New Works in the Field

Force for Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence

Editors’ Note: Kellie Carter Jackson makes the case for a fuller scholarly engagement with black abolitionists and their “profound understanding of the idea, experience and value of violence,” the subject of her new book, Force and Freedom.

John Anderson was an escaped slave who fled to Canada. On July 5, 1861 the Toronto Globe recounted the speech he gave before Canadian abolitionists. He did not reveal which slaveholding state he escaped from, but before his audience it barely mattered. As he stood at the podium, the crowd began to cheer. Anderson was not used to public speaking and he fed off their prolonged encouragement. He had only meant to say a few words about how he escaped. He claimed, in order to flee bondage, he had to cut and run and fight and shed blood. “I don’t like to shed blood,” he acknowledged, but as he was fleeing, a pursuer was following his tracks.

We don’t know if the pursuer was his master or a slave catcher, but it was clear the person was set on capturing Anderson. Mile after mile, he could not shake his pursuer. He shouted at him to stay back and that if he kept up the chase, he would be forced to slay him. After two or three hours of pursuit, the man would not yield; so Anderson made good on his word. He killed him. The audience then erupted with cries of “You did right” and “Hear, hear!” Anderson was heavy with regret. He contended that killing the man was a last resort, but a necessary one if he were to gain his freedom. Again, the audience erupted with affirmation, shouting “Bravo!” and “You did right.” Anderson concluded by stating that he was a Christian man and hoped that after the murder, he could still be considered a godly one. Once more, the crowd cheered and shouted, “It was a justifi­able act.” As he finished, the reverend chairman of the meeting stood at the podium and proclaimed, “John Ander­son did perfectly right. . . . Does our fugitive friend look like a murderer?” The response of the audience was a resounding, “Hear, hear” and “No, no.”

With the Civil War at hand, the days of moral suasion and nonresistance to slavery were over. Now, a fugitive slave could kill his pur­suer and produce excitement and applause among public audiences. He could even be considered a Christian.

During the 1830s, when the abolitionist movement began to formally organize, violence and even self-defense were off the table. William Lloyd Garrison, the founder of the American Antislavery Society and editor of the Liberator, led the movement in its ideology of pacifism and a belief in the tenets of moral suasion. He believed that slaveholders could be morally persuaded to rid themselves and our country of the evils of slavery. Garrison was a “turn the other cheek” kind of leader, wholly invested in a nonviolent demise for slavery.

When the white abolitionist leader and printer Elijah Lovejoy was threatened by mob attacks, he picked up his gun in self-defense. His press had been destroyed by anti-abolitionist mobs several times before. In November 1837, when the mob came to his door once more, Lovejoy failed to run off the crowds of proslavery combatants. Lovejoy was murdered at the hands of the mob. When abolitionists circles attempted to present Lovejoy as a martyr, Garrison declared that he was a martyr, but strictly speaking, he was not a “Christian Martyr.”

Yet black abolitionists were never completed wedded to Garrison’s strict policy of moral suasion. A year after Lovejoy’s murder, the black community in Alton, where Lovejoy was murdered, faced similar mob attacks. In response, they began to collect arms in a local hall to protect their community. As time progressed, black leadership increasingly rejected Garrison’s pacifist principles, insisting instead that self-defense was a God-given right. They argued that since slavery was birthed in violence and sustained by violence, it could only be abolished with more violence. In roughly twenty years, black abolitionists’ perspective gained momentum and the movement went from cautiously celebrating a man who died at the hands of a mob—but was not considered a “Christian martyr”—to cheering for a man who killed his pursuer as divinely sanctioned.

In the history of the movement to abolish slavery, scholars have given little attention to the shift toward violence among black abolitionists and the rising influence of this perspective in the abolitionist movement. But black resistance, and in particular, violent resistance, was central to emancipation. My recently published book, Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence, actively examines one of the perennial questions in political thought: is violence a valid means of producing social change?

Specifically, I address how black abolitionists in the decades before the Civil War answered this question. Too often, historians have minimized or neglected altogether the role that violence played in the coming of the war. At some level, this is because Americans do not like to imagine that the war’s moral compass—abolitionists—could have embraced violence as a necessary and arguably justified means toward their goals. At another level, too, there is a propensity among Americans to privilege the performance of nonviolence and deny the possibility and utility of violence as the great accelerator in American emancipation. Reflecting this disinclination, scholars have largely examined the abolitionist movement in the U.S. as a nonviolent endeavor.

