In the antebellum years, there was nothing resembling an anti-slavery consensus in the North. America’s greatest philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, hesitated for years to decry what he called “the habit of oppression.” When he finally did so from the podium in Concord Town Hall, he was called a fanatic and worse. The word “abolition” made his neighbors angry. The idea rang radical even in Massachusetts, where many regarded those who espoused such views as dangerous. It’s simply wrong-headed to presume that average, mid-19th-century farmers and factory workers in the North harbored abolitionist sympathies. They didn’t.

I was taught growing up in Yankee Massachusetts that the North went to war to end slavery, but since then I have come to understand that I was misinformed. A case in point is the story of the well-known primitive painter Robert Peckham. He had served as a deacon in the same Congregational church that I attended as a child in central Massachusetts. But archival research reveals that, in 1850, when Deacon Peckham espoused abolitionist sentiments, the church fathers excommunicated him, declaring one of their own unwelcome because they thought his ideas too extreme. Little Westminster represented a quiet majority opinion in the region.