HIST 119: The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877
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The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877
HIST 119 - Lecture 5 - Telling a Free Story: Fugitive Slaves and the Underground Railroad in Myth and Reality
Chapter 1. Frederick Douglass and the Slave Narrative [00:00:00]
Professor David Blight: In some ways, the greatest witnesses — there are many, many witnesses of the coming of the Civil War — what caused it, what’s percolating from beneath the society of the South, we’ve looked at, and the society of the North — and in so many ways, of course, the greatest witnesses — and their stories have only been with us, in a serious, robust way, for the past couple of decades or so, a few decades — are those of the slaves themselves. If it was somehow all about them — and in varying kind of ironic ways folks on both sides will say that — if it is somehow all about them, what did they think?
This week you’re reading the greatest of the slave narratives. Frederick Douglass’s first autobiography, published in 1845, is, I still would maintain, the greatest of the slave narratives, certainly in a literary sense. He was an almost mystically brilliant writer, for one so young. He first drafted this when he was 26. He escaped from slavery when he was 20-years-old. You’ll find out in the text how he learned his literacy. He learned it first from his white mistress, Miss Sophia, who became like an angelic mother-figure to him until she took language away from him.
The book is full of metaphor, it is full of one kind of tale and story after another that Douglass shapes into telling a free story. Telling a free story, as the great literary critic of this genre, Bill Andrews, has put it. For a fugitive slave to emerge in the Northern states — for that matter a fugitive slave who goes to Britain, like Olaudah Equiano did, African born, or so we still think, and writes his story in Britain — but for a fugitive slave to write his or her story and publish it in English in the western world was to say: “I’m a person of letters, I am somebody, I have a history, I am free, but I am not free until you let me write, and I will make myself free, if I must, by telling you who I am.” When a fugitive slave could go to England and hold up his book in front of huge audiences — Douglass spoke in London at one point before 10,000 people, in 1846 — and he could hold his little book up in his hand, he could probably at that moment feel freer than he’d ever felt, because he could actually say “this is who I am, I’m not a manufactured identity, I’m not what you necessarily want me to be. I won’t talk the way you expect me to talk. I won’t scratch my head when I tell my story.” But what a story.
When I was a fledgling graduate student, not knowing what I was doing and writing a dissertation on Frederick Douglass, a couple — a few decades ago, a new book had come out called Young Frederick Douglass. It was a wonderful study of Douglass’s youth. It had been written by a journalist, so he was hard to find — he wasn’t an academic. This is pre-email, pre-Google, pre-lots of things. I wrote to his publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press, and said can you give me a phone number for Dick Preston — Dickson Preston was his name. They said, “yes, here’s his phone number.” I was in Washington, D.C., doing research; called him. He lived on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, that much I knew, which is where Douglass grew up. I didn’t know much about Dick except that he had written this extraordinary book on Douglass’s youth. In fact, it was Preston who actually discovered Douglass’s birth date. Douglass was one year younger than he ever knew — wouldn’t that be cool? I’ll take a year back any time at this point. Called him, he said, “Yeah, come on out to the Eastern Shore, meet me in the Easton Community College parking lot at 9 a.m.” — on whatever Wednesday morning it was in July — “I’ll give you a tour of the sites of Douglass’s youth.” And it was one of the most extraordinary days of my life. I folded myself into his station wagon and we drove back roads all over the Eastern Shore. He took me for a walk through a muddy cornfield, as I believe it, out to the back lot of a field, to a bend in Tuckahoe Creek, and he said, “This is where Douglass was born. Here’s where Grandmother Betsy’s cabin was.” Then he took me down all kinds of back roads, then we ended up at the Freeland Farm. If you’ve read the Narrative you know the Freeland Farm was — among Douglass’s three or four masters he had as a youth, Freeland he admired the most or respected the most. And then he said, “Do you want to see Covey’s Farm?” Edward Covey, the so-called slave-breaker Douglass had been hired out to, or sent to, by his master Thomas Auld, when he was a 17-year-old, quite rebellious and rather uncontrollable teenager. I said, “Sure, show me Covey’s farm.” Then back roads again that I couldn’t find today if my life depended on it. We get out of a car and, in my memory, we stepped over a fencepost, we walked out this ridge, and Dick said something like “turn around.”