Yet we can challenge this approach through a focus on black abolitionists, who, I argue, had a profound understanding of the idea, experience and value of violence. Indeed, the major theme of Force and Freedom—which focuses both on black abolitionists’ centrality to the US abolitionist movement and on their embrace of violence as a key element in achieving social change—could just as easily be understood as force for freedom. Although neglected in the study of antislavery, the paradox of using force and violence to bring about freedom and ensure peace is common within our own Western political context. Violence is the double-edged sword of democracy. In the quest for freedom, violence becomes a necessary liberating force when it is the only remaining option. Understanding political violence is often about understanding an ideology of last resorts. In many ways, my study is an analysis of an ideology of “last resorts” among black Americans.

The endorsement of physical and political violence among black abolitionists was a recycled strategy derived from four basic principles. First, fugitive slaves believed they were justified in using violence to protect their freedom just as much as the American and Haitian revolutionaries had been in securing theirs. For black abolitionists, the American and Haitian Revolutions were more than a set of principles: they were precedents. In a letter published in Frederick Douglass’s newspaper the North Star, fugitive slaves declared, “If the American revolutionists had excuse for shedding but one drop of blood, then have the American slaves excuse for making blood to flow ‘even unto the horse-bridles.’” Second, black abolitionists justified self-defense and collective defense. In response to the Fugitive Slave Law, which enabled slaveowners to pursue their “property” with the backing of the Federal government, Frederick Douglass appealed to the natural law of self-preservation. He declared that “to act to enslave a fellow man is to declare war against him and to endow him with the right to war—the liberty to kill his aggressor.” Black vigilance groups and protection societies were composed of men and women who operated on this premise as well. They resolved to aid their brethren from slavecatchers even at the risk of their own lives.

Third, practically speaking, the fugitive slave had no rights and was not given the opportunity to testify or present evidence, which left men and women with few alternatives. Many black abolitionists who wanted America to be their home believed that physical violence was the only means of solidifying their citizenship. Fourth, abolitionists argued that the principles of the Fugitive Slave Law contradicted the laws of God. Indeed, the biblical scripture proclaimed: “Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee.” Black leader Jermain Loguen was a fugitive slave turned station master on the Underground Railroad. He declared, “I owe my freedom to the God who made me, and who stirred me to claim it against all other beings in God’s universe. I received my freedom from Heaven, and with it came the command to defend my title to it.” For an enslaved people who survived on biblical principles, such scripture carried significant meaning and may have been their most important tenet.

For too long, historians—and the general public following scholars’ cues—have looked at the abolitionist movement as a “white man’s struggle” to end slavery. I hope the field will continue to move black abolitionists from the periphery to the center of abolitionist historiography. Even more, I hope the field will move beyond the celebrity of Frederick Douglass to highlight less familiar leaders who risked their lives to bring about the “day of jubilee.” I hope the field will feature more stories highlighting the complexities of black humanity, as not merely “slaves” or “fugitives,” but as men and women striving for equality and perfecting our union.

Throughout history there is an unfair expectation that white men can employ violence to “defend democracy,” but black Americans, people of color, and women should always be nonviolent. We discuss the Underground Railroad solely in terms of heroic acts of escape; but fleeing often required fighting. Not talking about the embrace of force by black abolitionists can feel dishonest. It can make it seem like the Civil War was a spontaneous and unfortunate outcome. But human bondage is warfare. The enslaved have been at war ever since they were placed in bondage. I hope the field will explore the agonizing decisions and strategies of those charged with the grueling task of creating political and social reform without an official (or recognized) political voice. A retreat from engaging in a complex understanding of the political purposes of violence limits both how we see and make use of the past. Accordingly, the ways in which black abolitionists utilized violence deserve a more sustained and nuanced analysis. Frederick Douglass once said, “The American public…discovered and accepted more truth in our four years of Civil War than they learned in forty years of peace.” The truth held in violence is an invaluable lesson that hopefully, if learned, need not be repeated.

-Kellie Carter Jackson

Kellie Carter Jackson is a 19th century historian in the Department of Africana Studies at Wellesley College. She is the author of Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019) and co-editor of Reconsidering Roots: Race, Politics, & Memory (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2017). Carter Jackson was also featured in the History Channel’s documentary, Roots: A History Revealed which was nominated for a NAACP Image Award in 2016.

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