previous next

Chapter 1: Theodore Roosevelt and the Abolitionists

The following is an extract from Theodore Roosevelt's biography of Thomas H. Benton in Houghton, Mifflin, & Co.'s American Statesmen Series, published in 1887:

Owing to a variety of causes, the Abolitionists have received an immense amount of hysterical praise which they do not deserve, and have been credited with deeds done by other men whom, in reality, they hampered and opposed rather than aided. After 1840, the professed Abolitionists formed a small and comparatively unimportant portion of the forces that were working towards the restriction and ultimate destruction of slavery; and much of what they did was positively harmful to the cause for which they were fighting. Those of their number who considered the Constitution as a league with death and hell, and who, therefore, advocated a dissolution of the Union, acted as rationally as would antipolygamists nowadays if, to show their disapproval of Mormonism, they should advocate that Utah should be allowed to form a separate nation. The only hope of [2] ultimately suppressing slavery lay in the preservation of the Union, and every Abolitionist who argued or signed a petition for the dissolution was doing as much to perpetuate the evil he complained of, as if he had been a slave-holder. The Liberty party, in running Birney, simply committed a political crime, evil in almost all its consequences. They in no sense paved the way for the Republican party, or helped forward the Anti-Slavery cause, or hurt the existing organizations. Their effect on the Democracy was nil; and all they were able to accomplish with the Whigs was to make them put forward for the ensuing election a slaveholder from Louisiana, with whom they were successful. Such were the remote results of their conduct; the immediate evils they produced have already been alluded to. They bore considerable resemblance-except that after all they really did have a principle to contend for — to the political Prohibitionists of the present day, who go into the third party organization, and are, not even excepting the saloon-keepers themselves, the most efficient allies on whom intemperance and the liquor traffic can count.

Anti-Slavery men like Giddings, who supported Clay, were doing a thousandfold more effective work for the cause they had at heart than all the voters who supported Birney; or, to speak more accurately, they were doing all they could to advance the cause, while the others were doing all they could to hold it back. Lincoln in 1860 occupied more nearly the ground held by Clay than that held by Birney; and the men who supported the latter in 1844 were the prototypes of those who worked to oppose Lincoln in 1860, and only worked less hard because they had less chance. The ultra Abolitionists discarded expediency, and claimed to act for abstract right on principle, no matter what the results might be; in consequence they accomplished very little, and that as much [3] for harm as for good, until they ate their words, and went counter to their previous course, thereby acknowledging it to be bad, and supported in the Republican party the men and principles they had so fiercely condemned. The Liberty party was not in any sense the precursor of the Republican party, which was based as much on expediency as on abstract right, and was, therefore, able to accomplish good instead of harm. To say that extreme Abolitionists triumphed in Republican success and were causes of it, is as absurd as to call Prohibitionists successful if, after countless efforts totally to prohibit the liquor traffic, and after savage denunciations of those who try to regulate it, they should then turn round and form a comparatively insignificant portion of a victorious high-license party. The men who took a great and effective part in the fight against slavery were the men who remained with their respective parties.

No word of praise or approval has Mr. Roosevelt for the men and women — for representatives of both sexes were active sharers in the work performed — who inaugurated, and for a long period carried forward, the movement that led up to the overthrow of African slavery in this country. He has no encomiums to bestow on those same men and women for the protracted and exhausting labors they performed, the dangers they encountered, the insults they endured, the sacrifices they submitted to, the discouragements they confronted in many ways and forms in prosecuting their arduous undertaking. On the contrary, he has only bitter words of condemnation. In his estimation, and according to his dogmatic utterance, they were criminals-political criminals. [4]

His words make it very manifest that, if Mr. Roosevelt had been a voter in 1840, he would not have been an Abolitionist. He would not have been one of that devoted little band of political philanthropists who went out, like David of old, to do battle with one of the giant abuses of the time, and who found in the voter's ballot a missile that they used with deadly effect. On the contrary, he would have enrolled himself among their adversaries and assailants, becoming a member-because it is impossible to think of Theodore Roosevelt as a nonpartisan — of one of the leading political parties of the day. There were but two of them — the Whigs and the Democrats. In failing to support one or the other of these parties, and giving their votes and influence to a new one that was founded and constructed on Anti-Slavery lines, the Abolitionists, in Mr. Roosevelt's opinion, “committed a political crime.”

