Lessons from History

Article excerpt

John Greenleaf Whittier, the Quaker poet, was also a shrewd political organizer. While working for the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1837, he spent much time on anti-slavery petitions to Congress. "How are you getting on in regard to petitions?" Whittier wrote a fellow abolitionist. "Are they in circulation-or are they lying in the drawers, or wearing out in the pockets, of the persons who have them!" Referring to William Lloyd Garrison's newspaper, he suggested, "Thunder at them through the Liberator and scare them into the work."'

Instructions for petition-gatherers combined political thoroughness with literary grace: "Let petitions be circulated wherever signers can be got.... Follow the farmer to his field, the wood-chopper to the forest. Hail the shopkeeper behind his counter; call the clerk from his desk; stop the waggoner with his team; forget not the matron, ask for her daughter."2

Today's right-to-life movement has no poet laureate; but it does resemble the abolitionist movement in many ways, including attention to political detail. Like the abolitionists, most right-to-lifers have deep religious convictions. Also like the abolitionists, they face a deeply-entrenched evil, one with strong support in the political and financial establishments. John Cardinal O'Connor recently said that pro-lifers have "the loneliness of the long-distance runner."3 They are in good historical company. Protest against slavery in the United States dates back at least to 1688. Quakers were active against it in the early 1700s, and the first national anti-slavery organization was started in 1794. Yet abolitionists had to struggle on until 1865, when the Civil War and the Thirteenth Amendment finally abolished slavery.

Whittier and many other activists of the last anti-slavery phase lived to see slavery abolished, although not in the way they had hoped. Their victory was marred in three major respects: 1) Abolition was achieved by a horrific war, not by the peaceful means that the Quakers and so many other abolitionists advocated and practiced; 2) the ex-slaves did not win either political or economic equality in the South; 3) Northern racism, a sometime target of abolitionists, remained strong after emancipation. Some of this might have been avoided with a different and more comprehensive strategy. I stress the "might" because the pro-slavery forces were extremely powerful, often violent, and fiercely resistant to change. In any case, right-to-lifers can learn a great deal by studying both the successes and the failures of abolitionists.

Starting on a positive note, they might consider the brilliant organizing that abolitionists did in the 1830s. Theodore Dwight Weld, formerly a Protestant seminarian, organized an effort to "abolitionize" Ohio in 1834-36. The Rev. Lyman Beecher, himself a famous preacher, described Weld as "logic on fire.... As eloquent as an angel and powerful as thunder!" Weld trained other young men; he and they spoke all over Ohio, did tremendous educational work, and helped organize local anti-slavery societies. In doing all of this they had to face down mobs many times. According to Weld biographer Benjamin Thomas, they "came to consider a riot as part of their introduction."4

So effective was Weld that the American Anti-Slavery Society chose him to recruit and train "The Seventy," a group of abolitionist lecturers to be sent all over the North. They were patterned after the seventy disciples of the New Testament, though they did not actually reach quite that number in the field. Most were Protestant ministers or seminarians. The Seventy did for other states what Weld and his first colleagues had done for Ohio: they "abolitionized" entire states in one of the most successful organizing campaigns in American history.

Today, despite decades of educational work and protest, there are still states where the anti-abortion movement is weak, especially in the Northeast and on the West Coast. …