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slavery in the united states

VIEWS: 1,353 PAGES: 33

									Historical Materialism
and the Fight Apainst Racism




   Harriet Tubman (left) and a group ofslaves she led to freedom




THE STRUGGLE
TO END SLAVERY
IN THE UNITED STATES

  R   acism is the cornerstone of the international capital-
      ‘st system in all parts of the world today. Revolution-
aries must win the struggle against racism in order to
smash capitalism. But how? Racism is on the rise everyw-
here, from Israel to South Africa, from the USA to the
USSR, from Brazil to Canada. Many of the gains won in
PAGE 74                                THE STRUGGlE TO END SLAVERY


past anti-racist struggles have         INTRODUCTION:
been lost. At the same time, new
                                        HISTORICAL
movements and organizations
against racism are surging forth,       MATERIALISM
from England to Ecuador. How
can these new forces accomplish          Our method for studying the ex-
their aims in the face of the rising    perience of the Abolitionists is
tide of reaction?                       historical materialism. Marx
                                        developed this method of analy-
                                        sis, which goes beyond the “great
   We have much to learn from
                                        ideas of great men” garbage that
history. A good example of a
                                        is usually taught in school. In-
successful fight against racism
                                        stead, historical materialism
and reaction is the story of the
                                        takes as its starting point the
Abolitionists in the United States
                                        activities and struggles of the
in the middle third of the
                                        millions and millions of men and
nineteenth century. They set out
                                        women whose conscious actions
to “abolish” the North American
                                        combined to make things
system of racial slavery, one of
                                        happen the way they did. It ex-
the most viciously oppressive so-
                                        amines the ways in which econo-
cial systems in modern history,
                                        mic and political (ideological)
and they succeeded in destroying
                                        forces interact to produce
it. They did so without an ex-
                                        historical change.
plicitly revolutionary ideology to
guide them; indeed, their move-          We are taught to see society
ment started twenty years before        (and even nature) as basically un-
Marx and Engels even wrote the          changing. Most of us live as
Communist Manifesto, when the           though today were pretty much
proletarian movement was in its         the same as yesterday, and
infancy. Because of this, the           tomorrow will be today all over
Abolitionists could not succeed in      again. Social institutions like
eradicating racism itself. But          nations, governments, workpla-
they saved hundreds of thous-           ces, and schools seem to be like
ands from the horrors of chattel        mountain ranges or stars: per-
slavery, and they established a         manent features of the world,
powerful tradition of anti-racism       changing very, very slowly-if at
in U.S. history, which continues        all. But even stars are born and
down to the present. The history        die. Even mountains can be
of the development of their             thrust up by the clash of gigantic
movement teaches us much                plates that make up the earth’s
about how to conduct a struggle         crust, and they can be sheared off
against racism-and win!                 by glacial flow. Everything
THE STRUGGLE TO END SLAVERY                                        PAGE 75


changes. Things change even            est to us that people can make
when they don’t seem to be             history just as t.hey please. \\:e
changing at all. Beneath the ap-       may think that anything is possi-
pearance of stability, contradic-      ble, develop a short-sighted and
tions are developing. The forces       pragmatic style ofwork, and then
of change arc at work.                 become frustrated when we don’t
                                       see things change as fast as ~\YZ
 “The history of all hitherto exist-
                                       would like.
ing society,” wrote Marx and En-
gels in the Communist Manifesto in      The second slogan reminds us
1 8 4 8 , “is the history of class     that patience and persistence pay
struggle.” People fight back           off in the long run. It suggests
against oppression, and their          that there are scientific laws des-
struggle changes the world. Per-       cribing general aspects of social
iods of seeming passivity among        development. These laws she\\
the oppressed, however pro-            that chattel slavery “had to” end
longed, are replaced by blazing        in the U.S. south, and t.hat cap-
struggle. Passivity is relative,       italism likewise contains within
activity is absolute. Systems of       itself the seeds of its own destruc-
class exploitation, although they      tion. But there is a common and
seem at times permanent and            dangerous distortion of this
even “natural,” end. But class         slogan. Many have taken it to
hatred by itself is not enough.        mean that historical laws operate
Utopian visions of an “ideal soc-      independently of human acti\.itJ..
iety” are not enough. After all,       In this one-sided, mechanic~~l
the oppressed have dreamed and         view, only the actual is (or ~-as)
fought for equality for thousands      possible, and everything that
of years. 1Ve must also under-         happens (or happened, or \l.ill
stand the historical laws of dev-      happen) is necessary. People
elopment of society.                   who believe this are likely to be
                                       passive and to take an excessi\zlv
  Let’s look at two familiar slog-
                                       “long view” o f t h e s t r u g g l e .
ans: “what you do counts,” and
                                       Through the story of the Abel-
“history is on our side.” The first
                                       itionists we will try to show how
of these is one of the main things
                                       these two slogans-“what you cl0
to keep in mind today! We will
                                       counts” and “historv is on out-
see from the story of the i\bol-
                                       side”-represent opposite as-
itionists that the lives of millions
                                       pects of one important truth: so-
were changed by the work of a
                                       cial laws do determine historical
relatively small group of dedi-
                                       outcomes, but they do so pre-
cated activists. But if we take this
                                       cisely through the struggles of
slogan in isolation, it may sugg-
                                       real human beings who make
THE STRUGGLE TO END SLAVERY                                               PAGE 77


conscious decisions-based on          lived and worked on small farms,
their ideology-about what to          and the Southern economy and
do. Chattel slavery in the U.S.       politics were dominated by large
south had to end, but how it          plantation owners. In terms of
ended and when it ended made a        politics, bourgeois political part-
huge difference in the the human      ies were beginning to develop.
cost and the outcome of the pro-      There was little left of the popu-
cess. What the Abolitionists did,     lar fervor that had characterized
counted.                              the era of the American Revolu-
                                      tion of 1776 (at least among the
THE SLAVE SYSTEM                      free population) just a few dec-
                                      ades earlier. Industrialization
AND CAPITALISM IN
                                      had not yet occurred on a large
THE U.S.                              scale, and most workers labored
                                      in very small shops. There was
 Slavery in the United States was     little in the way of a developed
one of the most grotesque and         working class, although some
vicious forms of exploitation         skilled workers (for example,
devised in the terrible history of     P h i l a d e l p h i a c a r p e n t e r s ) had
capitalism. It was also one of the    begun to organize and certain
most profitable. Indeed, the Af-       industries (like textiles in Lfass-
rican slave trade provided much        achusetts) were beginning to
of the capital that made possible      flourish. From all external ap-
the “industria1 revolution” in En-     pearances, the time did not seem
gland and elsewhere in Europe,         ripe for rapid social change. But
as well as in the northern United      the appearance of stability belied
States. Because of this, it took a     a critical set of internal contra-
long and bitter struggle-includ-       dictions which would eventualI!.
ing a four-year civil war-to end       lead to the great armed struggle
it. The struggle against the racist    that destroyed the slave system.
slave system in the U.S. is a good
example of how things change.          The U.S. economy of the earl!.
                                      nineteenth century was built lit-
                                      erally on the backs of slaves. Cot-
KING COTTON:
                                      ton became an important crop in
FOUNDATION OF                         the South with the development
US ECONOMY                            of the gin around 1800, and w.as
                                      soon thedominant export of the
 The U. S. economy in the first       e n t i r e c o u n t r y . s 0 11 t 11 e 1‘ I1
quarter of the nineteenth cen-        agricultural goods combined to
tury was largely agricultural.        account for more than sist!. per-
Most people in the North still        cent of all American esports.
PAGE 78                                THE STRUGGLE TO END SLAVERY


Slave labor in the U.S. was thus        emerging capitalist class in the
used to produce commodities for         North were still, in the 183Os,
the sake of expanding the capital       strong supporters of the status
of the plantation owners. It was        quo in the South. This, too,
a form of capitalism. By the            w/ouId change.
183Os, millions of pounds of cot-
ton were shipped every year to          SLAVES FOUGHT
factories in Great Britain, where
                                        CLASS OPPRESSION
textiles were manufactured for
world markets. One Southerner
                                          This “status quo” was a life of
bragged that “the slavel~olding
                                        misery and unrelenting opprcs-
South is now the controlling
                                        siou for the slaves. This inevita-
pmver of the world . . _ no power
                                        bly created a struggle bctwecn
o n E a r t h dnrcs make w a r o n
                                        sln\xz owners and slaves that, in
cot ton:
                                        the long run, doomed the sln~xz
  Such csaSSer;itcd b o a s t s rcf-    system. Even though slavery was
Iccted the Southern plantation          not ended in the United States as
capitnlists’ inflated sense of pow-     2 direct result of large-scale slave
er, and the hntastic pro!iits they      insurrection, we need to under-
reaped. But the cotton trade atso       stand how the actions of the
profited the k ey ship-building in-     sIa\*es t h e m s e l v e s - b a s e d o n
dustry and the merchant capit-          their own understanding of their
alists in the North, whose ships        situation-created the basis for
tmnsportcd cotton across the At-        the Abolitionist movement.
lantic and I-cturncd with British
                                         The most dramatic-and least
manufactured goods. The pro-
                                        frequent-form of struggle was
fits earned from the slave-cotton
                                        armed slave rebellion against the
svstem pro\kled the capit f o r
                                        oppressors. Azz 14’. E. B. DuBois
etarlv development in the United
                                        eloquently described it,
Stat& including the formation
and growth of the banking sys-          The flaming fury of their mad at-
tc’31i. .‘Ls a consequence, few cap-    tempLs at vengeance echoes all dcm.11
                                        the blood-swept path of slavery. In
italists opposed it. As a New
                                        Jamaica Lhcy upturned the govern-
J’ork businessman told an Abol-         ment and harried the land until En-
itionist in 1835, “We cannot af-        gIand crept and sued for peace. In
ford, sir, to let you and your          the Danish Isles they started a
associates endeavor to overthrow        b~hirlwind ofslaughtm; in Ilaiti the1
sh\my. It is not a nlntter of prin-     drove their masters into the sea; an2
                                        in South Carolina they rose t&vice
ciple with us. It is a matter of
                                        like a threatening wave against the
business necessity.” In fact, the       terror-stricken whites, but were be-
m o s t powerful nmnbers of the         tra yed . Such outbreaks here aud
THE STRUGGLE TO END SLAVERY                                            PAGE 79


