Opinion | What an Antislavery Politician Missed and Why It Still Matters

He was a staunch pragmatist. Upon joining the antislavery Liberty Party — which had evolved out of the New England Anti-Slavery Society — Chase tried to shift its focus away from agitation and toward persuading potentially sympathetic Whigs and Democrats. “Chase,” writes Stahr, “wanted to distinguish the Liberty Party, a political party, from abolitionism, a moral movement.” He also hoped to “extend the party into border slave states such as Kentucky” and to recruit a presidential candidate who could “attract more than just abolitionists.”

Chase’s resolute (but again pragmatic) opposition to slavery would lead him to support the Free Soil Party in the 1848 presidential election; to try to organize antislavery Democrats in Ohio; to oppose the Fugitive Slave Act in Congress; and to become a founding figure in, and strong partisan of, the Republican Party. He was a rival to Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election and was — while serving as chief justice of the United States — a rival to Ulysses S. Grant in the 1868 contest for the Republican presidential nomination. He was seen, at the end of his life, as one of the nation’s great statesmen, so much so that even Democrats considered nominating him for president.

What I find so interesting about Chase is that, as progressive as he was, he was also bound to many of the dogmas of his age. His opposition to slavery and support for Black civil rights (as well as his support, later in life, for women’s suffrage) sat hand in hand with his support for “sound money” (meaning the gold standard) and minimal government. His ambitions for the former slave states — a society of free men and free labor without racial distinctions — were in tension with his Jeffersonian skepticism of bureaucratic centralization and his opposition to military reconstruction in the South.

Even as violence mounted against the formerly enslaved, Chase was confident in the white South’s ability to reconcile itself to the collapse of its racial hierarchy. And he was so devoted to the Union that he favored pardons for and reconciliation with Confederate leaders like Jefferson Davis. The combination of idealism and pragmatism that served him well in the struggle against slavery left him blind to the backlash that would follow the war and continue through Reconstruction.

Which is to say that Chase was an exemplar in more than one way. He was also an almost paradigmatic bourgeois liberal reformer (even revolutionary), who could conceive of the radical expansion of political liberty but whose vision failed him when it came to more robust forms of equality. (This is a problem that still shapes American political life.)

His limitations were, in many ways, the limitations of all the Radical Republicans who sought to remake the United States after the Civil War. Many Americans today will say that if the United States had done Reconstruction right, we could have avoided many of the problems, struggles and heartaches that followed the end of Reconstruction. I don’t know if I agree. But I will suggest this: The failure of Reconstruction was at once the product of external forces — both political opposition and ferocious counterrevolutionary violence — and its own internal contradictions.

To secure the equal status of Black Americans in the South, Reconstruction needed both a powerful national state and an ideology that could support and justify the use of that state on behalf of the formerly enslaved. The former simply didn’t exist, and what I think Chase demonstrates is that even the most perceptive and farseeing politicians of the era struggled with the latter. The question to ask yourself isn’t what would have happened had Reconstruction been effective, but whether it was even possible for it to have been effective.

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