What Gun Control Advocates Can Learn From Abolitionists

Slave ownership was once as entrenched in American life as gun ownership.

William Lloyd Garrison circa 1850.
American abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, circa 1850.

Southworth and Hawes

Historical parallelism is a dangerous game. But in the days after the shootings in Orlando, Florida, as we fall into another cycle of fretting over our continued inability to pass effective gun control laws, I’ve found myself thinking about the steep odds abolitionists faced in the years before the Civil War ended slavery. That social movement wrestled with entrenched public opinion and powerful monied interests, and eventually won. Is there anything to be learned from their success?

Manisha Sinha, author of The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition, agreed to help me sort through this historical analogy. We spoke about slaveholders’ resistance, the place of radicalism, and the ultimate importance of federal action. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Rebecca Onion: How did abolitionists, maybe especially in the 1850s, deal with this idea that slavery could never be fixed because it was just too big, too protected by the government? How did they counter that in their own activism?

Sinha: Abolitionists had debated for a long time whether the U.S. Constitution actually protected slavery or not. And they disagreed amongst themselves. There were some who said that in fact the Constitution did have ironclad protections for slavery: the Three-Fifths Clause, the Fugitive Slave Clause. And there were others, political abolitionists, who really felt that with a proper interpretation of the Constitution, you could actually move the federal government to act on slavery.

So the two sides had already been charted out in the 1850s. And these were long-standing philosophical and political differences among abolitionists, but in the 1850s you can really see how both of these options are on the table. The 1850s of course is like the crisis decade of the whole controversy surrounding slavery. Somewhat similar, maybe, to what we are seeing today. Parties were collapsing; outsiders were coming into the ecosystem.

Everyone agreed that you needed the federal government to act on slavery—to act against slavery rather than for it, as in the case of the Fugitive Slave Act. And the idea that somehow if you left the matter up to the states, it would be fine, had definitely failed. Because the Northern states had gradually abolished slavery, but the Southern states had not. In fact, slavery had grown and expanded in the South.

So the idea that there is a state-level solution was something that most abolitionists and anti-slavery politicians rejected. They were really looking to the federal government for action on this. But there were abolitionists who were very pessimistic about the federal government doing anything, because in the 1850s the government had been dominated by the Democratic Party, which was leaning more and more toward the South, was very pro-slavery, anti-abolitionist, and the last big federal action on slavery had been the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

Which went the other way.

Exactly. Things were going more pro-slavery … then there was the situation in Kansas, where it was open warfare between slave state and free state immigrants, and even though there was a free-state majority, elections were stolen, and there was kind of a free for all in terms of violence in Kansas. Some abolitionists really felt that maybe we should look for solutions outside the government. Somebody like John Brown certainly felt that he had to begin a revolutionary war against slavery before anyone would pay attention to his cause.

And in the end, with the Civil War, both these strategies kind of came to a head, with Lincoln being elected president, but also a full-scale war breaking out over slavery, I hope we don’t come to that! I certainly don’t think we do.

But I think the parallel lies in the idea that one can look to the state to regulate what seems just common sense now, really, against entrenched interests. The notion of federal action on gun control is really important, because in fact that is the way that slavery was ultimately abolished in this country, through the 13th Amendment, the Emancipation Proclamation, and congressional acts.

And there’s a parallel in a false reading of the U.S. Constitution and history, as far as the debate over the Second Amendment is concerned. Most historians really challenge the idea that the Second Amendment is a blank check for every adult citizen in this country to own a gun no matter what, whether they’re on the terror watch list or they’re mentally unstable or have a history of violence against women.

I feel like after every shooting we have a little cycle where people say, “How can this be happening, we need to figure out a way to stop it,” and then it kind of goes away. I don’t want to say that there is apathy, but I feel like there is a sense of resignation, even among people who believe that something should be done. I feel like there is a certain parallel with people in the 19th century who were living in the North and had a certain distaste for slavery but would kind of shake their heads and say, “It’s just too big.”

I think any good historian should eschew simple parallelisms, but I think, in this instance, there actually is a pertinent historical lesson. If you look at abolitionists in the 1850s, that’s what frustrated most abolitionist activists is that everyone thought slavery was wrong. But they would say, “Oh, it’s enshrined in the Constitution,” “Oh, we cannot threaten the Union,” or “It’s just confined to black people and that’s OK.” There were all kinds of reasons for people to be anti-slavery in theory and yet do nothing against slavery practically, in action, in laws.

From the Founding Fathers, a prime example is Jefferson, who kind of condemned slavery theoretically but did nothing against it and in fact didn’t even free his own slaves, except for the ones that he had actually fathered.

This hand-wringing that we have about gun violence is exactly the way many well-meaning people talked about slavery. They would say, “Well, of course, we deplore it, but we don’t want to do anything about it.” For various reasons. And that’s why abolitionists were a minority, because they were willing to take on the system as it were, and to do something about it.

