Who Freed the Slaves?

By Stephanie McCurry

A collection box of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, circa 1850. (Wikimedia)
A collection box of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, circa 1850. (Wikimedia)
In the epic battle between the forces of slavery and emancipation in the United States, power was on the side of the slaveholders. This much has always been clear, and never more so than now. To the history of the slave states’ near-monopoly of the federal government and foreign policy in the first republic, scholars and public intellectuals have recently added an accounting of how the money generated by slavery and cotton sluiced through the entire national economy. Profits extracted violently from the labor of the enslaved—4 million people of African descent in the United States in 1860—were the basis of a burgeoning American capitalism and, in that sense, of the new nation itself. It was the original pillaging of black lives and wealth, and it took a civil war and an existential threat to the United States to change that. Emancipation came by the sword. Any attempt to confront our current crisis as a nation takes us back to these foundational facts and brutal racial history.

What, then, of the abolitionists? Did they not weigh decisively in the national contest on the side of the slave? Manisha Sinha argues on their behalf in The Slave’s Cause. She is up against a lot. To make the case for the centrality of abolitionists to the emancipation of the slaves, she has to redeem the movement itself from insignificance and its participants from charges of racist paternalism and bourgeois self-interest. Fights about John Brown notwithstanding (was he a terrorist or merely insane?), little scholarship in the recent past has placed much emphasis on the abolitionists as a historical force. Indeed, Sinha calls them “the forgotten emancipationists.” But by far the most daunting challenge she faces is the fact that emancipation came only during the Civil War and the view, now widely held, that it wasn’t primarily the accomplishment of Abraham Lincoln or the Republican Party, but of the slaves themselves, precipitated by the actions they took inside the Confederacy and in their flight to Union lines. “Who freed the slaves?” the question goes. For some time, the answer has not been the abolitionists.

Sinha begs to differ. In The Slave’s Cause, she offers nearly 750 impassioned pages for considering abolitionism as a longstanding progressive force in American life. At stake, she insists, is nothing less than the “potential of democratic radicalism” itself. Hers is a “movement history,” an ambitiously comprehensive account of the abolition movement that reaches back to the American Revolution, “rejects conventional divisions between slave resistance and anti-slavery activism,” and focuses on black abolitionists as the key actors. It was a movement made up of “passionate outsiders,” a radical, interracial movement that addressed “the entrenched problems of exploitation and disenfranchisement in a liberal democracy and anticipated debates over race, labor and empire.” Sinha categorically rejects any criticism of the movement, including the Trinidadian historian Eric Williams’s influential argument that abolitionism arose with the political interests of new industrial capitalists, who sought to exploit free rather than slave labor. “If slavery is capitalism, as the currently fashionable historical interpretation has it,” Sinha writes, “the movement to abolish it is, at the very least, its obverse.” Abolitionists were antislavery but also anticapitalist, anti-imperialist, pro-feminist, and pro-labor. Their criticism of slavery and capitalism was so broad that it makes them the precursor to every progressive and radical movement of the 20th and 21st centuries: Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, civil rights, international human rights, Black Power, black nationalism, the NAACP, Pan-Africanism, the Wobblies, the Populists, the Popular Front, and the Knights of Labor. Her faith in the abolition movement is boundless and unreserved.

Sinha sees the history of abolition as the “ideal test case of how radical social movements generate engines of political change.” No doubt we could use some inspiration on that front. For the better part of a century, black and white abolitionists together took up the “slave’s cause.” In all of that time, Sinha tells us, the connection between “slave resistance and abolition in the United States proximate and continuous.” Moreover, she insists, “To reduce emancipation to an event precipitated by military crisis is to miss that long and rich history.” But however valuable the recovery of the movement’s history may be—including as a template for 21st-century progressives—the troubling question of causation persists: How far could a Northern movement backing the slave’s cause go toward the emancipation of the slaves themselves—not just the estimated 150,000 fugitives who made it to the North, but the 4 million men, women, and children still in the Southern states in 1860 and held fast in the slaveholders’ grip? How much could Northern radicals acting for the slave actually do to counter slaveholder power—until, that is, the Civil War, when the slaves could finally take their long war to destroy slavery directly to their masters? This is a pressing moral and historical dilemma not easily resolved, even by a true believer.

inha’s history of the abolition movement is rich and comprehensive, even to a fault. The movement unfolded over the course of a century in the cities, small towns, and countryside of the Northern states, and she aspires to cover it all. It certainly was an extended “drama in law, politics, literature and on-the-ground activism,” as she says; but for the most part, the drama of human struggle in the movement gets buried beneath the book’s encyclopedic level of detail. Sinha’s default narrative device is the summary list; her book thrums with ideas and arguments, but only the committed reader will stick it out.