And there they were. He hadn’t made it up. In the narrative, if you’ve read far enough, if you’ve read to page 83 in my edition, you’ve encountered the most beautiful metaphor in anti-slavery literature. It’s Douglass’s metaphor of the white sailing ships on the Chesapeake that he would see from Covey’s farm for eight months, and he would try to dream and imagine his way onto their decks, their “gallant decks”, as he called them. And I realized that day sometimes metaphor is not just a metaphor. “Our house stood within a few rods of the Chesapeake Bay” — this is Douglass’s description — “whose broad bosom was ever white with sails from every quarter of the habitable globe. Those beautiful vessels robed in purest white, so delightful to the eye of freemen” — don’t you wish you could write like this when you’re 26? — “were to me so many shrouded ghosts, to terrify and torment me with thoughts of my wretched condition. I have often, in the deep stillness of a summer Sabbath, stood all alone upon the lofty banks of that noble bay and traced, with saddened heart and tearful eye, the countless number of sails moving off to the mighty ocean.” Douglass was fond of adjectives. “The sight of these always affected me powerfully. My thoughts would compel utterance, and there with no audience but the Almighty I would pour out my soul’s complaint” — a phrase right from the Book of Job — “in my rude way, with an apostrophe to the moving multitudes of ships.” And when you read this, note what he does then, he puts his own teenage voice, or his memory, in quotation marks, and he speaks to the ships. “You are loose from your moorings and are free. I am fast in my chains and am a slave. You move merrily before the gentle gale and I sadly before the bloody whip. You are freedom’s swift winged angels that fly around the world. I am confined in bands of iron. Oh that I were free. Oh that I were on one of your gallant decks and under your protecting wing. But alas, betwixt me and you the turbid waters roll. Go on, go on. Oh that I could also go.” And he still goes on for another paragraph, milking, if you like, the sailing ship metaphor for all it’s worth. How many of us — perhaps all of us, I think everybody, has their own Chesapeake. It may be every morning when you have to go to class. We all have our own Chesapeake Bays we’ve looked out on and wondered “wouldn’t I rather be there?” Or “how can I get out of here?” Or “is there a sailing ship that will liberate me?” Telling a free story is what the slave narratives were about. They were acts of telling that in some ways made the former slave almost literally free by an act of language. Language itself to a former slave who could write was a form of liberation. We tend to take it for granted today, these books, language.
Chapter 2. The Development of Abolitionism in the North [00:09:46]
Okay, abolitionism, its roots. Reformers, the barriers they faced. I’m going to run through this with some speed, and then the stages in the development of an anti-slavery impulse — let’s call it that to begin with. It begins with this idea of colonization, colonizing African-American freed people or former slaves outside the United States; an idea that never lost its kind of beguiling hold on the American imagination, even well after the Civil War, ironically. And then on to a more radicalized form of anti-slavery thinking and action, exemplified especially by William Lloyd Garrison, but by a host of other black and white abolitionists. And then I want to work you at least to the story, in myth and reality, of the Underground Railroad, since it is so much a part of our imagination of this story, and it would at least I hope take us to the point of understanding why that Fugitive Slave Act, that we’ll hear about on Thursday and into next week, that Fugitive — that Federal Fugitive Slave Act passed in 1850, in the compromise of 1850 that flowed out of the Mexican War — why that Fugitive Slave Act was so pertinent, so divisive, so significant, in the kinds of ways Americans were beginning to divide over the future of free labor and slave labor, whatever. They may have thought about African-Americans as their neighbors.
