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The “common ground” on slavery?

August 17, 2010

Originally published, May 2009:

One of the most vicious ideological battles over American slavery took place long before the Civil War. The fight was over an idea called gradualism and its cousin, colonization. Those who favored these ideas were the great pragmatic moderates of their day, part of the “wise and prudent” class, as William Lloyd Garrison put it.

They generally thought that slavery was an unfortunate, negative institution, believed it was already on the decline, and that the goal should be to reduce and gradually end its practice. Colonization groups were formed under the guise of benevolent societies. Instead of seeking to recognize blacks as equal American citizens, they sought to deport them to colonies in Liberia and Haiti where they could live in “freedom” and racial segregation.

Many indications suggested that colonization was the most practical course of action to reduce slavery. Racial prejudice still permeated American society, and even those opposed to slavery frequently believed that the black population had been so degraded by the institution that they were no longer fit for freedom.

Then came the radicals: the immediatists. They built their movement on the “extreme” views that slavery was a sin, that it could not be allowed to continue for a moment longer, and that emancipation must be centered on the principle that all races are equal and must live in unity as American citizens.

Speaking in heightened rhetoric and often demonizing the other side, this group argued and agitated its way into the hearts of abolitionists, slowly defeating colonization. William Lloyd Garrison presented the key issue at stake:

“This is the question—and the only question, whether it is not the sacred duty of the nation to abolish the system of slavery now, and to recognize the people of color as brethren and countrymen who have been unjustly treated and covered with unmerited shame.”

Despite the shared goal of reducing slavery, immediatists fought tooth and nail against gradualism because they saw that it weakened the abolitionist’s moral argument. “I saw there was nothing to stand upon, if it could be granted that slavery was, for a moment, right”, explained Garrison. In contrast, the moderate gradualists continued to allow the offenders to define the conditions of release for the victims, rather than fighting for the inalienable rights of all human beings.

Incendiary, simplistic, close-minded. These were the early crusaders of civil rights. Well regarded clergymen spoke harshly about these abolitionists, denouncing them as “beneath notice” and members of “the poorest, obscurest and most ignorant” part of society.

But decades later, the principles of immediatism would influence a president and remake America. At the beginning of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln favored gradualism and colonization, but it was through the tools of immediatism: the emancipation proclamation, and the 13th Amendment, that he took the first steps towards dismantling legalized racial injustice. What was close-minded at the time, is now clearly seen as right and just.

The battle between pragmatism and purity has been repeated thoughout history. The “perfect is the enemy of the good” argument sometimes holds true, and there are times when we are forced to choose between the awful, and the imperfect. But we must also recognize the profound danger in promoting moderation: the loss of moral clarity. There are some issues where middle ground is an absurdity, and moderation is a sin. The good news is that moral clarity does win arguments, and it will continue to win hearts.

Too often I seek to be part of the “wise and prudent” class, letting the culture shape my perception of what my priorities should be. If there is one thing we can learn from history, it’s that there is a time to seek common ground, and there is a time to seek solid ground. Some issues are too important to let fester under moderation.

“I shall not hesitate to call things by their proper names, nor yet refrain from speaking the truth…Take right hold! Hold on! And never abandon an inch of ground after it has been taken.” -Benjamin Lundy, American Abolitionist

“Truth and justice make their best way in the world when they appear in bold and simple majesty.” -Elizableth Heyrick, English Abolitionist

(Reference: “All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery” by Henry Mayer)

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Chris permalink
    August 17, 2010 9:13 am

    Wow – Brilliant clarion call!

  2. Jim Anderson permalink
    September 15, 2010 12:27 pm

    I like your counterposing use of ‘finding common ground’ and ‘finding solid ground’. When I find such twin ideas, I remind myself that ‘walking it out’ — one idea, then the other, back and forth, helps me find the path I must walk. As long as I can avoid walking in circles. I wonder if we failed to solve the problems seen by each side of the ‘how to eliminate slavery’ debate and today see communities mired in generational muck because we did not bring all God’s children to work.

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