Our increasing left-right polarization has a not so unintended effect: it puts more and more pressure on each of us to identify one way or the other, and then, within each group, it narrows the criteria for who belongs, demanding ever more elaborate and specific commitments. It starts to seem (as it seemed in the 1930s, as fascists squared off against communists), that there can be no positions which are outside of, or which work across, the left/right division. You have to pick a side.
As the reference to the 1930s indicates, this way of grasping political possibilities has been notably enduring, imported to the US from Europe in the late 19th century. Before that period, however, there were other ways to understand the political spectrum. And there are many consistent political positions that don’t fall into either camp.
The left-right way of conceiving politics is of little help in understanding American politics in the period before the Civil War. It’s not going to help you grasp the conflict between Jefferson and Hamilton, for example. For another, the positions of radical abolitionists of the early-to-mid-1800s, who by many standards were among the most visionary and courageous political figures of the century – figures such as William Lloyd Garrison, Lucretia Mott, Sarah Grimké, and Nathaniel Peabody Rogers – are neither on the left nor the right, or are on both the left and the right. And yet, their politics were coherent and are still relevant.
By today’s standards, they often sound like leftists. They were pacifists and opposed all forms of war and coercion. They were feminists, even the men: the clearest and most consistent of the period. They demanded the immediate end of slavery and worked toward that goal by many different means. They were consistent anti-racists, some of the few American public figures of the 19th century about whom that can be plausibly claimed (as is often noted, even moderate abolitionists such as Abraham Lincoln expressed numerous prejudices).
But they were also in one way or another evangelical Protestants (Quakers, Unitarians, or anti-denominational ‘come-outers’) and took their political authority from texts like the Sermon on the Mount. They were individualists, who thought that each person’s conscience provided the only access we have to God’s will, and that it must be entirely respected. And they not only advocated strict limits on government power over the individual; they held the government of the United States to be entirely illegitimate on multiple grounds, beginning with its support for slavery. They held that human government in general rested on coercion, that it was itself a form of slavery and should be dissolved. That’s not going to get you to the Green New Deal.
Lucretia Mott, the Quaker minister from Philadelphia who organized the Seneca Falls women’s convention of 1848 with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, summarized the political orientation of the radicals in her world by saying that “every man has the right to his own body.”[i] For Mott, feminism, pacifism, and anti-slavery were all mutually entailed. “It is always unsafe to invest man with power over his fellow being,” she told a women’s rights convention in 1853. “Call no man master–that is the true doctrine.”[ii] And she directly drew the conclusion that government is “based upon the sword,” that its ultimate resort is “the killing weapon,” and hence that it is entirely morally illegitimate, itself a form of slavery.[iii]
“We cannot acknowledge allegiance to any human government,” wrote Garrison in the “Declaration of Sentiments of the Peace Convention” (1838), one of the first great American statements of pacifism and a direct influence on figures such as Leo Tolstoy and Martin Luther King. “Neither can we oppose any such government by a resort to physical force. We are bound by a kingdom which is not of this world, the subjects of which are forbidden to fight, which has no state lines, no national partitions, no geographical boundaries, in which there is no distinction of rank, or division of caste, or inequality of sex.”[iv]
Speaking to a meeting of the New England Non-Resistance Society the next year, Lucretia Mott rejected all attempts to constrain the membership to take any particular position; all the people inhabiting this zone of dissent (including Samuel J. May, Margaret Fuller, Theodore Parker, Maria Weston Chapman, and Henry David Thoreau) were concerned, above all, with the need to protect freedom of conscience. “Ninety-nine hundredths can adapt such positions as they choose, in this spirit of love and freedom,” said Mott. “But [that spirit] forbids them to require of the one in the minority to adopt them.”
Nathaniel Peabody Rogers, who edited the Herald of Freedom in Concord, New Hampshire, and was a hero of Thoreau’s, is now little-known, but his advocacy of all these positions was particularly clear and emphatic. He was, among other things, a critic of capitalism, on the same grounds as he rejected slavery. “The overthrow of slavery must involve the doing away with the oppressions practiced by these institutions on the white poor. White labor is all but enslaved among us. It is the slave of Capital. It is impossible for labor to get rich or free. I mean labor in general. [And] the black laborer it enslaves outright in this country. The means of abolishing slavery must be employed in opening the eyes of the people to these tyrant institutions.” That was written in 1847, the year before Marx and Engels issued the “Communist Manifesto.”
