When Radicals Beat the Two-Party System

Against the Current, No. 179, November/December 2015

Mark A. Lause

WHILE IT’S BECOME commonplace in discussing the Civil War years to say that the slaves freed themselves, we need to understand that this process had been going on for generations before the advent of the war. In the most fundamental way, the first antislavery movement was that of a slave laboring diligently in the master’s field and calculating the chances of reaching the nearest treeline before being stopped.

That kind of movement at “the point of production” is what gave significance to the Bible-reading Quaker, or the lawyer making a strong case on behalf of a fugitive slave.

Abolition aspired to free all slaves and dismantle the entire institution of African slavery. This became innately political, regardless of its electoral expression — because it involved destroying the institutional support for slavery in the U.S. Constitution and the laws. Those who wished to vote against slavery actually had nothing to choose between the Democratic-Republicans and the Federalists during the 1790s.

The new Democratic Party emerged in the 1820s to defend the institution of slavery, which became increasingly entrenched by the demand for cotton with the rise of textile industries across the western world.

The Democrats restructured the entire political order to ensure the rule of the elites in the South and West, explicitly restricting the ballot to white men, even as they generally lowered or dropped the property requirement for voting. The aspirations of the rival National Republican or Whig Party to be a national force meant that it could not challenge slavery and keep its base in the slaveholding South.

Qualified citizens — how restrictive or expansive the franchise might be depended on the states — controlled the system by voting. Although government remained relatively weaker than today, it did what it could to repress or regulate efforts at change from outside the electoral process. In fact, relatively small numbers of cotton planters controlled the nationally dominant political party and intimidated its rival enough to keep slavery out of politics as much as possible, regardless of what the wishes of the voters might have been.

Certainly, some antislavery voters helped elect people from these parties, but doing so never accomplished anything against a labor system to which both parties remained committed. This heads-I-win-tails-you-lose became a founding principle for the American two-party system.

Today, you cannot vote for peace, justice, and environmental sanity within a system predicated on serving the war industry, the wage system sustained by the prison-industrial complex, and deliberate obliviousness to the natural world. Slavery presented the abolitionists with exactly the same problem.

Politics Become Unavoidable

William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator appeared in 1831, asserting “immediatism” as the defining agenda of abolition. The American Antislavery Society formed around this central demand in 1833, and over the next five years grew to a quarter million members in over 1300 chapters.

The movement it sparked included such Black leaders as Frederick Douglass, James Forten, Henry Highland Garnet, Charles Lenox and Sarah Remond, William Wells Brown and James McCune Smith, as well as founders of the women’s movement — Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Lucy Stone and Susan B. Anthony.

Garrison and others insisted upon a focus of “moral suasion” and denounced any political action as an endorsement of the government that upheld slavery. Rather famously, he burned the U.S. Constitution, calling it “a covenant with death and an agreement with Hell.”

Politics became unavoidable because throughout these years many antislavery people broke federal law to assist runaway slaves. A network of like-minded people willing to ignore the law could only grow. Although one did not need the right to vote or a title to land in order to participate in this direct resistance, many of the growing number of abolitionists sought a direct political confrontation with a morally bankrupt and inhuman government.

Then too, in the expanding electorate of the day, the Democratic Party realized and practiced the value of politics based on identity and fear. Through the 1830s, Democratic officeholders regularly sparked racial violence, which included killing — particularly of African Americans — as a means of mobilizing whites threatened by their presence. Of course, the politicians and their allies became the key source for such fear.

By this point, local groups of abolitionists regularly petitioned the Congress requesting separation from the United States and the sin of slavery. Although a few — notably former president John Quincy Adams — regularly fought to introduce these petitions, most of the politicians in both the Democratic and Whig parties systemically passed gag resolutions to keep discussion of the subject of slavery off the floor.

While Garrison emphasized the success of these campaigns in forcing the national government to address the question, there were those who wanted to go further. By the end of the decade they launched the Liberty Party, originally centered in New England and upstate New York.

Initially hoping to punish the allies of the slave power in their communities, this tiny but tireless little third party movement became essential for what would follow. In 1840, it ran former Kentucky slaveholder James G. Birney for president in 1840, sharing the ticket with Pennsylvanian Thomas Earle. Four years later, reflecting the rising important of the Midwest in the agitation, Birney ran with Thomas Morris of Ohio.

Although a few abolitionists dismissed these efforts as diversions from the task of moral suasion, most quickly came to realize that, for all its shortcomings, the ballot provided an otherwise inaccessible platform for making their case against slavery. Yet participants in the Liberty Party increasingly realized that what concerned them went beyond slavery in the South.

