The Role of Violence in the Abolitionist Movement (Review)

Historians in the News
tags: slavery, racism, abolition, violence, book review

On September 11 1851, George Ford, Nelson Ford, Noah Buley, and Joshua Hammond arrived at William and Eliza Parker’s home in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania near the town of Christiana. The four men were fugitive slaves from Maryland and sought shelter on their journey north. The Parkers, who were Black abolitionists, agreed to help. Shortly thereafter Edward Gorsuch, the white enslaver, and a posse of slave catchers arrived to arrest the fugitive slaves. As the confrontation escalated, Eliza Parker sounded an alarm, alerting the members of the Black Self-Protection Society to protect the runaway slaves. Within minutes, eighty Black men and women and two Quakers arrived armed with guns and pitchforks, ready to defend the fugitives at all costs. Outnumbered, the slave catchers ran off but not until after shots had been fired. Refusing to leave, Gorsuch was ultimately killed at the hands of the men he pursued. Parker later recounted that “the women put an end to him” (p. 54-56).

The successful defense at Christiana was one of the most significant violent altercations over slavery in the 1850s and signifies the volatility of slavery during the turbulent sectional crisis. It also illustrates not only the power of collective Black resistance, but also how Black abolitionist women and men put into practice an ideology they had long embraced: the use of violence in self-defense. Such violence would be required to secure slavery’s ultimate demise. This is the focus of historian Kellie Carter Jackson’s important new book, Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence.

In Force and Freedom, Carter Jackson sheds new light on the history of abolition and political violence, demonstrating that events like Christiana were chapters in a longer history of Black abolitionists who subscribed to an ideology of force and violence. Rather than marginalized in isolated examples of slave rebellions, in a few writings by abolitionists thinkers, or in individual acts against a slave catcher, the political utility and ideological prominence of force and violence in the struggle against slavery and racism was essential and continuous for Black abolitionists. Racial slavery was inherently violent and African Americans, enslaved and free, understood it would have to be eradicated with violence. Carter Jackson traces how this ideology emerged in the Age of Revolutions and crystalized in the antebellum period, especially after the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, culminating in a bloody civil war that ultimately brought about the thirteenth amendment abolishing chattel slavery. Carter Jackson’s novel interpretation of political violence recovers an often ignored thread in Black abolitionist thought and enriches a historiography that centers the movement’s radical nature.

Crucial to Carter Jackson’s ’s argument is the role both the American and Haitian Revolutions played in Black abolitionists’ ideology. “For black abolitionists, the American and Haitian Revolutions involved more than set of enlightened principles: each provided the rationale and means through which to accomplish abolition” (p. 5-6). Throughout the study, Carter Jackson demonstrates how Black abolitionists evoked the legacies of both revolutions and the central role violence played in achieving republican independence.

Read entire article at Black Perspectives