The Philosophy of Force
Our white brethren cannot understand us unless we speak to them in their own language; they recognize only the philosophy of force.
—James McCune Smith
Since August 1, 1834, free black Americans often celebrated Emancipation Day with parades, food, bazaars, and speeches, much like the Fourth of July. While the day marked the legal abolition of slavery in the British West Indies, it also represented what was possible for America: the eventual nonviolent abolition of slavery. However, for the well-known physician and abolitionist James McCune Smith, August 1 was incomplete, at best, and a farce, at worst. He refused to celebrate the holiday and criticized those who did. The son of former slaves, McCune Smith wrote an essay that appeared in Frederick Douglass Paper
in August 1856. In the essay, he condemned British emancipation as merely a faulty compromise between slaves and their white masters, whom the British government generously compensated for their loss of property, thereby legitimizing the notion that slaves were less than human. Yet the government made virtually no effort to compensate the enslaved. "A paltry twenty thousand pounds was appropriated for the education of the freed men," McCune Smith lamented. "That is all given to the former slave in consideration of the robbery and embruting [sic
] which has been perpetuated on him for centuries."
What vexed McCune Smith the most was the notion that British emancipation had been "a boon conferred" rather than "a right seized upon and held." Consequently, he mocked celebrants by mimicking an old 1848 blackface minstrel song, "Masa gib me holiday." Were black Americans to hope for abolition as a gift from slave owners acting of their own free will? 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. "Our freedom must be won and the sooner we wake up to the fact, the better," he warned his readers.
Harkening back to the electric feeling that inspired numerous slave rebellions, McCune Smith subsequently praised leaders such as Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, and the brave men and women who fought during the Christiana Resistance of 1851. These violent acts effectively shed light on the future of black Americans, he contended. "Our white brethren cannot understand us unless we speak to them in their own language; they recognize only the philosophy of force," he explained. According to McCune Smith, expecting white Americans to embrace black humanity required physical engagement. "They will never recognize our manhood until we knock them down a time or two," he exclaimed. Black resistance and violence was central to understanding their antidote to American slavery.
Force and Freedom
In the history of the movement to abolish slavery, the shift toward violence among African Americans remains largely unaddressed. In addition, the ways in which black abolitionists utilized violence deserves a more sustained and nuanced analysis. Black resistance was central to abolitionism. Accordingly, 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, this study addresses how black abolitionists answered this question. Black abolitionist ideology not only explains how the politics of violence paved the way for the Civil War, but how the politics of violence helped prepare the nation to view black people as equal Americans with inalienable rights. Force and Freedom is the first of its kind to offer a close look at the complex and varied ways violence was deployed by antebellum black activists.
While praising the efforts of a few notable men and women abolitionists, most contemporary discussions of the subject routinely lament that nothing good can come from political violence. On the contrary, few good things can be acquired from those in power except by force, often violent force. 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. Within the field, there is a propensity to privilege the performance of nonviolence and deny the possibility and utility of violence as the great accelerator in American emancipation.
Historiography typically follows the chronological pattern of moral suasion in the 1830s, political abolition in the 1840s, and separatism and emigration in the 1850s. Some historians see the shift from moral suasion to violence as one of declension, with African Americans giving in to despair in the wake of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Others see the antebellum period as the moment in which the maturation of a black nationalist consciousness calcified. I align my work with the more recent scholarship of Manisha Sinha, Patrick Rael, Matthew Clavin, and W. Caleb McDaniel, who see this moment as part of the creation of an alternative revolutionary tradition in an age of revolution. I see black abolitionism as a movement that began almost at the inception of Atlantic world slavery and understood the idea and experience of violence more than any other group.
Force and Freedom examines the political and social tensions preceding the American Civil War, as well as the conditions that led many black abolitionists to believe slavery could be abolished only through violent measures. By exploring black abolitionists' shift from a campaign of moral persuasion in the 1830s to their push for more combative and violent strategies to end American slavery in the 1850s, I explain the various moments that cultivated their desire for force. The purpose of this study is fourfold: First, I draw scholarly attention to why black abolitionist leaders prioritized violence over nonviolence as a means for liberation. Second, I explore the factors that precipitated and accelerated this change of perspective toward the use of violence. Third, I address the ways in which black leaders arrived at a place of mutual agreement, differing with the tactics of various white abolitionist leaders who evoked and employed violence. Fourth, I reveal how the expanding influence of the black abolitionist movement—from its early orators, to the black press, to the formation of militia groups—illustrates the power of black abolitionists to mobilize their communities, compel national action, and draw international attention. Within the racially charged context of antebellum America, I draw attention to the immense importance of violence to imagining emancipation and, in turn, freedom into being.