there,” DuBois continued, “foretold    These social relations of produc-
the possibility of coordinate action   tion limited the development of
and organic development.”
                                       the Southern economy, even at
  The incomplete historical re-        its height, and virtually guar-
cords that have come down to us        anteed that it would eventually
reveal no fewer than 250 con-          be overwhelmed by the indllstr’-
spiracies and revolts of more          ial capitalism emerging in the
than ten slaves in the United          North. But “eventually” would
States itself: an average of one       be far too late for the long-suffer-
per year, not counting smaller         ing slaves. More significant kvas
actions. These isolated rebel-         the political “backlash” of sin\.-
lions displayed the slaves’ hero-      ery: its dreadful brutalit1. not
ism and determinat,ion under the       only bred resistance from the
most oppressive conditions, but        slaves themselves, but also began
they could never have brought          to provoke a response from
down the whole slave system,           northern whites and even from a
with its nerve center in Wash-         few daughters and sons of the
ington, D.C. Nonetheless, the          planters themselves, who ~.oultl
specter of Haiti would haunt the       desert their class to take the side
U.S. South until the abolition of      of the slaves. The s1ax.e s!3tcln
slavery finally laid it to rest.       w a s p r o d u c i n g i t s 0u.u gl-a\‘~-
                                       diggers.
  Like any other exploited labor-
ers, slaves found wavs to resist        The chief form of resistance 1,~.
their masters on a daily basis,        slaves was “stealing tliemsel\~cs,”
individually and in small groups.      o r r u n n i n g a w a y . In tlic earl),
They worked as slowly and car-         years of slavery, groups of .Af-
elessly as they dared, and sab-        ricans took to the woods nntl
otaged what they could. They           swamps of the vast Soutl~lancl.
burned barns and smokehouses,          Later runaways joined nnti\.e
helping themselves to food pro-        Americans in Florida to form the
duced by their o w n l a b o r a n d   Seminole tribe, and fought off‘
stolen by the masters from their       the army of the United States foi
tables. Such spontaneous econo-        y e a r s . A f t e r t h e I\‘ar of 1812,
mic struggles could no more            with increased commc~~~c be-
overthrow the slave system than        tween the northern and sout hem
industrial strikes can overthrow       states, fugitive sla\x~s more often
capitalism. But slaves could not       headed north. As DuBois put it.
be tired, and even the most bru-       these men [sic] saved slaver\, r~~l~l
tal tortures devised by the plant,?-   killed it. ‘177 ey saved it bv Icavillg it
tion capitalists to terrorize them     to a false seductive dream of lx;ii:c~
could not subdue them entirely.        and the eternal subjugation of the
PAGE 80                                  THE STRUGGLE TO END SLAVERY


 latmring class. They destroyed it by     teenth century, there was little
presenting themselves before the          open anti-slavery agitation.
eves of the North and the world as
                                          Some white people in the North
 1iLing specimens of the real meaning
of slavery. They [destroyed] it too by    opposed slavery on religious
joining the free Negroes of the           grounds, usually advocating
 North, and with them organizing          some means of “gradual” eman-
 themselves into a great black            cipation. That often meant free-
phalanx that worked and schemed           ing slave children when they
and paid and finally fought for the
                                          reached age 21, so that the “in-
 freedom of black men in America.
                                          vestments” of slaveowners were
 By 1831, the trickle was becom-          protected! A small movement of
ing a flood. The fugitives were           conservative merchant capit-
getting more and more assist-             alists and politicians succeeded
ance from whites as well as grow-         by the 1820’s in getting slavery
ing numbers of free blacks in the         ended in most Northern states.
north. As we will see later, the          It had never been an important
Abolitionists would engage dir-           economic institution there any-
ectly in the struggle by assisting        way: neither the small farms
these run-aways in a large-scale,         with long winter seasons, nor
organized fashion. The firing up          manufacturing enterprises con-
of this “Underground Railroad”            tending with the ups and downs
would take the struggle against           of business cycles, could make
slavery to a new level.                   profitable use of slave labor. In
                                          both the North and the South,
BEGINNINGS OF                             many supporters of gradual
THE ABOLITIONIST                          emancipation (including
                                          Abraham Lincoln) backed “col-
MOVEMENT                                  onization,” an organized effort
                                          to send American blacks to Af-
  .4 clear and effective anti-slav-       rica. They were motivated main-
 ery, anti-racist understanding           ly by racist ideology, wanting to
 did not develop right away, at           live in a “white” society. Most
 least not among the white pop-           black people opposed this bitter-
 ulation. It took years ofhard and        ly. A meeting of 3000 in PhiIa-
 often dangerous work for anti-           delphia condemned colonization
 slavery activists to comprehend          in 1817 as “an outrage, having no
just what they were up against,            other object in view than the
 and what it would take to elimin-         benefit of the slaveholding inter-
 ate it. And it took a profound            ests of the country.” The “grad-
 ideological struggle.                     ualist” anti-slavery movement in
 In the early years of the nine-           1830, then, was dominated by
THE STRUGGLE TO END SLAVERY                                    PAGE 81


wealthy white merchants, ig-          ment, a coordinated effort for
nored the misery of blacks, and       the immediate end of slavery and
was often openly racist.              against racism in both the North
                                      and the South.
  In 1329 a courageous black man
named David Walker had pub-            Free black people in the North
lished a call for blacks to throw     had been organizing meetings
off the yoke of slavery, by what-     and publishing anti-slavery pap-
ever means necessary. Walker’s        ers for years. By 1830 they had
Appeal was quickly suppressed in      organized fifty anti-slavery
the South, and condemned by the       groups based in cities and towns
“gradualist” movement in the          across the North. They would
North. Only a few free black          remain the most important base
communities in the North heed-        of support-both financial and
ed his appeal, and there was little   moral-for the movement.
outcry when Walker was found          But-perhaps unlike Haiti,
dead in front of his Boston shop      where black people formed an
immediately afterward. There          overwhelming majority of the
was little indication of impend-      population-they could not des-
ing radical change in the South-      troy slavery in the U.S. by them-
ern slave system.                     selves. Beginning in the 183Os,
                                      significant numbers of whites be-
 But by ending slavery in the
                                      gan to join them. This multi-ra-
Northern states the gradualists
                                      cial unity was essential, even
created the conditions for sizable
                                      though white Abolitionists were
free black urban communities
                                      themselves affected by racism
there. These free black people-
                                      and often hesitated to allow black
many of them workers-would
                                      Abolitionists to take positions of
provide critical support and lead-
                                      leadership within the movement.
ership in the struggles against
slavery and racism in the years        Most white Abolitionists were
ahead. And some anti-slavery          still pacifists in the 183Os, oppos-
whites became frustrated with         ing slavery on religious grounds
the inaction and ineffectiveness      and relying on tactics of moral
of the gradualist movement, es-       persuasion. It is to their credit.
pecially regarding emancipation       that they interpreted Christian-
in the South. They learned that       ity to demand freedom for the
a more militant and confront-         slaves. After all, the southern
ational approach to anti-slavery      churches defended slavery on
was needed. By 1831, these            Christian principles, while the
black and white activists had         Catholic Church incited race hat-race hat
formed the Abolitionist mo\‘e-        red among immigrant workers
PAGE 82                                         THE STRUGGLE TO END SLAVERY