Now, for what did those parties stand in 1840? Who were their presidential candidates in that year? Martin Van Buren was the candidate of the Democrats. He had been for eight years in the offices of Vice-President and President, and in that time, in the opinion of the Anti-Slavery people of the country, had shown himself to be a facile instrument in the hands of the slaveholders. He was what the Abolitionists described as a “doughface” --a Northern man with Southern principles. As presiding officer he gave the casting vote in the Senate for the bill that excluded Anti-Slavery matter from the United States mails, a bill justly regarded as one of the greatest outrages ever perpetrated in a free [5] country, and as holding a place by the side of the Fugitive Slave Law. True, he afterwards — this was in 1848,--like Saul of Tarsus, saw a new light and announced himself as a Free Soiler. Then the Abolitionists, with what must always be regarded as an extraordinary concession to partisan policy, cast aside their prejudices and gave him their support. Yet Mr. Roosevelt charges them with being indifferent to the demands of political expediency.

General William Henry Harrison, candidate of the Whigs, was a Virginian by birth and training, and an inveterate pro-slavery man. When Governor of the Territory of Indiana, he presided over a convention that met for the purpose of favoring, notwithstanding the prohibition in the Ordinance of ‘87, the introduction of slavery in that Territory.

These were the men between whom the old parties gave the Abolitionists the privilege of pick and choice. Declining to support either of them, they gave their votes to James G. Birney, candidate of the newly formed Liberty party. He was a Southern man by birth and a slave-owner by inheritance, but, becoming convinced that slavery was wrong, he freed his negroes, giving them homes of their own, and so frankly avowed his Anti-Slavery convictions that he was driven from his native State. His supporters did not expect to elect him, but they hoped to begin a movement that would lead up to victory. They were planting seed in what they believed to be receptive soil.

After 1840, the old parties became more and more submissive to the Slave Power. Conjointly, [6] they enacted those measures that became known as the compromises of 1850, the principal ones being the Fugitive Slave Law and the act repealing the Missouri Compromise. Both of them pronounced these acts to be “a finality,” and both of them in national convention declared there should be no further agitation of the subject. They set out to muzzle all the Anti-Slavery voices of the country.

By this time it was perfectly manifest that there was not only nothing the slaveholders might demand which the old parties would not concede, but that there was, so far as the slavery issue was involved, absolutely no difference between them. It is a notable fact that in the eight years following 1840, of the four presidential candidates put in nomination by the two parties, three were slaveholders, the fourth being a Northern “doughface,” and both of the two who were elected held slaves.

For the nomination and election of one of these men, whom he describes as “a slaveholder from Louisiana” (General Taylor), Mr. Roosevelt is disposed to hold the Abolitionists accountable. They forced the poor Whigs into those proceedings, he intimates, probably by telling them they ought to do nothing of the kind, that being what they actually did tell them. But as the Abolitionists, four years earlier, in the same way defeated the Whigs when they were supporting a slaveholder from Kentucky (Clay), and a man who, in his time, did more for the upbuilding of slavery than any other person in America, it would appear that the score of responsibility on their part was fairly evened up.

In citing the action of Joshua R. Giddings as an [7] anti-third-party man, Mr. Roosevelt is not altogether fortunate. Subsequent to the presidential campaign of 1844, the third-party Abolitionists held a convention in Pittsburg, in which Giddings was a leading actor. As chairman of the committee on platform, he submitted a resolution declaring that both of the old parties were “hopelessly corrupt and unworthy of confidence.”

The Abolitionists could not see that they were under obligation to either of the old parties, believing they could do far better service for the cause they championed by standing up and being counted as candidates honestly representing their principles. They fought both of the old parties, and finally beat them. They killed the Whig party out and out, and so far crippled the Democrats that they have been limping ever since. Their action, in the long run, as attested by the verdict of results, proved itself to be not only the course of abstract right, but of political expediency.

In 1840, the vote of the third-party Abolitionists, then for the first time in the political field, was 7000; in 1844 it was 60,000, and in 1848 it was nearly 300,000. From that time, with occasional backsets, Mr. Roosevelt's “political criminals” went steadily forward until they mastered the situation. From the first, they were a power in the land, causing the older parties to quake, Belshazzar-like, at sight of their writing on the wall.