Abolitionism came in two waves. It had its early origins in the religious conscience of a few Quakers—men like the French-born Philadelphian Anthony Benezet—but it really came to life in the era of the American and Haitian revolutions. This “first wave” of the movement would last until 1830; although it was interracial and transatlantic from the start, its driving force was the claim to personal freedom advanced by slaves themselves. It included many people, among them an estimated 20,000 runaway slaves from the Southern colonies, who tried to make it to British lines, to Spanish Florida, or to the Patriot armies in the Northern colonies. Those who made it and were not dispersed to the edges of the British Empire after the Revolutionary War became part of another antislavery force: the burgeoning population of free blacks, fugitives, and slaves in the North. Those still enslaved in places like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia also pursued every possible means to achieve freedom, including self-purchase, which involved spending the savings painfully accumulated from paltry earnings to buy themselves and their relatives out of slavery. They also took legal and political action, leaving a clear record of their own revolutionary ambitions. Deploying their one unassailable right, the right of petition, African-American men and women steadily inundated courts and legislatures with petitions for personal freedom throughout the 1770s and ’80s. “We expect great things from men who have made such a noble stand against the designs of their fellow-men to enslave them,” one freedom petitioner put it, sharply skewering the republican pretensions of men still insisting on the legitimacy of African slavery. This is the single greatest strength of The Slave’s Cause: the way it moves the black abolitionist tradition to its rightful place at the center of abolitionist history.

By the mid-1780s, these revolutionary efforts had paid off and all of the New England states and Pennsylvania had formally abolished slavery. A network of abolitionist societies was beginning to emerge, made up mostly of Quakers—but as in the case of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery and the New York Manumission Society, it also included prominent antislavery patriots like Benjamin Rush and Alexander Hamilton. Nonetheless, the protracted plans for abolition passed by the Northern states—which freed only those born after passage of the acts, and only after long terms of service to compensate their masters—meant that there were still significant numbers of people held as slaves (and plenty of slaveholders as well) in the North well into the 1820s, and in New Jersey, where the process was slowest, until the 1840s. Throughout that long Northern emancipation, the burden of advancing the slave’s cause was borne in no small measure by fragile Northern communities of free blacks and fugitives, people who had once been—or still were—slaves themselves, all menaced by a Fugitive Slave Act imposed as part of the constitutional bargain with slaveholders. None of the abolitionist societies had black members, though Sinha is at pains to show that despite this “de facto exclusion,” they formed strong connections with free black communities and institutions and helped educate the next generation of black leaders. At the very least, her generalizations about the interracial character of the movement would seem to require some temporal restraint.

As the South’s commitment to slavery and cotton deepened in the early Republic and the slaves’ resistance was forced underground, it was black abolitionists in the Northern states who kept the movement alive. As Sinha demonstrates, black abolition was a social movement with deep community roots. It was sustained by a rich web of institutions—churches, mutual-aid and burial societies, schools, and eventually a convention movement and independent newspapers—that simultaneously sought to protect and extend the rights of free blacks while agitating for the abolition of slavery. Among its leaders was James Forten, a founding member of the Philadelphia Free African Society, who petitioned Congress to rescind the Fugitive Slave Act and, in the early 1830s, bankrolled William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper The Liberator. These were “the first generation of ‘race men,'” as Sinha puts it. By the time of the crisis in 1820 over Missouri’s admission to the Union as a slave state, abolitionists were an organized force, influential enough to shape the restrictionist position in Congress. The movement was growing beyond its base in the black community—but in the first wave, notwithstanding some powerful white allies, black abolitionist men and women were its heart and soul.

That would never change. When William Lloyd Garrison set type on the first issue of The Liberator in 1831, inaugurating the second wave of the abolition movement, 450 of his 500 initial subscribers were African American. Garrison’s commitment to immediate, uncompensated emancipation and his rejection of colonization as any part of an antislavery strategy owed directly to the tradition of black abolition. Garrison’s organization, the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS), unlike earlier groups, was always deeply—and controversially—committed to interracial organizing, and it drew a contingent of highly principled white members, male and female, despite the social ostracism and personal danger involved in public advocacy of the slave’s cause.