in the north, aud even Quaker                    preneurs. This partly reflected a
tnrctilig-houses usuallv scated                  basic contradiction between the
black guests separately in the                   slave system in the South and
tmck of the r~_m~n. Rut religious                Sorthern wage-labor capitalism.
ideolog!. held the Abolitionist                  Capitalists needed to be legally
lJli.,\~~lJJCIJt bXk. hhll~       w h i t e      free of responsibility for their
.~boliti~>ni~t leaclel-s condemned               workers, so they could be laid off
sla~-er~~ as 3 sin, but so was any               when the capitalists wanted.
forln ofcocrcion (including anti-                Consequently, they promoted an
slavery violence) a sin to them.                 ideology of “freedom,” which
Oftcn they s e e m e d m o r e c o n -           most ordinary people interpret-
cerned \~ith their own spiritual                 ed as political and economic in-
purity than with the suffering of                dependence. Many linked this
t hc slaves. They bclielfed in the               “freedom” to the ideals of the
rule of “God”, not in creating a                 American Revolution of 177G,
1~1oJ.e \just 01‘ egalitarian human              particularly the notions of repub-
go\-ernment. S o m e o f these                   lican equality and fair play.
ideas \\vould weaken or change as                IVorkers in particular also op-
the struggle against slavery es-                 posed exploitation, and hated
cahted iu the 1350s. B u t even                  slav.ery for its vicious treatment
the deeply religious John Brown,                 of black workers (even though
b~11o.w comlnitment t o v i o l e n t            many of these white workers
strnggle against slavery relied                  were infected with racist ideas as
m o r e o n t h e O l d Testament                well). They saw the existence of
doctrine of “an ey’e for an eye”                 slave labor as a threat to their
t h a n o n t h e S e w Tesnrment’s              livelihood. Many workers came
“turn the other cheek,” would                    to understand that they had no-
1~ax.e been a more effective and                 thing to benefit-and a great
far-sighted leader if he had got-                deal to lost-from the develop-
ten his nose out of his Bible more               ment of the slave system.
often.
                                                   Unlike the gradualists, Abol-
 The Xbolitionists had a wider                   itionists refused to worry about
appeal than   many contemporar-                  the capital investment which
ies-or the    .Abolitionist_s them-              slaves represented. They de-
sel\.es--ma!. have realized. They                manded an immediate and total
appealed to   the basic hatred of                end to slavery, regardless of the
sla\~cl-v, e x p l o i t a t i o n , a n d       cost to slaveowners or other cap-
discriir;ination felt by many                    italists. This was a significant
F\-orkers and fhners, and even                   step forward in the political line
1)~. ninny’ intellcctirals, r e l i g i o u s    of the anti-slavery movement,
leaders, and small time entre-                   and one which had a big impact.
THE STRUGGLE TO END SLAVERY                                           PAGE 83



 It represented a willingness to         others were organizing a massive
 break from the capitalist leader-       petition drive to inform people
 ship that had dominated the             (mainly Northern whites) of the
 gradualist movement. For the            evils of slavery. This drive fan-
 first time in 1J.S. history a serious   ned out across the countryside,
 movement opposed slavery as a           organized in hundreds of local
vile crime against humanity, not         communities, often through the
just the inconsistency with rep-         churches. It was conducted by
 ublican principles that had irked       thousands of rank and file acti-
 the gradualists. “You are guilty        vists, the vast majority of them
ofa great wrong against Cod and          women who were excluded from
 humanity,” Abolitionist leader          formal electoral politics. Peti-
John Brown would declare to the          tioners circulated a pamphlet,
 slaveowning Virginia aristocrats        written by Weld, which described
who captured him in 1859, “The           the horrors of slavery in graphic
 cry of distress of the oppressed is     detail and revealed the power
 my reason, and the only thing           wielded by Southern capitalists
 that prompted me.”                      over the national government.
                                         This gave many Northerners a
 Another critical development
                                         clearer picture of the enem!-, of-
was the Abolitionists’ decision to
                                         ten described as the “S1aL.e PO\\.-
take their cause to the public in a
                                         er.” Within sevreral years more
mass way. In 1831 W i l l i a m
                                         than half a million signatures had
Lloyd Garrison started publish-
                                         been collected on petitions,
ing The Liberator, the most pro-
                                         mostly from northern states, and
minent newspaper of the
                                         sent to Congress. M’liile these
anti-slavery movement. Within
                                         petitions had little effect on
a few years Theodore Dwight
                                         Washingt.on p o l i t i c i a n s , they
W e l d , A n g e l i n a Grimke, and
                                         provided a vehicle for millions of
PAGE 84                              THE STRUGGLE TO END SLAVERY


people to discuss the issues of        ists across the country recogni-
slavery and racism and their im-       zed the threat which abolitionism
mediate abolition.                     posed, and actively organized
                                       against it. Abolitionist leaders
 By the end of the 1830s the
                                       like Garrison and Weld were
Abolitionists had established a
                                       threatened and violently attack-
mass base for the idea of immedi-
                                       ed, meetings were broken up,
ate emancipation in communit-
                                       and local supporters were har-
ies across the North. They were
                                       assed. The white Abolitionist Eli-
outlawed and persecuted by state
                                      jah Lovejoy was murdered in
and local authorities in the
                                       Illinois, and lecture halls burned
South. They were no longer tak-
                                       and sacked in Boston and Phila-
en lightly anywhere. And when
                                       delphia. But the Abolitionists
Congress refused in 1836 even to
                                       persisted, for they understood
accept anti-slavery petitions for
                                       the importance of every speech,
consideration -the so-called
                                       every meeting, every conversa-
“gag rule” -many Abolitionists
                                       tion over a petition, every news-
began to lose confidence in the
                                       paper and pamphlet they could
efficacy of moral pressure. The
                                       distribute. Without the deter-
movement would turn to more
                                       mination of these individuals at
concrete methods of struggle,
                                       this critical stage of the move-
electoral and confrontational.
                                       ment, the hell of slavery would
 It took time for the Abolitionist     have lasted considerably longer
movement to get started. And it        in the United States.
was not easy. Many whites
regarded the first Abolitionist       ABOLITfONISTS’
meetings and anti-slavery news-       POLITICAL LINE
papers as little more than the
work of a radical fringe. Con-        ADVANCES THROUGH
tradictions such as racism among      STRUGGLE
white Abolitionists and conflict-
ing class interests among wage-        Abolitionism did not stand still.
workers, capitalists and              The Abolitionist critique of slav-
petit-bourgeois elements in the       ery and racism grew more radical
movement threatened to divide         and comprehensive as the move-
Abolitionism even as the broad        ment gained experience in fight-
base of the movement seemed to        ing the slaveowners and their
be its greatest strength. Few         agents, and debating the key is-
channels of mass communication        sues of the day. The political
were open to Abolitionists. By        development of the movement
1836, slave owners and other rac-     was primary in ending the slave
THE STRUGGLE TO END SLAVERY                                   PAGE 85


system through the Civil War,        struggle between pacifism and
and dealing a major blow to rac-     revolutionary violence would in-
ism in the process. Most import-     tensify in years ahead. Black
ant, Abolitionists came to           Abolitionists more often had the
understand that they could not       most advanced understanding of
obey the rules of law established    thk need for violence, but even
by the government if they were       most white Abolitionists eventu-
going to defeat slavery. They        ally came to accept it as a legiti-
learned that a violent struggle      mate and important form of
would be necessary.                  resistance to the vile institution
                                     of slavery. Even the pacihsts
NAT TURNER:                          among them, after all, accepted
                                     the American revolution against
THE CHALLENGE OF
                                     England as a moral necessity.
SLAVE REBELLION                      How could slave rebellions be
                                     viewed as any different? “A bap-
 The bloody slave rebellion led      tism of blood awaits the slavehol-
by Nat Turner in Southampton         der and his abbettors,” wrote one
County, Virginia in 1831 ter-        Abolitionist in the 1850’s, “So be
rified the planter class and posed   it. The Retribution is just.” It
a sharp challenge to the infant      would be a short step from ad-
Abolitionist movement. Many          vocating slave revolts to support-
white Abolitionist leaders were      ing armed violence against
ministers or other religious fig-    slavery by both blacks and wh-
ures who were often outright         ites.
pacifists. Some regretted Tur-
ner’s bold attempt, and others
                                     WORKERS AND
condemned it openly. But many
black and some white Aboli-          SLAVES: STRUGGLE
tionists hailed Turner as a hero,    AGAINST RACISM
drawing inspiration from his ex-
ample. On hearing news of the         The increasingly rapid emerg-
uprising, old Squire Hudson of       ence of the working class posed
Ohio rejoiced, “Thank God for        another challenge to Abolition-
that! I am glad of it! Thank God     ism. The economic panic of
they have risen at last!”            I837 was followed by a depres-
                                     sion that brought into sharp foc-
 And as panicky slaveowners
                                     us some disturbing effects of
began enacting ever more re-
                                     capitalist development: declin-
pressive measures to control the
                                     ing working conditions, periodic
slaves, yet others joined the
                                     crises, the rise of factory labor,
movement. The ideological
                                     and widening inequality. Be-
PAGE 86                                   THE STRUGGLE 70 END SLAVERY