Force and Freedom could just as easily be expressed as force for freedom. 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, this study is an analysis of "last resorts" among black Americans. This study asks: should the enslaved or free black people be forced to obey laws that do not grant them the rights to shape such laws?
Throughout the book, I refer to violence as political or use the phrase "political violence," by which I mean forceful or deadly acts that operate around a political agenda or motivation to produce change. I understand history as struggles for power and contestations over meaning, influence, and governance. Everything about slavery and its abolition was contested. White planters and politicians perceived abolitionists' and African Americans' aggression as a threat to their own power. And though some scholars may not recognize leaders of slave rebellions or black abolitionists as politicians, their roles were indeed political.
Additionally, violence became a political language for African American abolitionists. That is to say, black leaders addressed how violence became a way of communicating and provoking political and social change. Along the lines of McCune Smith's "philosophy of force," imagining violence as a language helps scholars of nineteenth-century African American history understand both how power is maintained and how power is disseminated through conventional and unconventional channels.
The era of revolutions set an early example for understanding violence as both a rhetorical and physical weapon to maintain the status quo, as well as the means to overthrow it. The historian François Furstenberg argues that, during the nineteenth century, Patrick Henry's famous mandate "Give me liberty or give me death" was the greatest revolutionary slogan of all time. Thus the idea among black abolitionists that freedom denied should be taken by force was not new. The contagious egalitarian language of the eighteenth and nineteenth century erupted in a set of expectations and bore serious consequences. The revolutionary rhetoric and force deployed by the Founding Fathers offered black abolitionists an opportunity to present themselves as equal men whose struggle mirrored that of American revolutionaries. Inadvertently, the Founding Fathers supplied the language and ideology for black abolitionists to rationalize a violent overthrow of slavery. Meanwhile, Haitian revolutionaries provided the precedent.
The successful overthrow of slavery during the Haitian Revolution supplied the first example of a black revolutionary victory achieved through violence. For black abolitionists, an independent Haiti represented the impossible made possible. The Haitian Revolution, and the slave rebellions more generally, served to illustrate the fact that political violence was a direct and inevitable consequence of slavery and oppression. Black abolitionists offered the Haitian Revolution as a constant reminder of how they could overthrow the institution of slavery in America. For the enslaved and black leadership, violence as a political language meant that Haiti was more than a noun; it was a verb. These examples imbued black Americans with the confidence to assert that equality and authority was not divine, hereditary, or accidental but that most societies and individual conditions could be logically engineered. In other words, a radical change in society and social structure could be produced, even by those possessing the least access to power. Thus violence had a democratizing effect; it created opportunities for any enslaved or oppressed free person to engage in a political and physical pushback to their oppressive conditions. In short, black resistance to slavery offered Americans an opportunity to perfect democracy.
The son of former slaves, James Theodore Holly was an abolitionist who later emigrated to the island of Haiti, which became its own black independent nation in 1803. 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. For Holly, revolutions required a sense of legitimacy greater than the 1773 Tea Act. In other words, "a three pence per pound tax on tea" was not a sufficient grievance. With an equal level of seriousness and humor, he wrote, "The obstacles to surmount, and the difficulties to contend against, in the American revolution, when compared to those of the Haytian, were, (to use a homely but classic phrase,) but a 'tempest in a teapot.'" For black abolitionists, the American and Haitian Revolutions involved more than a set of enlightened principles: each provided the rationale and means through which to accomplish abolition.
Many black leaders began to argue that violent political discourse was completely in line with American religious traditions and early liberal republican views. In a letter published in the North Star, for example, 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.'" For them, words such as "freedom," "liberty," "resistance," and "slavery" created dichotomies that functioned and thrived on urgency. Phrases used during the revolution, such as "rebellion to tyrants was obedience to God" and the well-known axiom "he who would be free must himself strike the first blow," carried with them a set of beliefs that, for those yearning for their own freedom, connected politics and political discourse with violence.