But permit me to use Emerson again, at least briefly. This idea of reform. I mentioned last time that — and sort of ended there — that in American History we’ve had at least four major reform eras or waves of reform. And certainly this is the first. In Antebellum America from the 1820s through the 1850s all kinds of reform ferment came to the surface. Sometimes that was against flogging in the Navy. Sometimes it was in utopian experiments and communities. Sometimes that was in Women’s Rights. Sometimes that was in Temperance, which was by far — that is the anti-alcohol, anti-booze, anti-demon rum movement — Temperance was by far the most widespread American reform movement in pre-Civil War times. It was probably the only major reform movement that got a hold in the South. Personal reform of some sort was something that that Southern society we looked at — a slave society, a very hierarchical society — certain kinds of personal reform that dealt with personal piety and behavior could take hold in the South; broader social reforms that would challenge the social order — not so much.
But listen to Emerson. In his essay called “Man the Reformer” — and think about our own times. “What is man born for?” said Emerson. “What is man born for but to be a reformer?” Now he may be right or wrong about this, you can decide. “A re-maker of what man has made, a renouncer of lies, a restorer of truth and good, imitating that great Nature” — note the metaphor here — “which embosoms us all and which sleeps no moment on an old past but every hour repairs herself, yielding us every morning a new day, and with every pulsation a new life. Let him renounce everything which is not true to him, and put all his practices back on their first thoughts, and do nothing for which he has not the whole world for his reason.” Emerson is arguing, right or wrong, that you are a reformer by nature. Nature recreates itself daily and so do humans. Is he right?
Call home tonight to your parents and say — you’re a Senior — “I’ve decided what I’m going to do, Dad, I’m going to be a reformer.” If I were your parent I’d say, “Of what? For why? Do they pay you for that? Will it be safe? Who you been talking to? A what?” “I’m gonna be a reformer.” This was an age, though, by the 1830s, for a small group — and rest assured abolitionists, in particular, were never a large group. They probably were never — excuse me, I was in Montana on the weekend giving lectures, and the mountains were gorgeous but it was cold. Anyway, abolitionists were never, even at their peak of organizational action, were never more than probably, probably at most, 15% of the population of the Northern states. Now in some communities they might be larger — upstate New York, parts of Massachusetts and Connecticut or New Hampshire — always a small group. But like most vociferous and, eventually, highly organized — operating by the printing press — reform groups, their significance is much greater than their numbers.
Now, what were they up against? Real quickly let me run through these. I may have begun here last time and had to stop. The American abolitionists, or anybody concerned about slavery — let’s just take the slavery question — has to deal, by the 1820s now, with the new generations being born who did not experience the Revolution, and they are inheriting now this great experience of their parents, the American Revolution. But that revolution had at least a twofold legacy. On the one hand, it was an event that really ushered those great Enlightenment ideas into the world that an anti-slavery impulse in America is going to draw upon, constantly. Black and white abolitionists, they’re all going to do it. Those great Enlightenment ideas — hostility to monarchy, the growth of Republicanism, representative government, the faith in human reason, the notion of individual liberty, that you’re born with certain natural rights. These are revolutionary ideas. They hadn’t worked them out yet either. How about the right of revolution, one of Jefferson’s four first principles? The doctrine of consent. Popular sovereignty — not a brand new idea — it’s all the way back there in the Epistles of Paul and even before that in certain kinds of writings. But how many times had the world actually invented governments truly based on the doctrine of consent? And that fledgling idea of equality, human equality, had been put in play.
But the other side of the American Revolution is that it had also fostered in the South the necessity of an intensification of slavery’s defense. In many ways, the success of the American Revolution and putting slavery on the run in the Northern states, where it was gradually abolished in every Northern — immediately abolished in a few but gradually abolished in most of the Northern States by the 1820s — the South now had to have answers, it had to have justifications. And we went through a lot of those defenses and justifications the other day. This was what Edmund Morgan, the great colonial revolution historian here at Yale for years argued so brilliantly, over and over. It was the American paradox, this great American contradiction; largest slave system in the world being built by one of its first functioning, thriving republics.
