Michael J. McManus. Political Abolitionism in Wisconsin, 1840-1861. Kent, Ohio and London, England: Kent State University Press, 1998. xiv + 288 pp. $39.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-87338-601-2.
Reviewed by Michael Pierson (Department of History, University of Massachusetts, Lowell)
Published on H-SHEAR (January, 2000)
It Was About Slavery
While the radical abolitionist movement has generated much historiographic attention, the political wing of the antislavery coalition has produced relatively few studies. Of course, many of these are edging their way towards "classic" status if they are not there already, including Eric Foner's Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men and Richard Sewell's Ballots for Freedom. Both of those works portray the antislavery parties as deeply committed to the ultimate extinction of the peculiar institution. Recently, William Gienapp and Tyler Anbinder have debated whether antislavery agitation or ethnic and cultural tensions at the state level caused the demise of the northern Whig party and the subsequent rise of the Third Party System. Michael J. McManus thus enters into a promising field of debate with a detailed examination of antislavery politics in Wisconsin.
Michael McManus essentially agrees with Foner and Sewell, arguing that "while the emphasis changed and the moral character of original political abolitionism lessened, what stands out most is the endurance of Liberty party principles as Free Soilers and their Republican successors adapted them" (x). By stressing the importance of antislavery sentiment in these parties, McManus also argues that ethnocultural factors "did not bring down the second-party system" (xi). Having clearly laid out his conclusions, McManus traces the political fortunes and partisan skirmishes of antislavery politicians in Wisconsin from territorial days to the election of Abraham Lincoln. Along the way, he develops a number of subsidiary ideas that warrant considerable attention.
Arguably the most important political event in Wisconsin in the antebellum period was the "Booth case", when veteran antislavery editor and politico Sherman Booth was arrested in 1854 for helping Joshua Glover, a fugitive slave, escape from U.S. custody. The ensuing court fights commanded national attention. Happily, McManus provides readers with a superb, understandable summary of the intricate legal debates raised by Booth and his attorney, Byron Paine. Essentially, Booth and Paine used states' rights doctrines to try to blunt the ability of the federal government to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law. As McManus traces the legal proceedings during the crucial five year period from 1854 to 1859 when the Republican party was forming its partisan identity, it becomes clear that states' rights became a vibrant part of their political culture. While this sounds odd, especially to neo-Confederates who would like to believe that secessionists sought to protect states' rights, not slavery, McManus's careful retracing of this case highlights how actively Republicans debated the nature of federalism. (They disliked Calhoun's brand of nullification, but liked the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions.)
That the majority of Wisconsin Republicans should embrace states' rights sheds light on an argument that McManus develops about the earlier Liberty and Free Soil parties. In what is his most significant addition to the study of antislavery political ideology, McManus argues that the parties valued their antislavery principles more than the Union itself. As he phrases it, they thought that "preserving American freedom and republican institutions took precedence over preserving the American Union" (187). This conditional Unionism made the Republicans unwilling to compromise their antislavery principles even in the face of secession during the winter of 1860-1861. While some historians have argued that Lincoln and other Republicans mistakenly dismissed secessionist rhetoric as empty threats, McManus states that "even had Republicans foreseen the coming tragedy, they would not have acted differently" (189). Together with their commitment to states' rights, the Republican's conditional Unionism makes them seem less like a band of avid federalists and more like a group of principled supporters of liberty and civil rights. This view of antislavery politics demands our further investigation.
But what of McManus's main point? Does he succeed in convincing the reader of the parties' antislavery commitment? In part, yes. The book stands as a useful corrective to the studies of Republican racial politics, many of which stem from an overemphasis on Lincoln and Illinois, which downplay the party's antislavery credentials. McManus finds considerable evidence of a refreshingly egalitarian streak within the antislavery parties. Wisconsin Republicans, for example, advocated black suffrage in 1857 by praising the accomplishments and social worth of black Americans with a gusto that would prove largely absent in Lincoln's speeches a year later (153-54). While whites and their black allies, whose efforts are also chronicled here, were not ultimately successful in gaining Wisconsin blacks the right to vote until 1866, McManus recaptures a vocal and persistent string of suffrage campaigns starting in the 1840s that could only have happened if a large number of antislavery rank and file activists supported full black political rights.
But there is a part of McManus's thesis that is left undeveloped. McManus's dismissal of ethnocultural factors in determining voting patterns remains unproven. For example, McManus writes that "Ethnocultural concerns probably won the Democrats few votes in 1856" (122), but then states on the next page that "counties with large foreign-born populations went overwhelmingly Democratic. Counties with native-born populations turned in equally disproportionate majorities for Fremont" (123). While McManus may be right about the depth of antislavery feeling among Liberty party men and their successors, people who place more emphasis on cultural issues will not be talked out of their views by this book.
I also disagree with McManus's contention that the Liberty party's principles were carried over intact to the new Free Soil party in 1848. McManus, I think, underestimates the degree to which the Liberty party believed that the federal government had the legal right to end slavery in the states where it already existed. According to McManus, "Liberty dogma equated abolishing slavery [only] with the withdrawal of federal sustenance from it" (40). In fact, the Liberty party's constitutional ideas about the abolition of slavery were too numerous and dispirit to be dogmatic. Sherman Booth himself advanced far more radical approaches to abolition than what the Free Soil party finally settled for. In other words, McManus may have found it necessary to lower the Liberty party's commitment to radical, immediate abolition in order to make the subsequent Free Soil position look like a legitimate successor. I should also state, however, that McManus's interpretation is well within the mainstream of historical literature on this subject; scholars interested in my divergent reading of the Liberty party can consult my article on the subject.
McManus's investigation of Wisconsin's antislavery politics, then, arrives at several interesting interpretations and delivers a very useful recounting of the Booth case. Undergraduates and non-academics will also find enough background information about events such as the Dred Scott case or the sack of Lawrence to help orient themselves. In short, this is a solid contribution to our ongoing study of the ideological origins of the Republican party.
. Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970); Richard H. Sewell, Ballots for Freedom: Antislavery Politics in the United States, 1837-1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976); William E. Gienapp, The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852-1856 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987); Tyler Anbinder, Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).
. Michael D. Pierson, "Gender and Party Ideologies: The Constitutional Thought of Women and Men in American Anti-Slavery Politics," Slavery and Abolition 19 (December 1998): 46-67.
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