Voting – Government – Slavery And War
The following conversation between William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879) and “B.” took place in William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator, August 1, 1856, p. 2. Online Editor notes by Roderick T. Long.

MR. EDITOR: [by “B”]

The discussion which occurred between Mr. Burleigh and Rev. Mr. Kimball, at the recent meeting at Framingham, though brief, was quite interesting and suggestive, and I had hoped to see the subject more particularly alluded to in THELIBERATOR. A doubt as to the correctness of Mr. Burleigh’s position occurred to me, which perhaps will need only to be presented to be removed. With your permission, I will present it.

Mr. Kimball gave it as his opinion, that the exercise of the elective franchise was one proper channel for anti-slavery action. Mr. Burleigh dissented, for the reason that in voting, the man acts not merely as an individual, giving expression to his opinions in political affairs, but as a sovereign, participating in and sustaining the government; and if the government is guilty of any crime or wickedness, he is guilty to the extent of his participancy. Therefore, voting under the American government, which upholds the great crime of slavery, is wrong.

Granting the argument to be sound, does it not hold good as to any government which tolerates any evil, small or great? And as no immaculate government is likely to arise at present, how can a conscientious man act as a citizen under any circumstances? Human government, for some purpose, is admitted to be necessary; shall we leave it to be conducted wholly by men not troubled with a conscience? Is the no-government theory a cardinal doctrine with Garrisonians?

Again, Mr. Burleigh is reported as saying, that ‘by the act of suffrage, a virtual promise is given that obedience shall be rendered to all the acts which the representative shall help to enact.’ Perhaps not, if we recognise that ‘higher law which is above the Constitution.’ So far as the enactments are right and proper, we agree to obey; but if they are morally wrong, we are bound by a higher covenant to disobey.

I would like to suggest another thing, quite distinct from the above. In arguing the question of anti-slavery, I am sometimes met with this reply: ‘Yes, slavery is wrong; I agree with all you say against it; but there are greater evils than slavery; war is a greater evil;’ – and a vivid imagination may picture the horrors of war so that one is almost persuaded that it is so. I would like to see the question considered in your columns, whether slavery or war is the greater evil; and if war is the greater, and a dissolution of the Union, or an attempt to abolish slavery, is likely or certain, so far as human foresight can determine, to result in war – in which course lies the path of duty?

REMARKS. [by Garrison]

1. We think Mr. Burleigh was unquestionably correct in his statement, that the voter at the polls ‘acts not merely as an individual giving expression to his opinions in political affairs, but as a sovereign, participating in and sustaining the government,’ according to its organic character; and to this extent he is to be held responsible for whatever of criminality or sin is involved in any of its requirements. The interrogation of the apostle (Rom. vi. 16) is exactly to the point: ‘Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness?’ Every voter virtually inscribes on his ballot the Constitution of the United States – he votes for a candidate whom he empowers and expects to take the oath of allegiance to that Constitution, in all fidelity, and without any mental reservation whatever – and, consequently, he is to be held answerable for all that is embodied in that instrument, even though he may not only dislike some of its provisions, but may be endeavoring to effect a modification of it, so as to make it conform to his ideas of moral rectitude; for he agrees to sustain it as it is, in spite of his objections, until it be amended by a constitutional process, and so consents to wrong-doing for the time-being, rather than to lose his vote.

2. It does not follow, nor did Mr. Burleigh mean to affirm, that ‘if the government is guilty of any crime or wickedness,’ the voter is to be held responsible for it; because it may be an act of sheer ‘border ruffian’ usurpation, as in the case of Pres. Pierce, in his nefarious treatment of Kansas. But if there be any ‘crime or wickedness’ in the organic nature of the government – in its principles or measures – in any of its stipulations or exactions – then to vote to uphold it, or to elect another to take an oath to see all its provisions faithfully executed, is to be a participator in the guilt thereof – all metaphysical shuffling to the contrary notwithstanding.

3. It follows logically, and as a matter of sound morality, that if ‘the American government [constitutionally] upholds the great crime of slavery,’ voting under it is wrong; and it is wrong for this among other reasons – knowing the pro-slavery compromises contained in the Constitution – we refuse to touch the ballot, stained as it is with the blood of four millions of slaves.

4. But our correspondent inquires, ‘Granting the argument to be sound, does it not hold good as to any government which tolerates any evil, small or great?’ As we are talking about crime and sin, we understand him to mean any moral evil, and therefore answer his question in the affirmative.

5. But, says our correspondent, ‘as no immaculate government [i. e., none that is not organically unjust] is likely to arise at present, how can a conscientious man act as a citizen under any circumstances?’ We, too, ask the same question, and should like to be shown how he can so act, and keep his conscience clean. We think he cannot.

