Drawing Parallels between America’s Struggle over Slavery and Today’s Israel & Palestine

Drawing Parallels between America’s Struggle over Slavery and Today’s Israel & Palestine

I first became seriously interested in the politics of the late antebellum and Civil War periods over a decade ago when I was researching a book published as Indian Fighters Turned American Politicians (Praeger, 2003). I wanted to find lessons that would provide hints about the future of the phenomenon of military politicians in Israel. Originally, I wrote a book that compared military figures who became politicians in the United States, South Africa, and Israel. But my publisher suddenly changed its marketing strategy and I had to rewrite the book. The lessons from this were incorporated into an appendix of my recently published Israel’s Security Men (McFarland, 2015).

While researching the election of 1848, that elevated former Indian fighter and Mexican War hero Zachary Taylor into the Presidency, I came across the Free Soil Party. Because I attended high school in America and university in Israel, the antebellum antislavery parties were new to me. So I made them the subject of my next book, Antislavery Politics in Antebellum and Civil War America (Praeger, 2007), hoping that there might be lessons for Labor and Meretz in them. Unfortunately, these parties were rapidly melting away as I researched and wrote the book. But I have since come to believe that this period may still hold more lessons for the anti-occupation movement in America.

The antislavery movement as a social and political movement was founded in 1831 by William Lloyd Garrison with the launching of his abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator. At the end of the decade, the movement had its first serious split when the vast majority opted for an electoral political approach, while Garrison and his followers held out for a religious conversion approach. The anti-Garrisonians founded the Liberty Party in 1840 as a vehicle to give abolitionists an option in elections that would not compromise their consciences. Due to the debate over the admission of Texas to the Union, the Presidential election of 1844 was the first in which slavery was a major issue.

The Liberty Men were only organized in pockets across the North centered on Boston, New Hampshire, Vermont, upstate New York, northeastern Ohio, Cincinnati and parts of northern Indiana—much like J Street chapters. The party was largely limited to towns in which there was a congregation of one of the antislavery Protestant denominations that had split off from their parent bodies in the 1830s and ’40s. The party normally won about two to three percent of the vote in state elections. Meanwhile Garrison and his followers mocked their efforts and gave fiery abolitionist speeches across the country. Until the Civil War began in 1861, the abolitionists were despised by ordinary white Americans as fanatics, and had little political influence. The differences in the antislavery movement were much like the differences between J Street and the BDS movement today.

In 1848, an ambitious Liberty man and lawyer who specialized in defending fugitive slaves and their protectors in court, Salmon Chase, organized the Liberty Party, some antislavery Whigs especially in Ohio and Massachusetts, and some antislavery Democrats in New York into the Free Soil Party. This party was dedicated to preventing the expansion of slavery into new territories rather than to abolishing it in the South. Chase was elected to the U.S. Senate by organizing a coalition in the state legislature (in the nineteenth century U.S. senators were chosen by the state legislatures). Chase and his colleague and rival, New York Whig Senator William Seward, both fought against the sectional Compromise of 1850.

In 1854, following the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act that left the future status of states up to the territorial legislatures and abolished the great 1820 Missouri Compromise, Chase organized the remnants of the Free Soil Party and antislavery Whigs into the Republican Party. Two years later the Republican presidential nominee carried most of the North but lost out to James Buchanan who carried the South and many states in the lower North like Illinois and Indiana.

Between 1850 and 1861, the proslavery extremists in the South grew stronger and bolder, and the country became more polarized. First, they forced ambitious Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas to do their bidding in the Kansas-Nebraska Act in order to pass a national railroad bill. Then the Supreme Court further invalidated the Missouri Compromise with the Dred Scott Decision of 1857, just as Buchanan was coming into office. And the following year, the Northern Democrats began to split between Douglas supporters and Buchanan supporters. Then in the 1860 presidential election the Democratic Party split and the Southerners ran their own candidate.

Finally in 1860-’61, the Deep South seceded from the Union over the election of a “black” Republican as President. Lincoln ran on the platform of preventing the spread of slavery into the Western territories while allowing it to slowly die out in the South over generations. It was the pragmatists in the antislavery movement who helped put Lincoln into office. It was the secessionists in the South that enabled Lincoln to end slavery as a war measure during the Civil War. The Garrisonians were reduced to a minor role backing Radical Republicans in Congress during the Civil War.

In the anti-occupation drama today the Israeli Right is the equivalent of the antebellum Democratic Party and the Southern Whigs. Just as J Street envisaged Netanyahu becoming a vehicle for a peace deal in 2013, William Seward and the Republican leadership in the East saw Douglas in 1858 as a possible leader of another sectional compromise. Lincoln through his law partner had to resist this tendency. The Israeli Right keeps becoming more extreme as the Likud evolved from a paramilitary party and ethnic protest movement to a settler lobby. The conservative wing of the Likud that believed in the European liberal tradition of Jabotinsky and Begin has been replaced by pure anti-Arab racism. Dan Meridor no longer feels comfortable in the party he grew up in. This is how some Northern Democrats felt in the 1850s when they joined the Republican Party starting in 1856.

The main problem with this analogy is that although the modern equivalents of the antislavery movement are in the United States, the equivalent of their enemies is in Israel. And as extreme as the Israeli Right keeps becoming, the Palestinians complicate this analogy with Hamas and movements to its Right. William Seward suggested to Lincoln in 1861 that he provoke a war with Britain or Spain over the Caribbean as a means of unifying the country. Israel’s regional environment has this effect as witnessed by the reaction to the Syrian civil war and the growth of ISIS.

American elections are seldom decided by what happens abroad, particularly in a country as small as Israel. So J Street can at best hope that Israeli extremists play the same role for them that South Carolina played for Lincoln, by firing on Ft. Sumter [depicted at the top of this post]. Part II to follow soon.

By | 2015-06-17T07:29:25-04:00 June 17th, 2015|American Jewish community, Blog|4 Comments


  1. peter eisenstadt June 17, 2015 at 11:13 am - Reply

    I don’t have time for a long response, and I’m not sure I fully understand the analogy, but the article greatly underestimates the impact that radical abolitionists had in keeping the slavery controversy alive, opposing the rendition of persons escaping slavery (and thereby helping to bring about the bitterly controversial Fugitive Slave Law of 1850) and contributing to the sectional divisions and collapse of the Whig Party. If anything, it strikes me as an argument for BDS (which I do not support)–the radicals gave cover to the moderates, and the moderate alternative–opposing the expansion of slavery rather than abolishing it outright–proved as unacceptable to the white South as Garrison’s or Fredrick Douglass’s abolitionism, and in the end led to what the radicals wanted all along–the uncompensated abolition of slavery everywhere in the US.

  2. Tom Mitchell June 18, 2015 at 10:33 am - Reply

    Lincoln’s victory in 1860 was based on a slow building of the base that the Liberty Party established in 1840, and that was then expanded in 1848 and 1854. Garrison wanted to allow the South to peacefully secede from the Union, in which case slavery would have continued to last for at least another generation. Garrison and his colleagues became useful to their cause only once the Civil War had begun.

  3. […] is a follow-up to my prior post, ” Drawing Parallels between America’s Struggle over Slavery and Today’s Israel & Palestine.”  I learned two main lessons from studying the antebellum antislavery parties that are […]

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