During the 1830s, the formal beginning of the abolitionist movement emerged out of a sense of religious fervor and optimism. Spiritual revival and a belief that Christ's return was imminent engendered a second Great Awakening, which influenced the belief among abolitionists that moral suasion coupled with nonviolent resistance was the best and surest way to abolish slavery. Many of the early abolitionists believed that moral suasion would work to end slavery.
The white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison emerged as a leading proponent of nonviolent ideology and nonpolitical action within the antislavery movement. In the face of angry mobs, arson attacks, and other acts of brutality, Garrison instructed abolitionists to "turn the other cheek." And, for some time, they did. All efforts outside nonresistance were shunned, even in self-defense. Yet, twenty years into the abolitionist movement, American slavery had expanded, the enslaved population had doubled, and abolitionists were no closer to freedom than when they began the American Antislavery Society in 1833. For black leadership, the notion of nonresistance popularized by Garrison had all but collapsed. During the two decades, abolitionists devoted to the campaign for emancipation and leaders of the antislavery movement had become morally exhausted. At each turn, it appeared that the Slave Power—a term used to describe the dominating political, economic, and social influence of slaveholders—wielded unlimited control over the fate of black Americans. Effectively, none of the new laws established during the antebellum period served to revive abolitionist optimism.
If nonviolent resistance and moral suasion constructed the house that Garrison built, black Americans were merely renters. They never fully owned nonresistance principles. Within the movement, black abolitionists, black freedmen, and the enslaved were most susceptible to the brunt of proslavery violence. When white antiabolitionist mobs attacked, it was predominantly black businesses, homes, and churches that were destroyed. Antiabolitionist mobs regarded any institution in the black community as a target of political, economic, and social competition. For example, Philadelphia, "the City of Brotherly Love," experienced seven major antiblack and antiabolitionist riots over the course of the 1830s and 1840s. Even the state of Maine, with its extremely small black population, experienced antiabolitionist aggression. These violent acts and sentiments inspired an increased militancy among black abolitionists. Simply put, force emerged because moral suasion failed to protect black people and produce liberation.
For abolitionists, the world changed after 1850. With the passing of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, it was not difficult to abandon moral suasion in the face of a slave catcher. For former and fugitive slaves, pacifism was no longer an ideology they could afford. Even freeborn black leaders all claimed they were prepared to resort to arms in defiance of the Fugitive Slave Law and the Supreme Court's 1857 decision in the Dred Scott case, which voided any rights African Americans held as enslaved or free people. As conditions declined for black Americans, black abolitionists grew more isolated and began to warn people that violence was inevitable. With tensions rising, in 1859 a radical abolitionist newspaper, the Anglo-African Magazine, boldly declared that, eventually, Americans would have to choose between facing the bloodiest slave rebellion by black Americans or the armed attacks by white allies: "So, people of the South, people of the North! Men and brethren, choose ye which method of emancipation you prefer—Nat Turner or John Brown's."
The strategy of abolition was a long and winding road. A moral campaign alone required a change of the heart, conscience, and will. An abolitionist campaign with a political bent called for a restructuring of power and political systems. The abolition of slavery had to both stand for morality and institute real social and political change. Accordingly, the history of abolition through the lens of black leadership is one of the best ways to understand how radical social movements compel and produce political change.
The willingness among black abolitionist leaders to embrace violence was not merely a result of frustration but, after years of practicing nonresistance under white leadership, a calculated pivot. While black radical authors such as David Walker and Henry Highland Garnet served as publishing pioneers, they were not exceptional in their regard for the utility of force. Lewis Hayden, Jermain Loguen, Harriet Tubman, Robert Purvis, Maria Stewart, Peter H. Clark, and many others believed in armed defense and armed resistance to combat the institution of slavery. But the moment of transition from moral suasion to violence was different for each activist and was inspired by personal experience as well as political philosophy. For Frederick Douglass, the constant threat of mob attacks compelled him to engage in physical altercations with several men in Pendleton, Indiana, marking a shift in his philosophy of nonviolence. For Charles Remond, the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 required that abolitionists reimagine their positions on violence in the face of recapture or kidnapping. For William Parker, region was a factor. Living in close proximity to the border states demanded constant vigilance against slave catchers. For Lewis Hayden, witnessing the recapture of the fugitive slave Anthony Burns in Boston brought him to commit murder. All throughout the movement, the complexity of the abolitionist's offensive and defensive strategy was both multifaceted and fluid. Distinguishing what some black abolitionists viewed as the inevitability of violence and implementing such violence were two very different processes.
