Featured image: Struggle for freedom in a Maryland barn. Engraving from William Still’s The Underground Rail Road
by Aric McBay
The Weather Underground was far from the only group that had difficulty implementing necessary tactics. The story of abolitionists prior to the Civil War gives us one of the best examples of this, in part because of the length and breadth of their struggle. Starting from a marginalized position in society, the struggle over slavery eventually inflamed an entire culture and provoked the bloodiest war in American history.
We’ll begin the story in the 1830s when several different currents of antislavery activism were growing rapidly. One of these currents was the Underground Railroad, run by both black and white people. Another current consisted of what you might call liberal abolitionists, predominantly white with a few black participants as well.
The general story of the Underground Railroad has become well-known, but there are many common misconceptions. Black slave escapes date back to the 1500s (when escapes south to Spanish Florida were rather more common), although some aspects of the nineteenth century Railroad were more systematically organized. One common but incorrect belief about the Underground Railroad is that it was run by magnanimous whites in order to aid black people otherwise unable to help themselves. In fact, this revisionist mythology is quite far from the truth.32 Until the 1840s, it was primarily run by and for black people who distrusted the involvement of whites. Escaped blacks were always in much greater danger than whites, and had to possess a great deal of skill, knowledge, and bravery in order to escape. The great majority of escapes were orchestrated by the slaves themselves, who spent months or years planning and reconnoitering escape routes and hiding places. Indeed, some historians have calculated that by the 1850s about 95 percent of escaping slaves were alone or with one or two companions.33
Furthermore, although the Underground Railroad is now recognized as a heroic and important part of the history of slave resistance, not all abolitionists of the time participated. In fact, some actually opposed the Underground Railroad. According to one history, “Abolitionists were divided over strategy and tactics, but they were very active and very visible. Many of them were part of the organized Underground Railroad that flourished between 1830 and 1861. Not all abolitionists favored aiding fugitive slaves, and some believed that money and energy should go to political action.”34
There’s no question that those who participated in the Underground Railroad were very brave, regardless of the color of their skin, and the importance of the Railroad to escaped slaves and their families cannot be overstated. The problem was that the Railroad just wasn’t enough to pose a threat to the institution of slavery itself. In 1830, there were around two million slaves in the United States. But at its peak, the Underground Railroad freed fewer than 2,000 slaves each year, less than one in one thousand. This escape rate was much lower than the rate of increase of the enslaved population through birth. Of course, many fugitive slaves worked to save money and buy their families out of slavery, which meant that the Railroad freed more people than just those who physically travelled it.
Tactical Development: From Moral Suasion to Political Confrontation35
While the Underground Railroad was growing in the 1830s, another antislavery current was growing as well. This one consisted mostly of white abolitionists, driven by Christian principles and a desire to convince slave owners to stop sinning and release their slaves. These early white Christian abolitionists recognized the horrors of slavery, but adopted an approach of pacifist moral exhortation. Historian James Brewer Stewart discusses their approach: “Calling this strategy ‘moral suasion,’ these neophyte abolitionists believed that theirs was a message of healing and reconciliation best delivered by Christian peacemakers, not by divisive insurgents.… They appealed directly to the (presumably) guilty and therefore receptive consciences of slaveholders with cries for immediate emancipation.” They believed, as liberals usually do, that the oppressive horrors perpetrated by those in power were mostly a misunderstanding (rather than an interlocking system of power that rewarded the oppressors for evil). So, of course, they believed that they could correct the mistake by politely arguing their case.
Stewart continues: “This would inspire masters to release their slaves voluntarily and thereby lead the nation into a redemptive new era of Christian reconciliation and moral harmony.… immediate abolitionists saw themselves as harmonizers, not insurgents, because the vast majority of them forswore violent resistance.… ‘Immediatists,’ in short, saw themselves not as resisting slavery by responding to it reactively, but instead as uprooting it by spiritually revolutionizing the corrupted values of its practitioners and supporters.” In other words, they fell prey to four of the strategic failings we’ve discussed so far. They didn’t use asymmetric strategic principles, largely because they weren’t using a resistance strategy at all. They were essentially lobbying, and their “morally superior” approach meant that, as a minority faction, they had no political force to bring to bear on those whom they lobbied. Furthermore, they were hopelessly naïve (or to state the problem more precisely, they were hopefully naïve) about the nature of power and the slave economy. As a result, they were unable to concoct a reasonable A to B strategy. Their so-called strategy, though well-meaning and moral, was more akin to a collective fantasy that overlooked the nature and extent of violence that slave culture would bring to bear on its adversaries.
Stewart recognizes this problem as well. “By adopting Christian pacifism and regarding themselves as revolutionary peacemakers, these earliest white immediatists woefully underestimated the power of the forces opposing them. Well before they launched their crusade, slavery had secured formidable dominance in the nation’s economy and political culture. To challenge so deeply entrenched and powerful an institution meant adopting postures of intransigence for which these abolitionists were, initially, wholly unprepared.”36
Need I spell out the parallels to our current situation? Pick any liberal or mainstream environmental or social justice movement. Mainstream environmentalism has been particularly naïve in this regard, largely ignoring the deeply entrenched nature of ecocidal activities in the capitalist economy, in industry, in daily life, and in the psychology of the civilized. Furthermore, mainstream environmentalists—who often do not come out of a long tradition of resistance—utterly ignore the force that those in power will bring to bear on any threat to that power. By assuming that society will adopt a sustainable way of life if only individual people can be persuaded, mainstream environmentalists ignore the rewards offered for unsustainability, and too often ignore those who pay the costs for such rewards.
