Historian says liberals worried about Trump should ask “What would the abolitionists do?”

Historians in the News
tags: abolition, election 2016, Trump



Linda Hirshman is the author, most recently, of "Sisters in Law." She is working on a history of abolitionism.

In the days since the election, there have been many calls for anti-Trump forces to remain resolute in their resistance. “If the presidency of Donald Trump inspires anything, it should be a fierce spirit of opposition,” Leon Wieseltier wrote last weekend in these pages. “The proper response is steely resolve to wage the fight of our lives,” Jonathan Chait wrote in New York magazine.

But what can anti-Trump liberals and progressives actually do? With his party in control of the White House and Congress, and with Trump about to tip the balance of the Supreme Court, it’s easy to despair over how little leverage the Democrats seem to have.

One episode from history reveals reasons to hope.

In 1850, like the Democrats and their allies in 2016, the abolitionists took a terrible hit. They had worked for 20 years to bring down the worst institution in American history, chattel slavery. And they thought they might have been on the verge of a breakthrough, with a proposal to ban slavery in all the territories taken in the Mexican War. But in the Compromise of 1850, Congress basically handed those territories to the pro-slavery forces, and, with an updated Fugitive Slave Act, it conscripted every Northern citizen into an army of slave catchers, obliged to aid in sending black people back to the slaveholding South.

And yet, a little over a decade later, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The abolitionists’ comeback was impressive. And it offers a road map away from the election of 2016.

Indeed, by marching and making street theater, forces of resistance to the Trump and GOP victories have already started emulating the abolitionists.




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