ginning in the 184Os, f a c t o r y        thought to the sIaves.
workers-such as the young wo-
                                            Abolitionists appealed to these
men of the Lowell textile mills-
                                           workers with two basic argu-
began to replace skilled
                                           ments. First, of course, was the
tradesmen in the forefront of the
                                           “moral” one. Labor parties in
labor movement. Demand grew
                                           New York state in the 183Os, fol
for the ten-hour day. In New
                                           esample, called for the abolition
York, Philadelphia and other
                                           ofslavery as “the darkest, foulest
places newly organized work-
                                           blot upon the nation’s charac-
ingmen’s parties protested
                                           ter.” Many white workers were
economic conditions and prom-
                                           sympathetic to the cause of anti-
oted egalitarianism-at least for
                                           slavery, and eventually became
white workers.
                                           avid supporters of it. “Will you
 The Lowell factory “girls” or-            ever return to his master the
ganized an active Female Anti-             slave who once sets foot on the
Slavery Society in 1832, but a             soil of Massachusetts~” the .4boli-
sharp struggle against racism              tionist Wendell Phillips asked a
was needed to win the labor                mass meeting of thousands of
movement to support the cause              Irish workers in Boston in 1841.
of abolition. Some white work-             “ N o , n o , no!” they shouted in
ers fell for the lie-promoted              reply.
heavily in the bosses’ press and
                                            The second argument went bey-
by the Catholic church-that
                                           ond this in appealing to the inter-
e m a n c i p a t e d s l a v e s wouId
                                           ests of the white workers
threaten their already precarious
                                           themselves in abolishing slavery.
livelihood. Others, especially
                                           Slavery was a degradation of lab-
immigrants, feared that anti-
                                           or, Weld and other Abolitionists
slavery agitation would split the
                                           argued, and wherever it existed
Democratic Party and bring to
                                           free labor was defiled. They
power the Whigs, an openly anti-
                                           could point to factories in the
immigrant party led by the
                                           South, where wage laborers were
northern bosses. Some followed
                                           already being displaced by slav.es.
land-reformers and other
                                           Thus, they maintained, racism
opportunists, arguing that their
                                           undermined the power of the
Utopian schemes for ending
                                           working class. Delegates to the
wage slavery would automatic-
                                           New England Workingmen’s As-
ally solve the problem of chattel
                                           sociation in 1846 resolved that
slavery. Most northern white
                                           “American slavery must be up-
workers, often laboring twelve to
                                           rooted before the elevation
fourteen hours a day, six or seven
                                           sought by the laboring classes
days a week, probably gave little
THE STRUGGLE TO END SLAVERY                                            PAGE 87


can be effected.” This was an
argument with powerful appeal,
and one that Karl Marx would
later repeat in Capital. “I wish to
make a new issue out of the slave
question,” an anti-slavery leader
wrote in 1856, “giving import-
ance to the mischief inflicted on
the poor whites as well as blacks.
[This] proves that the contest
ought not to be considered a sec-
tional one but rather a war of a
class-the slaveholders against
the laboring people of all
classes.”
 Some northern white workers
went yet another step further,
recognizing that they and the
slaves had a common enemy in                       Frederick Douglass
the northern capitalist class as
well as in the slavreocracy. “The           While the “united front” of pro-
                                           gressive capitalists and other
factory operatives,” wrote Aboli-          anti-slavery activists seems on
tionist George W. Putnam in                the surface to have been a
1852, “felt that the northern cap-         strength of the Abolitionist
italist was closely akin to the            movement, the limitations it im-
Southern slaveholder, and that             posed hampered the nlovemcnt.
the design of the Slave Power and          as well. I n p a r t i c u l a r , man>
the Money Power is to crush both           northern workers were put off by
black and white.” But this was an          the indifference (or even hostil-
argument that the Abolitionists            ity) of Abolitionist leaders to
themselves could not make, for             their own oppression. Labor
capitalists like Gerrit Smith and          papers criticized those Aboli-
the Tappan brothers were too               tionists who had “pity for the
important to their movement.               southern slave, but would crush
They did not benefit directly              with an iron hand the white
from southern slavery, as had the          laborer of the north.”
northern capitalists in the grad-
u a l i s t m o v e m e n t , b u t they    Garrison, for exampIe, had cle-
certainly depended on the                  nounced the trade-union IVORY-
exploitation of wage labor.                m e n t i n t h e first issue of 7‘lrr
PAGE 88                                 THE STRUGGLE TO END SLAVERY


Lib0iztor as a conspiracy to “in-        gone if abolitionism itself had
flame the minds of our working           taken a decisive turn toward the
classes against the more opu-            working class?
lent.” Frederick Douglass, in
contrast, spoke out often in favor       DIRECT ACTION OR
of wage workers’ efforts to or-
                                         ELECTORAL POLITICS?
ganize for better working con-
ditions. Wendell Phillips still
                                          Throughout the late 1830s and
thought in 1847 that northern
                                         early ‘4Os, Abolitionists debated
workers were “neither wronged
                                         hotly about what direction the
nor oppressed,” though he mod-
                                         movement should take. A major
ified this view a year later and
                                         split occurred between those who
campaigned actively for the
                                         favored forming a bourgeois pol-
eight-hour day after the Civil
                                         itical party to seek elected office
War.
                                         in order to legislate against slav-
 In April 1861, the Mechanics            ery, and chose who believed that
Phalans o f L o w e l l , M a s s a -    an end to slavery and racism
chusetts became the first regi-          could only happen through agit-
ment ready to march off to the           ation and development of a pop-
Civil War, followed quickIy by           ular movement.
Wisconsin lumberjacks and Irish,
                                          The first group rallied around
Polish and Italian workingmen
                                         the Liberty Party, especially un-
from New York. Entire local un-
                                         der the leadership of Salmon P.
ions of printers, spinners,
                                         Chase after 1840. They rested
miners, machinists, and iron
                                         their case on the argument that
molders enlisted en masse.
                                         the Constitution, properly kin-
They, and thousands like them,
                                         derstood and enforced, would
were moved by Abolitionist
                                         prohibit Federal government in-
ideas, the result of much ideo-
                                         volvement with slavery. Their
logical struggle.
                                         strategy was to build a broad-
 The working class was vastly            based electoral coalition by
overrepresented in the Union             downplaying or even rejecting
Army relative to its proportion in       the more “extreme” views of
the general population. How far          abolition. For example, Chase
would the Abolitionists have got-        argued strongly that the Liberty
ten in winning the workers to the        Party should not encourage
cause without an analysis of how         slaves to run away. They hoped
the racist slave system hurt them,       in this way to appeal to more
too? How much farther might              voters: clearly black people, and
the movement for equality have           women, who had no vote were
THE STRUGGLE TO END SLAVERY                                     PAGE 89


less important to them.               broken out-that “if I could save
                                      the Union without freeing any
 This electoral strategy was quite
                                      slave, I would do it.”
successful-on its own terms.
During the 184Os, northern cap-        The opportunist electoral strat-
italists became less dependent on     egy did nothing to hasten the des-
Southern capit.al and shipping        truction of slavery. It set back
contracts, and began to develop       the cause by building illusions
an independent outlook which          about the federal government
often clashed with the interests of   and the constitution.
slaveowners. Thus the slavery
                                       What about those who rejected
issue increasingly polarized the
                                      electoral politics?
nation, and found its way into
electoral politics.                    Most white leaders among them
                                      were still Christian pacifist “non-
 The Mexican-American War in-
                                      resistants.” But their unwilling-
tensified this process, splitting
                                      ness to compromise the principle
both major parties. Delighted
                                      of immediate abolition allowed
political Abolitionists re-
                                      them to take part in the leftward
organized as the Free Soil Party
                                      development of the movement.
for the 1848 elections, taking in
dissident Democrats and                In rejecting mainstream capitnl-
Whigs-though not without in-          ist politics, they were able to dev-
ternal struggle over the political    elop a radical critique of federal
line. In doing so, its main focus     government complicity in the
shifted from anti-slavery to op-      perpetuation of slavery. They
posing the extension of slavery       were thus generally more pre-
into the territories. It reorg-       pared than the “political” (that is,
anized again in 1854, taking          electoral) Abolitionists to reject
shape as the Repubhcan Party.         capitalist government authorit>.
and won the Presidency for Lin-       when it stood in the wav of anti-
coin in 1860.                         slavery action.
 But. it. was I.incoln who had said
in his 1858 senatorial campaign       MEXICAN-AMERICAN
that “I am not, nor ever liarre       WAR: CRlStS AND
been, in favor of bringing about      DECISION
in any way the social and political
equality of the white and black        When President Polk annexed
races. ”                              Texas in 1845 and declared wnl
 It was Lincoln who wrote in          on Mexico a year later, he set in
1862-after war had already            motion a process that would have
                                      a profound impact on the
PAGE 90                             THE STRUGGLE TO END SLAVERY