Garrisonians pioneered new organizing tactics, including many that remained the go-to strategies of progressive movements until the age of social media: lecture tours, petition campaigns, lawsuits, movement publications, consumer boycotts, and civil disobedience. They built a network of local organizations that eventually reached every community in the Northeast and Midwest. African Americans joined the AASS, but they kept their own separate organizations and institutions as well, maintaining an unstinting commitment to abolition, black rights, and aid to fugitives over the long haul. They remained the sharpest point of abolitionist defense. Maria Chapman, editor of the antislavery journal Non-Resistant, said that a black abolitionist could convey in a few words an argument that would take a white man all day. She might have been thinking of Charles Lenox Remond, who once said that “complexion can in no sense be construed into crime, much less be rightfully made the criterion of rights.” These are words that outran their time and, sadly, ours as well.

For most of the antebellum period, black and white abolitionists were a “despised American minority” under constant attack. In 1838, when the newly married Angelina Grimké and a group of other women abolitionists insisted on holding the meeting of the Pennsylvania Female Anti-Slavery Society in the brand-new Philadelphia Hall, she and her African-American colleagues were attacked by an anti-abolition mob and the hall burned to the ground. It took no small amount of personal courage for anybody to speak on behalf of the slave, to organize across the color line, and to insist on the right of women to do so as well. The violence was ever-present and life-threatening: Abolitionist presses were destroyed, editors killed, speakers assaulted, black orphanages and schools burned, people beaten within an inch of their lives. Garrison took to publishing the death threats he received in his paper. Working in the cause of the slave was a profoundly radicalizing experience, one that evolved into a defense of women’s and human rights. “Human Rights not Founded on Sex,” Angelina Grimké memorably proclaimed. Slavery is “the greatest possible violation of human rights,” maintained the short-lived monthly AASS journal Human Rights.

By the 1840s, the movement had experienced a series of bitter schisms. Not all abolitionists could embrace a broad radical agenda, especially women’s rights, and many did not approve of Garrison’s turn toward nonresistance, with its renunciation of partisan politics. One wing of the movement split off and turned to third-party politics, attempting to build a force that could counter the power of slaveholders in the national Democratic Party. Throughout the entire antebellum period, the issue of fugitive slaves—runaways like Frederick Douglass and shipboard rebels like those on The Amistad—inflamed controversy north and south and roiled the political waters. “Slave rebels and runaways put slavery on trial,” Sinha rightly insists.

The passage of a new Fugitive Slave Act as part of the congressional compromise of 1850 pushed the movement into a more militant phase. The law was a devastating development for ostensibly free blacks in the North, who met it with a strategy of armed resistance. The terms of the law made Northern officials and civilians responsible for its enforcement, thereby implicating them in the capture and return of fugitive slaves. Efforts to enforce the law were met with massive resistance, ranging from civil disobedience to violence. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the abolitionist and friend of Emily Dickinson, observed that the act turned “honest American men into conscientious law-breakers.” The burden of protecting fugitives from recapture and free blacks from kidnapping fell on local vigilance committees, which played a heroic role in the 1850s. Vigilance committees had been a feature of black abolitionism since the Revolutionary era. In the 1850s, they became the front lines of the struggle, working in conjunction with an established network of safe houses—which together constituted the Underground Railroad—strung out across the North and into Canada. Members of vigilance committees alerted fugitives to slave catchers and moved them out before they could be apprehended; they broke into jails and retrieved people already captured; and they engaged in armed confrontations with slave catchers attempting to enforce federal law. Harriet Tubman successfully liberated one man from officers attempting to take him to the docks and back to slavery by fighting them hand-to-hand in the streets of Troy, New York. In Christiana, Pennsylvania, a free black man named Parker who was protecting runaway slaves on his farm sounded the alarm when their Maryland owner and a posse of slave catchers arrived to reclaim them. Twenty armed black men responded, and there was a gun battle in which the slaveholder was killed; the survivors were hustled off to Canada.

White abolitionists played a crucial role in this militant new phase of the movement, not least as legal counsel to fugitive slaves and vigilance-committee members in high-profile trials of the Northern “freedom” principle. The abolition movement had its white heroes and martyrs, men like the sea captain Jonathan Walker and the minister Calvin Fairbank, who both served long terms in Southern prisons for helping slaves escape. And, of course, there was John Brown: Sinha argues that “fugitive slave rebellions” and “revolutionary abolitionism,” as she calls the 1850s phase, constitute the proper historical context for the controversial Brown, who was “not sui generis or an aberrant lone wolf” but rather “personified the abolition war against slavery.” Thus, the analysis of “John Brown’s War” in The Slave’s Cause is coupled with another section on “Lincoln’s War,” under the rubric of “Abolition War.”

