Force and Freedom

Title: Force and Freedom

Author: Kellie Carter Jackson

Completed: Nov 2021

Overview: Such a fascinating look at US history in the lead up to the civil war. With so many history lessons focusing on the advances made towards civil rights through nonviolent means, it was insightful to see how much violence and the threat of violence led to the abolition of slavery here. Showing how many leaders started with nonviolent means until they saw the limited success of such measures, it made me wonder what I would be willing to set aside pacifistic means to accomplish. When is a moral wrong so egregious and the perpetrator so unmoved by moral suasion that you are left with no other option?


  • According to McCune Smith, true freedom could not be bestowed; it had to be won. Violent upheaval was “the order of things.” Teaching children to celebrate given freedom needed to stop, he insisted, as this was not the kind of freedom worth having.
  • is violence a valid means of producing social change?
  • In the 1850s, in pointing to the hypocrisy of American independence, Holly described the inspiration that Haiti offered to black reformers. “The revolution of this country [America] was only the revolt of a people already comparatively free, independent, and highly enlightened,” he posited. Meanwhile, “the Haitian Revolution was a revolt of an uneducated and menial class of slaves, against their tyrannical oppressors who not only imposed an absolute tax on their unrequited labor, but also usurped their very bodies.” Holly did not believe that American colonists could rightly call themselves oppressed.
  • 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.’
  • When the black abolitionist and minister Joshua Easton spoke at a Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society meeting in 1837, he declared, “Abolitionists may attack slaveholding, but there is a danger still that the spirit of slavery will survive, in the form of prejudice, after the system is overturned. Our warfare ought not to be against slavery alone, but against the spirit which makes color a mark of degradation.”
  • In 1835, the American Anti-Slavery Society issued a statement promising not to give the “slightest aid to slave insurrections.” The group claimed that if they could reach the enslaved, “they would advise them to be quiet and peaceful.”21 Abolitionists supported the model of peaceful British emancipation in the West Indies, even though rebellion had been the primary catalyst for emancipation. The Baptist War was the largest and most violent slave rebellion in Jamaican history.
  • Such leaders encouraged enslaved people to be patient. In 1835, the Massachusetts Antislavery Society affirmed that the enslaved would be redeemed “by the patient endurance in their wrongs . . . the slaves will hasten the day of their peaceful deliverance from the yoke of bondage . . . whereas by violent and bloody measures they will prolong their servitude, and expose themselves to destruction.”26 Moral suasion was intended to make the slave owner fear not the enslaved, but God.
  • If a movement of black and white abolitionists was to be successful, compromise was paramount. Black leaders were willing to set aside violence for white abolitionists who were willing to set aside colonization.
  • Overall, the limitations of nonviolence were fourfold: first, nonresistance demonstrated that white elites were out of touch with the concerns of the black community. Continued discrimination, disenfranchisement, kidnappings, unemployment, growing segregation, and increased violence plagued black communities. Often black success courted violence. Real change that would result in a new social structure required more than verbal persuasion or moral elevation by African Americans. For black Americans to obtain the right to vote, own land, or maintain a living wage, they needed political and economic intervention. Second, moral suasion failed because it required the unstated assumption that black people were equal. Despite black success in the pulpit and the press, black Americans could not convince their counterparts to abandon racial prejudices. Peter Paul Simmons argued that the only thing moral reform had achieved was in creating “a conspicuous scarecrow designed expressly . . . to hinder our people from acting collectively for themselves.”102 In other words, moral suasion was nothing more than an emotional decoy that could never sufficiently frighten or endanger slaveholders and the institution of slavery. Even William Whipper, a proud advocate for moral suasion, lamented that it was “not for lack of elevation, but complexion that deprived the man of color equal treatment.”103 Third, given the longevity and prosperity of slavery, abolitionists were not speaking to a waning slave economy built on tobacco at the end of the eighteenth century. Cotton was king and its economic stronghold dictated not only the life expectancy of the enslaved (life expectancy rates among the enslaved rose and fell with the price of cotton) but also the political power of slaveholders to secure its dominance. Economically, nonviolence could do nothing to curb the world’s insatiable demand for cotton. As the enslaved population grew, the only threat planters feared was rebellion. Fourth, and finally, the principles and rhetoric of republican ideology, which included calls to take up arms against tyranny, were powerful.
  • life expectancy rates among the enslaved rose and fell with the price of cotton
  • Overall, the limitations of nonviolence were fourfold: first, nonresistance demonstrated that white elites were out of touch with the concerns of the black community.
