Is violence necessary to win freedom? The resistance to American slavery

Ted Grimsrud—September 4, 2019

A new book challenges many of my assumptions about the role of violence and nonviolence in resistance to white supremacy and enslavement in American history. Kellie Carter Jackson, a historian who teaches at Wellesley College, in Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019) argues for the centrality of necessary violence in the work of resisting and ending slavery. Though she alludes only briefly to the more recent Civil Rights Movement, she seems to believe that violence was a necessary part of the positive gains made in the 1950s and 1960s as well.

An interesting book

I found this book quite interesting—which, unfortunately, is a comment I make only partly as a compliment. One of Carter Jackson’s achievements that I fully affirm is how she draws attention to the numerous black advocates for abolition in the several decades prior to the Civil War. All too often, the story of the abolitionist movement has focused almost exclusively on the white leaders with the addition of Frederick Douglass. Carter Jackson helps us see how vital and widespread the movement among black activists in the North actually was.

As well, Carter Jackson provides an insightful account of the evolution of the abolitionist movement in face of the extraordinary intransigence of white supremacists in the South and the North. At the beginning of the William Lloyd Garrison-led “formal” abolitionist movement in the early 1830s, the emphasis was on “moral suasion” that was self-consciously opposed to the use of violence to effect liberation for the enslaved. Over the following several decades, as the regime of enslavement became more entrenched—with the deep-seated collaboration of Congress, various pro-slavery presidents, and the Supreme Court—those committed to its eradication became increasingly impatient with the emphasis only on “suasion.” Belief in the necessity of violence for the liberation of the enslaved became increasingly widespread.

However, I do not believe that Carter Jackson has successfully made the case for her more wide-ranging claims (albeit usually only implicitly stated) that violence was indeed necessary, then and ever since, for achieving both liberation from slavery and social equality. In her epilogue she tellingly quotes Cynthia Washington of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from the 1960s, “I was never a true believer in nonviolence.” Washington “carried a handgun in her bag. And though she never fired it, she made it clear that she was willing to do so” (p. 160). Carter Jackson clearly sees Washington’s views on nonviolence as reflecting her own—that is, she doesn’t really give nonviolence a chance.

Carter Jackson does not, unfortunately, discuss the Civil War itself. Her account ends, rather abruptly, right at the moment of secession and the firing upon Fort Sumter that initiated the four-year conflagration that indeed ended with slavery’s formal abolition. She clearly believes, though, that the Civil War was in continuity with the growing violent resistance of the black abolitionists and should be celebrated for its achievement of freedom for black Americans.

Some unresolved issues: (1) What about the Civil War itself?

Force and Freedom is a short book (the main text is 163 pages), which is unfortunate given the many crucial issues that are not, in my opinion, adequately addressed. As I noted, the book does not discuss the Civil War but rather the final chapter ends with these words: “The shots fired on Fort Sumter on April 11, 1861, were not only the first shots of the Civil War, they were also shots that pierced the hopes of any American leader who still hoped for nonviolent reform” (p. 159). Implied here is the notion that the Civil War did effect the needed “reform”.

However, the violence of the war in its massive reach and unprecedented devastation was of quite a different kind than the actual and threatened violence of the black abolitionists Carter Jackson discusses, which was usually framed in terms of personal self-defense. In what sense did the war achieve the kinds of reform that the black abolitionists sought and hoped to achieve with their resistance? And what about the sheer costs of that war—what would a cost/benefit analysis tell us about the Civil War? Were the massive number of deaths, including uncounted thousands of enslaved and freed blacks, outweighed by the benefits for black lives achieved by the war?

Carter Jackson does not elaborate on her recounting early in the book, quoting black abolitionist and minister Joshua Easton from 1837 that “there is a danger that the spirit of slavery will survive, in the form of prejudice, after the system is overturned. Our warfare ought not to be against slavery alone, but against the spirit that makes color a mark of degradation” (p. 12). Indeed. However, though Carter Jackson seems to agree that “the form of [antiblack] prejudice” did indeed survive (she writes of the postwar reunion of North and South: “Black Americans were never welcomed into this family,” p. 14), she does not address the issue of the failure of the massive violence of the Civil War to achieve equality in American society. The war resulted in the formal end of slavery, but—it seems to me—it only exacerbated the problems of white supremacy and the exclusion of black Americans from the American “family.”

