto, nonpoliticians. Rather, true politicians must be flexible in their commitments. 2

The anti-ideological thrust of partisan politics was strengthened by the nationalization of the major parties in the Jacksonian era. As local factions aligned themselves with national parties, it became necessary for local candidates and officials to avoid alienating any significant segment of the national constituency. This irony is seen clearly in the controversy over abolitionism. Here northern campaigns would come to turn routinely on the reactions of southern voters and politicians, who could punish the national ticket for the indiscretions of local activists. Presidential aspirants in the 1830s and beyond leaned heavily on their supporters to avoid the taint of abolitionism.

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