  • Second, moral suasion failed because it required the unstated assumption that black people were equal.
  • Third, given the longevity and prosperity of slavery, abolitionists were not speaking to a waning slave economy built on tobacco at the end of the eighteenth century. Cotton was king
  • Fourth, and finally, the principles and rhetoric of republican ideology, which included calls to take up arms against tyranny, were powerful.
  • Freedoms given would always play second fiddle to freedoms won. Waiting for slavery to simply end of its own accord or out of the benevolence of planters proved fruitless.
  • collective defense led to the development of black vigilance groups determined to protect fugitives and even seek out kidnappers who threatened to return them.
  • The government was quick to arrest suspected conspirators, including Hayden and the famed black lawyer Robert Morris, along with two other black men, James Scott and John Foyce, for the Shadrach rescue. The American Antislavery Society posted $3,000 as bail for Hayden, while the vigilance committee collected contributions for lawyers. Though the federal prosecutors did everything in their power to select jury members who favored the Fugitive Slave Law, the case was declared a mistrial because of one juror who held out for a not guilty verdict. Everyone was dismissed and free to go. About a year after the trial, Richard Henry Dana, a lawyer for the accused men, happened to meet a former juror who explained to him why it would have been impossible for the prosecution to win a conviction: “I was the twelfth juror in the case,” he declared, “and I was the man who drove Shadrach over the [state] line.”
  • In 1854, Remond spoke before the New England Anti-Slavery Convention, largely about the recent Anthony Burns controversy. Remond admitted, “I know, Mr. Chairman, that I am not, as a general thing, a peacemaker. I am irritable, excitable, quarrelsome—I confess it.” However, Remond added, “My prayer to God is, that I may never cease to be irritable, that I may never cease to be excitable, that I may never cease to be quarrelsome, until the last slave shall be made free in our country, and the colored man’s manhood acknowledged.”
  • In 1855, during the March election of a territorial legislature, Missourians flooded into the territory to vote in their slaveholding interests. All throughout the territory, voter intimidation was rampant at the polls. Armed Missourians threatened voters and election officials who hailed from free states. When proslavery candidates were elected, many understood the result to be fraudulent. How else could a territory of 2,905 eligible voters cast more than 5,000 ballots? Critics referred to the outcome as the Bogus Legislature.
  • While Free Soilers and Republicans were playing defense in terms of slavery’s expansion, Radical Abolitionists were taking up an offensive stance. They refused to compromise with the Slave Power or with anyone who wanted to navigate around the issue of slavery. Furthermore, they firmly advocated for African American rights, including citizenship. They had big plans. The Radical Political Abolition Party was the first to have its national convention and name a black man to chair. In fact, McCune Smith was nominated for secretary of state. The party was not only concerned with black liberation but also with addressing the needs of oppressed peoples everywhere. They petitioned for an end to women’s status as second-class citizens, wanted to end the genocide of Native Americans, and even believed in the redistribution of political power and resources.
  • In 1849, he worked to integrate Massachusetts public schools and represented Sarah Roberts, a young black child whose landmark case opened up Boston schools for all children.
  • this chapter is not so much about Brown as it is about the silent and silenced influences that relegated black leaders to the periphery and propelled Brown to the center of a radical movement to end slavery. What might it do to envision Brown not as a leader of a single, anomalous event but as a follower of black revolutionary violence who put this tradition into practice? By examining the inspiration Brown drew from black leadership and what Harpers Ferry did to exacerbate the perception of black violence, we can pivot our understanding of radical abolitionism from white leaders who have been placed at the heart of heroism to a perspective that seats black leadership at the center of change.
  • Tubman successfully rescued some three hundred men, women, and children from bondage. She was known to have kept a pistol on her at all times and would not have hesitated to use it. Tubman would threaten to shoot not only any pursing person or dog but also any enslaved runaway who contemplated returning to the plantation to potentially spoil her rescue efforts. Story after story, witnesses testified to Tubman’s belief in the utility of force.
  • She stated that the enslaved were ready and willing to engage in a revolt with Brown’s help, but her information and troop-gathering efforts were thwarted. She recalled, “We arranged that when Brown made his stand at Harpers Ferry the negroes were to rise in every direction, but our plans were all knocked to pieces by Brown himself.”24 Brown began the raid before the agreed upon time.
  • How might the narrative of Brown’s raid change to know that it was in large part a black woman who made the entire raid possible? The greatest contribution was not the counsel and contributions of the Secret Six but those of a savvy black woman from California and the potential guidance of America’s Moses.
