When John Brown announced his intention to “mingle my blood further with . . . the blood of millions in this Slave country, whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel and unjust enactments,” he signaled the final phase in the abolition war against slavery.1Brown was not sui generis or an aberrant lone wolf: he was the product of the abolition movement.
The simultaneous radicalization of abolition and the emergence of antislavery politics set the stage for war and emancipation. These two streams, one revolutionary and the other electoral, often seen as distinct, were symbiotic. During the Kansas wars, slaveholders and their allies used the powers of the federal government to subvert not only black freedom but also the norms of representative government. An aggressively expansionist Slave Power convinced a majority of northerners, including Lincoln, that the fate of democracy was irrevocably tied to the destruction of slavery. With Lincoln’s election to the presidency and the secession of most of the slave states, antislavery could finally harness the power of the state: the political legitimacy and military might of the United States government. Hubris overtook the slaveholding class, who for much of the country’s history had dominated it.
As a radical social movement, abolition did not become irrelevant or transformed into an establishment party. During the war, abolitionists and their Radical Republican allies pushed the Lincoln administration from nonextension to abolition to black rights. And as they had done before, the enslaved initiated the emancipation process by voting with their feet. Wars by themselves do not inexorably lead to emancipation, as the history of modern racial slavery in the Americas makes amply clear. Slave resistance, abolitionist pressure—often forgotten in the history of emancipation—an antislavery president and Congress, and the military victory of the Union army made the Civil War into an abolition war.2
John Brown’s abolition war was long in the making. His father, Owen Brown, was a trustee of Oberlin College and a founding member of a pioneering antislavery society. Owen Brown traced his beliefs to early Connecticut abolitionists and was known to shelter fugitives. John Brown was born in 1800 in Torrington. His so-called conversion to abolition is usually attributed to a single moment in which, seeing an enslaved boy being beaten with an iron shovel, he swears “eternal war with slavery.” Upon hearing about the death of Lovejoy, he decides to “consecrate” his “life to the destruction of slavery.” One of his sons argued that a “colored preacher” influenced his father. Brown gathered his family, making a “solemn compact” for an “active war” on slavery. He proposed a black school and said “young blacks” would act as “firing powder” on slavery. The radical abolitionist spent the 1830s and 1840s struggling with business failures and the deaths of his first wife and five children.3
Brown identified with abolitionism. He subscribed to the Liberator, which he read aloud to his family, and defied segregated church seating. He published “Sambo’s mistakes” (1848) in Ram’s Horn, intertwining uplift with resistance. Assuming a black voice, Brown, like generations of black abolitionists, criticized intemperance, vice, disunity, and sectarianism. Most fatal, he wrote, was submitting to injustice, which would gain blacks as much respect as northern doughfaces, who lick the “spittle” of slaveholders. Between 1846 and 1848 Brown lived in Springfield, Massachusetts. He met Douglass, who said of him, “Though a white gentleman, [he] is in sympathy a black man, and as deeply interested in our cause, as though his soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery.” To Douglass, Brown proposed his “Subterranean Pass Way,” a plan to spirit slaves to the Allegheny Mountains and create a conduit for their escape to Canada. In 1851 Brown organized the all-black United States League of Gileadites against the fugitive law. Evoking Lovejoy, Torrey, and the “branded hand” of Walker, Brown recommended that Gileadites “outnumber your adversaries” with “weapons exposed to view” to prevent renditions. If indicted, Gileadites must go to “your most prominent and most influential white friends” for help. No jury would convict them, but he suggested creating a tumult in the court by burning gunpowder if indicted. Forty-four blacks, including four women and the abolitionist Henry Johnson, signed on.4
Brown began his war against slavery in earnest in Kansas. Historians often view the Kansas wars as a prelude to the Civil War. A struggle between settlers from the free states and those from the slave states broke out almost immediately after the passage of the Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854. The Massachusetts (later the New England) Emigrant Aid Company, founded by Eli Thayer, funneled money and provisions to free-state emigrants. Abolitionists such as Hildreth, Sewall, and Howe as well as the free soilers Bird, Wilson, and Burlingame joined the company, its “plan for freedom” promising a contest of the people versus slavery. Amos Lawrence held the purse strings. But a majority of free-state emigrants came from the old northwest. They carried with them the antislavery and antiblack attitudes of their states. Seward predicted that northern emigrants, their numbers swelled by European immigration, were sure to win the battle of popular sovereignty or, as southerners called it, squatter sovereignty. Men like Sen. David Atchison of Missouri, who led proslavery forces, refused to accept that.
The Kansas wars blew apart the theory of American republicanism holding that white liberty was based on black slavery. In March 1855, despite the state’s free-state majority, thousands of Missouri border ruffians invaded the territory and stole the elections, as noted in chapter 14. A proslavery territorial legislature passed a law that made it criminal to speak or write against slavery, prescribed ten years’ hard labor or death for assisting fugitive slaves, and the death penalty for instigating a slave rebellion. Further, it restricted jury service to proslavery settlers in any case arising under this draconian law. President Pierce removed from office his appointee, Gov. Andrew Reeder, who refused to endorse the fraudulent elections. In response, free staters organized their own territorial government in Topeka. Abolitionists like Augustus Wattles and Clarina Nichols were a minority, though some northern emigrants were radicalized by their experience. Brown’s sons hoped to find land and fight against slavery. John Brown Jr., who liberated two slaves, complained that free staters wanted to make Kansas a whites-only state, proposing “outrageous restrictions upon the colored man.” Douglass promoted the emigration of a “LARGE AND WELL DISCIPLINED BODY OF FREE COLORED PEOPLE FROM THE NORTHERN STATES,” but blacks stayed away from Kansas, especially after the law required settlers to uphold slavery.
Brown followed his sons, who set up Brown’s Station in Osawatomie. Before leaving he attended a convention in Syracuse, presided over by Smith, Goodell, McCune Smith, and Douglass, to form the Radical Political Abolition Party. It became the first national political convention to call a black man to the chair, McCune Smith, who was nominated for secretary of state on its state ticket headed by Smith. Members of the defunct AFASS, including Tappan, Jocelyn, George Whipple of the AMA, and William Whiting, joined in the call for the convention. The slogan of the new party was “Slavery an Outlaw—And Forbidden by the Constitution which provides for its Abolition.” It called slaveholding a crime, and since it was the duty of civil governments to suppress crime, those that did not were bound to be overthrown. The party recommended abolition through the ballot box or the dissolution of the Union and revolution, encouraging free soilers to correct their course after their “disappointments” in pursuing nonextension. The convention endorsed armed resistance, with Tappan dissenting. It called for opposition to the fugitive law and assistance for the cause of freedom in Kansas. Smith read letters from Brown’s sons recommending the formation of military companies. Douglass took up a collection for Brown, who received sixty dollars, an assortment of pistols, broadswords, and muskets to avenge the murder of free-state settlers.
In May 1856 border ruffians and “southern rights” men from South Carolina and Alabama led by Jefferson Buford and Atchison and carrying banners proclaiming “SUPREMACY OF THE WHITE RACE,” sacked Lawrence, the free-state stronghold named after its benefactor. The free staters, outnumbered and outgunned, offered no fight, and their leaders, Charles Robinson and James H. Lane, were arrested. The proslavery army destroyed the press of the antislavery Herald of Freedom and Kansas Free State, burned Robinson’s house and the free-state hotel, and looted and laid the town to waste. Robinson appointed Brown a captain of the Liberty Guards in the First Brigade of Kansas Volunteers. While Brown prepared for a nighttime attack on the Missourians, a truce was brokered between Robinson, soon elected governor of the Topeka government, Lane, the Indiana congressman who ironically had voted for the Kansas–Nebraska Act but presided over the Topeka convention, and the new governor, Wilson Shannon. The Emigrant Aid Company sent money and Sharpe’s rifles, called Beecher’s Bibles, after Henry Ward Beecher recommended sending rifles rather than Bibles to Kansas.5
Bleeding Sumner soon joined bleeding Kansas as potent symbols of slaveholder aggression. On May 22 the South Carolinian representative Preston Brooks beat Sumner senseless after he delivered a speech called “The Crime Against Kansas.” Abolitionists took the assault on Sumner, known for his virtually one-man fight in the Senate to repeal the fugitive law, personally. The abolitionist tone of Sumner’s speeches had gained him high praise. Parker called him a “Senator with a conscience.” Douglass wrote to him, “All the friends of freedom, in every State, and of every color, may claim you, just now, as their representative.” Brooks’s caning of Sumner is often portrayed as a retaliation for his Kansas speech, in which Sumner allegedly insulted his relative Sen. A. P. Butler unjustifiably. But southerners and their allies had rained abuse on Sumner, accusing him of advocating the “cause of niggerism.” Butler, whose coarseness in debate has eluded historians’ attention, was a rabid supporter of the fugitive and Kansas laws. He had asked Sumner to write a play about a “negro princess in search of a husband” and a white man’s repulsion to “her white teeth . . . black skin and kinky hair.” Butler claimed that when Sumner “speaks with so much fervor of the black race as equal to the white, let him recollect that, according to the judgment of history, they were once regarded something like puppies when they were weaned, and their mothers and fathers could be disposed of with a profit.” Sumner’s allusion to the “blunders” and “loose expectoration” that poured forth from Butler’s mouth (owing to a defect in his lip) was in response to this crude race baiting. He likened Butler’s devotion to slavery to Don Quixote’s devotion to his ugly mistress and Stephen Douglas to Sancho Panza. Sumner’s speech epitomized gendered abolitionist rhetoric, the rape of the virgin territory of Kansas by the brutal violence of slavery: “Border sorrows and African wrongs are revived together on American soil, while, for the time being, all protection is annulled, and the whole territory is enslaved.” Garrison, not given to praising antislavery politicians indiscriminately, gushed at the speech’s “power and grandeur.”