But however convenient the argument may be in closing the gap between Northern abolitionists and the events of the Civil War, Brown’s example doesn’t really cinch it. Most fugitive-slave abolitionism, even of the militant sort, was the work of runaway slaves or Northern free blacks, and virtually all of it played out in the Northern states in fugitive resistance to re-enslavement. At Pottawatomie, Kansas, in 1856, John Brown planned murder as a political strategy; at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859, he attempted and failed to incite a slave rebellion within a slave state. Whatever one ultimately makes of his actions in a moral or ethical sense, Brown’s murky case should have prompted Sinha to a more thoughtful assessment of the radical-democratic potential of the abolitionist movement; this is, after all, one of her main themes. For not only did Brown embrace violence as the only possible winning strategy, but Harpers Ferry illustrated the limits of his politics. Even in its militant form in 1859, the abolition movement essentially had no greater ability to penetrate the South than it had in 1830, no greater ability to hit slaveholders where they lived or take direct action to liberate the growing numbers of men, women, and children enslaved in the South. In that sense, I would argue, John Brown was pretty sui generis, certainly in his actions at Harpers Ferry, and his failure might fruitfully focus our attention on the massive edifice of police power that slaveholders had erected to suppress rebellions and limit the reach of Northern abolitionists. The white-savior model, therefore, was flawed in every respect. As the African-American abolitionist and preacher Henry Highland Garnet put it once, speaking of white abolitionists: “THEY are our allies—OURS is the battle.” Brown seems to confirm the point: The slaves of Virginia would have to fight their own war for emancipation.

In the end, abolitionists hit the slaveholders most directly through their influence on antislavery politics. This is not a comfortable position for Sinha. “Free soilism…was not abolition,” she makes clear; it was, in fact, “the lowest common denominator of antislavery, designed to appeal to the widest constituency.” Yet it mattered. In the 1850s, ironically enough, slaveholders had become ever more reliant on the federal government to protect their claims to property in other human beings, winning major concessions including the Fugitive Slave Act and the Dred Scott decision, which effectively nationalized slavery. The slaveholders’ success made national electoral politics a crucial arena of struggle. Garrison had never seen this as his fight; to him, abolition’s place lay not in party politics but “in agitation, to move the political center to the left.” Abolitionists had done a great deal to convince moderate white Northerners that the “Slave Power” was a looming threat to American democracy—as indeed it was. Whether outside party politics or on the left wing of the Republican Party, abolitionists functioned “as a political pressure group.” Thus, Sinha argues, when Lincoln won the presidency in 1860, Republicans reaped the harvest that abolitionists had sown: “The northern antislavery majority that elected Lincoln to the presidency was the product of at least three decades of arduous and persistent abolitionist work.” No doubt this is all true—but it’s a strikingly understated claim in causational terms. And it leaves a yawning gap between the abolition movement and slave emancipation as it was accomplished in the United States.

The brutal fact is that, notwithstanding years of principled abolitionist activism, it took war to make emancipation possible. What are the implications for the potential of democratic radicalism? It was Southern slaveholders’ rejection of the democratic process—their refusal to accept the results of the 1860 presidential election and their subsequent gamble on secession—that changed the balance of power and created the terrain on which the final struggle over slavery was waged. Sinha acknowledges that “the slaves who defected to Union army lines initiated the process of emancipation,” even as their abolitionist and Radical Republican allies played their customary roles, calling for immediate and uncompensated emancipation and black recruitment in the Union Army. But that kind of slave resistance falls far outside the boundaries of the abolition movement, even as Sinha defines it, and so she passes over the subject quickly. We know a lot about that war for emancipation now: how slaves took matters into their own hands at terrible personal cost, waging a war against their masters and their masters’ newly declared nation-state on farms and plantations inside the Confederacy, in their flight to Union-held territory, and through their service in the Union Army and Navy. We still have no body count for that civil war. This, of course, is the process that W.E.B. Du Bois called a “general strike” and others have cast as a massive slave rebellion. But whatever you call it, the slave’s cause was finally in the hands of the mass of the enslaved themselves.

Frederick Douglass once said that the history of black people may be traced like the blood of a wounded man in a crowd. This is no less true now—in the midst of another test of American democracy on the sadly predictable ground of African Americans’ rights to equality, justice, and human dignity—than when he said it in 1852. In 1861, when the Civil War started, nobody in the United States would have predicted that, within four years, slavery would be abolished completely and without compensation. It took a war to dislodge slaveholders and destroy the institution of slavery. It could not be accomplished by the regular workings of democratic politics—radical, progressive, or otherwise. As we Americans are finally forced to answer for an epidemic of violence, including state-sanctioned violence, continually directed at African Americans, how can we deny that our politics is failing us? Or that the burden of righting this wrong has been left, once again, mostly to those who suffer it.

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