(2) Black abolitionists in the South?

Carter Jackson focuses on the efforts of black abolitionists in the North—either formerly enslaved or never enslaved. She writes nothing about parallel advocacy in the South. From what I understand, that would be because there was little activism in the South due to the ruthless suppression of any abolitionist inclinations—including extraordinary efforts at censorship that prevented abolitionist literature from being distributed and violent, even deadly, reactions to any voicing abolitionist sentiments. So, the story necessarily must be set in the North.

An issue to which this points, though, is that the reach of the black abolitionists toward the enslaved would seem to have been pretty minimal. With the imperviousness of the world of the enslaved to those who were agitating for their emancipation, what might that say about the significance of the agitation? What can we know about the awareness of the enslaved of this agitation? W. E.B. Du Bois, in his classic study, Black Reconstruction in America, discusses what he calls a massive “general strike” among slaves during the war that played a hug role in the war’s outcome. Was there a connection between that “strike” and the work of the black abolitionists in the North leading up to the war?

It does appear to me that the fate of the ca. 4 million enslaved in the South was not directly subject to the work of abolitionists. The transformation they experienced was due to the rather blunt trauma of total war (not the selective and precise violence that Carter Jackson seems to celebrate among the black abolitionists)—waged under the leadership of those who actually did not care all that much about emancipating the enslaved and who seemingly cared even less about social equality. This distinction matters for Force and Freedom’s argument because the freedom that resulted from mid-19thcentury force was achieved not by the black abolitionists but by the total war of the Union armies. And, not surprisingly, that freedom appears to have ended up being pretty ephemeral.

(3) What was achieved by the violence Carter Jackson valorizes?

There are several examples of violent resistance in the decades prior to the Civil War that Carter Jackson seems especially to value as positive models of “the politics of violence” (her subtitle). The biggest one, that loomed large among black abolitionists and to which Carter Jackson alludes many times throughout her book is the Haitian revolution. She also refers to Nat Turner’s revolt in Virginia in 1831, and the raid on the Harpers Ferry armory led by John Brown in 1859.

The other type of violence she often refers to is violence accompanying the attempts by numerous of the enslaved to escape their bondage and flee to free soil. As a rule, the lethal violence on those cases was rare and limited to what seemed necessary for the success of the escapes. I do think a case can be made that the violence of the latter sort was “effective” on some level and did achieve, at times, the gaining of freedom for some enslaved people. However, I also think this violence of “self-defense” was of a quite different sort than the much more extensive and pre-planned violence of the first three examples.

It is questionable that the net effect of the revolutionary violence of those three examples was positive for the cause of liberation of the enslaved. The Haitian revolution, of course, did result in a victory for the enslaved in that nation. It was a victory won at great cost, however, with devastating effects that ripple down to our present day. The death and destruction visited on Haiti over the course of the revolt was extraordinary, leaving the liberated nation in shambles and poorly situated to achieve a prosperous and democratically viable future. As well, the powerful nations that the Haitians, against incredible odds, evicted refused to welcome Haiti into the “brotherhood” of nations, leaving it in limbo as an international pariah—a status that has remained more or less in place ever since.

The Haitian success in evicting the French colonial lords and resisting a takeover by the British or Americans riveted those who opposed slavery elsewhere and evoked terror in enslavers elsewhere. At the same time, no other similar revolt occurred and the tightening of vicious repression in other slave territories led to tremendous suffering and deepened resistance to reform. Given the costs of the Haitian revolution during the long years of its ultimately successful struggle for independence, the permanent destruction of Haiti’s potential for a prosperous and democratic future, and the repressive impact that revolution had elsewhere in the Western hemisphere, it is difficult to perceive it as a symbol for the positive potential for revolutionary violence.