Brooks’s assault on Sumner was not just a matter of personal honor but a deliberate attempt, as he explained, to chastise an abolitionist, or, as the Richmond Enquirer put it, “They must be lashed into submission.” Brooks beat Sumner the way a slaveholder whipped a slave, or a slave’s ally. He had argued that the African was incapable of self-government and that slavery “has been the greatest blessing to the country,” as it acted as a conservative check against fanatical movements that would have convulsed the entire nation in a “social explosion.” When the House expelled Brooks, he asked if they intended to follow him to his plantation, where such punishment was doled out regularly to his slaves. Despite previous confrontations on the congressional floor, the enactment of a slaveholding ritual in the halls of Congress on a white man, a senator no less, shocked the North and no doubt helped the Republicans in the presidential election of 1856. Not only was Brooks reelected but most southerners approved of his conduct. The Massachusetts legislature passed resolutions that equated the assault on Sumner with a blow against representative government and free speech. As a standing rebuke, Sumner’s chair lay vacant for nearly four years while he recuperated. Black Bostonians led by Nell, Morris, and Rock met at Reverend Grimes’s Twelfth Baptist church to protest the assault on “our” senator, “that in this dastardly attempt to crush out free speech, we painfully recognize the abiding prevalence of that Spirit of Injustice which for two centuries upon this continent, ground our progenitors and ourselves under the iron hoof of Slavery . . . that we hereby express to Mr. Sumner our entire confidence in him as a faithful friend of the slave.” Abolitionists led indignation meetings throughout the North. Brooks, previously a unionist Democrat, became a secessionist, vowing to “tear the Constitution of the United States, trample it under foot, and form a Southern Confederacy, every State of which will be a slave-holding State.” A year later he died of a throat infection.6
Brown, who later insisted on viewing Sumner’s bloodied coat, decided “to fight fire with fire.” On May 24 he and his sons killed proslavery settlers in Pottawatomie, some of whom had accused them of abolitionism in court: the Sherman brothers, known to harass free staters and force Indian women into prostitution, James Doyle, a nonslaveholder from Tennessee who had threatened Henry Thompson, Brown’s son-in-law, for using “incendiary language” on racial equality, and Allen Wilkinson, also of Tennessee, the district attorney. Seventy-five percent of the fifty-plus people killed in Kansas were free-state settlers, and twenty-eight were murdered outright. Of the eight proslavery men killed at Pottawatomie, five were hacked to death with broadswords by Brown’s party in a summary execution. Brown spared only Doyle’s youngest son, when his mother begged for his life. They killed the men Indian style, in a sudden nighttime reprisal. Kansas settlers were anti-Indian, bent on aggrandizing their land. Rev. Tom Johnson of the Shawnee Mission, the first proslavery settlement, was keen on exterminating Native Americans and enslaving African Americans. The Browns were an exception, befriending local Indians who hired them to survey their land. After the Pottawatomie massacre, the “half-breed” John Tecumseh Ottawa Jones sheltered the Browns.
Higginson, a Brown admirer, thought Pottawatomie put an “immediate check to the armed aggressions of the Missourians.” Not used to being victims, the proslavery press called to “let slip the dogs of war,” which plagued Kansas through the Civil War when Confederate raiders sacked Lawrence again and killed two hundred people. The first African Americans to serve in the Union army did so in the First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry organized by Lane. They raided Missouri and liberated slaves. The legend of Old Osawatomie Brown grew when he led forty free soilers to victory against a larger force of Missourians under Henry Clay Pate. Pate captured and tortured Brown’s two sons and destroyed Brown’s Station. He served in the Confederate army. Despite being a wanted man, Brown continued to fight in Kansas. In the Battle of Osawatomie he lost his son Frederick, whom he buried in North Elba under the headstone (procured from Connecticut) of his great-grandfather, a Revolutionary War soldier.7
The Kansas outrages were a matter of debate among abolitionists. The NEAS convention condemned the failure of the government to protect the political and civil rights of free staters. Garrison’s correspondent Charles Stearns, a nonresistant, advocated armed self-defense. Garrison, who had defended slave rebellions, conceded that the settlers had a right to defend themselves, but he could not stomach the Kansas wars. Violence and bowie knives, he argued, were the tools of slavery. He sharply criticized Beecher’s exulting in the exploits of the Puritans, who used their Bibles and guns against Native Americans, when it was used as an example for free soil Kansans. Garrison wrote that Indian blood was still crying out to heaven for retribution. Even Parker agreed that Sharpe’s rifles could not be reconciled with the Gospel. Stearns respectfully dissented, asserting that the doctrine of nonresistance was useless in Kansas. Garrison was also bothered that free-state Kansans left out the colored citizen and were conducting a selfish and partial struggle. Usually not one to evoke the Constitution, he argued that the racially exclusive Topeka government was in violation of it.
Although Garrison criticized the violence in Kansas, he refused to join the compensated emancipation movement led by Burritt. Garrison admired the multilingual, working-class intellectual. An advocate of universal peace and labor education, Burritt was known by a moniker he disliked, “the learned blacksmith.” Following his attempt to lead an international peace movement, Burritt edited a number of influential peace journals, ending with The North and the South, to prevent the descent into war. He advocated the revival of the free produce movement; if British markets were shut against slave-grown produce, southerners would be forced to abandon slavery. He recommended free labor depots that would trade in cotton, rice, and sugar grown in the West Indies and India. At the individual level, he asked consumers to abstain from participating in the crime and guilt of receiving stolen goods. By the end of the decade, Burritt was touting his compensated emancipation scheme as another way to end slavery without conflict. He revived an old antislavery idea, namely, the sale of public lands to purchase southern slaves. Burritt’s National Compensated Emancipation Convention, held in Cleveland in 1857, had few southern backers and virtually no abolitionists, who opposed any compensation for slaveholders as a class. Only Smith attended. Smith, connecting compensated abolition to land reform, posited that slaveholders receive $150 from the federal government and an additional $75 from their states for each slave they emancipated. The freed slave would receive $25 and a plot of land. William Watkins maintained that if anyone deserved compensation it was the slaves, for years of stolen labor. Douglass worried that compensation made emancipation more a matter for the counter than the conscience. Garrison predicted that the slave south “will listen to no proposition” for abolition when it declares slavery as “essential to her safety and prosperity” and as “the normal condition of mankind.” Even though he is often characterized as being purely for moral suasion, Garrison recognized that an aggressively expansionist South could no longer be “reasoned with.” The present value of slaves, he pointed out, was “unparalleled in history,” far greater than Burritt offered (an individual adult male slave was worth thousands). The compensated emancipation movement petered out with Burritt holding his last, sparsely attended convention in Albany in 1859. He blamed “old John Brown” and the Harper’s Ferry raid.8
Brown gained his staunchest supporters among abolitionists. During his northeastern lecture tour he met members of the National and Massachusetts Kansas Committees, formed to aid free-state emigrants, giving speeches in the legislature and in small towns across New England and gaining the admiration of Emerson, Thoreau, and the “secret six” who financed his plan to start a slave rebellion. Higginson called him a “genuine warrior of the Revolution.” Besides Higginson, Parker, Howe, Smith, and the transcendentalist schoolteacher Franklin Sanborn signed on. The Medford industrialist George L. Stearns, who was put in charge of recruiting black Union soldiers, rounded up the secret six. Higginson, Howe, and Stearns were also members of the Kansas committee. Brown’s efforts at fund-raising were not very successful, but Sanborn, acting as an agent for Lawrence and Stearns, paid Smith over a thousand dollars for Brown’s farm in North Elba. Phillips alone contributed twenty-five dollars. Abolitionists respected Brown for his willingness to take on proslavery forces in Kansas. The Kansas committees provided him with arms presumably to be used there. Brown ordered pikes and bowie knives mounted on poles from a blacksmith, collecting them on the eve of his raid. Brown revealed his plans for a “Rail Road business on a somewhat extended scale” to the secret six, a plan to invade Virginia, run off slaves, spread rebellion, and create a Maroon community in the Appalachians, a base from which to attack slave society and attract runaways.9
No anachronistic attempt to label Brown a terrorist can deny the abolitionist vision that motivated him. He spent the years before his raid seeking recruits. He stockpiled weapons in Iowa, where Hugh Forbes, a British soldier and the author of a manual on revolutionary fighting, drilled his Kansas followers. Brown was forced to postpone his raid because of the betrayal of Forbes, who, upset at not being paid, wrote to Seward, Sumner, Wilson, and Greeley. Brown discussed creating a free State of Topeka which would give the right to vote to African Americans and women, its state seal a black man atop a cannon holding a drawn sword and the motto “Justice to all Mankind.” While staying with Douglass in 1858, Brown composed a “Provisional Constitution and Ordinances for the People of the United States.” It called slavery a “most barbarous unprovoked and unjustifiable War of one portion of its citizens upon another portion” and was written in the name of black citizens. Brown’s revolutionary black state encompassed women’s rights and decreed all property be held in common and used for common benefit. A victim of the boom and bust economy of slavery’s capitalism, Brown was a critic of private property. He also wrote “A Declaration of Liberty by the Representatives of the Slave Population of the United States of America” modeled after the Declaration. It promised to “secure equal rights, privileges, and Justice to all, Irrespective of Sex; or Nation.” Calling out slave traders, slaveholders, and “idle, haughty, tyrannical, Arrogant Land Monopolists,” he declared the right of slaves to rise up and change a government of such “Base Piratical Rulers.”
Prominent black abolitionists did not accompany Brown on his raid, but he apprised them of his plans and solicited funds from them. He wrote to John Jones and H. O. Wagoner in Chicago, Downing in Providence, and Garnet in New York. As Nelson Hawkins, he visited Gloucester in Brooklyn, who wished him “Gods speed in his glorious work,” Loguen in Syracuse, and he met with Still, Douglass, and Garnet. Gloucester’s wife, Elizabeth, sent him twenty-five dollars. Accompanied by Loguen, he journeyed to St. Catherine’s, where he met “General Tubman.” Brown referred to Tubman in the masculine and hoped to persuade her and Douglass to join him. After meeting with Delany, Brown attended the Chatham convention, where he revealed his plan to start a rebellion. When some voiced doubts, Brown pointed to Haiti. The convention unanimously accepted Brown’s provisional constitution, but the emigrationists Delany, William Monroe, and J. G. Reynolds, who led the radical League of Liberty, opposed an article disavowing the overthrow of the U.S. government. William Howard Day printed copies of the constitution for Brown to carry to Harper’s Ferry, and he gained a recruit, Osborne Perry Anderson, a printer who wrote an account of the convention and the raid.