Abolitionist movement. War has       ment. Earlier, many radical
a way of intensifying contra-        Abolitionists had shunned bourg-
dictions in society, and this was    eois politics as inherently cor-
no exception. “The Mexican           rupt, as they thought any human
War and slavery will derange all     government must be. They had
party calculations,” predicted       also noted that the many South-
Charles Sumner, “The Aboli-          ern slaveowners who were con-
tionists have at least got their     gressmen or other government
lever upon a fulcrum where it can    officials tainted the whole institu-
operate.”                            tion. But the Mexican-American
                                     War-with federal troops mobil-
 Democrat and Whig politicians
                                     ized under the American flag to
aIike-with only a handful of ex-
                                     take by force new territory for
ceptions-supported the war.
                                     the expansion of the slave sys-
Even those, like L,incoln, w h o
                                     tem-clearly demonstrated that
complained about the way it had
                                     the federal government was
been started still voted repeat-
                                     dominated by the growing
edly for military appropriations.
                                     strength of the “slave power.”
Racism ran wild: pro-war pro-
                                     Abstract opposition became con-
pagandists ranted about the
                                     crete:       the once-pacifist
“destiny of the Anglo-Saxon
                                     Garrison’s Liberator even called
race” and even some vocal op-
                                     for the military defeat of the U.S.
ponents of the war, such as the
                                     troops. “We only hope that, if
Abolitionist Theodore Parker,
                                     blood has had to flow, that it has
referred to Mexicans as a
                                     been that of the Americans,” he
“wretched race.” Thousands of
                                     wrote, “and that the next news
volunteers, many of them im-
                                     we shall hear will be that General
povrerished immigrants, signed
                                     Scott and his army are in the
up to fight. Some Abolitionists,
                                     hands of the Mexicans. We wish
like 1Villiam Jay, despaired that
                                     him and his troops no bodily
slav.ery would now spread to
                                     harm,” Garrison added, “but the
Texas and California “& will
                                     most utter defeat and disgrace.”
there mock all our puny efforts
to destroy her.”                       Second, the Abolitionists’ warn-
                                      ings about “slave power” control
 Rut radical abolitionism moved
                                      now found a mass audience. An
sharply to the left during the
                                      anti-slavery convention in 1839,
year-long war, even as the elec-
                                      for example, had declared that
toral wing of the movement
                                      “the slave power is waging a del-
turned to the right. First, many
                                      iberate and determined war
Abolitionists became clearer on
                                      against the liberties of the free
the role of the federal govern-
                                      states.” Many now saw that the
THE STRUGGLE TO END SLAVERY                                               PAGE 91


Mexican-American War, design-                We don’t know what all these
ed to expand the power of the                young men thought about slav-
Southern slave-owners, as evid-              ery, but clearly they were no lon-
ence of “slave-power” control of             ger willing to fight for it.
t h e c o u n t r y . I n d e e d , slave-
                                              The war intensified contra-
holders themselves were calling
                                             dictions within the Abolitionist
for the annexation, not only of
                                             movement as well. The old peti-
Texas and Mexico, but of Cuba
                                             tion campaigns went by the
and Nicaragua as well. Northern
                                             boards. The split between radi-
Democrats and so-called “Con-
                                             cal and electoral strategies
science” Whigs, who had thus far
                                             widened. Some white Aboli-
deferred to southern interests
                                             tionists-those most profoundly
within their own parties, now
                                             influenced by the religious-pacif-
came out against the extension of
                                             ist ideology-withdrew from the
slavery into the territories, al-
                                             struggle to join Christian utop-
though not for abolition of slav-
                                             ian communities like Hopedale,
ery itself.
                                             or other such diversions. B u t
 And as the war continued, op-               others-the majority-deepen-
position mounted. “Neither                   ed their commitment and their
have I the least idea of ‘joining’           understanding. They began to
you, or in any way assisting the             absorb the lesson that American
unjust war waging against Mex-               capitalist politicians as a body
ico,” a young man wrote to the               would defend slavery and racism.
Cambridge Chronicle, “I won’t                They learned that the fight
go.” Those who had joined, for               against slavery was not just a n -
adventure or (more likely) for               other reform struggle like tcm-
money, became disgruntled.                   perance ( t h e a n t i - a l c o h o l
“The balance of [our officers] are           movement) or prison reform.
very tyrannical and brut.al to-              Like anti-racists in later periods
ward the men,” wrote a Penn-                 (and today in particular) man);
sylvania volunteer, “A soldier’s             Abolitionists learned that in or-
life is very disgusting.” A group            der to win, you have to be pre-
of Irish volunteers deserted en              pared to break the rules,
masse to form the “San Patricia”             struggling actively outside of the
(St. Patrick’s) battallion of the            law. During the Mexican-Amer-
Mexican Army. Even volunteer                 ican War, for example, John
regiments from the Sout.hcrn                 Brown first began to formulate
states of Virginia, Mississippi,             his plans to establish an anti-slnv-
and Sorth Carolina mutinied in               ery guerrilla army in the Ap-
n o r t h e r n Mexico. Over nine            palachian Mountains of Virginia,
thousand U.S. troops deserted.               heart of the slaveholding south.
PAGE 92                             THE STRUGGLE TO END SLAVERY


The Underground Railroad:            to the next station. Disguises,
                                     food, and supplies were provided
ASOLITIONISTS                        by many in the north and south
                                     whose names appear in no re-
RAISE THE LEVEL
                                     cords. Abolitionist orators and
OF CLASS STRUGGLE                    other publicly identified agents
                                     of the movement raised money
 By the 184Os, the main form of      to support the expeditions South
Abolitionist activity revolved       and for other costs. And the fre-
around what had become known         quency and boldness of escapes
as the Underground Railroad.         increased with time. By 1850,
Thousands of black fugitives         some one hundred thousand
“rode” to freedom, aided by a        slaves had been helped to free-
growing network of over three        dom.
thousand black and white anti-
racists extending across the          Running slaves away-even in
country (but mainly in the           such numbers-could weaken
North). Harriet Tubman, an es-       the slave system but could not
caped slave, and other coura-        end it. But the Underground
geous “conductors” (men and          Railroad also advanced aboli-
women, black and white) went         tionism as a movement. Stories
into the South to bring escaped      of the conditions which blacks
slaves out. John Fairfield, white    faced in the South, including the
son of a Virginia slaveholder,       elaborate system of highway pat-
travelled all over the south to      rols and passes they had to avoid,
bring slaves out in groups of up     provided compelling evidence of
to twenty-eight, until his death     the evils of the slave system.
during a slave insurrection in       Slaveholders’ attempts to infiltr-
1860. Jane Lewis, a black resi-      ate and spy on the Underground
dent of Ohio, ferried fugitives      Railroad were soon discovered,
across the Ohio River in a row-      and underlined the threat posed
boat. Elijah Anderson, also          by the slaveocracy to liberty in
black, led more than a thousand      the north. Free black communit-
to freedom in five years, before     ies in the northern states and in
he was thrown into the Kentucky      Canada grew in numbers and in
prison where he died.                boldness. And ex-slaves-most
                                     prominently Frederick Doug-
 These heroes had an organiza-       lass-became key leaders of the
tion behind them. “Stations”         movement. A convention of
every ten or twenty miles shel-      black Abolitionists declared in
tered fugitives during the day,       1854 that “our relations to the
and sent coded messages ahead        Anti-Slavery movement must be
THE STRUGGLE TO END SLAVERY                                     PAGE 93


and are changed. Instead of de-       saw that they would have to fight
pending on it we must lead it.”       to preserve their racist system of
This leadership meant less            exploitation. In 1850 the Fugi-
Christian pacifism, more milit-       tive Slave Law gave Southern
ancy, and a more serious light        slaveowners and their agents the
against racism.                       right (already written into the
                                      U.S. Constitution) to claim esca-
 Supporting the Underground
                                      ped slaves in the North. More:
Railroad meant giving aid and
                                      by offering greater rewards to
financial support to escaped
                                      federal agents who approved
slaves, but it also meant confron-
                                      slaveholders’ claims to blacks in
ting slaveowners or bounty
                                      the north than to those who
hunters, chasing them, and
                                      denied such claims, the federal
sometimes even fighting them.
                                      government actually encour-
Such incidents were rare in the
                                      aged the enslavement of black
forties, for blacks were protected
                                      people who had been living ns
by law in many Northern states,
                                      freedmen in the north. And in a
and the Abolitionists had estab-
                                      direct assault on the Aboli-
lished legal defense funds to pro-
                                      tionists, the law required all citi-
tect blacks from being taken back
                                      zens in the north to assist
to the South once they had esca-
                                      slave-catchers and federal mar-
ped to freedom. But they did
                                      shals when askeds to do so.
occur, and convinced a growing
number of both blacks and wh-          For the Abolitionists this posed
ites that armed struggle would        a major challenge. Would they
eventually be necessary to defeat     abide by the law, as some Union-
slavery.                              minded northerners preached,
                                      or would they engage in violent
Fugitive Slave Act:
                                      struggle to defend black people
                                      in their own towns? The princi-
ABOLlTlONlSM                          ple of non-violence had been
CONFRONTS                             easy to maintain as long as the
REPRESSION                            struggle against slavery was wag-
                                      ed chiefly in the South, or in rais-
 By the close of the forties South-   ing money, but now the
ern slaveholders were clamoring       battleground shifted to the
for an end to the growing stream      North. The Underground Rail-
of slaves escaping to the North.      road slowed down for a time, as
They feared the growing power         some Abolitionists and many
of the Abolitionists and the          supporters hesitated. “This is
spread of anti-slavery sentiments     the darkest day of our cause,”
throughout the North. Many            lamented Senator Charles Sum-
PAGE 94                                        THE STRUGGLE TO END SLAVERY