The other two examples, Nat Turner and John Brown, have legacies that are even more negative about the potential of violence to bring about positive outcomes. On a much smaller scale than the Haitian revolution, Turner’s revolt involved vicious indiscriminent bloodshed in its enactment and ended in the total defeat of its perpetrators. Not only were the rebels all captured and executed, dozens of other non-involved slaves were also murdered by enslavers. The long-term effect again was heightened repression and intensified violence in the slave states. Turner has been remembered as a courageous prophet who took a stand of direct resistance to an abominable system, as he should be. However, it is difficult to imagine an act of resistance that could have had more negative consequences for the cause of emancipation and equality.

John Brown’s raid seems to have a more ambiguous legacy. One could argue that his act of resistance, only a year and a half prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, was an important catalyst for that war and that that war was necessary for the effecting of emancipation. My entire project of reconsidering the moral legacy of the Civil War is an attempt to see if I can refute that argument. The direction of my thinking right now is that the Civil War may have led to the formal end of slavery, but that its other consequences actually directly and indirectly made the quest for an end to white supremacy and the creation of a society characterized by genuine equality much more difficult. And the devastation of the Civil War was incalculable. So, I don’t find the more positive readings of the impact of Brown’s revolt persuasive. Even if Brown was an important catalyst for the formal ending of slavery, the means by which that end came about (i.e., the Civil War) were profoundly problematic (not to mention the immoral means Brown and his helpers themselves used).

With regard to the direct impact of Brown’s raid, as with Nat Turner’s revolt, it was a poorly executed act of desperation that ended in total failure. The immediate consequences of death and destruction, the more long term consequences of heightened violence and repression, and the even more long term consequences of romanticizing such ineffective acts of violent resistance by far outweigh any obvious good that came from the raid.

I can imagine one way to see a positive impact resulting from Brown’s and Turner’s actions. They both bring to the surface in stark relief the injustice of an American “justice” system that defended slave power. Somehow, people needed to come to see that slavery was simply wrong and unacceptable. Such an awareness would require people to reject any legal justification for slavery and to acknowledge as unthinkable that courts, legislatures, police systems, and other mechanisms of “civilization” could undergird such injustice. One part of that process surely was the powerful witness of those so profoundly opposed to slavery that they were willing to give their lives to resist it.

However, as we learned a century later, the lesson of self-sacrifice even to the point of death is much less ambiguous and much more transformative when the self-sacrifice is not linked with the violent taking of others’ lives. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s manifested resistance to the regime of white supremacy equally courageous and costly as that of Turner and Brown. However, its nonviolent character did not allow for the overwhelmingly violent backlash that resulted in a status quo that by the end of the 19th century was little changed in substantive ways from that the Nat Turner’s day.

(4) The morality of killing?

When lethal violence is used, even for the most justifiable cause, people lose their lives and a ripple of devastation is created. Advocates of violence do not always seem to be attentive to those ripples of devastation. In the case of the Nat Turner revolt numerous young children and other seemingly “innocent bystanders” died horrible deaths. No matter how much we may respect Turner’s sense of desperation and the weight of the injustices he and his colleagues suffered, it seems impossible to find moral justification for those killings.

In the case of the Civil War itself, no accounting is possible of the death and devastation that ensued. Nor is an accounting of the long-term brokenness both for the communities that were devastated and the natural resources that were destroyed possible. Too seldom are these costs weighed in relation to whatever good the war may have led to (and I sense that this “good” was not nearly as clear cut and sustained as myths about the Civil War as a necessary step for American “freedom” would have us believe).

Part of the moral consequences of the use of lethal violence also weighs on the emotional health of those who do the killing. In recent years, the notions of “moral injury” and “perpetration induced traumatic stress” have helped to provide a way of thinking about how killing other people damages the killers. And certainly, the Civil War led to an extraordinary amount of perpetrator induced traumatic stress that rippled down the generations for thousands upon thousands of people.