Brown was back in Kansas in 1859 under another assumed name, Shubel Morgan. A year earlier the Georgian Charles Hamilton, a future colonel in the Confederate army, frustrated at their success in the polls, rounded up eleven free staters, of whom he killed five, wounded five, and left one unhurt. At this time Brown and his son John Brown Jr., who, as noted, had been tortured by Pate, ran a secret organization known as Black Strings in Ohio, recognizable by their black ribbons, to liberate slaves. Fighting with James Montgomery’s free-state army, Brown gained two more recruits. He carried out a dramatic raid into Missouri, rescuing the enslaved Daniels family and six other slaves, eleven in all, and killing a slaveholder who drew his gun. In a letter to the Tribune, Brown’s “Parallels,” he compared the slave raid, which “forcibly restored” the slaves’ natural rights, with Hamilton’s killings, still unpunished. With a price of $3,000 on his head by the state of Missouri, Brown eluded capture and even briefly imprisoned some federal troops. When the Buchanan administration added $250 to that amount, Brown retorted that he had put a price of $2.50 on Buchanan’s head. He escorted the slaves to Canada with the help of Jones in Chicago and Lambert and DeBaptiste in Detroit. DeBaptiste proposed an even more incendiary plan to Brown, the coordinated burning of southern churches on Sunday. On the way, John Daniels’s wife had a baby. They named him John Brown.10
JOHN BROWN’S WAR
John Brown personified the abolition war against slavery, the growing use of armed resistance by runaways, abolitionists, and free soilers in the 1850s. He gained adherents among veterans of fugitive slave rebellions. In Cleveland his Kansas followers recruited John Anthony Copeland, who had participated in the Oberlin–Wellington rescue and his uncle Lewis Sheridan Leary, a fugitive who had heard Brown speak. The most personally motivated was Dangerfield Newby, a former slave from Virginia who was freed by his father but whose wife and six children were in slavery. Newby carried his wife’s letters telling him of her master’s plans to sell her, the last pleading, “If . . . I should never see you this earth would have no charms for me.” Brown tried to persuade Douglass, who foresaw the suicidal nature of his enterprise, at their last meeting in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, to join him. Douglass’s companion Shields Green, a South Carolinian fugitive, decided to go “with the old man.” He recruited Osborne Anderson, as noted earlier, in Canada.
Brown’s black recruits and his extended family comprised nearly half of the twenty-three Harper’s Ferry raiders. His three sons, Owen, Oliver, and Watson, and the brothers of his son-in-law, Dauphin and William Thompson, constituted his family army. Besides them, the Kansas veterans John Henry Kagi, Charles Tidd, Jeremiah Anderson, Albert Hazlett, John E. Cook, Albert Dwight Stevens, Charles W. Moffet, and William H. Leeman formed the largest contingent. A Canadian, Stewart Taylor, who had settled in Iowa, and Edwin and Barclay Coppoc, the “fighting Quaker” brothers, also signed on. Hayden recruited the last raider, Francis Jackson Merriam, the nephew of the Garrisonian Francis Jackson, while raising funds for Brown in Boston. Despite Brown’s stockpile of weapons and months of preparation, the plan to take over the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry and start a slave uprising with this small band, as Douglass realized, was a death trap. The raid took place between October 16 and 19, 1859, and ended with Brown, most of his men, and nearly thirty hostages trapped in the Harper’s Ferry engine house.
Brown’s contemporary critics, including Lincoln, pointed out that slaves failed to rise up during his raid, but it is doubtful that most of them had any precise knowledge of it. The first accidental victim was a free black porter, Hayward Shepherd, recast by the United Daughters of the Confederacy as a representative of faithful slaves. A smaller raiding party freed and recruited the slaves of Col. Lewis Washington, a great-grandnephew of George Washington. In an act rife with symbolism, the raiders confiscated the sword Frederick the Great had given to Washington and gave it to Osborne Anderson. Lewis’s coachman Jim fought with the raiders “like a tiger” and drowned while fleeing from Harper’s Ferry. Another, Mason, helped load weapons for them. The raiders also took a hostage, John Allstadt, freeing his slaves, one of whom, Phil, died fighting, and another, his brother Ben, died in jail. Anderson and others distributed pikes to slaves, of whom seventeen joined Brown and another ten ended up at his Maryland hideout. Recent research shows that black people from Virginia and Maryland to Pennsylvania may have known about Brown’s plans, but whether they had any idea of the exact timing and of Brown’s specific target is unclear. Brown revealed the details to the raiders themselves just a couple of days before the raid. A handful of slaves escaped amidst the confusion. Despite a heavy troop presence after the raid, fires broke out in the region, the suspicion being they were started by slaves.
The violence unleashed on the raiders and the innocent was far greater than any they perpetrated. Nearly all of the raiders Brown sent to negotiate under a white flag were shot. The death of Newby was particularly egregious: a mob desecrated his corpse, cutting off his ears and genitals and leaving it in the gutter for rooting hogs. Two of the raiders, Will Thompson and Will Leeman, were used for target practice long after they were dead, and Leeman and Leary were killed after they tried to surrender. In all, ten raiders lost their lives, including two of Brown’s sons, Watson and Oliver. Watson’s body was given to a local medical college for dissection, a fate that often befell slave rebels, including Nat Turner. The raiders shot Mayor Fontaine Beckham besides three others, including one marine who stormed the engine house. Brown and his men captured more than they killed. The hostages testified to Brown’s considerate treatment of them.
Harper’s Ferry is commonly viewed as a militarily inept disaster. Brown allowed a train on the Baltimore–Ohio line to proceed, spreading news of his raid, a false confidence instilled perhaps by the manner in which he had eluded authorities since 1856. But his few men managed to keep at bay hundreds of militia men and townspeople for nearly three days and were taken only after most were dead and severely wounded by marines commanded by the future Confederates Robert E. Lee and J. E. B. Stuart, who recognized Brown from his Kansas days. Only Owen Brown, Merriam, Barclay Coppoc, Tidd, and Anderson escaped. The abolitionist underground facilitated their escape: blacks in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, Still, and Charles Langston assisted Anderson, and Merriam received assistance from Redpath, Thoreau, and Higginson, who sheltered him and Tidd. Most of the survivors fought in the Union army, recruiting and serving in units with black soldiers. Higginson, Anderson, Merriam, and the Kansas veteran Richard J. Hinton even devised plans in early 1861 to raid the newly formed Confederacy and start a slave rebellion. For them, the Civil War was a continuation of Brown’s war against slavery.
Seven raiders stood trial for treason. Five, including Brown, were executed by the end of the year, and Hazlett and Stevens were executed in March 1860. Sanborn, Stearns, Howe, and Douglass escaped to Canada when letters implicating them were found at the Kennedy farm in Maryland. In his confessions Cook named some abolitionists who supported Brown. Douglass traveled on to England, while Parker hailed the raid from Italy, where he lay terminally ill with tuberculosis. Smith committed himself to an insane asylum, denying his connection to Brown. Higginson stood his ground, daring the authorities to arrest him. A Senate committee headed by Mason, the author of the Fugitive Slave Act, tried to pin the raid on the Republican Party and let Brown’s coconspirators Howe and Stearns, who testified before it, go scot free. John Brown Jr., Redpath, and Sanborn, who escaped federal marshals sent to arrest him, refused to appear before the committee. The committee summoned Hayden and “George DeBapt” (DeBaptiste), but Mason revoked the summons when he found out that they were black, maintaining the façade of black docility.11
Brown’s courageous demeanor won him the admiration of many northerners and the grudging respect of his enemies who got to know him, his “kind” jailor, Capt. John Avis, and the less sympathetic Gov. Henry Wise of Virginia. Brown rejected all plans to rescue him as well as legal stratagems to declare him insane in order to save his life. His detractors portrayed him as insane or criminal or both. Americans, Douglass wrote, mistook heroism for insanity. Brown’s trial, like those accorded to convicted slaves, had the trappings of procedural fairness. His answers to Mason, Vallandigham, and state officials, numerous letters to friends and family, and courtroom declarations conveyed his deeply held abolitionism and stole victory from failure. Brown wanted the world to understand that he respected “the rights of the poorest and weakest of colored people” as much as those of the “most wealthy and most powerful.” In a farewell note to Stearns, Brown wrote that he did not want hypocritical religious prayers said on his behalf; like most abolitionists, he particularly detested slaveholding ministers and refused to have them at his execution. He wrote, “When I am publicly murdered . . . my only religious attendants be poor little, dirty, ragged, bare headed & barefooted Slave boys & girls; led by some old grey-headed Slave Mother.” His only design was to “free the slaves.” His dying conviction, that the “crimes of this guilty land: will never be purged away, but with blood,” written on the day of his execution, “Charlestown, Va. 2nd, December, 1859.”12
Brown’s raid crystallized the debate over the capacity of the enslaved to rebel. J. Sella Martin argued that the problem was not that Brown shed blood but that he did not shed enough of it, leaving the slaves confused about his plans. In his lyric war poem The Hero and the Slave (1862), “founded on fact,” Martin reversed the racial order of rescue, as a slave saves a white soldier. In the Anglo-African Magazine Thomas Hamilton warned that either the North will adopt Brown’s method to end slavery or the enslaved will adopt Turner’s. (He published Turner’s confessions.) Higginson would publish articles in the Atlantic Monthly on the Maroons of the New World, Vesey, and Turner. One of the secret six most actively involved with Brown’s plans, Higginson had traveled to Kansas and was briefly arrested with Redpath. He commanded an all-black regiment in the Civil War and wrote in his memoir, “Till the blacks were armed, there was no guaranty of their freedom.”