African Ameri­cans faced a rising tide of segregation as the North invented Jim Crow. Female participants in the movement began raising the issue of their own civic rights. Workers also sought to broaden the definitions of slavery and freedom with their already time-honored critique of “wages slavery.”

The challenge the Libertymen faced was to develop a “broad platform,” while keeping the central focus on slavery.

Manifest Destiny Clarifies Slavery

Meanwhile, the slaveholders — like any dominant faction of a ruling class — tended to push things too far for their own good. In the 1840s, their Democratic Party began brandishing a label for the policies it had pursued for years: “Manifest Destiny.”

Indian removal, the persistent encouragement of private entrepreneurial ventures at armed land-grabbing, was predictably justified in a way that presented the United States as victimized underdog, casting much of this as a series of surrogate conflicts with the British empire.

In 1844, they elected James K. Polk president with the promise to annex Texas to the United States, despite the fact that this independent Anglo republic had an unresolved, ongoing boundary dispute with Mexico.

The Liberty Party increasingly worked alongside the National Reformers, who advocated the radical, democratic redistribution of land. At several points, their organization explicitly advocated the equal rights of African Americans, Native peoples, Mexicans and women to land and citizenship. Along with abolitionists, they saw the War with Mexico as an unjustifiable war of conquest aimed at expanding the territory available for slavery.

In the Midwest, it became difficult to tell abolitionists who had joined the National Reform movement from National Reformers who had become Libertymen. In 1846, they fielded joint candidates in the New York elections, extending this strategy into Massachusetts the following year. They did so under the “free soil” label, which carried the double meaning of eliminating slavery and providing “land to the landless.”

Meanwhile, some Democrats feared that the position of their party would doom it to isolation in the North and ultimate defeat nationally. The national leadership seemed to confirm these fears, when it rejected the proviso introduced by Pennsylvania Democrat David Wilmot to keep slavery out of any lands acquired from Mexico.

In response, former U.S. president Martin Van Buren and his faction of the New York party broke away. With an eye to the modest successes of the Liberty-National Reform efforts, they simply took up “free soil,” bleached of its radical features.

The new party ran Van Buren and Charles F. Adams, the son of another former president John Quincy Adams. The latter had entered Congress after leaving the White House and made himself a uniquely honorable figure in the history of that body, waging fight after fight over slavery — actually dying on the floor while rising to his feet to denounce the institution once more.

The new national Free Soil Party’s antislavery platform had no land reform features, and its antislavery went no further than the Wilmot Proviso’s attempt to keep it from expanding into the western territories. Its leaders essentially wanted to register a protest vote rather than to build a new party. Nevertheless, most radicals supported it, because, as far as it went, Free Soil was supportable in principle and would certainly do the greatest damage possible to the bipartisan coalition in defense of slavery.

The Liberty Party, which had planned on running John P. Hale of New Hampshire and Leicester King of Ohio, withdrew their candidates in deference to the Free Soilers. However, the more persistent Liberty League under old New York abolitionist Gerrit Smith ran its own ticket with Charles C. Foote of Michigan, and had the support of the National Industrial Congress of the land reform movement, although most land reformers, like most abolitionists, supported the Free Soilers.

The Free Soilers emerged with two seats in the U.S. Senate and 14 in the House of Representatives, and contributed to tipping the presidential election to the Whigs. In response, the Democrats yowled bloody murder and “spoiler” (sound familiar?). In response, after performing the most respectable service in their lives, Van Buren and the other politicians skulked apologetically back into their old parties.

Still, much of the base of the Free Soil Party refused to follow. The exodus of the politicians had left the Free Soilers in the hands of the radicals. In 1849 in Wisconsin, they ran Warren Chase, organizer of the Wisconsin Phalanx, the socialist community in Fond du Lac County, for governor.

Increasingly calling themselves “Free Democrats,” the movement nominated Hale and George W. Julian of Indiana in 1852. The more skeptical of the political abolitionists tried to nominate Gerrit Smith and Charles Durkee of Wisconsin, which fizzled, as did the attempt to run William Goodell of New York and S.M. Bell of Virginia. But in the end, most of them — as most radicals generally — went with the Free Democratic Party.

When John Hale spoke in New York City, he sometimes did so with the “drapeau rouge” of workers’ revolution behind him on the stage. A new association of Universal Democratic Republicans hosted those meetings in New York. Hugh Forbes, a former British officer, veteran follower of the Italian republican leader Giuseppe Garibaldi and leader among the Italian radicals, had pulled that coalition together.

The editor of The European, Forbes also drew in French émigré revolutionaries, small groups of Poles and Russians, and of course the German socialists, including the first explicitly Marxist residents of the United States. With loose international affiliations, this coalition functioned through much of the 1850s, providing the model for the later International Workingmen’s Association (aka “First International”).

