Abolitionism and Modern Voluntaryism

By George H. Smith

[Editor’s Note by Carl Watner: As many readers of THE VOLUNTARYIST know, this newsletter was begun by George H. Smith, Wendy McElroy, and myself. This Note and the following essay offer details about the origin of modern day voluntaryism. I have previously shared some of my own personal background in “Something To Do with the Search for Truth: How I Became a Libertarian” in Issue 155, and I now offer the following in conjunction with George’s personal reminiscences of some of the events that led to the founding of THE VOLUNTARYIST.

I made my first contact with Wendy McElroy and George Smith, as early as October or November 1978 when I had met George at a Center for Libertarian Studies Scholar’s Conference at Princeton, New Jersey. I continued to stay in touch with them throughout the following years. In January 1981, Wendy sent me a copy of George’s “Party Dialogue.” In May 1981, I stayed with them at their apartment in Los Angeles, while attending the Future of Freedom Conference in Long Beach. Later that year, at the end of July, I attended another scholar’s conference at Bates College in Maine, where George was one of the lecturers. It was there that he first suggested the idea of forming an organization to focus on the truly anti-political nature of libertarianism. This was germ of the initial idea for The Voluntaryists. It was George who suggested using the word ‘voluntaryist’ to describe those libertarians who eschewed electoral activity. While researching the history of education in the English-speaking world, George had discovered that this word had been used to label the opponents of government-provided education in Great Britain during the mid-19th Century.

The first issue of THE VOLUNTARYIST newsletter was distributed in October 1982, and the next year was a busy one for voluntaryists. After the movie “Gandhi” came out in December 1982, Chuck Hamilton had the idea of co-sponsoring, with The Voluntaryists, a conference on nonviolence. Chuck lined up Gene Sharp, as the keynote speaker, and this took place in New York City on February 26, 1983. A few weeks later, I flew to the west coast, to participate in a debate on the validity of electoral politics in Vancouver. On the same trip, I also made a presentation to the Puget Sound Libertarian Forum (supper club), and helped Peter Walters start his League of Non-Voters. Later that year, I attended a Rampart Institute conference on non-voting and gave two work-shops at the Future of Freedom Conference in late October 1983. During 1984, I attended the “Libertarianism and War” conference in Los Angeles (March 30 – April 2, 1984), and on the second, during October, I made the acquaintance of Robert LeFevre, the main teacher and founder of Freedom School and Rampart College. It was at this time that Bob engaged me to write his biography, based on his voluminous autobiography which he shared with me. My biography of Bob was self-published by The Voluntaryists in late 1988 under the title of ROBERT LEFEVRE: TRUTH IS NOT A HALF-WAY PLACE.

For those interested, George also published a series of articles in Issues 1, 2, and 4 of THE VOLUNTARYIST (1982-1983) on “The Ethics of Voting.” Here follow his remarks on “Abolitionism and Modern Day Voluntaryism.”]

[D]uring the late 1970s and early 1980s [Wendell] Phillips’s monograph [CAN ABOLITIONISTS VOTE OR TAKE OFFICE UNDER THE UNITED STATES CONSTITUTION? (1845)] influenced my own thinking about the morality and the wisdom of political action for modern libertarians. But I had already embraced the voluntaryist opposition to political action before then, and my position was based on principles not found in Phillips. (I first proposed “voluntaryism” as a label for anti-political libertarianism in 1982, and the label has stuck.) One of the first public presentations of my anti-political views was a speech I gave for the Orange County Libertarian Supper Club in 1980. Titled “Party Dialogue,” this speech was subsequently printed in Sam Konkin’s periodical NEW LIBERTARIAN and later by Carl Watner for The Voluntaryist. I vividly recall the first comment at the Orange County Supper Club. Robert LeFevre (1911-86) a venerated figure in the modern libertarian movement (especially in Southern California) who had long opposed political action, stood up and announced that my presentation was the best lecture he had ever heard, aside from his own lectures.