Parker’s letters from Italy proclaimed that a slave has a natural right to kill his oppressor and a freeman the natural right to assist him. His letters, though, were tinged with the romantic racialism for which Rock had criticized him. In a speech from 1858 Parker argued that the African was the “most docile and pliant of races,” as they had “strong affections” and lacked the ferocity of Anglo-Saxon, Teutonic, and Celtic peoples. Slavery could be settled with the “stroke of an axe” but for the submissive nature of slaves. Rock had established his intellectual prowess with his much-admired speeches on the “unity of the human race.” According to him, it was impossible to classify humankind into different races. His ideas anticipated the black is beautiful movement by a century. He declared his preference for black skin, hair, and features. Rock was quick to respond to Parker. He professed to have a poor estimate of whites since it took thirteen million armed whites to keep five million black people (there were four million slaves in the United States) in slavery. Parker backed down: slavery, he predicted, would succumb to a “general rising of the African race.” Phillips joined in contending that all nations had been enslaved at one point or another in their history, but only the “colored race” had overthrown slavery by the force of arms in Haiti. Remond declared that Parker’s Anglo-Saxonism had no place in an “Anti Slavery platform.” Despite his romantic racialism, Parker, like Rock, was a severe critic of the pseudoscience of race, challenging Harvard’s Agassiz for his belief in polygenesis. A year later Parker joined the secret six and backed Brown’s plan to start a slave rebellion.13
Not just the secret six but all abolitionists claimed Brown as one of their own. In an editorial published on October 28, Garrison wrote that no one could deny that “Captain Brown” was “honest, brave, truthful, conscientious and disinterested”; he voiced his own reaction: “How many hearts will be thrilled and inspired by his utterances!” Shall a more “undaunted spirit” be found? He predicted, “It will be a terrible losing day for all of Slavedom when John Brown and his associates are brought to the gallows. It will be sowing seed broadcast for a harvest of retribution.” In his speech at an antislavery meeting in Tremont Temple, held to mark Brown’s execution, the nonresistant Garrison reiterated, “Success to every slave insurrection at the South, and in every slave country.” He published all criticisms of Brown, north and south, under the “Refuge of Oppression.” Reacting to Beecher’s denigration of the raid and going back to his disagreement with him on Kansas, Garrison pointed out that Beecher apparently believed that Sharpe’s rifles were suitable for white men but not for black. Beecher said Brown’s execution was a good thing, as it made his failure a heroic success and redeemed his blundering and miserable deeds.
Thoreau, who had met and admired Brown, made the most eloquent appeal on his behalf, “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” on October 30. Scholars who claim that Thoreau preceded Garrison in his defense of Brown are off the mark by two days. Thoreau wished “to correct the tone and statements” about Brown appearing in newspapers throughout the country, as even the Liberator, he claimed, had initially called the raid a misguided effort. Thoreau likened the U.S. government to the tyrannies of the Old World, keeping a “coffle of four millions slaves” and crucifying “a million Christs every day.” Brown was their “heroic liberator.” The only free area in the country was the underground railroad managed by vigilant committees, Thoreau argued, while defending the abolitionists who ran them. He viewed Brown’s war as part of the slaves’ war.
Higginson and Hinton claimed that Brown’s exploits marked a “new era in the history of Anti Slavery,” but it was actually a culmination of abolitionists’ attempt to look to the slaves rather than to slaveholders in their fight against slavery. In his speech delivered at Beecher’s church on November 1, Phillips proclaimed that the “lesson of the hour is insurrection,” while reasserting his belief in moral suasion: the “age of ideas” must replace the “age of bullets.” Phillips defended the enslaved, saying if Brown had marched across Virginia he would have gained as many followers as Turner. Henry C. Wright led a large antislavery meeting in Natick that unanimously passed the following resolution: “Whereas, resistance to tyrants is obedience to God; therefore Resolved, that it is the right and duty of the slaves to resist their masters.” Wright opined that the “God of the oppressed” was with Brown, and his execution would be the start of the “death struggle” with slaveholders. He sent copies of the Natick resolution to Brown, Wise, and Avis, whom he commended for his kindness to Brown, and to the Richmond Enquirer. Wise’s slaves had as much right to enslave him, Wright reasoned, as he to enslave them. In a letter to Garrison, he wrote that Brown’s actions were compatible with nonresistant doctrine, as it opposed the violence of slavery. Abolitionists, he urged, should form a league of offense and defense with southern slaves to attack slavery. Foster also recommended an alliance with slaves, saying, “Revolution [is] the only remedy.” The nonresistant Ballou objected to a “Pro War Anti Slavery.”
At the executive committee meeting of the AASS on November 4, Garrison asked all northern towns and cities to mark the “murder of John Brown” by tolling their church bells. Like many, he evoked the image of Christ’s crucifixion. The most popular conceit was coined by Mattie Griffiths: Brown would “make the gallows glorious like the cross,” a saying made famous by Emerson. Garrison published a supplemental issue of the Liberator devoted to Brown at the end of the year. On the day of Brown’s death commemorative meetings were held in Tremont Temple, and in New York they were led by Tappan and Cheever. In Worcester church bells tolled for half the day. Brown’s wife, Mary, Phillips, and McKim accompanied his body for burial to North Elba, Brown’s home among Smith’s black land grantees. In his eulogy Phillips noted that Harper’s Ferry was “the flowering out of fifty years of single-hearted devotion” to the slave’s cause. Brown’s neighbors the Epps family sang his favorite spiritual, “Blow ye the trumpet, blow . . . the year of Jubilee has come.”14
Radical Republicans joined abolitionists in praising Brown, subverting their party’s strategy of appealing to the conservative lower north in the presidential election of 1860. Wright took Henry Wilson to task for backtracking when he was asked in Congress about attending the pro-Brown Natick meeting. But John Andrews proclaimed that “John Brown himself was right.” Giddings was suspected of sympathizing with Brown. He had corresponded with and invited Brown to lecture and raise funds for Kansas in Ohio. Brown had admired Giddings’s book The Exiles of Florida(1858) on the Seminole Maroons. In a card he issued after the raid Giddings blamed the murder of Brown’s son and other “barbarities” in Kansas for the raid while denying any role in it. Democrats in Ohio publicized a donation Governor Chase had made to Brown in 1856. When Wise warned against any attack from Ohio to rescue Brown, Chase responded with his own warning against any Virginian invasion to recapture fugitives. Calling Brown’s raid rash and criminal, Chase wrote, “Yet how hard to condemn him, when we remember the provocation, the unselfish desire to set free the oppressed, the bravery, the humanity towards his prisoners, which defeated his purposes!” The real “guiltiness” lay “upon slavery itself.” Sumner, who resumed his senatorial seat in December 1859, commented that Brown’s raid “must be deplored,” yet he could not “refuse my admiration to many things in the man.”
Seward and Greeley were more critical, foreshadowing their conservative turn during and after the war. Greeley noted that Brown and his men “dared and died for what they felt to be right, though in a manner which seems to us fatally wrong.” To Seward, Brown had acted “on earnest though fatally erroneous convictions” and committed an “act of sedition and treason.” While Seward, Wade, and the colonizationist Joseph Doolittle voted for the formation of Mason’s committee, Sumner and Hale voted against it. Sumner also presented a memorial from Sanborn asking for redress and one from black citizens protesting the arrest of Thaddeus Hyatt, the head of the National Kansas Committee, who refused to testify before the committee. In response to what he viewed as the Republican exculpation of Brown, Sen. Andrew Johnson of Tennessee called him a “thief and a murderer” and his raid a “legitimate result of the teachings” of abolition.15
Southerners challenged abolitionists’ consecration of Brown. They drew attention to the Pottawatomie massacre. Mahala Doyle, James’s wife, rejoiced at Brown’s sons’ death so that he might know her sorrow. Lydia Maria Child instead evoked the grief of slave mothers and requested permission from Wise to nurse Brown in prison. Brown responded that he was well looked after but asked one that was “so gifted and so kind” to raise money for his destitute family. Child, who felt that abolitionists should die for but not kill for the slave’s cause, had condoned the use of violence in self-defense by free-state settlers in her The Kansas Emigrants (1856), first published in the Tribune. Its gutsy heroine, Kate Bradford, who protects her husband from certain death, was inspired by the experience of free-state women. Introducing herself to Wise as an “uncompromising abolitionist” who believed in “peace principles,” Child argued that if she thought men should fight for their freedom, the enslaved were “best entitled to that right.” Wise accused her of inciting murder and mayhem and made their correspondence public. Brown, Child replied, was no criminal but a “martyr to righteous principles.” In her abusive letter, Margaretta Mason, the wife of James Mason, accused Child of not knowing the Bible and questioned whether she deserved the name of a woman. She evoked benevolent slaveholding mistresses ministering to their slaves even when their “sorrows resulted from their own misconduct.” She asked whether Child, who had written extensively about the plight of the working poor in the NASS, had ever done as much. Child responded that abolitionists did “not sell . . . babies.” According to Garrison, Child “pulverized” the statesman and “used up” the southern lady. The AASS sold three hundred thousand copies of the exchange. Taking advantage of her success, Child republished The Patriarchal Institution and The Right Way the Safe Way, expanded versions of her pamphlet of 1836 calling for immediate emancipation in 1860.
Other abolitionist women entered the fray. Frances Harper thanked Child for defending Brown, who had “reached out his brave and generous hand to the crushed and blighted of my race.” The PFASS passed a resolution calling the raid a “solemn warning.” Mott, with whom Mary Brown stayed during her husband’s imprisonment, defined herself as a “belligerent non-resistant” rather than an “advocate of passivity.” Brown, she felt, was a moral hero and a martyr. Kelley Foster held that the use of force against tyranny was both justifiable and Christian. Susan B. Anthony organized a pro-Brown meeting in which Pillsbury contended that he was greater than Washington. The Brown women, some of whom had participated in the Kansas wars, called for armed resistance to slavery long after his death.16
Black abolitionists in particular revered the “race traitor” Brown and apotheosized him as a martyr to black freedom. Douglass and Langston wrote disclaimers about their involvement in the raid but praised Brown lavishly. Wise had put marshals and a private investigator on Douglass’s trail. Douglass, who had no desire to be “bagged” by the government of Virginia, said, “It can never be wrong [for slaves and their] friends, to hunt, harass, and even strike down the traffickers in human flesh.” Langston confessed to having the “very deepest sympathy with the Immortal John Brown” and his actions to “let the oppressed go free” and “to put to death . . . those who steal men and sell them.” Lambert in Detroit and John Peck in Pittsburgh commemorated Brown’s hanging, which Garnet anointed “Martyr’s Day.” Garnet’s church celebrated it every year for twenty years. The Martyr’s Day meetings passed resolutions promising to hold Brown’s memory “in sacred remembrance” and raised money for his family. In Boston people at a meeting in Reverend Grimes’s church, led by Remond and Nell, sang antislavery songs. In Worcester and Hartford blacks displayed public signs of mourning. In Providence Wells Brown gave a speech titled “The Heroes of Insurrection.” In Philadelphia a crowd of four thousand listened to Mott, Grew, and Tilton, but confusion broke out when Purvis hoped that “the coward fiends of Virginia” would reap the wrath of God. In Canada West Harvey C. Jackson called for meetings of colored persons in every locality to collect money for the raiders’ families and sent it to Sewall in Boston, who was put in charge of the fund. Black women in New York sent their contributions to Mary Brown, “desir[ing] to express our deep, undying gratitude to him who has given his life so freely to obtain for us our defrauded rights.” Harper, who promptly sent a contribution, published a story on the “old man and his brave companions.”