Within the historiography, there is also a propensity to gender violence as masculine and gender slave owners as male, but more often than reported, women employed similar motivations for force. Few black women publicly challenged traditional family norms or spoke contrary to nonresistance during the first two decades of the antislavery movement. But gradually, the political climate gave rise to women's need to address their grievances. Women's contributions to the antislavery movement at all levels cannot be underestimated. By the 1850s, leading abolitionist women, including Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Sarah Remond, Harriet Purvis, and Sojourner Truth, assumed stronger stances in the aid of fugitive slaves and self-defense. It is well recorded that Harriet Tubman and other women were not above packing a pistol for their journeys out of bondage. Black women confronted slave catchers, corroborated on collective and protective violence, and even contemplated emigration in search of better opportunities outside the United States. The difficult decisions being made by black families required shared sacrifice. Within my work, I examine women's responses not separately, but collectively, within a movement that pivoted equally on their influence, rhetoric, and action.
Centering Black Abolitionists in the Movement
This significant shift among black leadership, particularly post-1850, allows a new interpretation of black protest thought. The entire decade created a space for black abolitionists to convince their white allies that moral suasion was insufficient to combat the Slave Power. Black leadership believed that "protective violence," or self-defense among black abolitionists and their allies, as well as the threat of violence disrupted Northern apathy and heightened Southern paranoia. Slaveholders had used force and violence to exploit black Americans, and, in return, black Americans recognized the necessity of engaging force and violence to express and combat their powerlessness. Furthermore, black leadership pushed the North to see that an antislavery war was better than a proslavery peace.
More than an account of the ideologies and actions of politicians, this book reveals how the enslaved and black leaders used force to engage and expand a political agenda. It is neither about the divisive and reductive political factions of eastern abolitionists versus western abolitionists nor about Garrisonians versus political abolitionists. For too long these binaries have placed more attention on white oppositional ideologies. This work focuses on how black leadership served as the engine for the movement and set the tone for envisioning freedom and enfranchisement.
Moving black abolitionists from the periphery to the center of abolitionist historiography highlights the influence of black activism in accelerating violence at the local, state, and national levels. Several scholars have contended that most antebellum studies that focus on black Americans offer an institutional approach that examines the larger causes, connections, and consequences of slavery. Because of this view, there is a tendency to analyze black Americans collectively or solely in the context of their relationship to slavery in the South or to segregation in the North. While this method has added greatly to historical scholarship and our understanding of the past, it does not do enough to examine black people as individuals, as "whole and complex persons." This approach, in turn, prevents readers from appreciating the humanity of black people. The difficult decision for black Americans to consider political violence over moral suasion invokes a sense of silenced humanity. Force and Freedom takes readers beyond the honorable polities of moral suasion and the romanticism of the Underground Railroad and into an exploration of the agonizing decisions, strategies, and actions of those charged with the arduous task of creating political and social reform without an official (or recognized) political voice.
Force and Freedom not only reveals why black abolitionists mattered in the antislavery movement but also charts their broader significance to American history. Black abolitionists were instrumental as both the subjects and founders of the antislavery movement. Black leaders served as the primary catalysts for recruiting white followers to abolitionism and for investing the movement with its dual commitment to ending slavery and ending racism. Yet, aside from Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, black abolitionists are routinely forgotten in public memory. Manisha Sinha contends that, within previous historiography, there has been a tendency to look at American abolitionism as composed largely of white men who promoted moral suasion on the one hand and paternalism on the other. Slavery has been generalized as a "white man's burden" to eradicate evil. This notion presents a myopic view of history in which the struggle of black men and women is erased from the quest for freedom. Sinha rightly observes, "The roots of black abolitionist historiography that dealt with the growth of black radical tradition and African American's intellectual engagement with the problems of slavery and racism lay firmly among black abolitionists themselves." With their contributions, America was forced to face the rights of black people as a national priority for the first time.
