On the Constitution and the Union

Why does Garrison characterize the Constitution as an “infamous bargain” and an “unholy alliance”? What is the relationship between the Constitution of the United States and the Declaration of Independence, according to Garrison? How does Garrison view the potential splitting up of the Union between North and South over the slavery question?
Are Garrison’s views of the Constitution justified by the excerpts of the debates in the Constitutional Convention (See The Three-Fifths Clause, The Slave Trade Clause, and The Fugitive Slave Clause)? How would you characterize the attitudes of Garrison and Stewart to Slavery? If you see a difference, what do you think accounts for it? How do the views of Tallmadge and Garrison differ on the relationship of the Union to slavery?

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During the sectional conflict over slavery, advocates of slavery threatened to dissolve the Union if it threatened slavery (See James Tallmadge, Jr.’s “Speech to Congress” (1819)). William Lloyd Garrison wished it dissolved because it did not threaten slavery enough. Indeed, according to Garrison, the Union was tainted by the presence of slavery and was not worth saving. The Constitution was a pact with the devil that Americans ought to discard immediately for its unjust and unnecessary compromises with slavery.

Such views expressed without compromise in The Liberator, a newspaper that Garrison started in Boston in 1831, earned Garrison the reputation, especially in the South, as a dangerous fanatic and agitator. In his newspaper and speeches, Garrison denounced not only slavery but everyone and everything that supported it, including the U.S. Constitution and the Union. Garrison’s unflinching abolitionism propelled him to the forefront of the anti-slavery movement thirty years before the Civil War, a position he occupied until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 ended slavery.

—David Tucker

Source: William Lloyd Garrison, “The Great Crisis,” The Liberator, 52, 2 (December 29, 1832), 206–207.

. . . There is much declamation about the sacredness of the compact which was formed between the free and slave states, on the adoption of the Constitution. A sacred compact, forsooth! We pronounce it the most bloody and heaven-daring arrangement ever made by men for the continuance and protection of a system of the most atrocious villainy ever exhibited on earth. Yes, we recognize the compact, but with feelings of shame and indignation; and it will be held in everlasting infamy by the friends of justice and humanity throughout the world. It was a compact formed at the sacrifice of the bodies and souls of millions of our race, for the sake of achieving a political object, an unblushing and monstrous coalition to do evil that good might come. Such a compact was, in the nature of things and according to the law of God, null and void from the beginning. No body of men ever had the right to guarantee the holding of human beings in bondage. Who or what were the framers of our government, that they should dare confirm and authorize such high-handed villainy, such a flagrant robbery of the inalienable rights of man, such a glaring violation of all the precepts and injunctions of the gospel, such a savage war upon a sixth part of our whole population? They were men, like ourselves—as fallible, as sinful, as weak, as ourselves. By the infamous bargain which they made between themselves, they virtually dethroned the Most High God, and trampled beneath their feet their own solemn and heaven-attested Declaration, that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They had no lawful power to bind themselves, or their posterity, for one hour—for one moment—by such an unholy alliance. It was not valid then—it is not valid now. Still they persisted in maintaining it, and still do their successors, the people of Massachusetts, of New England, and of the twelve free states, persist in maintaining it. A sacred compact! a sacred compact! What, then, is wicked and ignominious?

This, then, is the relation in which we of New England stand to the holders of slaves at the south, and this is virtually our language toward them—“Go on, most worthy associates, from day to day, from month to month, from year to year, from generation to generation, plundering two millions of human beings of their liberty and the fruits of their toil, driving them into the fields like cattle, starving and lacerating their bodies, selling the husband from his wife, the wife from her husband, and children from their parents, spilling their blood, withholding the Bible from their hands and all knowledge from their minds, and kidnapping annually sixty thousand infants, the offspring of pollution and shame! Go on, in these practices, we do not wish nor mean to interfere, for the rescue of your victims, even by expostulation or warning; we like your company too well to offend you by denouncing your conduct—although we know that by every principle of law which does not utterly disgrace us by assimilating us to pirates, that they have as good and as true a right to the equal protection of the law as we have; and although we ourselves stand prepared to die, rather than submit even to a fragment of the intolerable load of oppression to which we are subjecting them—yet, never mind, let that be—they have grown old in suffering and we in iniquity, and we have nothing to do now but to speak peace, peace, to one another in our sins. We are too wicked ever to love them as God commands us to do. We are so resolute in our wickedness as not even to desire to do so—and we are so proud in our iniquity that we will hate and revile whoever disturbs us in it. We want, like the devils of old, to be let alone in our sin. We are unalterably determined, and neither God nor man shall move us from this resolution, that our colored fellow subjects never shall be free or happy in their native land. Go on, from bad to worse iniquity—add link to link to the chains upon the bodies of your victims—add constantly to the intolerable burdens under which they groan—and if, goaded to desperation by your cruelties, they should rise to assert their rights and redress their wrongs, fear nothing—we are pledged, by a sacred compact, to shoot them like dogs and rescue you from their vengeance! Go on—we never will forsake you, for “there is honor among thieves” . . . . We pledge you our physical strength, by the sacredness of the national compact—a compact by which we have enabled you already to plunder, persecute and destroy two millions of slaves, who now lie beneath the sod; and by which we now give you the same piratical license to prey upon a much larger number of victims and all their posterity. Go on—and by this sacred instrument, the Constitution of the United States, dripping as it is with human blood, we solemnly pledge you our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor, that we will stand by you to the last.

People of New England, and of the free states! Is it true that slavery is no concern of yours? Have you no right even to protest against it, or to seek its removal? Are you not the main pillars of its support? How long do you mean to be answerable to God and the world, for spilling the blood of the poor innocents? Be not afraid to look the monster slavery boldly in the face. He is your implacable foe—the vampire who is sucking your life-blood—the ravager of a large portion of your country, and the enemy of God and man. Never hope to be a united, or happy, or prosperous people while he exists. He has an appetite like the grave—a spirit as malignant as that of the bottomless pit—and an influence as dreadful as the corruption of death. Awake to your danger! The struggle is a mighty one—it cannot be avoided—it should not be, if it could.

It is said that if you agitate this question, you will divide the Union. Believe it not; but should disunion follow, the fault will not be yours. You must perform your duty, faithfully, fearlessly and promptly, and leave the consequences to God: that duty clearly is, to cease from giving countenance and protection to southern kidnappers. Let them separate, if they can muster courage enough—and the liberation of their slaves is certain. Be assured that slavery will very speedily destroy this Union, if it be let alone; but even if the Union can be preserved by treading upon the necks, spilling the blood, and destroying the souls of millions of your race, we say it is not worth a price like this, and that it is in the highest degree criminal for you to continue the present compact. Let the pillars thereof fall—let the superstructure crumble into dust—if it must be upheld by robbery and oppression.

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