African Americans also marked the hanging of the two black raiders, John Copeland and Shields Green, raising money for their families. Both were buried in an unmarked grave, but medical students from Winchester Medical College dug up Copeland’s body. After many inquiries to Wise went unanswered, Copeland’s parents sent James Monroe, a professor at Oberlin, to reclaim his body. The refusal of the students to give up the body forced Monroe to return empty-handed. Oberlin’s interracial abolitionist community commemorated their deaths in a large meeting attended by over three thousand people. In his address Henry Peck, one of the Oberlin–Wellington rescuers, said that the black raiders at Harper’s Ferry were “not less firm, heroic and Christlike” than Brown. The next year the Oberlin Monument Committee put together enough funds from all over the North to erect a memorial to Copeland, Lewis Leary, and Green, who had left behind no known survivors and became an adopted “colored citizen” of Oberlin. It bore a tribute to “the heroic associates of John Brown” who “gave their lives for the slave.” In a letter to his brother, Copeland had asked rhetorically if he could die in a nobler cause. The Union army burned Winchester Medical College to the ground during the Civil War.
The lone black survivor of Brown’s raid, Osborne Anderson, published the first account of it, A Voice from Harper’s Ferry in January 1861. Anderson viewed Brown not only through the lens of a global history of liberation stretching from Moses to the European revolutions of the nineteenth century but also in the context of slave rebellion, comparing his tactics and the raid specifically to Turner’s rebellion. Black Bostonians led by Martin, Grimes, Nell, Downing, and Morris held a meeting to promote his book and raised nearly a hundred dollars. Anderson lectured and sold his book until the start of the war. He died in Washington, D.C., in 1872. His pallbearers included Downing, Douglass’s son Lewis, and Purvis and his son Charles. Purvis called him “the last survivor of the only army of freedom ever recruited in the United States.”
The emancipationist meaning of Brown’s war was evoked by African Americans long after the Civil War. It did her soul good, Charlotte Forten wrote from St. Helena’s Island in South Carolina, to teach black children to sing “John Brown’s Body” in the freedmen’s school. She wished their former masters could hear them. Martin argued that the song was not just a marching song for the Union army but “a creed as well, to the great majority of slaves.” In 1882 Watson’s “prepared body” after dissection was recovered and brought back for burial at his father’s side. Seventeen years later the decomposed remains of the ten raiders, including Leary and Green, were buried in a single coffin draped with an American flag at North Elba with the Twenty-Sixth United States Infantry firing a gun salute before fifteen hundred spectators. With the fall of Reconstruction, the Colored Citizen of Kansas, noting the “brutal murders and barbarous outrages in the South,” published “Wanted, a Few Black John Browns.” In his speech on Brown delivered at Storer College, Harper’s Ferry, in 1881, Douglass recalled that “his zeal in the cause of my race, was far greater than mine—it was as the burning sun to my taper light—mine was bounded by time, his stretched away to the boundless shores of eternity. I could live for the slave, but he would die for them.” In 1906 the “Niagara movement,” a black civil rights organization that preceded the NAACP, met at Harper’s Ferry. The NAACP would long commemorate Brown and the death anniversaries of Garrison and Sumner. Du Bois wrote, “Of all Americans, [Brown has] perhaps come nearest to touching the real souls of black folk.”17
Radical abolitionists, too, embraced Brown’s revolutionary war. Many of them, like Kagi, who reported for the Era, William Phillips, Redpath, who wrote for the Tribune, Hinton, and Richard Realf, were journalists and veterans of the Kansas wars. The latter three were British and were influenced by Chartism. Hinton, a socialist, became the corresponding secretary of Marx’s International Workingmen’s Association. Redpath was known for his John Ball Jr. letters, his pseudonym the name of a radical priest involved in a fourteenth-century English peasant revolt. They detailed his clandestine conversations with slaves and free blacks during his travels to the south from 1854 to 1856. The slaves Redpath interviewed combined deep pessimism with an intense longing to be free. One claimed, “I know hundreds and hundreds and almost all of them are as dissatisfied a they kin be.” He documented the “underground telegraph,” or the grapevine, among the slaves and the Maroons at Dismal Swamp, which he called the Canada of the South. Redpath dedicated his book to the “old hero” Brown. He encapsulated his abolition creed in a few sentences: he was a Republican who opposed not just the extension of slavery but its “protection” where it exists; an emancipationist opposed to all gradualism, even if it meant wresting the supposed rights of slaves “with torch and rifle”; an abolitionist who was a “Reparationist,” believing that the slaves deserved not just freedom but compensation for “unrequited services”; a “Peace Man” willing to kill for peace; a “Non Resistant” willing to slay all those who opposed the liberation of slaves; an American who believed that natives and immigrants should enjoy citizenship rights; and a Democrat who believed in human rights. As he put it, “Southern Rights are human wrongs.”
Redpath was convinced that the South would never liberate its slaves and that abolitionists “must carry the war into the south” in a series of border raids, echoing Brown’s conviction to “carry the war into Africa.” His suggestion that abolitionists should infiltrate the South and hand slaves a compass, money, food, and guns to make good their escape was put into practice by the twenty-four-year-old Canadian abolitionist, the physician Alexander Milton Ross, who started running off slaves to Canada in 1857 under the guise of being an ornithologist. Redpath’s model was the immensely successful southern travelogues by Frederick Law Olmsted, a free labor indictment of slavery. But Redpath made clear that overthrowing the Slave Power and replacing it with a “Mill Power” was not the solution. The southern cotton-raising aristocracy and the northern cotton-manufacturing oligarchy were two branches of the same root. Unlike Thayer’s The North and South (1856), a statistical comparison of the two regions that revealed the superiority of free to slave labor (Thayer advocated a “free labor invasion” of Virginia), Redpath called for the emancipation of labor from capital.18
Redpath was commissioned to write Brown’s biography, causing Child to give up her plans to do so. In January 1860 it was rushed into print. Written with the cooperation of Mary Brown and Brown’s associates, including Higginson and Sanborn, this first in a genre unto itself, the Brown biography, cast the abolitionist in a heroic mold. Redpath admitted, “I loved and reverenced the noble old man.” Harper’s Ferry was no “crazy scheme,” he wrote. “Brown did right by invading Virginia and attempting to liberate her slaves.” It was dedicated to the abolitionists and transcendentalists who had best vindicated Brown: Phillips, Emerson, and Thoreau, who cried, “Saint” when others said, “Madman.” That year Redpath also published an accompanying set of documents on Brown, Echoes of Harper’s Ferry, pro-Brown sermons, speeches, and poetry. Among these was Whittier’s poem on Brown as well as Garrison’s critique of it for its allusions to Brown’s “rash and bloody hand” and to the raid as “folly that seeks evil through good.” No such qualifications marked Whittier’s poems in praise of the American revolutionaries, Garrison wrote. Garrison published Louisa May Alcott’s “With a Rose that Bloomed on the Day of John Brown’s Martyrdom” and Child’s “The Hero’s Heart,” which, like Whittier’s poem, forever imagined Brown kissing an enslaved baby held up by a slave mother. A fictitious account, the story owed its origins to Brown’s last wishes and became the motif of a popular painting on his execution (see the illustration). After the war, Melville and Whitman likened Brown to a foreboding, a “meteor of war” in their poetry. In the twentieth century Brown continued to inspire writers and artists like Jacob Lawrence.19
Redpath represented the coming together of emigrationism and revolutionary abolitionism. Brown was an admirer of Haiti and the Jamaican Maroons. Redpath dedicated Echoes to the Haitian president Fabre Geffrard. The black republic officially mourned Brown and through Redpath contributed two thousand dollars to Mary Brown. Geffrard employed Redpath, who published A Guide to Hayti in 1861, as his agent. Filled with information on the history and geography of the island, Redpath touted Haiti as the future of the “African race.” Redpath saw the empowering of the black republic as a way to counter proslavery imperialism and as a launching pad for a second raid on the South. Redpath bought the Anglo-African, rechristened it the Pine and Palm, and made it the official organ of Haitian emigration. Along with Redpath, the black abolitionist George Lawrence and Hinton served as its editors. The first issue contained a large portrait of Toussaint Louverture, “the first of the blacks.” Redpath called for the “immediate eradication of slavery” through a constitutional amendment, the “national equality and power” of blacks with whites, and the establishment of “tropical confederacies” in the Caribbean to encircle and attack the slave South. He formed the Haytian Emigration Bureau in Boston, with branches in New York, Chicago, and Canada, and employed James T. Holly, Garnet, H. Ford Douglas, Langston, and John Brown Jr. in Canada and and Rev. Samuel Berry, an Episcopalian black minister, in Brooklyn. Delany, who named his sons after Toussaint and Emperor Faustin I, nevertheless remained critical of Haitian emigration. When he questioned having a white man at the head of the Haitian movement, Holly pointed out that Redpath was merely a servant of the Haitian government.
Holly had led the Haitian emigration movement in the 1850s. An abolitionist and Episcopalian minister, he advocated the establishment of a black “Christian Nationality” in Haiti. In 1855 he visited Haiti to explore the possibilities of emigration and met Faustin. Two years later Holly published A Vindication of the Capacity of the Negro Race for Self-Government. A history of the Haitian Revolution, it argued that black rights were better respected among the “monarchical negroes” of Haiti than in the “bastard democracy” of America. In 1859 Holly published his “Thoughts on Hayti” series in the Anglo-African Magazine. Holly viewed Haiti as representative of “Black nationality in the New World.” He lauded its “self-emancipating” history in contrast to West Indian apprenticeship and Liberia, which was propped up by a “questionable system of American philanthropy.” Black Protestant emigrants would regenerate Haiti and create “a strong, powerful, enlightened and progressive negro nationality.” In 1861, as Holly prepared to leave for Haiti with 150 emigrants, mostly from Canada, came the bombshell. Douglass, the inveterate foe of emigration, announced that he would accompany Holly to Haiti after writing sympathetically about Haitian emigration in his monthly.