6. What, then, is to be done? ‘Human government, for some purposes,” says ‘B.,’ ‘is admitted to be necessary.” But, surely, a wicked government is not necessary; and when any one is inherently so, it forfeits its right to exist even for an hour. Indeed, properly speaking, there is but one government, – and that is not human, but divine; there is but one law, – and that is ‘the higher law’; there is but one ruler, and he is God, ‘in whom we live, and move, and have our being.’[Online editor’s note: Acts 17:28; derived in turn from Epimenides’ Hymn to Zeus (6th c. BCE). – RTL] What is called human government is usurpation, imposture, demagogueism, peculation, swindling and tyranny, more or less, according to circumstances, and to the intellectual and moral condition of the people. Unquestionably, every existing government on earth is to be overthrown by the growth of mind and a moral regeneration of the masses. Absolutism – limited monarchy – democracy – all are sustained by the sword – all are based upon the doctrine that ‘might makes right’ – all are intrinsically inhuman, selfish, clannish, and opposed to a recognition of the brotherhood of man. They are to liberty what whiskey, brandy, and gin are to temperance. They belong to ‘the kingdoms of this world,’ [Online editor’s note: John 18:36; Revelation 11:15. – RTL] and are in due time to be utterly destroyed by the brightness of the coming of Him ‘whose right it is to reign,’ [Online editor’s note: Ezekiel 21:27. – RTL] and by the erection of a kingdom which cannot be shaken. [Online editor’s note: Hebrews 12:27. – RTL] They are not for the people, but make the people their prey; they are hostile to all progress; they resist to the utmost all radical changes. All history shows that Liberty, Humanity, Justice and Right have ever been in conflict with existing governments, no matter what their theory or form.

7. But, ‘shall we leave government to be conducted wholly by men not troubled with a conscience?’ This is only to ask, ‘shall we leave the dead to bury their dead?’ [Online editor’s note: Matthew 8:22, Luke 9:60. – RTL] Or, in another form, – ‘may we not do evil that good may come?’ [Online editor’s note: Romans 3:8. – RTL] – ‘will not the end sanctify the means?’ Is it not still true, that ‘wheresoever the carcass is, there will the eagles be gathered together’? [Online editor’s note: Matthew 24:28, Luke 17:37. – RTL] Is it not paradoxical to talk of a man who is ‘troubled with a conscience,’ swearing to be loyal to a government which he sees and admits to be essentially unrighteous? What else can he do but to ‘come out, and be separate, and not touch the unclean thing’? [Online editor’s note: Isaiah 52:11, 2 Corinthians 6:17, Revelation 18:4. – RTL] His kingdom is within. [Online editor’s note: Luke 17:21; cf. Thomas 3, 113. – RTL]

8. ‘Is the no-government theory a cardinal doctrine with Garrisonians?’ – Answer – the term ‘Garrisonians’ is applied to those who agree with us in our views of slavery and the pro-slavery character of the Constitution. These are not agreed on the question of government, per se, but entertain different views in regard to it. They are generally united in the sentiment of ‘no union with slaveholders,’ and therefore advocate a dissolution of the existing Union, as uncompromising and consistent abolitionists. Again we reply – the term ‘no-government’ is a nickname, a misnomer, a misrepresentation, a blunder, a caricature, resorted to by the enemies of peace. We neither use it, nor advocate it, nor believe in it; but exactly the reverse. Our ‘theory’ is, that what is popularly called government is either a chain of iron or a rope of sand, – either despotic or licentious, or both, – and hence, must ultimately perish; and that men are to be guided, not by brute force or penal law, but by the spirit of love, justice, mercy, and good will to the whole human race, ‘without partiality and without hypocrisy.’ [Online editor’s note: James 3:17. – RTL] We believe in the sacredness of human life, human happiness, human liberty, and in ‘ceasing from man, whose breath is in his nostrils,’ [Online editor’s note: Isaiah 2:22. – RTL] and relying for safety and protection on an infinite arm. At the same time, we are far from discarding those arrangements and regulations of society which involve no violation of the principles we have laid down, and which, in the nature of things, are necessary to the welfare and comfort of every community.

9. Politically speaking, whoever swears to maintain the U. S. Constitution is precluded from making any appeal to the ‘higher law,’ to the subversion or nullification of any portion of that instrument. His oath presupposes that he has scrupulously analyzed the Constitution, and, finding nothing in it which he regards as in violation of right and justice, he consequently, with a clean conscience, agrees to uphold it. If, however, at any time, he believes it to be, in whole or in part, contrary to the moral law, his duty is plain – to refuse to take the oath of allegiance, and, appealing to the ‘higher law,’ decline to hold office in the government. But while he consents to it, and occupies any station in virtue of it, the Constitution is to be ‘the paramount law’ of his conscience, as well as of the land which adopts it.

10. It is not the question whether War or Slavery be the greater evil. They are both the scourges of the human race, and for ever to be repudiated. Slavery is a state of war continually, and the nursery of civil and servile revolts. Its abolition is essential to the peace and repose of the land. So long as the North gives to it religious fellowship and governmental coöperation, so long will the war spirit continue to abound and increase. Her duty is peaceably to withdraw from the Union, leaving the South to assume all the responsibilities of her bloody slave system, and never doubting that a glorious result will follow.

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