But according to Mr. Roosevelt, the men of the Liberty-Free-Soil party had no share in fathering and nurturing the Republican party, to which he assigns all the credit for crushing slavery. Says he, [8] “The Liberty party was not in any sense the precursor of the Republican party, which was based as much on expediency as on abstract right.” It is very true that many Republicans, especially in the earlier days, were neither Abolitionists nor Anti-Slavery people. A good many of them, like Abraham Lincoln, were sentimentally adverse to slavery, but under existing conditions did not want it disturbed. Many of them, having broken loose from the old parties, had no other place of shelter and cared nothing for slavery one way or the other, some being of the opinion of one of the new party leaders whom the writer hereof heard declare that “the niggers are just where they ought to be.” All this, however, does not prove that the third-party people were not the real forerunners and founders of the Republican party. They certainly helped to break up the old organizations, crushing them in whole or part. They supplied a contingent of trained and desperately earnest workers, their hearts being enlisted as well as their hands. And what was of still greater consequence, they furnished an issue, and one that was very much alive, around which the detached fragments of the old parties could collect and unite. Their share in the composition and development of the new party can be illustrated. Out in our great midland valley two rivers — the Missouri and the Mississippi-meet and mingle their waters. The Missouri, although the larger stream, after the junction is heard of no more; but being charged with a greater supply of sedimentary matter, gives its color to the combined flood of the assimilated waters. Abolitionism was merged [9] in Republicanism. It was no longer spoken of as a separate element, but from the beginning it gave color and character to the combination. The whole compound was Abolitionized.

It was not, indeed, the voting strength, although this was considerable, that the Abolitionists brought to the Republican organization, that made them the real progenitors of that party. It is possible that the other constituents entering into it, which were drawn from the Anti-Slavery Whigs, the “Anti-Nebraska” Democrats, the “Barnburner” Democrats of New York, the “Know-Nothings,” etc., numbered more in the aggregate than the Abolitionists it included; but it was not so much the number of votes the Abolitionists contributed that made them the chief creators of the Republican party, as it was their working and fighting ability. They had undergone a thorough training. For nearly twenty years they had been in the field in active service. For the whole of that time they had been exposed to pro-slavery mobbing and almost every kind of persecution. They had to conquer every foot of ground they occupied. They had done an immense amount of invaluable preparatory work. To deny to such people a liberal share of the credit for results accomplished, would be as reasonable as to say that men who clear the land, plough the ground, and sow the seed, because others may help to gather the harvest, have nothing to do with raising the crop. But for the pioneer work of the Abolitionists there would have been no Republican party.

There had been Anti-Slavery people in this country [10] before the Abolitionists-conscientious, zealous, intelligent-but somehow they lacked the ability, in the language of the pugilists, to “put up a winning fight.” They had been brushed aside or trampled under foot. Not so with the Abolitionists. They had learned all the tricks of the enemy. They were not afraid of opposition. They knew how to give blows as well as to take them. The result was that from the time they organized for separate political action in 1840, they had made steady progress, although this seemed for a period to be discouragingly slow. It was only a question of time when, if there had been no Republican party, they would have succeeded in abolishing slavery without its assistance.

Although, as before remarked, the Republican party was made up of a good many elements besides the Abolitionists, there was among them but little homogeneousness. They were indifferent, if not hostile, to each other, and, if left to themselves, would never have so far coalesced as to make a working party. They had no settled policy, no common ground to stand on. They would have been simply a rope of sand. But the Abolitionists supplied a bond of union. They had a principle that operated like a loadstone in bringing the factions together.

There was another inducement the Abolitionists had to offer. They had an organization that was perfect in its way. It was weak but active. It had made its way into Congress where it had such representatives as John P. Hale and Salmon P. Chase in the Senate, and several brilliant men in the Lower House. It had a complete outfit of party machinery. It had an efficient force of men and women engaged [11] in canvassing as lecturers and stump orators. It had well managed newspapers, and the ablest pens in the country — not excepting Harriet Beecher Stowe's — were in its service. All this, it is hardly necessary to say, was attractive to people without political homes. The Abolitionists offered them not only shelter but the prospect of meat and drink in the future. In that way their organization became the nucleus of the Republican party, which was in no sense a new organization, but a reorganization of an old force with new material added.