As early as 1853 Douglass, in a speech before the AFASS, had approved of emigration to a place near the United States where free blacks would be within “hearing distance” of the enslaved. Other anti-emigrationists, like Wells Brown, Watkins, and Vashon, now supported Haitian emigration, Wells Brown acting as a recruiting agent in Canada West. He explained that the Haitian movement, unlike the “hateful” colonization movement, was “originated by a colored nation” in the “interests of the colored race.” Initially disillusioned by the compromise-oriented stand of the Lincoln administration, Douglass immediately gave up on emigration when the war started. He joined anti-emigrationists like Pennington, McCune Smith, who restarted the Weekly Anglo-African to oppose emigration, and Downing. Douglass now rejected the idea of an independent black nationality, arguing that, as Americans, black people shall rise or fall with the American nation. The solution to racial inequality, he asserted, lay in “Human Brotherhood,” not in “exclusive nationalities.” John C. Bowers, too, warranted that black hopes must remain in this “Republican land of liberty where the great battle for freedom is to be fought and won.” Gloucester dismissed emigration as “Bumkim.” On Downing’s urging, Garrison warned that emigration could play into racist hands, hobbling the battle for equal rights at home. But Holly emigrated to Haiti and became an Episcopalian bishop. In 1899 he attended one of the first Pan-African meetings held in London to oppose European imperialism in Africa, illustrating the abolitionist roots of anti-imperialism. Douglass’s Haitian connection continued as well. From 1889 to 1891 he was the American consul to Haiti and chargé d’affaires to Santo Domingo. His critics accused him of showing too much sympathy for the black nation and of not representing American interests, which included acquiring a military base. Protesting the exclusion of blacks at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, Douglass continued the abolitionist tradition of vindicating the emancipationist history of Haiti.
Redpath sent 2,000 black emigrants, free blacks from the North, the South, and Canada, to Haiti. Worsening conditions for southern free blacks, threatened with reenslavement in many slave states after Brown’s raid, led over 200 from Louisiana to emigrate to Haiti, 150 in 1859 alone. Haitian emigration failed owing to the experiences of emigrants, which replicated those who had migrated to Haiti in the 1820s. Confronting disease, death, and a different culture, religion, and language, they returned telling stories of disillusionment. Redpath and Sumner lobbied the Lincoln administration for the recognition of Haiti, which, unlike the Spanish and British in the Caribbean, supported the Union blockade of the Confederacy. Lincoln recognized Haiti as well as Liberia to further his colonization plans. After his ill-fated attempt to set up a colony of freed slaves in Ile a Vache, the government brought black emigrants home. In September 1862, with the announcement of Lincoln’s preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, Redpath resigned his agency, and his paper folded. But his interest in Haiti remained. A year later he reprinted a book on Louverture. After the war he promoted the Irish Land League Movement, the abolition of capital punishment, and Henry George’s antipoverty campaign.20
Brown elicited admiration from abolitionists and radicals abroad. In Britain, Douglass, Martin, and Sarah Parker Remond mobilized the abolitionist international behind Brown. A graduate of Philadelphia’s Institute for Colored Youth and a black student at the University of Edinburgh, Jesse Ewing Glasgow published the first account of the raid there in 1860. It ran through four editions, although its young author died the next year. George Thompson contended that Brown was “one of whom the world was not worthy” and the Anti-Slavery Reporter argued that Brown “was one of that class who figure as heroes in the history of nations.” To Martineau, “The only clear thing to us about the Harper’s Ferry business is the moral greatness of John Brown.”
European revolutionaries viewed Brown as a comrade in arms. Some of Brown’s men were veterans of the revolutions of 1848. August Bondi, a Jewish immigrant from Austria, had fought with Brown in Kansas and Lajos Kossuth in Hungary, and Forbes with Giuseppe Garibaldi in Italy, whom he rejoined after Harper’s Ferry. Brown’s “hangman,” wrote Victor Hugo, was “the whole American republic. . . . It is Washington killing Spartacus.” The day of Brown’s hanging was also the day of Louis Napoleon’s coup against the Second French Republic.
Marx wrote to Engels, “The most significant thing happening in the world today is the slave movement . . . initiated by the death of Brown. . . . This promises great things.” Four years later, Pierre Vesnier, a member of the International and later elected to the General Council of the Paris Commune, published his book on Brown. Vesnier regarded the extermination of southern slaveholders as necessary to the liberation of blacks. The book was dedicated to the nonwhite peoples of the world and to the European proletariat. Garibaldi called Lincoln an “heir of the aspirations of Christ and Brown.”21 Unlike Lincoln, Brown never became an American icon, but he assumed that status in the eyes of African Americans, abolitionists, and revolutionaries all over the world.
Antislavery politics grew out of abolition, and to most northerners it appeared as the constitutional way to contain an aggressively expansionist slave system. The Republican Party, however, was not abolition writ large. In order to create a free soil electoral majority, its platform remained the lowest common denominator of antislavery commitment, the nonexpansion of slavery. Radical Republicans such as Sumner, Stevens, Giddings, and Chase had abolitionist roots, while others, like Hale, Seward, and Greeley, were fellow travelers. Radicals and abolitionists knew that containment was not abolition but hoped it would lead to emancipation. During the war they played a crucial role in realizing that goal, pushing moderates in their party to take higher antislavery ground.
Perhaps no one represented Republicans better than Lincoln, who claimed to hate slavery as much as any abolitionist but whose competing loyalties to the Union and the Constitution moderated his antislavery. Lincoln’s first public statement on slavery came in 1837, when, as an Illinois legislator, he wrote a protest against a resolution condemning abolitionists. It stated that slavery was “founded on both injustice and bad policy” but that abolitionism tended to “increase rather than abate its evils.” Lincoln distanced himself from both the proslavery resolution and abolition. A year later he deplored proslavery mob violence, alluding to Elijah Lovejoy’s murder, McIntosh’s lynching, which Lovejoy had witnessed, and the Mississippi slave insurrection scare of 1835, as the greatest threat to the rule of law and American democracy. But whereas his law partner, William Herndon, subscribed to abolitionist newspapers, Lincoln represented the legal claims of slaves as well as of slaveholders.22
Lincoln developed an antislavery reputation only with the emergence of the slavery expansion issue in national politics. As a one-term Whig congressman, he opposed the Mexican War and supported the Wilmot Proviso. Like Seward, he did not join the Free Soil Party in 1848 but boarded with free soilers like Giddings and Palfrey. In 1849 he proposed a bill for gradual, compensated emancipation in the District of Columbia. It contained a fugitive slave clause but prohibited the sale of slaves. Unlike Giddings’s original proposal, it allowed only white men to vote on it in a referendum. Lincoln never introduced the bill. Like Clay, his “beau ideal of a statesman,” he was for the Compromise of 1850 and was a colonizationist, and his commitment to the Union and the Constitution always won out.
The rise of Lincoln paralleled that of the Republican Party when antislavery increasingly became the guiding principle of his politics. In his Peoria speech of 1854 after the passage of the Kansas–Nebraska Act Lincoln called slavery a “monstrous injustice” that deprived the American Republic of “its just influence in the world—enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites—causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity.” He waffled on colonization, admitting that sending black people to “their own native land” was practically impossible but argued that his “own feelings” would not allow for racial equality, and even if they did, “the great mass of white people will not.” This politically expedient concession to racism, “a universal feeling, whether ill or well founded,” stood in contrast to his unequivocal condemnation of slavery. To Lincoln, the great travesty of allowing the expansion of slavery was that it made slavery into a moral right and not an unfortunate necessity that the Republic would eventually do away with. He delivered over one hundred speeches for Frémont in 1856. Lincoln’s reaction to Dred Scott put him on the path to the presidency.23
The Supreme Court’s decision in 1857 struck a simultaneous blow at both abolitionist claims of black citizenship and the Republican program of nonextension. Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet Scott, of Missouri sued for their freedom based on their residence in the free territory of Illinois. They continued the long tradition of freedom suits stretching back to the colonial era, which had resulted in the establishment of the Somerset, or freedom, principle in Anglo-American jurisprudence, limiting the legal sway of slavery. The political significance of slave resistance lies hidden in plain sight, in the case titles derived from the names of their enslaved plaintiffs. Over two hundred slaves like the Scotts contested their enslavement in antebellum St. Louis. The seventeen-year-old Harriet Robinson, who grew up amidst frontier slavery in the old northwest, married the forty-year-old Etheldred (Dred) Scott, the moving force behind the idea to sue for their freedom. His first wife had been sold down south. Dred’s master, the physician John Emerson, and the officers who hired him were paid a subsidy by the army; in effect the army was subsidizing slavery on the frontier. The U.S. government employed slave labor throughout the antebellum period, making a mockery of the free soil slogan, “Freedom national, slavery local.”
The story of the Scotts complicates conventional narratives of the history of free soilism, for the enslaved as much as antislavery politicians pushed the movement forward. At the time Harriet first sued for her freedom in St. Louis, other enslaved women, laundresses like Harriet, had sued and won their own and their children’s freedom. The indomitable Polly Wash escaped to Chicago, was recaptured and beaten, yet sued for her own and her daughter Lucy’s freedom based on their residence in the free state of Illinois and won. Lucy Delaney wrote an account of their freedom suits after the war. Enslaved plaintiffs displayed considerable legal acumen to challenge their enslavement, exploiting the boundaries between slavery and freedom in the Missouri–Illinois borderland. St. Louis also boasted a free black population. John Berry Meachum, a minister in the African Baptist church, claimed in his address of 1846 to the colored citizens of St. Louis that he had purchased twenty people. His pamphlet, a mixture of anticolonization, racial uplift, and messianic nationalism, epitomized black abolitionism, albeit in more circumspect terms for a slave state. Twelve years later Cyprian Clamorgan wrote of the wealthy “colored aristocracy” of the city. According to Clamorgan, “wealth is power,” but there was not a single colored man who “would not cheerfully part with his last dollar to effect the elevation of his race.”