  • Copeland explained the contradictions between American freedom and American slavery. He saw the American Revolution as unfinished and cited the example of Crispus Attucks, reputed to be the first casualty of the American Revolution, noting, “The blood of black men flowed as freely as that of white men. Yes, the very first blood of black men flowed as freely as that of white men.” Copeland argued that while black men had done an equal share of the fighting for American independence, they were never truly compensated by being allowed to share in equal benefits for having done so.
  • In western Virginia, the selling of slaves rose substantially. From 1850 to 1860, the counties surrounding Harpers Ferry saw a 10 percent (nearly 1,600) decrease in the number of slaves. Though it cannot be proven, W. E. B. Du Bois suspected that the significant hike in the sale of slaves correlated with the raid.61 He contended that with such evidence, “there is no doubt that Osborne Anderson knew whereof he spoke, when he said that slaves were ready to cooperate.” The selling of slaves was also proof that no white slave owner believed in the innate docility of their property.
  • Douglass, who had fled the country for his protection, could now travel to the very place where Brown had committed the rebellion and speak of Brown as a martyr and a hero before an audience of Virginians. Furthermore, Douglass spoke without reserve in front of the very person who was responsible for Brown’s hanging: the Honorable Andrew Hunter, of Charlestown, the district attorney who prosecuted John Brown and secured his execution. He sat on the platform directly behind Douglass during the delivery of the entire address.73 At the close of the speech, Hunter shook hands with Douglass, congratulated him, and invited him to Charlestown (where John Brown was hanged), adding that if Robert E. Lee were still alive, he too would shake Douglass’s hand.
  • If Douglass had to put a white face on the poster of emancipation it would not be Lincoln’s, but Brown’s. Even though Douglass firmly believed that it was the contributions and force of black Americans that led, fought, and won the war, he also recognized the unspoken need for white Americans to see themselves as the face of liberty.
  • It [abolition] started to free the slave. . . . It ends by leaving the slave to free himself. —Frederick Douglass
  • if George Washington and his compatriots had been “justified in taking up arms,” then black Americans too, possessed a logical and legitimate right to resort to the same form of armed resistance.
  • In 1858, during a speech in Chicago, Abraham Lincoln declared, “I have always hated slavery, I think as much as any abolitionist.”24 Undoubtedly, many black abolitionists scoffed at his declaration. Though Lincoln believed the underlying principle of the party was antislavery, in his view, antislavery did not mean equality for black Americans. For black abolitionists, the potential election of Lincoln offered little hope.
  • When Lincoln gave his inaugural speech, he had no plans of abolishing slavery where it existed. Indeed, he clarified, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”39 In fact, Lincoln continued in his address to uphold the Fugitive Slave Law. As president, he publicly confessed that his priority was to preserve the Union—if necessary, at the expense of abolition. Lincoln, along with most of the country could not imagine a biracial society.
  • In fierce objection, Garrison charged: “Either blood must flow like water, or Mr. Lincoln and the North must back down, and confess that the American Union is dissolved beyond the power of restoration.”
  • Douglass contended that while white abolitionists formalized a movement to free the enslaved, it ended when the enslaved were left to free themselves. The abolitionist movement of the 1830s and 1840s championed given freedom, but slavery collapsed with freedoms won by the black Americans who fought against their oppressors and fled the fields en masse during the outbreak of war.
  • scholars have debated about the leading causes of the Civil War. Contemporary scholars such as W. E. B. Du Bois argued that black Americans sensed what was about to happen. He claimed, “All began carefully to watch the unfolding of the situation.” Even before the shot at Fort Sumter was fired, movement had begun across the border. Free and enslaved black Americans were fleeing to the North in unprecedented numbers. Du Bois estimated that roughly two thousand black Americans had left the state of North Carolina alone due to rumors of war.58 When the war began, it was the enslaved, not Southerners, who mobilized first.
  • By returning to Martin Luther King Jr.’s belief that “a riot is the language of the unheard,” black abolitionists have changed our understanding of violence to see that a revolution is the language of the empowered.59 Riots guarantee an audience, but revolutions require change.
  • Today many white Americans romanticize the Civil War era and even the Civil Rights movement, for its leaders’ radical ideas regarding nonviolence. However, until America reckons with the disturbing fact that freedom for black Americans has been largely achieved through violence, these invaluable lessons will remain largely untaught and wholly unlearned. Because of white supremacy, black Americans always knew freedom would require force. At the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives, slavery was abolished.