Today We Learn About: Moral Suasion

According to Margaret Washing, Associate Professor of History at Cornell University, Moral Suasion was a tactic used by abolitionists to assist in the cause to end slavery in the United States.[1] This tactic was not an effective strategy because the causes and effects of slavery were so far reaching, diverse, and ingrained in American culture that merely showing evidence of the inherent ethical problems within the institution were not enough to bring it down. The strategy of Moral Suasion was a slow moving attack on an institution that had gained enough speed to imbed itself into the documents that make up the foundation of this nation. Taking the moral high ground to overcome an institution that half of a country depends on economically and culturally is doomed from the start. Not only are livelihoods working against the strategy, abolitionists were attacking an entire population’s sense of normalcy.

On the floor of the United States Senate, a great deal of debate took place over the subject of slavery. There were those who argued that it was wrong on the whole, and those who believed that slavery would not and should not ever become abolished in the United States. John C. Calhoun was a gentlemen who knew full well how deeply ingrained slavery was into southern culture. He is even given credit for referring to slavery as a common good. [2] A major reason he referred to slavery as a common good was because he was aware of the fact that slavery fulfilled the economic needs of the south. He goes on further to recognize that slavery is seen as “sinful and odious,”[3] recognizing the stance of moral suasionists.  In this same passage he refers to slavery as an “institution of the South” that supports the maintenance and “very existence” of the South.[4] To have an individual on the floor of the United States Senate recognize the position of his opposition and retaliate with such powerful words shows that in his and many peoples minds, slavery was not something that could be removed solely by means of moral suasion. Although the abolitionists moral suasion strategy was recognized by those in government, it appears to have been regarded as somewhat of a nonsense argument against the institution. To many, the fact that the South depended so heavily on free labor for it’s economic strength immediately disqualified the argument, because a system so widespread and beneficial could not possibly be wrong if it was doing right by an entire region. Calhoun argues for slavery, but in doing reveals just how much a part of our nation the institution was at the time.

Members of the United States Senate, plantation owners, abolitionists, and slaves were not the only people whose lives revolved around the institution at this time. When it is taken into account that without slavery there would be no jobs for overseers, slave chasers and the like, no workers to provide cost free labor, and no cash crops to sell as a result, it is easy to see how deeply the abolition of slavery would effect the Southern economy. In “Twelve Years a Slave” we are given a first hand account of the depths that the hands of slavery were able to reach in American culture. We are told of a free man who was taken from a free state, brought to the south to be sold as a slave, sold amongst varying slave owners, and eventually regained his freedom after twelve years.[5] To properly illustrate the depths that slavery reached in American culture, it should be considered that for twelve years, Solomon Northup was held captive, against his will, and made to work as a slave. Northup received severe beatings at the insistence that he was a free man, and over twelve years he was hard pressed to find an individual who believed him. How deeply entrenched in American culture slavery was at this, as to disallow a free man to regain his freedom, for him to be scoffed at and beaten at the request of this freedom.  When it is considered that this was the reply of those who came into contact with Northup, it becomes clear that moral suasion alone is not a proper strategy for the reversal of slavery. Merely stating to them that slavery is an ethically corrupt institution will not sway people who make their livelihood off of slavery, people who have never known any different, and individuals who uphold a sense of racial superiority. No matter how sound an argument is provided, the fact remains that without slavery, the South would crumble. This fact is what made the South so stubborn in their efforts to maintain their sense of normalcy, and an upright economy. This stubbornness is eventually what lead them to war.

Moral Suasion was also an ineffective strategy for battling against proposed amendments to the Constitution that would forever bar future amendments from banning slavery. “The Corwin Amendment” sought to do just this in March 2, 1861.[6] Taking the moral high road, shame, and canvassing stood as no match to an institution that was powerful enough to move governments to take action to the point of amending their constitution. Slavery was a part of the fabric of American life, a system so entrenched that citizens depended on it for money, material goods, and jobs while members of the Congress put forth an effort to permanently adjust the nation’s foundational documents to allow for the practice. Pamphlets, stump speeches, canvassing, speaking engagements, and meetings would not be effective against this sort of onslaught. It is necessary to fight fire with fire in this case. Legislation would need to be drawn, limits and penalties must be set on offending parties, and appropriate military action would eventually become necessary to control the future of slavery in the United States.

Even proponents of moral suasion eventually changed their mind to realize that it alone is not an appropriate strategy when faced against insurmountable odds. W.E.B. Du Bois was initially in favor of using moral suasion to end racial prejudice in the United States when the nation was in the face of war. In his narrative, Close Ranks he tells the African-American population to set the problems facing the race on the back burner, and join the military in order to defeat the menace overseas, for the sake of democracy, the nation, and the world.[7] This was in the hope that through a victory in the name of equality abroad, these same values would be carried forth to the home front, making for a more harmonious domestic landscape. Racial discrimination continued at the end of World War I and Dubois changed his recommended approach in a later essay entitled, “Returning Soldiers.” In this essay Dubois contends that now that the war is over and the men have returned home, they must continue to fight for equality, for an end to the disenfranchisement, lynching, lack of education, theft and insult perpetrated on the African-American community. [8] He now sees fit to address the situation with more vigor and energy, stressing that the men must continue to fight for their own good, and the good of their families. His approach later in the war when he wrote Returning Soldiers is much more cynical than his previous writings, and in changing this approach he has given his message a much more urgent feeling. The topics he addresses are seen as dire now that his attitude towards the establishment is more skeptical. By shifting his approach Du Bois shows us that a change in attitude can mean the difference between setting aside a difference in the face of an oppressive system and the confrontation of this oppressor no matter what the current political climate holds. Through this confrontation and continued cynicism the African-American community can take steps to alter a system ingrained in the minds of the nation as just and appropriate. Greater means must be taken to combat offending institutions than moral suasion, and the outbreak of the civil war, would prove this to the nation.

Moral Suasion was not an effective strategy to employ against the institution of slavery. The concept and far reaching effects of slavery were as much a part of the United States as the states that supported the ratification of Corwin’s Amendment. When something tantamount to the success and future of region is threatened by any means, it is clear why violence would erupt. As moral suasion is not a good strategy to combat slavery, it is far worse at combating war brought about by arguments associated with the institution. Eventually other means were necessary such as legislation, ultimatums, lobbying, sanctions, and as worst-case scenario – war. Luckily the United States of America was ready for such an eruption when it occurred, because from that point forward the nation would never be the same. Many said that America would never fully get over our racially charged past, and they may be right. With the recent election of President-Elect Barack Obama, it is clear that we are well on our way.


[1] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4i2981.html

[2], 3, 4John C. Calhoun, February 6,1837, “Slavery as a Positive Good”

[5] Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and rescued in 1853

[6] http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/writing/psa/app1.htm#B

[7] Du Bois, W.E.B. “Close Ranks.” Essay, July 1918. http://www.udel.edu/History/suisman/206_08-Fall/Online-readings/dubois.pdf

[8] http://www.teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=1121

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1 Comment

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One response to “Today We Learn About: Moral Suasion

  1. that is best moral suasion ,untouched wealth for nations borrowing, n paying accrauling interests,all man wealth in names must be untouched
    after death,slavery,kidnapping,substitutions,imposting,kilings,limitation,disespect against u.s laws against royalty,national security law act 1947,they lured man wealth to be respectedn not disrespect

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