Abolitionists played a role in the Scotts’ quest for freedom. Their first lawyer was Francis B. Murdoch from Alton, who had unsuccessfully tried to prosecute Lovejoy’s killers and represented Polly and Lucy. On Emerson’s death, his widow acquired legal title to Dred and his family. Emerson had not bought Harriet, whose Pennsylvania master was certainly subject to that state’s gradual emancipation law. Irene Sanford Emerson refused Dred’s request to purchase himself. Her slaveholding planter father, Colonel Sanford, was a proslavery man, and the family made good money hiring out and garnishing the wages of the Scotts. On April 4, 1846, Harriet and Dred filed separate suits accusing Emerson of illegally imprisoning them and depriving them of their liberty. Making a freedom claim was risky business in a slave society, leaving them vulnerable to retaliation. Murdoch’s creditors foreclosed on his property, forcing him to move and leaving the Scotts without a lawyer. As the editor of a free labor newspaper in California, Murdoch wrote of the difficulty of pursuing freedom suits in a slave society. Dred Scott lost his case, Harriet’s was never brought up because Emerson could not be legally established as her owner. The Scotts appealed the decision, a young lawyer from Massachusetts, David Hall, representing them. Hall was known to take on freedom suits, and Edward Bates, Lincoln’s future attorney general who would declare the Dred Scott decision void, assisted him in the case of another slave, Pierre, and represented Lucy Delaney.
The Scotts’ freedom claims became intertwined with the fortunes of the Republican Party. In 1850 they won their suit, with Harriet’s case subsumed under Dred Scott’s. After Colonel Sanford’s death, Irene Emerson moved to Massachusetts and married a free soiler. Her brother John F. A. Sanford, the executor of her husband’s estate, inherited their father’s estate. The man managing the case on behalf of Sanford was Benami S. Garland, the Missouri slaveholder whose runaway slave Joshua Glover had outwitted him. Garland appealed the decision on a technicality. In a reversal of legal precedent, the Missouri Supreme Court by a two-to-one decision—the dissenter, Hamilton Gamble, became the wartime governor of the state—revoked the freedom of the Scotts. On the advice of their new lawyer from Vermont, Roswell Field, the Scotts then sued Sanford in federal court and accused him of assault. In 1854 the Scotts lost that case. The lawyer for Sanford, Hugh Garland, died, and his executors allowed one of his slaves, Elizabeth Keckley, to purchase her freedom. Keckley became Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker and confidante. The Scotts appealed their case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Field recruited Montgomery Blair, the scion of the free soil Blair family and Lincoln’s future postmaster general, to represent them. Bailey’s National Era was enlisted to raise money for the case. Appearing on behalf of Sanford was Henry Geyer, who had defeated Thomas Hart Benton in the senatorial elections for being weak on slavery.24
The politics of slavery determined the outcome of the case. Taney planned to settle once and for all the slavery question, but his proslavery, antiblack decision only inflamed sectional passions. He had a long record of judicial activism on behalf of slavery in fugitive slave cases and in early controversies involving the rights of free blacks stemming from the southern Negro Seamen laws. Whatever antislavery sentiments Taney harbored—in 1818 he defended an abolitionist minister and freed his eight slaves—had died long ago. Nearly half of Taney’s decision was devoted to the question of black citizenship, the rest to the status of slavery in the territories, upon which Scott based his suit. Taney believed that a “Negro” brought as a slave to the country and treated as an “article of property” by colonial statutes, could never aspire to citizenship. The framers of the Constitution had erected a “perpetual and impassable barrier” between the two races. In his egregiously racist formulation, people of African descent were “regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which a white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might be justly and lawfully reduced to slavery for his benefit.” There was a legal precedent for Taney’s decision, the slave codes. Taney, noting that Indians could be naturalized, marked people of African descent for special degradation.
Evoking original intent and strict construction, Taney adopted Calhoun’s pro-slavery theory that the Constitution recognized slave property in all areas under it. The territories were co-owned by the states, and the federal government had no right to legislate on slavery in the territories, a reading that was in direct contravention to the constitutional clause that put territories under federal jurisdiction. Labeling the Northwest Ordinance, the basis of Scott’s freedom claim, an unwarranted assumption of power under the Articles of Confederation and superseded by the Constitution, and calling all restrictions on slavery in the territories, including the Missouri Compromise, unconstitutional, the decision of the majority in Scott v. Sandford (Sanford’s name was misspelled) essentially declared the free soil platform of the Republican Party unconstitutional. Taney was joined by four southern judges in separate opinions, one of the longest by Peter Daniel of Virginia, a “brooding proslavery fanatic.” Daniel’s history of racial inferiority surpassed that of Taney. Going back to Emmerich de Vattel and the Roman law of slavery, he argued that “the African negro race never have been acknowledged as belonging to the family of nations.” Two northern Democratic doughfaces, Samuel Nelson of New York and Robert Grier of Pennsylvania, known for his run-in with abolitionists over fugitive rendition, went with the majority.
Political abolitionists and free soilers had labored to find a constitutional way to attack slavery, one which the Supreme Court now designated unconstitutional. The two dissenters were John McLean of Ohio, suspected of hankering after the Republican presidential nomination, and Massachusetts’s Benjamin R. Curtis, whose brother George T. Curtis was Blair’s cocounsel. Even northern conservatives like “the Curtti” and Blairs dissented from Taney’s extreme proslavery formulation. Benjamin Curtis would return to form during the war, challenging the constitutionality of the Emancipation Proclamation and the impeachment of Andrew Johnson. McLean concluded that the court was obliged to respect not just Missouri’s law of slavery but Illinois’s law of freedom. Descendants of African slaves in Massachusetts, Curtis added, were not only “native born citizens” but also given the right to vote. He evoked the immunities and privileges clause on citizenship. Both judges affirmed the constitutional power of the federal government to legislate for the territories, deeming them “constitutional and valid laws.”25
The fallout from Dred Scott was immediate, with abolitionists leading the charge. Garrison, who printed the decision in his “Refuge of Oppression,” proposed a resolution at the NEAS convention that condemned it as “unjust, inhumane and unconstitutional,” founded on “falsifications of history and perversions of law,” and an “outrage and insult to all decency, morality and Christianity.” Cheever famously called it “the moral assassination of a race,” a case that made slaveholders a “LEGALIZED BANDITTI OF MEN-STEALERS.” According to Smith, the Supreme Court had rebelled against the Republic itself. At a meeting of the colored citizens of Philadelphia, Purvis remarked that the decision confirmed that black people were “an alien, disfranchised and degraded class.” Remond noted that it was in perfect accord with American practice, Taney had simply made it law. McCune Smith argued that free blacks had always exercised the basic rights of citizenship, and Douglass appealed “this hell-black judgment of the Supreme Court, to the court of common sense and common humanity.”26
Republicans condemned the decision as obiter dictum—Taney’s opinion had no force of law behind it—and vindicated the constitutional power of the federal government to restrict slavery in the territories. Many, including Lincoln, averred that it nationalized slavery. If the Constitution carried slavery with it, it surely did so in the free states under its jurisdiction. It overturned the freedom principle, affirming slaveholders’ alleged right to travel and reside in free territory with their slaves. In Congress, Hale, Seward, Fessenden, and Wade lit into this exercise in “judicial tyranny.” The most elaborate response came from Benton, who had spent a lifetime combating Calhoun’s proslavery heresies. A slaveholder himself, he argued that slave owners had the right to carry their slaves to the territories with them but not their state laws of slavery. The old Jacksonian Democrat died in 1858 trying to reconcile his devotion to the Union with slavery.
Calvin Chaffee, the Republican congressman who had married Irene Emerson, was embarrassed by charges of hypocrisy. The Chaffees (Sanford died in an insane asylum) quickly transferred Scott’s ownership to the Blows, Scott’s original owners who had helped him with his freedom suit, perhaps guilt-ridden at having sold him to Emerson in the first place. Missouri laws stipulated that only a resident could free Scott. Dred and Harriet’s two teenaged daughters, who had been missing since their parents’ freedom was revoked, miraculously reappeared. It was probably concern about their fate that had motivated the Scotts to engage in the long, drawn-out legal battle. Irene Emerson Chaffee made sure she received Dred Scott’s wages for the entire time the trials took place. Forever stigmatized, Calvin Chaffee did not run for political office ever again. Scott’s benefactor Taylor Blow helped him post the thousand-dollar bond that Missouri law required from free blacks. The entire family, Dred, Harriet, Eliza, and Jane, posed for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Magazine. They were the most famous enslaved family in the country, one whose freedom struggles had spurred the contest over slavery. Like other enslaved freedom seekers, they helped emancipate their people. Dred Scott died a year later.27
Lincoln’s growth in antislavery politics can be traced from his support of the Fugitive Slave Act (though he had suggested protections for free blacks) to his repudiation of Dred Scott. He excoriated the decision, not only because it declared the Republican platform unconstitutional but also because it questioned the humanity of black people. Lincoln’s description of the plight of the slave in the aftermath of the case is memorable:
All the powers of earth seem rapidly combining against him. Mammon is after him; ambition follows, and philosophy follows, and the Theology of the day is fast joining the cry. They have him in the prison house; they have searched his person, and left no prying instrument with him. One after another they have closed the heavy iron doors upon him, and now they have him, as it were, bolted in with a lock of a hundred keys, which can never be unlocked without the concurrence of every key; the keys in the hand of a hundred different men, and they scattered to a hundred different and distant places; and they stand musing as to what invention, in all the dominions of mind and matter, can be produced to make the impossibility of his escape more complete than it is.
Lincoln’s “A House Divided” speech, which critiqued Dred Scott for nationalizing slavery, inaugurated his senatorial campaign. Douglass applauded “Abram” Lincoln’s “great speech.” Seward’s “The Irrepressible Conflict” also argued that the country would become either “entirely a slave-holding nation or entirely a free labor nation.”