ner in 1852. But Sumner’s view                  more than 300 federal marshals
was distorted by his immersion in               and troops to prevent a large
e l e c t o r a l p o l i t i c s . Although    crowd from seizing him back
many did retreat in the face of                 again. Workers in Lynn expres-
the fascistic Fugitive Slave law,               sed their outrage at racist in-
the Abolitionist movement took                  equality by tearing apart a train
yet another step forward. “It                   which had stopped there to eject
now seems that the Fugitive                     Frederick Douglass for riding on
Slave Law was to be the means of                a car reserved for whites. In
making more Abolitionists than                  Christiana, Pennsylvania, two
all the lectures we have had for                dozen armed black men killed a
years,” John Brown wrote to his                 slave owner and wounded his son
wife in November, 1850. He was                  and two bounty hunters when
right. Events escalated quickly                 they captured two fugitives.
in the years following 1851, and                “Civil War” proclaimed one local
for most Abolitionist leaders,                  newspaper immediately after
non-violence became a relic of                  this incident, and it was right.
the past.                                       The movement against slavery
                                                which had started so timidly
 When slave-owners’ agents ap-
                                                some twenty years earlier had
peared in Boston in the fall of
                                                finally resulted in open gunfire
1850 searching for escaped
                                                to defend black people.
slaves, they were told to leave
town in five days or face the con-               Conflict impelled the Abolition-
sequences. They left, but later                 ist movement forward. As the
came back and enlisted the aid of               conflict became more intense, no
the federal and local authorities.              one could avoid taking sides, and
Ex-slaves were usually spirited                 outside of the South (where anti-
away to Canada or Great Britain                 racism was viciously repressed)
in such situations, but in 1851                 most chose the side of abolition.
federal marshals in Boston ar-                  Incensed by Federal efforts to
rested a black waiter named                     capture fugitive slaves in 1854,
Shadrack and took him to the                    one staid Boston capitalist wrote,
courthouse. An angry mob of                     “we went to bed one night old
whites and blacks gathered out-                 fashioned, conservative, Com-
side, broke into the court, and                 promise Union Whigs & waked
took Shadrack off to Canada be-                 up stark mad Abolitionists.” The
fore the authorities could do any-              Abolitionists, ignoring calls for
thing.                                          compromise, had not buckled
                                                under to the Fugitive Slave Law.
 Later that same year, another
                                                Instead, they had stepped up the
ex-slave was arrested, and it took
                                                struggle-and their movement
THE STRUGGLE TO END SLAVERY                                          PAGE 95


grew.

Bleeding Kansas:

ABOLlTlONlSTS ON
THE OFFENSIVE
 Abolitionists had broken the
back of the Fugitive Slave Act,
and therefore the Compromise
of 1850 between northern and
southern capitalists. The Kan-
sas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which                   John Brown
would allow the voters of these
territories to decide whether to     Brown had long been part of the
allow slavery there, was the next   Underground Railroad, but he
concession made by the North to     had not spent much time with
patch over differences. “Free-      other white Abolitionists, prefer-
Soilers” soon began to move in,     ring to confer with black Aboli-
most of them farmers seeking        tionists like Dr. James Y~IcCune
land under the auspices of the      Smith and Henry Highland Gar-
New England Emigrant Aid Soc-       net. A l t h o u g h h e , t o o , w a s
iety, an investment company.        strongly motivated by religious
But slaveowners and their           feeling, he had quickly abandon-
agents, especially in Missouri,     ed the pacifism of “non-resist-
began pouring in, too. The front    ance” and had little interest in
in the anti-slavery war had         electoral politics. When he clrxci-
shifted to Kansas.                  ded in 1839 to devote his en~irr
                                    energies to abolition, his
 The slaveholders’ forces were
                                    thoughts turned to direct action.
both more committed ideologic-
                                    He soon formulated a plan to
ally and more experienced in the
                                    escalate the work of the Under--
use of violence than most of the
                                    ground Railroad with the ~U~IIL:-
free-soilers, many of whom op-
                                    tion of a guerrilla army basecl in
posed slavery because they didn’t
                                    t h e A p p a l a c h i a n s , t o r u n off
want black people for neighbors.
                                    slaves in even larger :iuir~lh2i3,
Pro-slavery forces unleashed a
                                    thereby destroying the ~OIICV
bloody reign of terror, and were
                                    value of slavery property (as hc
on the verge of winning control,
                                    explained to Frederick Doughs)
when a new force entered the
                                    by making it insecure. In 1851
picture: a dedicated white Aboli-
                                    he had helped to organize tllc
tionist named John Brown.
PAGE 96                               THE STRUGGLE TO END SLAVERY


“League of the Gileadites,” a          tionist who had fought in the
group of forty-four black Aboli-       Kansas war-said, “I could not
tionists in Springfield, Ohio who      feel as if it was right.” But within
pledged to rescue fugitives there.     months, events had proved that
“Hold on to your weapons,”             Brown had understood correctly
Brown advised them, “and never         the objective situation in Kansas.
be persuaded to leave them, part       James Townley, an eye-witness
with them, or have them far away       to the raid, wrote later that at the
from you.” This episode illus-         time he “thought that the trans-
trates Brown’s main strengths as       action was terrible” but later “be-
an organizer: he had early on          came satisfied that it resulted in
shed any illusions about the need      good to the Free State cause.
for violence, and he was anti-rac-     The pro-slavery men were
ist to the core.                       dreadfully terrified, and large
                                        numbers of them soon left the
 A5 the struggle for control of
                                       Territory.
Kansas escalated, Brown organ-
ized and led some of the more           As Dubois put it:
militant free-soilers to fight pro-    the man who in all this bewildering
slavery forces there with repeat-      broil was least the puppet of circum-
ing rifles and artillery. And in       stances-the man who most clearly
May 1856, with the free-soil capi-     saw the real crux of the conflict, most
tal of Lawrence burned to the          definitely knew his own convictions
                                       and was readiest at the crisis for de-
ground and the proslavery forces
                                       cisive action, was a man whose lead-
apparently in control, Brown           ership lay not in his offlce, wealth,
went on the offensive. He led a        or influence, but in the white flame
small band of fighters in the dead     of his utter devotion to an ideal.
of the night to the Swamp of the
Swan, where they took seven no-          Thousands came to agree that
torious pro-slavery thugs from         violence was absolutely necess-
                                       ary, and to respect Brown as a
their homes and chopped off
their heads with broadswords.          leader. This was a critical step
                                       both for the Abolitionists and the
 This bold anti-racist terror turn-    racists in the South. Both sides
ed the tide, emboldening the           became convinced that the dis-
free-soilers once more and pre-        pute over slavery would not be
venting the spread of slavery to       settled peacefully. In many res-
Kansas. More importantly, it           pects, the civil war in “Bloody
posed the question of violence to      Kansas” marked the culmination
other Abolitionists as it never had    of fifteen years ofagitation for an
been before. Brown’s own son           immediate end to slavery and the
Frederick-himself an Aboli-            beginning of the Civil War.
THE STRUGGLE TO END SLAVERY                                      PAGE 97


Harper’s Fery:                          stored there, and then advance
                                         into the mountains to set up 3
THE APEX OF                             string of guerrilla bases. From
ABOLITIONISM                             these his soldiers would make
                                         forays into nearby counties with
                                         huge concentrations of slaves,
 Kansas was a victory for the
free-soil cause and a big step for-      and win the slaves (plantation by
                                         plantation) to escape in large
ward for the movement, but
                                         groups. Those who wished to
from the anti-slavery point of
                                        join Brown’s army would be arm-
view it was (in Brown’s word) an
                                         ed, and the rest taken by the Un-
“abortion.” Brown was more de-
                                         derground Railroad to the
termined than ever to carry out
his well-developed plan to strike        northern states or Canada. The
                                         army would live off the produce
a decisive blow against slavery
(not just its extension) in the          of the land, which Brown con-
                                         sidered to belong rightfully to
heart of Virginia. And now, at
                                         the slaves.
last, a significant section of the
Abolitionist movement was                Brown needed to organize thl-cc
ready to take this idea seriously.      things to carry out the plan: a
                                        few dozen men (except for Har-H
                                                                      HHH
  The history of John Brown’s
                                        riet Tubman, Brown didn’t want
 raid on the federal arsenal at
 Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (now          women) to join the initial action;
                                        a network of organizat.ions to
 West Virginia) is one of the most
 inspiring stories of all in the his-   provide support and future I-C-
                                        cruits; and money for pikes,
 tory of anti-racist struggle.
 There is not room here to do full      guns, and transportation for the
                                        vanguard raiders. The raiders
justice to it, and English-langu-
                                        themselves were recruited b!.
 age readers are strongly urged to
                                        Brown personally: a few from
 read the article John Brown’s
                                        his family, a few from the Kansas
 Raid in PL Magazine (Fall 1979)
                                        struggle, a few from among his
 or the account in W. E. B. Du-
 Bois’ biography John Brown.            acquaintances in the free black
                                        communities, others hc had mcr.
 Here we will concentrate on the
                                        in the course of his anti-sla\.ery
 significance of the raid in the
 development of the Abolitionist        work. For the rest, Brown tllrn-
                                        ed to organized abolitionism.
 movement.
                                         For money Brown could appeal
 Brown proposed to organize a
                                        to radica1 white Abolitionist
small group of heavily armed
                                        groups like the National KansAs
black and white fighters to take
                                        Committee and the Boston
the arsenal, capture the weapons
PAGE 98                              THE STRUGGLE TO END SLAVERY




     john Brown’s torget- the Federal Arsenal at Harpr’s Ferry.