An awareness of the moral costs of the use of lethal violence may not necessarily lead to a total repudiation of its use. However, any account of the moral status of such violence should at least be required to seek such awareness as part of the evaluation of its justifiability, and—more relevant for our current use of the memory of the Civil War and the abolitionist movements—we should have to think about such issues before we blindly use the past violence as a way of justifying current and future preparations for and acceptance of the use of lethal force.

(5) The failure of Reconstruction?

Another question that looms over any moral accounting of the violence that led to the end of slavery is how to understand the effectiveness of those acts in relation to the long term wellbeing of those who were enslaved. Carter Jackson rightly emphasizes the insistence of the black abolitionists that they had two goals, two necessary outcomes of their work of resistance. The first, of course, was the abolition of slavery. While I think the formal end of slavery did not result as a simple consequence of the pre-Civil War violence that Jackson Carter discusses, certainly that violence contributed directly to the massive violence of the war that did indeed result in slavery formally being ended.

However, the second goal was to create a society that genuinely was based on equality without regard to race. Another way to think of this goal was that the resistance to the injustice of enslavement would lead to an end to white supremacy. To a significant degree, the victory of the Union in the Civil War set the stage for important work to create the context for racial equality in the US—the process called Reconstruction. Three crucial amendments to the Constitution passed that took major steps in that direction. And in many of the states of the former Confederacy, black people voted and even were elected to high offices.

Tragically, white supremacy in the South was not actually diminished by the loss of the war nor was the work of Reconstruction sustained. In fact, after 1877 an all out effort to recreate a white supremacist society in the South met with little resistance in the wider nation. By the turn of the century, Jim Crow segregation was in place, lynchings proliferated with impunity, virtually no blacks were allowed to vote, the share cropping system and the re-enslavement of many blacks through criminal leasing was widespread, and in many other ways social inequality characterized the South virtually as much as ever. In fact, black historian Rayford W. Logan, in his 1954 history of race relations in the latter several decades of the 19th century and the early 20th century, The Betrayal of the Negro: From Rutherford B. Hayes to Woodrow Wilson, asserted that the early 1900s witnessed the nadir of the entire history of people of African descent in North America.

I believe that this retrenchment of white supremacy and the vicious exploitation of the formerly enslaved and their descendants present a formidable challenge to any rendering of the Civil War as a war that achieved freedom. Carter Jackson actually gives mixed messages on this point. She does not speak directly of the Civil War, but she does give the sense that she sees the work of the black abolitionists as a catalyst for the end of slavery as ultimately a success story. She makes the important point that American historians and the broader culture have not been attentive enough to the extent of resistance work among blacks in the years leading up to the Civil War. However, the implication that freedom actually was achieved by the force she alludes to in her title seems to fly in the face of the ongoing reality of white supremacy and exploitation of black people down to our present day. Several times she alludes to that ongoing reality, but she does not discuss it in relation to the claims for the effectiveness of violence to overcome it.

I suspect that an examination of the evidence of the impact of the Civil War would show that it actually heightened the power of the white supremacists in the generations following the war. Since I’m not aware of anyone who has undertaken such an examination, my suspicion remains only a suspicion. Even so, I do not find Carter Jackson persuasive in her presentation of the effectiveness of violence in achieving freedom in face of the horrors of American slavery.

A different interpretation of nonviolence

I think it is appropriate to respect the black abolitionists and their allies who took up arms (including Nat Turner and John Brown). We should honor their commitment and courage, and also recognize that the main violence and the moral culpability for that violence lie with the enslavement regime and its political enablers. Nonetheless, it still seems crucial to do a kind of cost/benefit analysis. The violence over and over resulted in massive retaliation. The influential historian of slavery David Brion Davis suggests that there weren’t more slave uprisings in the US (fewer than elsewhere in the Americas) because of the wisdom of the enslaved who recognized that violent revolts were likely to be counter-productive (see Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World).

My point is not to criticize the black abolitionists or to suggest they should have done things differently. The issue I’m interested in is what lessons do we draw now from those events. I think we should start with a sense that what did happen when violence was used (up to and including the Civil War) was mainly failure—especially if we think success had to do with bothemancipation and equality.