Two, anybody trying to work against slavery, even in the most gradual, modest ways, by the 1820s and the 1830s, has got to bump his head right into what we might simply call the sanctity of the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution was revered in American society, it was a sacred thing. And look what it was rooted in. Now, Garrison’s going to call it a covenant with death, a deal with the devil, because of its complicities in slavery. But it’s also rooted deeply in Federalism and in what southerners and northerners would practice as states rights doctrine — all that localism that the Constitution was designed in Madison’s genius to try to control, hold together. Then you take the three-fifths clause and the fugitive slave clause and the postponing for 20 years of any consideration of the banning of the foreign slave trade. And you realize that the U.S. Constitution is morally complicit in slavery, even though it never used the word. Why did abolitionism in America — or any kind of concern — let’s just put it that way — about slavery become more radical with time? It is because, ultimately, an anti-slavery movement in the United States, to succeed, had to become extra legal. Or, put another way, it had to break the law. That’s why law breaking is such a central theme in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s great novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
And then, of course, anti-slavery activists were up against the increasingly deep defense of slavery, which we’ve already dealt with. They were up against an increasingly highly organized and widely written racial theory about black inferiority. An anti-slavery impulse in the United States was an impulse, a set of ideas, that eventually would have to call for some form of social revolution, legal revolution, and political revolution in a society that did not want it. And in a society where increasingly a tremendous amount of wealth was of course staked in slavery, a point we’ve also made. Just a last thought on that. Think today, just think around you, think out of your box for a moment, of an issue in the world of great concern that really affects you, or most of us; for that matter the whole bloody world. How confident are you in succeeding in solving it, in your lifetime? World poverty, global warming, take your pick. Racism, go end it. To be an abolitionist in the 1830s was to take on an issue like this and say, “Well, you know, maybe not in our lifetime but maybe sometime.” It doesn’t mean they were altruistic, I’m not sure there were any altruistic abolitionists. As you’ll see when you read about them in Bruce Levine’s book or any other way we look at them, they could be as egotistical and as vane and as conflicted in their tactics and their methods and their personalities as anybody. Certainly William Lloyd Garrison was not an easy guy to get along with.
Chapter 3. Colonization and the Idea of Gradualism [00:22:37]
Now, as I mentioned earlier, anti-slavery in America, though, takes stages, it goes through periods, stages. The first of these is this idea of colonizing black people elsewhere. Now colonization, as an idea, is not brand new by 1816, when the American Colonization Society was formed, but it finally took hold in the political soil of the United States, in the wake of the War of 1812. The American Colonization Society was actually founded in the U.S. capitol. This thing had congressional funding at first. It was actually founded by some of the greatest statesmen in America at the time. Henry Clay was there at the original meeting. James Monroe; John Marshall — Chief Justice of the Supreme Court — and many others, especially border state, Upper South leaders, like Clay, from Kentucky, the great Whig who will become the kind of father-figure of the Whig Party. Many of them slaveholders, like Clay — owned about 60 slaves on his hemp farms in Kentucky.
The idea here is that somehow over time, in that America of the future — that vast, infinite, boundless America of the West — that eventually this problem of slavery might have to be faced, but the way it could be faced eventually is if you start gradually removing black people from the United States. And you do it first with volunteer freed people, free blacks. They would be asked, never coerced, was the theory of the original Colonization Society. That Colonization Society, of course, is the organization — it had a lot of money in its first decade or so. It was such a beguiling idea. It fit in so many ways this generation. And it was actually the revolutionary generation and the immediate post-revolutionary generation who really were infused with what you might call a kind of Jeffersonian idealism — or even a Madisonian idealism — that somehow this America, yes, it had problems — or as Jefferson said, we got the wolf by the ears, with slavery; you can’t get off because the wolf will devour you; but if you stay on you got to ride that damn wolf forever. But he said that in private — but this kind of Jeffersonian idealism that somehow this grand American continent with its resources physically, and this grand American Constitution, this great experiment, would dissolve this problem, especially if you helped it.