Of course, mainstream environmentalism is hardly unique in this. Indeed, this basic trajectory is so common that it is nearly archetypal. Again and again, whenever privileged people have tried to ally themselves with oppressed people, we have seen this phenomenon at work. Seemingly ignorant of the daily violence perpetrated by the dominant culture, many people of privilege have wandered off into a strategic and tactical Neverland, which is based on their own personal wishes about how resistance ought to be, rather than a hard strategy that is designed to be effective and that draws on the experience of oppressed peoples and their long history of resistance. Sometimes the people of privilege listen and learn, and sometimes they don’t.
Of course, these early white abolitionists were on the right side, and, of course, their response to slavery was, morally speaking, far above that of the majority of white people’s. But, writes Stewart: “With the nation’s most powerful institutions so tightly aligned in support of slavery and white supremacy, it is clear that young white abolitionists were profoundly self-deceived when they characterized their work as ‘the destruction of error by the potency of truth—the overthrow of prejudice by the power of love—the abolition of slavery by the spirit of repentance.’ When so contending, they were deeply sincere and grievously wrong. To crusade for slavery’s rapid obliteration was, in truth, to stimulate not ‘the power of love’ and ‘repentance,’ but instead to promote the opposition of not only an overwhelming number of powerful enemies—the entire political system—but also the nation’s most potent economic interests—society’s most influential elites—and a popular political culture in the North that was more deeply suffused with racial bigotry than at previous times in the nation’s history.” This is a lesson we must remember.
They were highly optimistic about their chances. After increasing racial tensions and a series of violent uprisings in the early 1830s, one immediatist predicted that “the whole system of slavery will fall to pieces with a rapidity that will astonish.”37 This attitude is again reminiscent of the excess of hope we discussed earlier.
We should note that it was not just white abolitionists who were opposed to serious resistance at this stage, but some people of color as well. Historian Lois E. Horton writes that one black editor of a newspaper “penned an article addressed ‘To the Thoughtless part of our Colored Citizens,’ in which he admonished readers to act with more dignity and self-restraint when fugitive slaves were captured. [The editor] urged African Americans to leave the defense of fugitives to the lawyers … Public protest, even public assembly, [he] warned, would risk the loss of support from respectable allies. He was especially shocked by the involvement of Black women in this protest, singling them out for ‘everlasting shame’ and charging that they ‘degraded’ themselves by their participation.”38
But more militant abolitionists continued to gain prominence. Former fugitive slave Henry Highland Garnet rejected the pacifism of both white and black abolitionists, saying “There is not much hope of Redemption without the shedding of blood.”
Many white abolitionists retained their pacifist beliefs and practices, but as the abolition movement grew, it was increasingly perceived as a threat by slaveholders and those in power. An escalating wave of violent repression occurred, in which abolitionists and their allies were attacked, and their mailings and offices were burned. Many white abolitionists abandoned pacifism after white newspaper editor and abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy was gunned down in his office by proslavery thugs. William Lloyd Garrison, publisher of the foundational abolitionist paper the Liberator, wrote: “When we first unfurled the banner of the Liberator … we did not anticipate that, in order to protect southern slavery, the free states would voluntarily trample under foot all law and order, and government, or brand the advocates of universal liberty as incendiaries and outlaws.… It did not occur to us that almost every religious sect, and every political party would side with the oppressor.”39 Of course, they did not consider and dismiss the idea—it simply didn’t occur to them. This repression did, however, induce increasing numbers of Northerners to join with the abolitionists out of concern for the violations of law by the government and antiabolitionists.
The good news was that by the 1850s, more and more abolitionists were defying fugitive slave laws and even taking up arms to aid escaped slaves inside and outside of the Underground Railroad. Violent confrontations began to occur in a scattershot fashion or, to be more precise, defensive violence carried out by abolitionists became more common, since slavery had been based on violent confrontations since the beginning, and none of that was new to black people. It was soon not unheard of in the North for slaveholders or slave catchers to be shot—on one occasion in Boston in 1854, a crowd even stormed a courthouse where a fugitive slave was being held and overpowered the guards. Writes Stewart, “And even when physical violence did not result … oratorical militants increasingly urged their audiences to resort to physical destruction if more peaceable methods failed to stop federal slave catchers. On several occasions well-organized groups of abolitionists overwhelmed the marshals and spirited fugitives to safety. At other times they stored weapons, planned harassing manoeuvres, and massed as intimidating mobs.”40 Though only a decade earlier they were taking oaths never to use force, white abolitionists came to agree that use of lethal force against slave catchers, in self-defense, was morally justified. Armed defiance of slave catchers was a long tradition for black activists at that time, but a considerable change for white abolitionists. Many Christian abolitionists changed their tactics, arguing that not only was pacifism not required by God, but that it was a Christian’s duty and the “Law of God” to shoot a slave catcher.