That’s what I think the activism against gun violence in this country needs. Children are being killed, almost 50 people have died recently, and yet we continue the same mechanisms to manage these outrages. Which is, we deplore it, but we do nothing about it. Which is pretty much what happened with slavery throughout the time before the Civil War. People would hear instances of torture, of abuse, but it would just, they would deplore the existence of slavery and hope eventually it would simply vanish from the Republic on its own. And of course that would not happen.

So with public opinion about slavery, there were sort of flashpoints, moments of increased horror or distaste—but then for most people it would sort of vanish again.

There was a movement to try to influence public opinion [beyond the points of outrage], and it sort of percolated into popular culture by the 1850s, with anti-slavery novels that had their own problematic kind of messages …. but at least it did percolate. In the 1850s, the abolitionist critique of slavery did have an impact on mainstream politics, did have an impact on popular culture, because it was a movement that had been working against the odds for a very long time.

And by the 1850s you had the emergence of a political party that was not committed to the abolition of slavery, but at least committed to the nonextension of slavery. The Republican Party, as it was originally formed, the Party of Lincoln. And I think I can see some signs of that maybe within the Democratic Party, especially today, where people are calling for at least common-sense limitations. Not letting people on the terrorist list or the no-fly list have access to guns. To screen people, at least have them wait and get vetted, before they can actually purchase a gun.

If you think of a gun as a death-dealing instrument, we should at least have some protections in place, as we do for any other thing that we buy in the marketplace, and we don’t have those because of this very rigid sort of commitment that people have to gun ownership. And there is a parallel there to the way slaveholders talked about slave ownership.

Nothing was to infringe that prerogative. Even the slightest questioning of slaveholding was seen as questioning slaveownership. So nonextension [of slavery to new territories and states], to many slaveholders, meant abolition. Or discussions in Congress about attending meetings with countries that had abolished slavery, like Haiti, or some Latin American countries; this was seen as a threat to slaveholding.

Slaveholders were very proactive—some would say too proactive because it rubbed a lot of Northerners the wrong way—when it came to defending their privilege to own slaves. And it became unreasonable, and extreme, in the 1850s, with the Fugitive Slave Act, with the Kansas wars, with the Dred Scott decision. I think that’s what led to the emergence of the Republican Party and Lincoln.

And I can see that now in terms of the gun lobby. They might be digging their own grave by their extreme commitment to gun ownership, which is not sensible. They have become completely unreasonable in their stance. And to me that strikes me at least the way slaveholders talked about slave ownership. Absolutely no questioning about slavery, even if people died or you infringed people’s civil liberties, or you basically challenged democratic governance in this country.

I’m wondering about places where the parallel breaks down. If you are a person in favor of gun control, after Orlando, and you wanted to look to the 1850s for sort of a playbook or hints about what to do—are there things that today’s activists could take from that? And, on the other hand, where are the places where the parallels are too simplistic?  

Well, we know that gun owners are not going to form a separate country the way slaveholders did with the Confederacy! I suppose there are some people out there who think that their guns are going to be taken away by the U.S. government and that they somehow have to fight that—ranchers, these groups in the West that actually want to form their own country—but that’s not the same thing as what slaveholders did, they were actually able to form their own country and fight a long war to defend the right of slaveownership.

I think the lesson that we can learn is that for gun activists, there are all these groups that came up after the massacre in Sandy Hook, but I think the problem now is to effect political change. We have to have laws in place; given the current makeup of Congress, that doesn’t seem likely now, but the way you effect political change is through elections, you vote people out and you vote people in.

And I think the biggest thing that people who believe in gun regulation have to do is this has to be an important part of the Democratic Party platform. That’s what happened with the Republican Party in the 1850s. They made the nonextension of slavery part of their party platform—the defining part, actually. Gun control doesn’t have to be the defining part [of the Democratic Party platform], but it has to be a defining part.

Abolitionists and anti-slavery politicians made the point that the Constitution did not protect slavery. They made that case. So activists now should make the case that the Second Amendment is not applicable to a country where you don’t need a militia of armed adult white men, as it was described in the Militia Act of 1792.

The reason why the Second Amendment is in the Constitution is because it was against the British Army, the standing army of the British Empire, that the American colonists raised their own army and fought for independence. A standing army was seen as a sign of corruption in a republic, that would actually lead to infringing on the rights of citizens. But we’ve had a standing army since the 19th century. And to use the Second Amendment now [to protect gun ownership] is completely ahistorical.

The best thing that can come out of the Orlando massacre is not hand-wringing; it’s political action. And I think that’s the lesson we can take from abolitionists—political abolitionists, Garrisonians, and anti-slavery politicians—who in their own ways were trying to effect political change.

I think the NRA is wrong on the Constitution, wrong on history, and wrong on humanity. This has become not even a liberal-conservative issue. It’s a question of human rights: People have the right to live, on a basic level. And if a country or government fails them on this, you have to seriously examine what are the ideals you are defending, when it’s costing so many lives.

Read more from Slate on the Orlando nightclub shooting.