LeFevre’s humorous endorsement was not shared by the majority of libertarians. Even many libertarian anarchists were not pleased with my views. This became evident to me at the 1980 National Convention of the Libertarian Party (in Los Angeles), where I was invited to give a talk on my objections to the Libertarian Party. I was favorably impressed by the invitation, since rare indeed is the political party that will solicit talks on why that party should not exist. But this was a formative period of the modern libertarian movement—a time when basic ideas about strategy were being hammered out and when many libertarians were interested in ideas for their own sake, quite apart from what their practical implications may be. But not all attendees at the 1980 convention welcomed my appearance; quite the contrary. While at the convention but before my talk, I learned that a petition was being circulated that protested my invitation to speak. The petition reportedly had hundreds of signatures, including that of John Hospers. In addition, large white protest buttons were passed out that simply read “Why”— curiously, the button omitted the question mark—and I saw many attendees at my well-attended talk wearing those buttons. (Somewhat flattered by being the object of a formal protest, I obtained a button and proudly displayed it in my home for many years.) Unlike those abolitionists who were victims of mob violence, no anti-Smith mobs were formed at the convention, and I felt perfectly safe walking the halls of the Century City Hotel and riding its spectacular elevators.

I mention these personal stories because of the obvious parallels between the no-voting stance of contemporary voluntaryists and the Garrisonian wing of abolitionism. Voluntaryism is a minority wing of the modern libertarian movement, just as the Garrisonians comprised a minority in the broader antislavery movement. For many years historians of abolitionism tended to treat the anti-political position of Garrison and Phillips as an eccentric glitch that harmed the antislavery cause, or at the very least retarded its progress. But two magnificent and highly regarded books helped to turn the tide to a more favorable view: MEANS AND ENDS IN AMERICAN ABOLITIONISM: GARRISON AND HIS CRITICS ON STRATEGY AND TACTICS (1968), by Aileen S. Kraditor; and RADICAL ABOLITIOINISM: ANARCHY AND THE GOVERNMENT OF GOD IN ANTISLAVBERY THOUGHT (1973), by Lewis Perry.

A major merit of these scholarly accounts is that they take the anti-political views of Garrison, Phillips, and their follower seriously, instead of dismissing them out of hand as too absurd for serious consideration. The anti-political arguments are considered on their own terms, as they appeared to the abolitionists themselves, rather than from the perspective of those modern historians who cannot conceive how any significant social or political changes could come about except through the ballot box. But whether one agrees with the Garrisonian position or not, it is virtually impossible for contemporary libertarians to read the extensive abolitionist debates over this controversy without being impressed by how detailed and thoughtful they are. Modern libertarians have said very little if anything about the pros and cons of voting and other political activities that was not said over 150 years ago by the abolitionists. In short, there is a good deal that libertarians can learn from studying abolitionist literature on this topic, whatever our ultimate conclusions may be.

Consider the presidential oath of office: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” This and similar oaths of office were the major sticking point for Wendell Phillips and other anti-political abolitionists who viewed the Constitution as a proslavery document. How could any sincere abolitionist swear to “preserve, protect, and defend” a document that sanctioned the enslavement of human beings? And how could any sincere opponent of slavery seek to appoint, through voting, an agent who would publicly commit to the preservation and protection of slavery?

Back in the late 1970s, when I first became seriously interested in abolitionism, it quickly became clear that public oaths were regarded far more seriously in earlier times than they tend to be today. I therefore took a detour to study the history of oath-taking, and it was a fascinating journey. One story, which I read in a history of the French Revolution (I no longer recall the title or author), pertained to a problem experienced by Louis XVI when he was preparing for his coronation. The king’s oath contained items that he could not endorse, such as a pledge to persecute Protestants, so Louis sought the advice of Turgot (one of the better libertarians of his day). Turgot supposedly advised Louis to mumble those parts of the oath to which he could not honestly and sincerely commit. I do not know if Louis took Turgot’s advice, but this “mumble theory of oath-taking,” as I subsequently called it, was eerily similar to the rationalizations offered by those political libertarians who were criticizing voluntaryism. I was told that libertarians who could not support the Constitution (especially the taxing power vested in the federal government) could nonetheless swear under oath to “preserve, protect, and defend” that selfsame Constitution. Why? Well a variety of reasons were offered by my critics, and it is quite remarkable that Phillips discussed virtually all of these in CAN ABOLITIONISTS VOTE OR TAKE OFFICE UNDER THE UNITED STATES CONSTITUTION? Moreover, all seemed variants, in one form or another, of Turgot’s mumble theory of oath-taking.

[This essay first appeared on Libertarianism.org on March 24, 2017, as Part 7 of a very interesting series by George. Permission to reprint granted by Grant Babcock of the Cato Institute, email of August 11, 2017, 1:21 PM.]