The American Colonization Society founded the colony of Liberia on the West Coast of — the nation of Liberia was founded in 1820, ‘22, by the ACS, the American Colonization Society. It would ship approximately 1500 free African-Americans to Liberia — 1500, that’s it — between 1821 and 1831, and they would found its capital at Monrovia, named for James Monroe, the United States President. Liberia today, as you may know, has been through a vicious, horrifying Civil War. It’s a disaster. It does have the only African woman president now. It’s a fascinating story of what’s happening to Liberia. But its roots are back here, in the impulse of white Americans to remove black Americans from their native soil. Now some African-Americans bought onto this. It’s the immigration impulse, go elsewhere, make a new start. Some of them were even inspired by this idea of a return to an ancestral homeland that they knew so little about.
But colonization had all kinds of flaws at its roots. Well, we can call these flaws; we can call these realities; we can call them whatever we want. Colonization was essentially rooted in these ideas. It was first these — or assumptions we might call them. The first assumption was that equality, racial equality in America was never going to happen. Just start there, is what the colonizationalists would argue. “Be real — ain’t gonna happen.” There was a fear of the rising free black population that had really boomed in numbers in the wake of the American Revolution, with all the manumissions that went on in the Upper South, and then the emancipations that had occurred in the north, where the slave population of a state like New York had been six or seven percent. It was the fear now of the specter of slave insurrection. There’d been the Gabriel Prosser plot in 1800 in Richmond. There’d been the Denmark Vesey insurrectionary plot in Charleston in 1822, which brought a lot of converts to colonization. And of course Nat Turner’s bloodiest of all insurrections in 1831 made colonization look pretty nice to a lot of Americans. There was this idea too that somehow colonization would be a safety valve. It might only remove five or ten percent of American free blacks and slaves over say a few decades. But even that five or ten percent, the theory was, would ameliorate conditions in the south, it would begin to defuse this powder keg of a rising slave population being fueled by the great cotton boom. And it had a kind of a strange attractiveness, but mostly to white folks. It was roundly loathed by — make no mistake — by a majority of free African-Americans in the North or Upper South, and feared — to the extent they even grasped the idea — by slaves in the Deep South.
But it was a gradualism that fueled the idea of colonization and it was gradualism that a lot of America’s first early youthful generation of abolitionists thought might still be the best way to go, in the 1820s. Gradual plans had been used, for example, in states like Connecticut. Connecticut passed a law in the late-1790s that said that every slave born in that state, after that date, on his or her 21st birthday would be freed; that’s a very gradual plan. Abraham Lincoln is still voicing this very kind of gradual plan of emancipation at the outbreak of the Civil War. He’s still going to suggest it to the states of Kentucky and Delaware when he calls them in and asks those states in 1862 to consider emancipation on a gradual plan. And he would even compensate the slaveholders 600 bucks a slave or — I forget exactly what the figure was. And gradualism, many people have argued, is kind of the American way, a long-term plan, cushion the change.
Chapter 4. The Radicalization of Anti-slavery Thinkers [00:30:18]
But, several things began to happen, especially in the 1820s and into the 1830s that radicalized anti-slavery thinkers in the United States. And this is indeed the roots, if you like, of a more radical abolitionism, the roots of what came to be known among the Garrisonians as Immediatism. And those roots are these; I’m going to give you four. I wrote an essay, the first essay I ever published in graduate school was on this subject, and you never quite forget your argument of your first essay, even if it wasn’t very good.