Relief Committee. He did not          plan. But after several days of
trust them enough to let them in      intense discussion, these former
on his plans-except to hint           pacifists and non-resistants
broadly that material given to        agreed to back Brown. “We can-
him would not necessarily be          not give him up to die alone,”
used in Kansas-but many of            Smith told Sanborn, “we must
them trusted him. The wealthy         support him.”
Gerrit Smith told him, “I have
                                       For organizational support,
known you for many years, and
                                      however, Brown turned to the
have highly esteemed you as long
                                      network of black Abolitionist
as I have known you.” These
                                      communities and groups. He
men, who probably preferred
                                      knew far more about the black
not to know his plans anyway,
                                      secret society in the U.S. (known
ga\re him custody of several hun-
                                      variously as the League of Free-
dred rifles as well as a pledge of
                                      dom, the Liberty League, or the
money. But to collect the money
                                      “American Mysteries”) and the
he needed, Brown had to des-
                                      fourteen Canadian “True
cribe his plans in detail to a few
                                      Bands,” numbering over a thous-
trusted friends among the white
                                      and members, than did other
Boston Abolitionists, meeting in
                                      white Abolitionists. Brown’s
secret. Frank B. Sanborn later
                                      confidence in launching what
reported being astonished and
                                      would amount to an armed in-
dismayed at first by Brown’s bold
THE STRUGGLE TO END SLAVERY                                         PAGE 99


surrection among the slaves was        an interracial convention in
firmly based in the ties he had        Chatham, Canada, attended by
developed over the years with          33 black and 12 white Aboli-
free black people, many ofwhom         tionists, with black men presid-
had been slaves themselves. He         ing. Even to this group he did
conferred with Douglass, Gar-          not reveal the details of his tacti-
net, Martin Delaney, J. W. Log-        cal plan, but the convention
uen, and other prominent black         struggled over principles, ad-
Abolitionists, but did not base his    opted a constitution to govern
plans on them either. Douglass,        Brown’s army, and established a
for example, liked the idea of         leadership body that functioned
armed guerrillas running off           until after the Harper’s Ferry
slaves, but objected to an attack      r a i d . J o h n B rown’s religious
on the arsenal because, in his         commitment may have driven
words, “it would be an attack up-      him to put his life on the line to
on the Federal government, and         end slavery, but his materialist
would array the whole country          grasp of the practical situation
against us.” He and Brown ar-          led him to build an organization
gued for two days: “he for strik-      to carry out the struggle.
ing a blow that would instantly
                                         The political struggle at t-his
rouse the country, and I for the
                                       convention illuminates the limits
policy of gradually and unac-
                                       of the Abolitionist movement, of
countably drawing sla\ves off to
                                       which Brown and his group w e
the mountains, as at first sug-
                                       surely the highest expression.
gested and proposed by him.” In
                                       Brown clearly saw the need to
the end, Douglass was not con-
                                       organize violent struggle against
vinced, hesitating because of “my
                                       slavery, and he was ready and
discretion or my cowardice, per-
                                       willing to take on federal author-
haps something of both,” as he
                                       ities with an armed attack on the
later admitted. But the fugitive
                                       arsenal. But he was a patriot, not
Shields Green, with them at the
                                       a revolutionary, when it came to
time, decided, “I guess I’ll go with
                                       the United States government.
the old man.” The renowned
                                       The forty-sixth article ofhis con-
“General” Harriet Tubman, a
                                       stitution stated that “the forego-
frequent user of the Appalachian
                                       i n g a r t i c l e s s h a l l n o t bc
“tracks” of the Underground
                                       understood so as in any way. to
Railroad, also pledged to be
                                       encourage the overthrow of 3111’
there; only illness, in the end,
                                       state government, or the gencr:;l
kept her away.
                                       government of the United
 Brown relied on the masses. He        States.” The black coppersmith
carefully laid the groundwork for      G. J. Reynolds, a leader of the
PAGE 100                               THE STRUGGLE TO END SLAVERY


Underground Railroad in San-            state of Virginia, and executed
dusky City, disagreed sharply           quickly, just six weeks after his
with Brown over this. He said he        heroic raid. But much happened
felt no allegiance to the nation        in those six weeks.
that had robbed and humiliated
                                         Abolitionism was electrified by
him, but was unable to convince
                                        the news of Brown’s bold and
a majority of the convention.
                                        unsuccessful frontal assault on
Again, some at the convention
                                        the slave system. The first reac-
argued that the best time for an
                                        tions of many seemed to justify
attack would be while the United
                                        Brown’s long-standing contempt
States was at war with a major
                                        for the Garrisonian “non-resis-
foreign power . Brown was deep-
                                        tants. ” Gerrit Smith, who had
ly disturbed by this suggestion,
                                        given Brown $1000, now denied
not because it might mean post-
                                        knowledge of his plans. Samuel
poning an attack but because he
                                        Gridley Howe vacillated on the
“would be the last one to take
                                        witness stand, then fled to Can-
adv.antage of my country in the
                                        ada. Douglass, hearing that Pre-
face of a foreign foe.” For him,
                                        sident Buchanan and Governor
racism in any form (including
                                        Wise of Virginia were on his
slavery) was a diabolical evil that
                                        track, also fled. Even then, how-
disfigured American society; he
                                        ever, George L. Stearns of the
did not understand that it is a
                                        Boston Relief Committee de-
cornerstone of capitaIism itself.
                                        clared “John Brown to be the re-
In this respect, religious idealism
                                        presentative man of this century,
clearly dominated his thinking.
                                        as Washington was of the last.”
 Brown and his soldiers suc-
                                          And Brown’s trial helped rally
ceeded in capturing Harper’s
                                         public opinion in the North
Ferry on October 17, 1859. But
                                         against slavery in the weeks that
for reasons that are not fully
                                         followed. The conservative Rep-
clear they delayed their depar-
                                         ublican journalist Horace Greel-
ture for the mountains, and were
                                         ey admitted reluctantly on the
trapped in the Harper’s Ferry
                                         eve of the trial that “the end of
firehouse by the arrival of one
                                         Slavery in Virginia and the
hundred United States Marines,
                                         Union is ten years nearer than it
commanded by Colonel Robert
                                         seemed a few weeks ago.”
E. Lee of Virginia. They chose to
                                         Northern workers and Aboli-
fight. Fift.ee n of Brown’s soldiers
                                         tionists held mass meetings on
died in the battle or were ex-
                                         his behalf. German Marxists in
ecuted afterward. Brown him-
                                         the Social Working Men’s Assoc-
self was captured, tried and
                                         iation of Cincinnati, Ohio
convicted for treason against the
THE STRUGGLE TO END SLAVERY                                    PAGE fO1


resolved that “The act of John         by the raid, even though it had
Brown has powerfully contrib-          been crushed. Five incendiary
uted to bring out the hidden con-      fires in the immediate neigh-
sciousness of the majority of the      borhood in one week testified to
people.” Even pacifists could no       that. Slaveholders in the count-
longer criticize Brown. “I claim       ies adjoining Harper’s Ferry
to be a Non-Resistant,” Stephen        frantically sold off their slaves,
S. Foster declared, “but not to be     often at a monetary loss. Fearful
a fool. I think John Brown has         that yet other such raids would
shown himselfa man, in compari-        occur in the future, Southern
son with the Non-Resistants.”          racists decided to secede from the
Tens of thousands across the           Union when Lincoln (a Rep-
country understood the last writ-      ublican backed by many Aboli-
ten words of the old man: “I,          tionists) was elected President a
John Brown, am quite certain           year later. With that decision-
that the crimes of this guilty land    and the subsequent shelling of
will never be purged away but          Fort Sumter in CharIeston,
with bIood. I had, as I now think      South Carolina-the official war
vainly, flattered myself that with-    began.
out very much bloodshed it
                                        In 1861 the workers of Lynn, all
might be done.” At least for the
                                       of them volunteers, marched off
time being, nonviolence was
dead.                                  to war, singing a new song:
                                       “John Brown’s body lies a-moul-
                                       dering in the grave/But his soul
THE CIVIL WAR:                         goes marching on.” Theirs was
SLAVERY DESTROYED                      not a war for the Union as much
BY MASS VIOLENCE                       as it was a war against slavery.
                                       They were openly in alliance
 Frederick Douglass later dec-         with the millions of slaves in the
lared that “IfJohn Brown did not       South who had struggled against
end the war that ended slavery,        slavery for generations. The
he did, at least, begin the war that   workers’ battle song also testified
ended slavery.” The Harper’s           to the efforts of hundreds of
Ferry raid and Brown’s trial           Abolitionists who had struggled
showed many on both sides that         to sustain and build their move-
armed conflict was necessary. By       ment in the face of what appear-
the time of his trial, Brown was       ed at times to be overwhelming
hailed as a hero in the North, and     odds. Who could have guessed
condemned by slaveholders in           that a small band of radical reli-
the South. The black population        gious leaders, supported by a
of Virginia was indeed aroused         network of free blacks and
PAGE 102                            THE STRUGGLE TO END SLAVERY


