The Debate over Slavery: Antislavery and Proslavery Liberalism in Antebellum America

By David F. Ericson | Go to book overview

3

Child, Douglass, and Antislavery
Liberalism

The antislavery movement in the antebellum North attempted to launch a process of institutional change. The abolitionists worked to destroy one institution—Southern slavery—and to replace it with another set of institutions—universal male citizenship, equal liberty under law, and competitive labor markets. They viewed these identifiably liberal institutions as the prevailing institutions of their section of the country.1

The antislavery movement did lead to institutional change in the desired direction. But it did not lead to as much institutional change as the abolitionists desired, nor did the abolitionists themselves concentrate on the abolition of Southern slavery as a process of institutional change. Instead, they concentrated on the identifiably liberal principles of liberty, equality, and consent that, to them, clearly condemned Southern slavery and supported the alternative institutions of the North.

The abolitionists have been roundly criticized for not focusing on the abolition of Southern slavery as a process of institutional change and, in particular, for not focusing on that process as a process that required considerable public discussion of the precise nature of the transition from racial slavery to more racially egalitarian, liberal institutions in the South.2 Instead, they spoke as if condemning racial slavery were sufficient to abolish the institution and as if the demise of the institution would automatically usher in the desired set of new institutions. This “failure” helps explain why it took a civil war to abolish racial slavery in the South. It also helps explain the abortive nature of Reconstruction.

The typical response to this critique is that for tactical reasons, the abolitionists avoided publicly discussing the abolition of Southern

-39-

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The Debate over Slavery: Antislavery and Proslavery Liberalism in Antebellum America
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Part I 1
  • 1: The Liberal Consensus Thesis and Slavery 3
  • 2: The Antislavery and Proslavery Arguments 14
  • Part II 37
  • 3: Child, Douglass, and Antislavery Liberalism 39
  • 4: Wendell Phillips Liberty and Union 62
  • Part III 91
  • 5: Dew, Fitzhugh, and Proslavery Liberalism 93
  • 6: James H. Hammond Slavery and Union 121
  • Part IV 155
  • 7: The “house Divided” and Civil-War Causation 157
  • Notes 167
  • Index 235
  • About the Author 241
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