But what began to radicalize American anti-slavery activists? First, it was Evangelical Christianity. Some of the radicalism they took from their faith. They took from the so-called Second Great Awakening. They took from this idea that somehow, it was their duty, it was their place in the world — many of them were the sons and daughters of ministers — to save souls. And if you’d been inspired by Charles Grandison Finney out in Oberlin, Ohio, or — as Theodore Weld had — or a number of other ministers across the North, that it was your duty to go save souls, it was only one step further — and Finney told them that — to save society as well. And if conversion to Christ or conversion to faith, conversion to salvation, can happen immediately in a person, why not a whole society? If you can revolutionize a single soul, why can’t you revolutionize a hundred, 100,000, 1,000,000? A second source — and I can say so much more about the significance of Evangelicalism, this idea of the rebirth of faith and rebirth of the soul, the born-again notion, in this era at least. We’re living in a different kind of era of Evangelicalism in the United States — although some Evangelicals are indeed reformers, they tend to be seen today largely as political conservatives, social conservatives. Some of the Evangelicalism of the 1820s in America, in the 1830s, became a much more radical kind of Evangelicalism in terms of the social changes that they were advocating. Having said all that, that same Evangelical Christian who becomes an abolitionist may indeed have been a virulent Temperance advocate and saw demon rum as as big a demon as demon slaveholding.
The second cause of this roots of radicalism is what we might call perceptions of southern intransigence or perceptions of southern truculence. In the 1820s a lot of these early young — they’re youthful, they’re only in their twenties — anti-slavery advocates are — some of them are — even William Lloyd Garrison flirted with colonization at first, when he was about 23, 24-years-old. They were gradualists at first, until they began to realize how deeply committed the South actually was to slavery, and that leaving it to them, leaving it to their own resources, was never going to solve anything. An early, early abolitionist, in 1818, George Bourne said, quote, “When Southerners are challenged on the slavery question they” — quote — “are choked, for they have a Negro stuck fast in their throats.” The more and more that early abolitionists began to realize just how deeply committed the South was — morally, biblically, socially, philosophically — to sustaining this slave society, the more they began to realize that if they were serious about this, they had to have much more radical strategies. The young William Lloyd Garrison started by 1829 to use metaphors in his writings of cement and icebergs that would only melt with decades and decades, to characterize what he perceived now as this deep kind of Southern intransigence.
A third root of American radical anti-slavery though was the British influence. Make no mistake — and I won’t go into any detail here because time doesn’t permit — but these early American abolitionists were deeply influenced by the now decades old — two or three decades old — anti-slavery crusade in England, which at first meant, of course, a crusade against the slave trade, succeeding in that great Act of Parliament in 1807, which was just celebrated last year — it’s still being celebrated in Britain as we speak, everywhere. And then, ultimately, the movement in England against slavery itself; and the British Empire, of course, will free its slaves by Act of Parliament in 1833.
And thirdly, I would argue that immediatism or a radicalization of anti-slavery also stems from events. I think — very often historians are asked, “so what was the most pivotal thing” or “what’s the principle cause of,” or “what do you expect to — ?” You’re always asked to predict, which is the worst thing you can ask any historian, because the historian will then say, “Oh, historians never predict,” and then they’ll go on and do it. But you know, I don’t know if I’m old enough to have any wisdom or conclusions about any of this yet, but frankly sometimes people simply react to events that you cannot predict. And there were events in the teens and 1820s and by the 1830s that did indeed have a direct impact on this growth of a more radical anti-slave — . Denmark Vesey’s insurrection, aborted insurrection, in Charleston in 1822 and the twenty-eight or thirty people who were executed in its wake made huge national news. The Negro Seaman’s Act, passed in South Carolina in 1822, that said that any ship that came into Charleston Harbor in South Carolina, if it had black sailors, those black sailors would be jailed in Charleston while the ship was in harbor. No white sailors would be jailed. There was a thing called the Ohio Resolutions, passed in 1824. Imagine this: the legislature of the state of Ohio passed a resolution suggesting that a gradual plan of emancipation be put in place over twenty-five years, over two generations, whatever plan they might want to enact, and they sent this suggestion — the so-called Ohio Resolution — to all the southern state legislatures — ha — thinking they were going to open the dialogue. There was no dialogue. In effect, Ohio was told where they could put their resolution. They got letters from a few southern governors that said, in no uncertain terms, “mind your own bloody business; this is our society, this is our system, we’ll do with it as we please.” That massive growth of the domestic slave trade that I already talked about — nearly 150,000 slaves moving from east to west in the decade of the 1820s alone; and then it’s going to double and triple, in the next decade. Northerners become aware of this. And Nat Turner’s Insurrection in the fall of 1831, without a question, had a radicalizing effect on people like Garrison.