Are there ways to imagine slavery and inequality being more effectively resisted? Are there elements of the story that could point in the direction of nonviolence? Historian James Oakes, in his book The Scorpion’s Sting: Antislavery and the Coming of the Civil War, discusses the bigger vision of many of the abolitionists who advocated moral suasion over violent revolt. They envisioned a dynamic where the South would secede (or, a few suggested the North should secede from the South), and the North would shape itself as a consistently free society that would, among other antislavery practices, openly welcome escaping slaves.

There were debates among the Confederate leadership about initiating the armed conflict with the attack on Ft. Sumter in April 1861 (some important leaders strongly opposed that attack, understanding that the South would surely lose an all out war). And there was fairly wide support in the North for letting the South go (prior to the attack, after which point public support for war was overwhelming). So it is possible to imagine a scenario where the possibility of ending slavery could have been more gradual and the deepening of white supremacy caused by the war would not have happened. If the South had merely seceded without attacking a Union fort, Lincoln would have had a very difficult time drumming up support for an all out war.

My main thought here is that such a scenario would have provided time for the moral suasion to have more of an impact and for an evolution toward a more racially egalitarian society in the North—in contrast to the rapid descent into even more white supremacy (in the North as well) that followed the actual events.

Another thought stems from W. E. B. Du Bois’s account of what he called a “general strike” among the enslaved during the war in Black Reconstruction in America. Du Bois was not intentionally trying to make a case for the superiority of nonviolent tactics, but in arguing that the refusal of masses of the enslaved to continue to work for their enslavers during the war made a major contribution to undermining the South’s war effort he does suggest that an essentially nonviolent tactic was indeed a major factor. In light of the theory and practice of nonviolent social change strategies that emerged in the 20th century, we can see hints in this “general strike” of a strategy for overturning slavery that could have been essentially nonviolent—and effective.

It seems to me that in the history of the United States the main period that saw genuine progress in overcoming white supremacy was the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. And the main reason for the effectiveness was the nonviolent discipline of the movement, the ability to sustain the moral high ground. In light of the abolitionist argument for moral suasion and the widespread embrace by the enslaved of a type of general strike, I think we can see some roots for the movement some 100 years earlier.

While I can understand the desire that Carter Jackson often alludes to among black abolitionists for the emotional satisfaction for a sense of effective resistance in face of the seeming impervious refusal of the enslavers to relent from their oppression, I don’t think it is helpful for us today to imagine that the only possibility for gaining a sense of empowerment was (and is) using violence. I think the big problem with her viewpoint is that she denies what Gandhi and King insisted on—that nonviolence can be an effective form of resistance and confrontation and is the opposite of acquiescence, and that nonviolent resistance is a strategy that requires profound courage and “manliness” (if you will).

Is love an appropriate motif for social transformation?

As I read about the history of white supremacy in the United States (and parallel dynamics in the British Empire), I am struck by a sense that at the root of the problems lay an unwillingness on the part of too many white people to recognize the full humanity of those they place themselves over. King and Gandhi both understood that a big part of that unwillingness is a refusal to love the neighbor (a terrible irony given the “Christian” self-identity common among so many white supremacists).

I believe that violence is incompatible with love—obviously in the case of an evil institution such as slavery, which is the violent context for the resistance of the black abolitionists and of other efforts throughout the past several hundred years to overturn white supremacy. As well, though, Gandhi and King insisted that revolutionary violence is also incompatible with love. Their great contribution was to show that nonviolent resistance is both effective against oppressive and is compatible with love. I’m disappointed that Carter Jackson’s important reclaiming of the courageous resistance of the black abolitionists does not struggle with the implications of Gandhi and King’s contribution for how we appropriate the history of the struggle against slavery.

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2 thoughts on “Is violence necessary to win freedom? The resistance to American slavery

  1. This was definitely my favourite of your civil war posts! Very thoughtful and fair. Thank for all the hours you are putting into this project!

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