The Influence of Black Abolitionists Over Time
Additionally, Force and Freedom has larger implications for understanding social and political movements across time. Abolitionists expanded how people understood human rights. Reforms in the realms of, but not limited to, gender, labor, capital, citizenship, criminality, empire, and nation all owe a debt to the efforts and tactics that abolitionists championed. In the long trajectory of black freedom struggles, black abolitionists remain the standard by which scholars have examined the Civil Rights movement, the Black Power movement, and even Black Lives Matter. In the twentieth century, we might see similar language concerning the promotion of armed black self-defense in Robert F. Williams's 1962 text, Negroes with Guns and his disagreements with the nonviolent strategists of the Civil Rights movement. Much like the David Walker of his time, Williams's remarks and writing were largely rejected, but that does not lessen the fact that black activists have always understood violence politically and rhetorically. In fact, in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech entitled "The Other America," in which he declared, "A riot is the language of the unheard." Though King remained committed to "militant, powerful, massive, nonviolence as the most potent weapon" in the struggle for justice and freedom, he also remained empathetic to the struggle for survival facing black people in the United States. He explained how oppressive conditions left individuals with few alternatives. Meanwhile, engaging in violent rebellions was the fastest way to generate a response to their oppression. To this day, riots, rebellion, and violence serve as usable a past for historians. Riots are public. Riots are chaotic. Riots have a way of magnifying not merely flaws in the system but also the strength of those in opposition.
From the beginning of the antislavery movement, abolitionists understood this concept well. The ideological stance in the writings and speeches of the antislavery activists William Wells Brown, Maria Stewart, Charles Remond, and Mary Shadd Cary, to name a few, could just as easily have been sentiments echoed by contemporary civil rights leaders a hundred years later. The phrase "freedom now" was never more urgent than in the decades leading up to the Civil War. The radical nature of the abolitionist movement was apparent, and referring to someone as an "abolitionist" was tantamount to labeling someone a Communist in the 1950s. Likewise, it is difficult to understand contemporary social movements without acknowledging the framework early black reformers provided.
Moving chronologically, each chapter of Force and Freedom addresses the critical buildup to the Civil War and the pivotal circumstances that influenced political violence. Chapter 1 examines the limitations of nonviolence by charting the rise and decline of moral suasion and Garrisonian nonresistance in the 1830s and 1840s, as well as the circumstances that led black abolitionists to become frustrated with moral suasion. Chapter 2 begins with a description of the much-deplored Fugitive Slave Law and the factors that led many black Americans to choose "fight or flight" in the face of slave catchers. Aside from invigorating a waning antislavery movement, the Fugitive Slave Law's greatest contribution was its ability to accelerate antebellum political violence, particularly in Boston, New York, and the border state of Pennsylvania, among other locales. Chapter 3 spans the years of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Dred Scott Supreme Court case and addresses the political struggles black abolitionists endured while trying to implement aggressive strategies of force and political violence. Chapter 4 explores John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry and black involvement in the ill-fated campaign. While the biographical works on Brown are too numerous to count, little work has been conducted regarding the powerful and subversive ways African Americans influenced and invested in Brown's attempt to bring about radical change. The fifth and final chapter highlights black abolitionist responses on the eve of the Civil War. National partisanship proved to be one of the greatest factors in determining the pace at which abolitionists pushed for reform, and in many ways it foreshadowed the war. Both free and enslaved black Americans exerted a powerful influence on the social and political landscape in the period leading up to the Civil War and forever altered the trajectory of American history and American protest movements.
* * *
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." While black reformers continually regarded emancipation as a starting point, for many the core of white supremacy was not chattel slavery, but antiblackness. Combating the political, economic, and social power of white people meant overturning the system that required the degradation of black people and the promotion of whiteness. To this day, Easton's warning feels timely.
If those in power can speak a language based only on the philosophy of force, then the acquisition of equal rights will always require rethinking nonviolence. In some ways, McCune Smith's words were prophetic: black men and women in the United States won their freedom with their own hands. They stole away themselves and their loved ones, physically fought against their enemies, and lost many battles, but they won the war. Some gave the ultimate sacrifice, only finding freedom through death. They continually proved their own humanity in the face of a barbaric system. However, McCune Smith's final proclamation proved shortsighted. He believed that after black people gave their enemies a good fight, white Americans would "hug us as men and brethren." He called this brutish reconciliation a "holy love of human brotherhood which fills our hearts and fires our imagination." While, in the end, North and South were reunited as one, white Northerners and Southerners extended a hand of holy love and human brotherhood only to each other. Black Americans were never welcomed into this family. In freedoms won and in freedoms given, the day of "holy love of human brotherhood" has not yet arrived.