Chapter 5. The Ideas of William Lloyd Garrison [00:38:43]
Now, who was William Lloyd Garrison? I want to touch on him just at least briefly; well, I want to get us to this story of the Underground Railroad. Although, if I save the Underground Railroad for Thursday, it still fits, because it’s right there with the Fugitive Slave Act. So don’t worry if I don’t quite get there. Garrison was by no means the whole Abolition movement, by any means. He did found, and edited and published, the longest lasting anti-slavery newspaper of all. First published it January 1st 1831 in Boston, called The Liberator, and he would publish it for the next 35 years. He would cease publishing it in December 1865; about nine months after the end of the Civil War, he ceased publication of The Liberatorin the week after the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. His life is complicated, complex — he was one complex character. But he is the real thing, a professional, radical reformer.
He was born in utter poverty, in Newburyport, Massachusetts. His father went to sea and abandoned him as a child. His mother tried to raise he and his equally ne’er-do-well older brother on next to nothing. At one point, she apprenticed him out because she couldn’t feed him. And he was apprenticed out at the age of twelve to a printer, and he learned how to make a printing press work, and for the rest of his life he set his own print, every week he could, if he was in town, in Boston, on The Liberator. And he prided himself at being faster at setting print than anybody he ever hired. He did start as a kind of a gradualist. He went down to Baltimore, Maryland — here I go, I’m going to talk too much about Garrison, but that’s the way it goes — he went down to Baltimore and he worked with an anti-slavery paper there called The Genius of Universal Liberty, published by a guy named Benjamin Lundy, in Baltimore, a slave state. There was a young slave growing up there named Frederick Bailey, but they didn’t meet, yet. Garrison got thrown in jail, which for him was his Birmingham Jail — if you remember Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” — he got thrown in jail for slandering a slave ship captain, whom he accused of murder. The guy sued him, he was convicted and he spent about nine months in jail, which for Garrison was pride. It was also the first time he met and talked at great length with other blacks, who were in jail with him. By the time he got out and came back North and finally got the chance, after two other aborted or failed attempts to create a newspaper, he finally got his chance, and a little bit of money, and he founded this paper called The Liberator, a paper he would publish without missing an issue — and write something for every issue — for thirty-five years.
Now, if you want to understand William Lloyd Garrison, you have to understand through his ideas — and I’ll just list them for you with the briefest explanation. But it is here where you see now the fruition by the 1830s of an immediatist abolitionism, a radicalizing form of anti-slavery — which, by the way, will develop a following, in various forms, among free blacks in particular in the North, but it will also of course begin to garner widespread enemies, widespread enemies. Garrison and his ilk will come to be seen as very dangerous people, these reformers. But if you can remember these six ideas of William Lloyd Garrison’s — or do I have seven? It’s seven, sorry — you can have a handle on what immediatism and radical anti-slavery became, in Garrison’s hands. Now, as soon as you get a leader who goes out and pushes an idea, pushes an agenda, pushes a set of moral principles by which this movement should be run, of course he’s immediately begun to develop an opposition within his own movement. And people will disagree with him.
But number one, his first idea was moral perfectionism. A stern, demanding call for abolitionists to remove themselves personally from any corrupting complicity with the American slave system. “Be ye perfect, even as your Heavenly Father is perfect,” said Garrison. He was not a trained minister, but he was a deeply Old Testament biblical Christian. His second principle was passivism, what the nineteenth century called non-resistance. Garrison rejected all acts of violence, in any form — well, until the Civil War broke out. More on that later. His third principle was anti-clericalism or opposition to what he saw as the hypocrisy and corruption of the American churches. The Protestant clergy was one of his greatest targets. And make no mistake, folks, Frederick Douglass began his career as an intellectual, as an orator, and as a writer, as a Garrisonian. It was William Lloyd Garrison who, in part, discovered Frederick Douglass by going down to New Bedford, Massachusetts and watching this brilliant, young, twenty-one-year-old, twenty-two-year-old black guy get up and speak at the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in New Bedford, and said, “My God, this kid can speak.” And for the first five, six years of Douglass’s public life Garrison was like his mentor, a father-figure, and an intellectual teacher. Look for these Garrisonian tenets when you read the narrative.