American participants included not only the surviving organizations of land reformers but the local Free Democratic League itself. Through Forbes particularly, these associations had ties to the circle of African American militants around Dr. James M. Smith. The Glasgow-educated surgeon Smith always valued his experience of just how peculiar American racism was.

The organized radicalism of such African Americans more closely resembled the kind of quasi-masonic secret societies common among oppressed nationalities overseas, such as the Italians living under Austrian or French occupation.

These kinds of associations among African Americans advocated by Smith, Martin R. Delany and others became particularly active in the so-called Underground Railroad. This included Price Hall Masonry, the order of Black freemasons racially excluded from the white lodges, and such little known formations as the African Mysteries.

As Blacks in America faced repressive conditions similar to Italians under the Austrian or French occupation, circumstances naturally inspired similar kinds of revolutionary societies. Already, these efforts to assist runaways confronted the new Federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, and periodically included armed confrontations of free Blacks with would-be slave catchers or even assaults on jails and public buildings to rescue runaways who had been seized.

Although such illegal deeds remained sparsely documented, they involved some whites, including those associated with radical land reform and socialism. Richard J. Hinton, the transplanted British Chartist and the Wattles brothers — Augustus and John O. — of Utopia, Ohio would later become deeply involved with the most important of these, the much maligned old John Brown.

Kansas and Direct Action

In 1854, the two-party monopoly was able to what the Free Democrats could never have done. In their arrogance, they passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, repealing the old Missouri Compromise and opening the door to the expansion of slaveholding into the Kansas Territory. It incorporated the “squatter sovereignty” idea that would allow the settlers in a western territory to decide for themselves whether to recognize slavery as a legal institution in their constitution.

The Democrats had long hoped that this would get the issue of slavery out of national politics and avoid the sectional shattering of their own party.

At Ripon, the site of Chase’s old community in Wisconsin, critics formerly associated with both parties held a series of meetings that called for a new party that would embrace the label of “republican” in opposition to the slave-based imperial agenda of the Democrats and former Whigs.

The chair of these meetings, Alvan Bovay had been the secretary of the National Reformers at New York, the body with which Marx and Engels had expressed their affinity in the Communist Manifesto.

Back East, Smith and the stalwarts of a strict focus on slavery responded to Kansas-Nebraska by launching the Radical Abolition Party. By the fall of 1855, they established a loose organization that drew African Americans such as Peter H. Clark — later the most prominent Black socialist in the United States — and women such as Susan B. Anthony.

John Brown approached antislavery forces in an effort to get assistance for the arming of Free State settlers.

Kansas seemed to teeter at the edge of bloody conflict. Armed proponents of slavery had begun entering the territory to vote for a pro-slavery constitution in Kansas. Eager to demonstrate that the Southern faction of the party could acquire new slave states without making a national issue of it, the national Democratic administration overlooked massive vote fraud and intimidation to recognize the legitimacy of a proslavery “bogus” territorial legislature.

Abandoned to their own devices, the settlers from the non-slaveholding states armed themselves and organized for self-defense. Brown became an essential figure in organizing and inspiring those practical defense associations.

Never the intolerant Bible-thumper often depicted, Brown recruited a group that embraced a full spectrum of religious views, including spiritualists, “nothingarians,” and even a pair of gun-toting Yiddish-speaking Jewish revolutionaries. Local Native Americans — who well knew the record of the Democratic Party in the ethnic cleansing of the South — provided some of their most reliable, if quiet, supporters.

Brown’s followers and friends launched the first women’s rights association in the territory. He freely agreed with the land reform argument, and the model constitution for the republic that he hoped a slave rebellion might establish allowed for common property and cooperative labor. However, Brown insisted that slavery represented the sum of all evils.

As the tide turned in Kansas, Brown and his men had sought to take the “underground railroad” on the offensive. Their efforts to assist runaways from Missouri soon inspired them to raid into that state to liberate more slaves. Hinton rode south, hoping to make alliances with the Creek and other nations in the Indian Territory just south of Kansas, and with the German revolutionaries in Texas, headed by the socialist Adolph Douai.

Such regional antislavery forces would suffice to thwart the extension of slavery into the west, securing on the ground what the Republican Party advocated rhetorically. Others, including African Americans, urged organizing teams of raiders along the edges of the slave states that would make the institution unsustainable.

Brown, however, aimed at forcing the country in general to take action against slavery. He secured the support of some eastern abolitionists and sponsored the racially mixed Chatham convention in Canada to endorse a temporary constitution to govern a revolutionary society.