Rogers’ consistent anti-racism extended even to reflecting on and condemning the idea of whiteness, which he called “the color of gulls” and “the color of diapers.” In his essay “Color-Phobia,” he said of that disease, which he was the first to name, “Our people have got in the blue, collapse stage. Many of them have got it so bad, they can’t get well. They will die of it. What a dignified, philosophic malady! Dread of complexion.”[vii] He and Garrison, among others, ridiculed slave-holding founders such as Jefferson and Washington as evil hypocrites, and Garrison publicly burned copies of the Constitution on the ground that it recognized slavery, calling it “a pact with the Devil.” Both men in the 1840s were calling for the immediate secession of the free from the slave states.
They held freedom of expression to be a fundamental right of all people, and they had to fight for their own. Garrison was abducted from the offices of the Liberator by a pro-slavery mob and paraded through the streets of Boston with a noose around his neck, and the anti-slavery editor Elijah Lovejoy was murdered by such a mob, even as southern legislatures prohibited all anti-slavery publications from entering the slave states, confiscating and burning them. Mott had to fight to speak even at anti-slavery conventions, because she was a woman, and was supported by people like Garrison and Wendell Phillips. The sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimké caused riots when they gave anti-slavery speeches in the 1820s. They were among the first American women to engage in public speaking to “mixed audiences,” as Sarah was the first American to publish a book advocating complete equality of women, the Letters on the Equality of the Sexes of 1838, a decade before Seneca Falls.
“The human voice is free of course,” wrote Rogers. “It is as naturally and inalienably free of every power but the man’s who utters it, as God is free. Who should think of regulating a man’s speech but himself? Human speech is sovereign. Nobody can govern it but the individual it belongs to. Men better be without tongues and organs and powers than not to use them sovereignly. If it be not safe to entrust self-government of speech to mankind, there had better not be any mankind. Slavery is worse than non-existence. A society involving it is worse than none. The earth had better go unpeopled than inhabited by vassals.”[viii]
These are, in short, the very most consistent and pointed American radicals of the first half of the 19th century, but in their fierce individualism and anti-statism they are definitely not leftists as that would be understood today. Their positions cannot possibly be coherent, if the left-right spectrum is supposed to be a global way of grasping political ideologies. But they are coherent, indeed more coherent than any position that can be comfortably fitted into the conservative vs. progressive picture.
Many people, including myself, don’t identify as being on the left or the right, yearning to get beyond them and on to a larger set of possibilities. We are feeling more and more hemmed in. And as a society as a whole we suffer from our simplistic ways of identifying political positions. One way to inch beyond them might be to re-explore this inspiring American tradition of dissent.
And if you don’t like their particular combination of positions, Lucretia Mott and Henry David Thoreau would tell you to think for yourself and develop your own.
[i] Lucretia Mott, “The Law of Progress,” in Lucretia Mott: Complete Sermons and Speeches, ed. Dana Green (New York: Edward Mellen Press, 1980), 73.
[ii] Mott, “The Laws in Relation to Women, Complete Sermons and Speeches, 218.
[iii] Mott, “Sermon Delivered at the Cherry Street Meeting,” Complete Sermons and Speeches, 139.
[iv] Published in The Liberator Vol. VIII. No. 39 (September 28, 1838), 3.
[v] Mott, Address to the New England Non-Resistance Society, Lucretia Mott Speaks, Densmore, Faulkner, et al, eds. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017), 4
[vi] Nathaniel Peabody Rogers, “The Anti-Slavery Movement,” The Herald of Freedom, May 2, 1845, collected in Herald of Freedom: Essays of Nathaniel Peabody Rogers, Crispin Sartwell ed. (CreateSpace, 2016), 112.
[vii] Rogers, “Color-Phobia,” The Herald of Freedom, November 10, 1838. Sartwell, Herald of Freedom, 83.
[viii] Rogers, “Speech,” The Herald of Freedom, December 30, 1842. Sartwell,n Herald of Freedom, 25.