women petitioners scattered in       Confederacy, a desperate Jeffer-
small communities across the         son Davis signed a “Negro Sold-
country, would become a violent      ier Law” permitting slaveholders
mass movement against racism         (with the consent of their state
that would at long last b r i n g    goverments) to free their slaves
“King Cotton” to his knees?          to serve as soldiers in the Con-
                                     federate Army. It was too late for
  Lincoln and the statesmen of
                                     the Confederacy, and much too
the North wanted, above all, to
                                     late for black Southerners:
restore the union of the states.
                                     many, if not most, had already
They refused outright to free the
                                     freed themselves by then any-
slaves, and turned away thou-
                                     way.
sands of free black people who
volunteered immediately to
serve in the Union army. Even        CONCLUSION:
Lincoln’s famous “Emancipation       LESSONS OF THE
Proclamation” only freed the         ABOLITIONIST
slaves in those states which were    MOVEMENT
still rebelling: that is, those
states which would not abide by       The Civil War was the culmina-
it anyway.                           tion of the Abolitionist move-
 But once the war began, it could    ment.       The movement
not end without abolishing chat-     succeeded, although not exactly
tel slavery. Two years into the      in the way that Abolitionists had
bloody conflict with no end in       expected. And weaknesses that
sight, Congress was persuaded        had been secondary in earlier de-
that the North could only win the    cades now came to the fore. With
war with the help ofblack troops.    Lincoln and the Republicans in
Thousands in the North enlisted      power, and leading an army
in the “United States Colored        against the hated southern slave-
Troops” and, despite racist har-     ocracy, the confidence of most
assment and lower pay, were          Abolitionists in the federal gov-
among the best and the bravest       ernment was restored. T h e
soldiers in the army. Thousands      strategy of petitions was resur-
more in the South took the first     rected, once again begging Con-
opportunity to leave the plant-      gress to legislate the slaves free.
ations and join the Union Army,      Abolitionists no longer fought
even when that meant doing the       federal marshalls, but command-
hardest and dirtiest menial jobs.    ed federal troops and were elec-
And in March 1865, only weeks        ted to federal office. After the
before the final collapse of the     Emancipation Proclamation
T H E S T R U G G L E T O END S L A V E R Y                           PAGE 103


realized (at least formally) their            ofgod,” and of material concerns
demands, the movement as such                 by a struggle for spiritual pcrfcc-
disbanded. The disastrous re-                 tion. John Brown, for example,
sults only became clear years                 thought that society should be or-
after the war, in 1876, when cap-             ganized “on a less sellish basis;
italist interests dictated the sac-           for while material intcresls gain-
rifice of legally free but                    ed something by the deification
economically enslaved black                   of pure selfishness, men and wo-
southern sharecroppers to the                 men lost much by it.” IIe had a
still-wealthy southern plantation             point, of course, but by placing
owners. The federal govern-                   “material interests” in opposi-
ment pulled its troops out of the             tion to unselfishness he left open
south, and neither black south-               only the possibility of an abstract
erners nor anti-racists in the                Christian community of interest.
north were organized indep-                   Oppression and inequality in the
endently to defend their own in-              modern world are lirmly rooted
terests. If you rely on a capitalist          in capitalism. If you don’t end
“democratic” government, you                  capitalism, you can’t end racism.
can’t end racism.
                                               What, then, can we learn front
  If the strength of the Abolition-           the Abolitionists? More than
ist movement was its staunch                  anything else, the importance of
commitment to the principle of                political struggle: not only over
an immediate end to chattel slav-             strategy and tactics, but also
ery, its main weakness was that               about ultimate goals. To put it
its principles did not extend fur-            another way, one example of a
ther. Abolitionists generally did             social law is the generalization
not look beyond legal emancipa-               that the internal struggle within
tion to the social conditions that            a social movement determines
could make former slaves (or                  (within limits, of course) its out-
anyone else) free in a real, mater-           come. Those who understand
ial sense. To the extent that they            this law and fight hard to develop
did, the model of “freedom” was               the sharpest possible line, and to
the independence of the skilled               struggle for it in the broadest
craftsman or farmer, already be-              possible way, will have the niosr
coming an anachronism in an in-               effect on the course of events.
dustrializing world. More often,              Many of the most important as-
Abolitionists who looked beyond               pects of the ideological struggle
emancipation thought in anar-                 today were already issues among
chistic terms of freedom from                 the Abolitionists: willingness to
society: the replacement of hu-               break the law when the interests
man government by a ” kingdom                 of the laboring classes require it;
PAGE 104                               THE STRUGGLE TO END SLAVERY


the need for violence to end class      a science are wrong. Is a science
oppression; the need to build           of physics impossible because we
multi-racial unity with a cons-         cannot predict the path of each
cious struggle against racist ideas     individual water molecule in a
and practices within and outside        river, or because we have no
the movement; the importance            formula to describe the river’s
of rejecting religious idealism in      turbulent flow through a rocky
fa\.or of a scientific materialist      shoal? Of course not. Just as we
analysis of society. Let’s say it       know that the river flows to the
again: what you do counts. And          sea, we know that the racist slave
of all the things you do, struggl-      system had to come to an end.
ing for the correct politica line
                                         But how much longer might it
c01111ts 1nost.
                                        have taken without the boldness
                                        of David Walker, the persistence
AFTERWORD                               of William Lloyd Garrison, the
                                        courage of Harriet Tubman, the
 Some bourgeois hist,orians tell        insight and daring of John
us that history is not and never        Brown? More to the point, how
can be a science. Others try to         much longer might slavery lasted
make history into a science             without the ideological struggle
mechanically, by leaving out any        that enabled the Abolitionists to
reference to the consciousness of       learn from their mistakes and
the people whose actions, in            move forward? None of these
groups and as classes, have sha-        people was a super-hero. Their
ped the past. Both are wrong.           strength was that they learned to
Communist philosophy (often             grasp the essential contradic-
called Xlarxism-Leninism or dia-        tions of the society in which they
lectical materialism) gives us the      lived.
tools to analyze history scientific-
all!,. The better we understand          In Lenin’s words,
history, the more confidence we         political life as a whole is an endless
will have in the working class.         chain consisting of an infinite nuin-
The better prepared we will be          her of links. The whole art of politics
for our role in making history.         lies in finding and taking as firm a
                                        grip as we can of the link that is least
 The course of history is not           likely to be struck from our hands,
linear, and it is not smooth.           the one that is most important at the
                                        given moment, the one that most of
There is no magic formula for
                                        all guarantees its possessor the pos-
predicting exactly what will hap-       session of the whole chain.
pen when. But those who say
that history can therefore not be           The Abolitionists saw that the
                                         interests of the vast majority of
           THE STRUGGLE TO END SLAVERY                                      PAGE 105


               the laboring pepple of the United
_ ________--- _--.. ~~                             donothing--and that is the-worst-
           States demanded the immediate           mistake ofall. We cannot see the
           abolition of slavery. Therefore         whole process of social develop-
           they had the confidence to con-         ment at once, and we should not
           tinue organizing energetically          expect to anticipate every twist
           and patiently even when the tide        and turn in the road. But we can
           seemed to be turning against            grasp the essential dynamic of
           them. And when their enemies            the process from the part we can
           lashed out at them-for exam-            see.
           ple, with the Fugitive Slave
                                                    To win equality we need com-
           Law-they boldly turned these
                                                   munism. To win communism,
           attacks around, and moved the
                                                   workers must fight for it: mil-
           struggle to a higher stage. They
                                                   lions of workers, won to c o m -
           understood that history was on
                                                   munist ideas. Now and in the
           their side-and that their every
                                                   foreseeable future the task of
           action counted.
                                                   leadership is to guarantee a
            The struggle for equality has          sharp and ongoing ideological
           not yet been won. The Aboli-            struggle in the broadest possible
           tionists did not see that so-called     way. It is to build a base for com-
           “free labor” would become wage          m u n i s m a n d t h e PROGRESSI~T
           slavery. The best of them saw           LABOR PARTY. It iS t0 win new
           that racism was the bosses’ tool to     leaders into this struggle. Just as
           divide and oppress laborers-but         millions in the nineteenth cen-
           even they did not see that racism       tury U.S. who feared the
           was so fundamental to capitalism        degradation of their labor learn-
           that to destroy either one, both        ed to fight against slavery, so will
           must be torn down. Revolution-          those today who hate the dccad-
           ary history, Iike the history of        ence, misery, and exploitation of
           natural science, is full of partial     capitalism learn to fight for coin-
           truths. It moves forward by rec-        munism. If the key slogan of
           ognizing, through practice, the         1859 was “immediate abolition
           limits of its ideas and the nature      of slavery, by any means neccss-
           of its errors. The Abolitionists        ary,” the word of the hour to(la\.
           made mistakes. The PROGRES-             is “fight for communism.” \\G
           SIVE LABOR PXRn has made mis-           have a world to win.
           takes in the past, and we will
           make more in the future. The
           only way to avoid mistakes is to

								
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