Supporters also directed him to none other than Forbes, who happily gave up his paper and headed to Brown’s operation expecting something like an American version of Garibaldi’s “Thousand.” Instead he found only a handful of armed men planning an operation that seemed suicidal, poorly supported financially by the eastern abolitionists. Forbes agreed with critics of the plan who favored multiple squads of raiders, and came increasingly into conflict with abolitionist leaders back East.

Brown stuck to his guns. In October 1859, he and a handful of volunteers seized the Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry until U.S. Marines arrived and retook it. The authorities subsequently executed the participants for the crime of “treason” against the state of Virginia.

The Road to Victory

The point was not lost on voters. Kansas not only deepened the sectionalizing of politics across the country, but armed it. After sending six political functionaries to govern the territory and bring about the desired result, the Democrats in Washington had to accept that the larger number of “Free State” settlers would never accept slavery in Kansas.

In response, the “Southern Rights” Democrats had increasingly advocated what amounted to nationalizing the legal sanction for slavery, in an attempt to stem the flow of runaways to the north. The 1860 election finally broke the Democratic Party along sectional lines, leaving what was left of the Whigs to field a pathetic “Constitutional Union” ticket, hoping to avoid the slavery issue entirely.

The new Repub­­lican Party, meanwhile, also benefitted from the economic discontent after the Panic of 1857 and the Democratic veto of a mild Homestead Act.

The 1860 victory of Abraham Lincoln found those who had prattled their pieties about the ballot for decades doing everything they could to negate the results of the election, including crashing the stock market and organizing secession. The cotton Democrats certainly understood the breaking of their two-party system as an absolutely essential requirement of their defeat. This had required both direct action and independent electoral politics.

With Republican success, a cascade of crises and opportunities unfolded. Certainly, its often-expressed aspiration to redefine relations with Native peoples, along with the clear sympathies of Lincoln and other early Republican leaders for women’s suffrage, came to naught. Yet the former insurgents passed a Homestead Act, enforced a progressive income tax, and established greenback currency that took control of the money supply out of private hands.

Most memorably, however slow and piecemeal, the Republicans abolished the most valuable set of assets belonging to the American ruling class, albeit under the legalistic rubric of “emancipation” — a freedom that came when, where, and how the government chose to permit it.

The radicals had made a “Second American Revolution,” however incomplete.

What About Us?

We have much to learn from the experience of the first truly national mass movement to change labor conditions in the United States — that epic struggle to abolish the asserted “right” of the boss class to legally own those of their workers most oppressed and prone to resistance.

When people try to correct what they see as my wrongheaded view of electoral politics, what they have to say ultimately tends to boil down to two arguments.

Some of our contemporaries simply reject the ballot, rather like the “moral suasion” abolitionists. They see through the absurdities spewed 24/7 by the corporate civic culture that voting and only voting can change things. This solution appeals to the desire to remain pure in the face of a corrupting system.

However, the vast majority of abolitionists realized that non-electoral moral suasion might convince some individual slaveholders but not to the point where it might eliminate the system itself. Through trial and error, they learned the use of the ballot — not a substitute for organizing, but a tool to assist in building a movement.

Second and far more pervasive is the bizarre delusion that the ballot can be a force for positive change when it’s cast against such a change. This lesser-evil argument represents the greatest single mistaken dogma on the American Left. Most obviously, the confirmed lesser-evil-doer can only validate more evil.

Those who set the rules are presenting us with a rather bleak field of alternative futures. Assuming that we actually could discern what might be the least bleak of those alternatives, what would be the result of doing this election after election?

The argument justifies doing harm on the grounds that other options would have done more harm. In reality, these assumptions have permitted the two partnered parties to cooperate in moving the government and its policies ever farther to the right, even as their monopoly in the hot air business influenced how people looked at things but without really moving public opinion.

Had the antislavery movement constrained itself to voting for lesser-evil Democrats or lesser-evil Whigs, how would they have ever been able to build a coherent independent force, or been able to move it forward to effect a serious change?

Putting their time and resources into promoting a candidate trying to get the Whig or Democratic nomination would have done nothing to promote the Liberty Party or build it into ever larger insurgent movements. Ultimately, there was no other way to get people into office who wouldn’t accept the electoral monopoly of the slaveholders and their parties.

Conditions and problems have changed, but the essential structure of power has not. As in the past, those at the top are imposing rules on us that are going to make it difficult for us to build and exercise the power we need to ensure justice and equality or to redeem our place in nature.

We need to use what has actually worked for us, rather than making a habit of using what has not. As with those forgotten founders of the antislavery movement, OUR world awaits beyond the edge of the master’s field.

November-December 2015, ATC 179