And here would seem to be the proper place for reference to the historical fact that the Republican party, under that name, had but four years of existence behind it when the great crisis came in the election of Lincoln and the beginning of the Civil War-Lincoln's election being treated by the South as a casus belli. The Republican party was established under that name in 1856 and Lincoln was elected in 1860.

Now, the work preparatory to Lincoln's election was not done in four years. The most difficult part of it — the most arduous, the most disagreeable, the most dangerous-had been done long before. Part of it dated back to 1840. Indeed, the performance of the Republican party in those four years was not remarkably brilliant. With the slogan of “Free soil, free men, and Fremont” it made an ostentatious demonstration in 1856-an attempted coup de main--which failed. It would have failed quite as signally in 1860, but for the division of the Democratic party into the Douglas and Breckenridge factions. That division was pre-arranged by the [12] slaveholders who disliked Douglas, the regular Democratic nominee, much more than they did Lincoln, and who hoped and plotted for Lincoln's election because it furnished them a pretext for rebellion.

The change of name from “Free soil” or “Liberty” to “Republican” in 1856 had very little significance. It was a matter of partisan policy and nothing more. “Liberty” and “Free soil,” as party cognomens, had a meaning, and were supposed to antagonize certain prejudices. “Republican,” at that juncture, meant nothing whatever. Besides, it was sonorous; it was euphonious; it was palatable to weak political stomachs. The ready acceptance of the new name by the Abolitionists goes very far to contradict Mr. Roosevelt's accusation against them of being regardless of the claims of political expediency.

The writer has shown, as he believes, that without the preparatory work of the political Abolitionists there would have been no Republican party. He will now go a step further. He believes that without that preliminary service there would not only have been no Republican party, but no Civil War in the interest of free soil, no Emancipation Proclamation, no Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Federal Constitution. There might have been and probably would have been considerable discussion, ending in a protest, more or less “ringing,” when slavery was permitted to overstep the line marked out by the Missouri Compromise. There might even have been another settlement. But no such adjustment would [13] have seriously impeded the northward march of the triumphant Slave Power. Indeed, in that event it is more than probable that ere this the legal representatives of the late Robert Toombs, of Georgia, would, if so inclined, have made good his boast of calling the roll of his slaves at the foot of Bunker Hill monument.

So far we have dealt with Mr. Roosevelt's indictment of the Abolitionists for abandoning the old pro-slavery political parties, and undertaking to construct a new and better one. That, in his judgment, was a political crime. But he charges them with another manifestation of criminality which was much more serious. He accuses them of hostility to the Union, which was disloyalty and treason. The evidence offered by him in support of his accusation was the Anti-Unionist position taken by William Lloyd Garrison, who branded the Union as a “league with hell,” and some of his associates. But Garrison was not a leader, or even a member, of the third or Liberty party. He denounced it almost as bitterly as Mr. Roosevelt.

Garrison was a Quaker, a non-resistant, and a non-voter. He relied on moral suasion. He saw no salvation in politics. The formation of a new Anti-Slavery party excited his fiery indignation. He declared that it was “ludicrous in its folly, pernicious as a measure of policy, and useless as a political contrivance.”

Far and away the most potential member and leader of the political Abolitionists was Salmon P. Chase. Instead of denouncing the Constitution as “a league with death and hell,” he claimed that it [14] was an Anti-Slavery document and should be so construed. As for the Union, by his services in successfully managing the finances of the country in its great crisis, he did as much to sustain the Union as any other man of that time. To accuse him of hostility and infidelity to the Union, is something that no one can do with impunity. In fact, so clear and so clean, as well as so bold and striking, is the record of Chase and his associates, beginning in 1840 and continuing down until the last shackle was stricken from the last bondsman's limbs, that even the shadow of the White House cannot obscure it.

Nor is Mr. Roosevelt happy in his illustration, when, in his concluding arraignment of the Abolitionists, he seeks to discredit them as an organization of impracticables by comparing them to the political Prohibitionists of to-day. When the latter, if that time is ever to be, shall become strong enough to rout one or both of the existing main political parties, and, taking the control of the Government in their hands, shall not only legally consign the liquor traffic to its coffin, but nail it down with a constitutional amendment, then Mr. Roosevelt's comparison will apply.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
1840 AD (9)
1860 AD (4)
1856 AD (3)
1844 AD (3)
1848 AD (2)
1887 AD (1)
1850 AD (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: