The Puritan Nativists

David Wilmot

David Wilmot

To a modern American, abolitionism and nativism probably sound very different. We imagine that most abolitionists had modern, egalitarian motives that set them against slavery. Part of that comes from confusing the broad antislavery movement with the narrow abolitionist movement, but even aside that we naturally tend to project our own ideas back on the past. Certainly some abolitionists did themselves credit too in not taking their job as done when slavery ended but pressing on for full, or at least fuller still, racial equality. A few even went a step or two further and included gender equality in their mission. Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison both also wrote and spoke in favor of giving women the vote. It only seems natural to us to assume that antislavery Americans opposed slavery because of the wrongs it did to black Americans and sought to end it for their sake. Only some, however, went the full way to a kind of egalitarianism.

Most antislavery Americans, even some abolitionists, did not see things at all that way. They did not live in a world after the Civil Rights Movement where so much of American political life hangs, at least in our minds, on everyone having their equal share of respect, dignity, and his or her own seat at the American table. They lived in the nineteenth century, not the early twenty-first. Equality, to them, meant equality of free white men. Self-government meant government by free white men. Other selves just did not count, and those not counting most emphatically included black Americans. David Wilmot probably said it best, in the course of defending his famous proviso:

I have no squeamish sensitiveness upon the subject of slavery, no morbid sympathy for the slave. I plead the cause and rights of white freemen. I would preserve to free white labor a fair country, a rich inheritance, where the sons of toil, of my own race and own color, can live without the disgrace which association with negro slavery brings upon free labor.

Though a Pennsylvanian, born and raised, Wilmot could have spoken for any number of New England Puritans. They primarily hated slavery not because of the wrongs done to the slaves, but because of the corruption it introduced into the moral fiber of white America. In their minds, slavery gave license to rape, to violence, to subversion of self-government, and all manner of immorality not so much done to the slaves as committed by whites who ought to know better. As the name says, Puritans want to purify things and then keep them pure. They came to the New World to achieve religious freedom for themselves, but only for themselves and only within the narrow bounds of Puritan orthodoxy. Outside that, the Puritans aspired to a degree of religious persecution unavailable to them back in Europe. The shining city on the hill only stayed shining by keeping out the riffraff.

Many Puritans thus could and did oppose slavery not for the liberation of black Americans. Those people, the Puritans would happily see dispatched back to Africa. There the ex-slaves might bring Christianity and the blessings of American democracy to the continent, but mostly they would liberate white Americans from the sight of black faces and competition with black labor. Freedom from slavery meant freedom for a lily-white nation to dominate the continent. If the slaves benefited, so much the better. If they failed when dispatched to Africa, they did so far away with little risk of returning.

Religious dissenters in their own ranks had always given Puritans the fits. One bad example left unanswered undermined the whole community’s orthodoxy. Thus Puritan paranoia went hand in hand with Puritan orthodoxy. Satan always waited in the wings, ready to corrupt the righteous and lead them astray so they could lead others astray. Baroque fantasies about people fornicating with devils in the woods and writing their names in black books had gone out of fashion long ago, giving way to notions of priests cavorting with nuns, but the threat of subversion from within or without remained.

Back in Europe, the Puritans earned their reputation as some of Christendom’s most devoted anti-Catholic crusaders. They came, after all, from an already virulently anti-Catholic England. They broke from mainstream Anglicanism because they saw it as still entirely too Catholic. And now, generations later, the new waves of immigration to America came up on the docks of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia lousy with Irish Catholics fleeing the famine and Germans, many of them also Catholic. To a religious movement that had long at least suspected that the Antichrist wore the Papal tiara and that the Whore of Babylon called her franchises dioceses, this had an apocalyptic air. Catholicism from abroad, like slaveholding at home, would corrupt the nation and lead it astray. If the Puritans could not rid themselves of slaveholding already present, they could at least keep out the undesirable, foreign, Catholic hordes. They, the nation’s moral stewards, could do no less.

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