His fourth principle was what he called dis-unionism. “No union with the slaveholders” was his motto or his statement on the masthead of The Liberator. He actually advocated a kind of personal secession from the Union. This was one of those ideas. He advocated that Northern states not participate in the same Constitution — more on that later when we get to 1854. And five, he took it one step further. He advocated not voting. To vote in an American election, he believed, was to be morally complicit with slavery. Until the U.S. Constitution was ripped up and rewritten he advocated political non-participation with it. Now, how that was supposed to change the world and save it was always a bit of a problem, for some of Garrison’s own admirers. Sixth, he was an early and often supporter of women’s rights and women’s equality, which was another form of radicalism that would make you lots of enemies in the 1830s, ’40s, and ’50s. And seventh, he was a tremendous advocate of African-American civil rights — early, in a time when there in effect weren’t any.
Chapter 6. Concluding Thoughts on Different Abolitionisms [00:46:42]
Now, I’m going to leave you here thinking with me just for a moment — I think I have two minutes — about what’s going to happen now with this anti-slavery impulse, because in part what happened is that two kinds of abolitionisms emerged, one white and one black. And there were hundreds and hundreds of white abolitionists, thousands eventually, across the North, who became deeply involved in organizing anti-slavery societies and creating newspapers and running petition campaigns by the 1830s, and eventually even beginning to be involved in the first fledging anti-slavery political parties — although Garrison wouldn’t go there. But there are also lots of black abolitionists in the North, free blacks, many of them, though, former fugitive slaves who wore the experience of slavery on their backs and in their souls and in their psyche, and often could not risk the kind of abstractions, the kind of theoretical debates and arguments over tactics and strategy the white abolitionists would spend hours on. A lot of black abolitionists said” all right already, what are we doing for the slaves?” Or “what are we doing for my children that don’t have a school?” “What are we doing for that child who doesn’t have parents? We need an orphanage.” A real division will evolve by the 1840s and into the 1850s between the very real, practical needs of northern free blacks and black abolitionists and white abolitionists.
But beneath all of this, the fugitives kept coming. The fugitive slaves kept coming out of the south. They never came in the numbers that the myth and the legend of the Underground Railroad teaches us today. And I’m going to return to that myth-and-legend problem when we begin on Thursday. And I want to leave you with this. This is just a way of thinking your way to Thursday, and as you read Douglass. As you already know sometimes I think the poets tell us more than the historians. I hate to admit it. Robert Hayden, the great African-American poet who wrote mostly in the 1960s, wrote a magnificent poem about runaway slaves, who they were, what they represent, the story they help us tell. He called it “Runagate, Runagate.” And he rooted it in the refrain of the great negro spiritual “Many Thousands Gone.” Just a couple of verses. We’ll return to it on Thursday. It might be something TAs want to pick up. “Runs falls rises stumbles on from darkness into darkness, and the darkness thicketed with shapes of terror, and the hunters pursuing and the hounds pursuing, and the night cold and the night long and the river, to cross and the jack-muh-lanterns beckoning beckoning beckoning, and blackness ahead and when shall I reach that somewhere morning and keep on going and never turn back and keep on going. Runagate, Runagate, Runagate. Many thousands rise and go, many thousands crossing over. O mythic North, O star-shaped yonder Bible city. Some go weeping and some rejoice and some in coffins. And some in carriages, and some in silks and some in shackles. Rise and go, fair you well.” See ya Thursday.
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