Lincoln distinguished the Republican position, the active restriction of slavery by the federal government, from that of his Democratic opponent Stephen Douglas, who had broken with his party over Kansas’s Lecompton Constitution. In 1857 a proslavery minority representing less than 10 percent of the territory’s population elected a constitutional convention. The resulting Lecompton Constitution gave Kansans no choice on slavery: voters could either allow slavery or not allow it but were required to recognize the slaves already in the territory. Lecompton led Douglas to repudiate his own handiwork, as it violated popular sovereignty and the white man’s democracy. When Buchanan, buckling to southern pressure, tried to force the admission of Kansas as a slave state under Lecompton, Douglas rebelled. Forced by Lincoln to explain his position, Douglas, in their second debate, in Freeport, Illinois, contended that even if the Constitution carried slavery to the territories, as Taney argued, the territorial legislatures, by refusing to pass laws to police slavery, could get rid of it. Lecompton and the “Freeport Doctrine” permanently estranged the southern wing of the Democratic Party, its base, from Douglas, dividing the Democrats along sectional lines during the presidential election of 1860. Lauded by Greeley’s Tribune, Douglas, whose followers cooperated with Republicans in opposing Lecompton, was heralded as a candidate Republicans could live with. Lincoln, who distinguished between the active restriction of slavery that would lead to its “ultimate extinction” and Douglas’s moral indifference to its spread, disagreed. For Douglas, a majority of white voters could establish slavery, a principle violated by Lecompton. The English compromise of 1858, named after the Democratic representative and northern doughface William English of Indiana, sent Lecompton back to Kansas voters, who were given a so-called choice to enter the Union with slavery or remain a territory and who proceeded to defeat it by an overwhelming majority. Neither the bribe of a federal land grant nor the political benefits of statehood changed the opinions of the large free-state majority. Kansas entered the Union in 1861 as a free state.28
The famous Lincoln–Douglas debates in 1858 represented a contest between antislavery and the white man’s democracy. Lincoln was always on the defensive when speaking about racial equality, openly displaying his displeasure: “Let us discard all this quibbling about this man and the other man—this race and that race and the other race being inferior, and therefore they must be placed in an inferior position.” He accused Democrats of fostering racism. Republicans argued that “the negro is a man; that his bondage is cruelly wrong, and the field of his oppression should not be enlarged. The Democrats deny his manhood; deny, or dwarf to insignificance, the wrong of his bondage; so far as possible, crush all sympathy for him, and cultivate and excite hatred and disgust against him.” He was mercilessly race-baited by Douglas, who charged that Lincoln changed his views with the political geography of Illinois, appearing more progressive in the north half and less so in the southern, settled by white southerners. In Douglas’s eyes, citizenship ought to be confined to people of European descent, excluding “Ethiopians,” Native Americans, and other nonwhite people. Like most Democrats, he charged “Black Republicans” with espousing “racial amalgamation.” Lincoln lost to Douglas, but the debates set the stage for his nomination as the Republican presidential candidate.
Lincoln stuck to his position that black people were entitled to natural rights, but he clarified that those did not include political rights. Lincoln said he personally was not in favor of black citizenship but, unlike Taney, believed that individual states had the power to confer citizenship on free blacks. He deliberately chose the example of a black woman to argue for natural but not social or political equality. He was “against the counterfeit logic which concludes that, because I do not want a black woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. I need not have her for either, I can just leave her alone. In some respects she is certainly not my equal; but in her natural right to eat the bread that she earns with her own hands without asking leave of anyone else, she is my equal, and the equal of all others.” Lincoln usually characterized sectional differences in terms of political economy, what he called the “mudsill” view of society, referring to Hammond’s King Cotton speech, versus free labor. He was appalled by Fitzhugh’s argument that in an ideal society labor should be enslaved. To him, blacks and whites, men and women, could aspire to the promise of free labor even though all were not citizens.
Though Lincoln refused to sign a petition for black suffrage brought to him by black abolitionists like H. Ford Douglas, his views on race were far ahead of those of most people in the country. Privately, he belittled racist ideas. In a brilliant reductio ad absurdum refutation of the racial logic of slavery, Lincoln wrote if A can enslave B because of color, then by this rule the first man with a lighter skin you meet has the right to enslave you. He went on, “You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of blacks,” by this rule the first man you meet with “an intellect superior to your own” has the right to enslave you. Unlike Jefferson, Lincoln’s favoring of colonization was not predicated on crude racist ideas, though his refusal to endorse black citizenship put him behind abolitionists and radicals in his own party.29
Throughout the 1850s, while Lincoln remained committed to colonization, a parallel movement for emigration arose among abolitionists. The black abolitionist most responsible for this was Martin Delany. Born free in Virginia in 1812, Delany became a leading abolitionist in Pittsburgh. In the 1840s he edited the Mystery, which, remarkably, lives on today as the Christian Recorder of the AME church. As the coeditor of Douglass’s North Star, he undertook a western tour to raise subscriptions and glean information on the condition of African Americans. On the recommendation of Francis J. Le Moyne, a founding member of the PASS and the mayor of Pittsburgh, he was admitted to Harvard Medical School in 1850. He and two other black students sponsored by the ACS were forced to withdraw because of the objections of southern students. In The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People (1852) Delany announced emigration as a solution to the plight of blacks. He differentiated emigration from colonization, calling the ACS one of the most “arrant enemies of the colored man.” Delany gave a classic formulation of the position of blacks in the United States: they were “a nation within a nation.” He thought that South and Central America or the eastern coast of Africa could be the site of a modern, commercial black nation. He proposed a transcontinental railroad linking Africa’s two coasts.30
Delany’s book forced abolitionists to reconsider emigration. Garrison noted Delany’s “spirit of despondency,” yet Delany thanked him for his “favorable and generous notice.” Smith sent Delany a “letter of approval of the work,” and Bibb gave it a favorable notice in the Voice of the Fugitive. But Oliver Johnson, the editor of the Pennsylvania Freeman, in a ham-handed critique, drew attention to the book’s printing errors and the author’s alleged egotism. Obviously stung, Delany wrote to Johnson, “I . . . despise your sneers and defy your influence.” More than Johnson’s dismissive review, Douglass’s silence, which he called unjustifiable, irritated Delany. The national black convention of 1853 in Rochester, led by Douglass and attended by blacks from the eastern states, came out against emigration. Only the poet from Buffalo, James M. Whitfield, Rev. William C. Monroe, and Rev. Augustus R. Green represented emigrationists. Whitfield, who published poems on Cinque, John Quincy Adams, and the First of August in Douglass’s newspaper, dedicated his collection of poems to Delany. His poem America pronounced, “AMERICA, it is to thee, / Thou boasted land of liberty, /—It is to thee I raise my song, / Thou land of blood, and crime and wrong.” Whitfield debated Douglass’s associate editor, William J. Watkins, on emigration. Bibb’s paper and William Howard Day’s Aliened American reprinted Whitfield’s letters arguing that blacks in Haiti, Canada, and South and Central America acted as potent challenges to slaveholders. Educated at Oberlin, Day married the college’s first black woman graduate, Lucy Stanton. He migrated to Ontario and became a corresponding editor of Shadd’s Provincial Freeman.
Delany’s critique of entrenched racism influenced his critics. In 1852 Douglass, in his famous “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” speech, said, “This Fourth is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn,” accusing the American Republic of crimes against black people that would shame “a nation of savages.” The speech ended tamely, however, vindicating the antislavery nature of the Constitution. The Rochester convention’s address, written mostly by Douglass and McCune Smith, claimed, “We are Americans, and as Americans, we would speak to Americans,” but it condemned American racism: “Our white fellow country-men do not know us. . . . The great mass of American citizens estimate us as being a characterless and purposeless people; and hence we hold up our heads, if at all, against the withering influence of a nation’s scorn and contempt.” That year Douglass gave one of his most brilliant (and relatively unknown) speeches, “A Nation in the Midst of a Nation,” adopting Delany’s formulation. The history of black people, he said, using O’Connell’s allusion to Irish history, may be traced like the blood of a wounded man in a crowd. African Americans were treated as aliens in their own land. White Americans had sympathy for “the Hungarian, the Italian, the Irishman, the Jew, and the Gentile . . . but for my poor people enslaved—blasted and ruined—it would appear, that America has neither justice, mercy nor religion.”31
In 1854 Delany called a national emigration convention in Cleveland. It was dominated by blacks from the northwestern states with discriminatory black laws but excluded all colonizationists, calling them “enemies of the race.” It demanded that African Americans form the “ruling element” of a nation. Munroe, who had visited Haiti as a missionary, presided. Twenty-nine black women attended, and Mary Bibb was elected vice president. The convention formed the emigrationist National Board of Commissioners, a competing national body to Douglass’s National Council. Delany’s keynote address, “Political Destiny of the Colored Race on the American Continent,” was its most significant outcome. Black people, he maintained, were neither freemen nor citizens of the country; their degradation was marked by their color regardless of anything they might have attained, just as white was viewed as a “mark of distinction and superiority.” Dismissing the demand for suffrage, Delany counseled black sovereignty. His speech was an original Pan-African critique of European colonialism. The colored races were the global majority that a white minority sought to rule. A black nation must “meet and combat” the European politicians, economists, and “civil engineers” who direct the “nations and powers of the earth.” Recounting a short history of the colonization of North America, Delany identified Indians as “identical subjects of American wrongs” with black people.
Emigrationists debated their opponents. H. Ford Douglas, who was born in Virginia and lived in Ohio, supported Delany, and John Mercer Langston opposed him. George B. Vashon, who returned from Haiti and became a contributor to Douglass’s paper, was against and Martin H. Freeman for emigration. A year later the National Board of Commissioners meeting in Pittsburgh claimed that “the principles of Emigration are fast becoming the leading policy among our people in this country.” But the board soon ceased to exist, and Delany migrated to Canada in 1856, after holding another emigration convention in Cleveland. Douglass’s National Council also died a quick death after the last antebellum meeting of the national black convention in Philadelphia in 1855. Black Garrisonians, not emigrationists, opposed Douglass there.32
On the eve of the Civil War, antislavery colonizationists and black emigrationists joined forces to promote emigration to Africa. When Garnet returned from Jamaica in 1856, he became a leading advocate of African emigration. Two years later the Chatham Convention, which bolstered Brown’s plans to found a revolutionary black state, also promoted emigration. It divided over choice of place, Day favoring Canada, Holly, Haiti, and Delany receiving an “African Commission.” That year Garnet, with Rev. Theodore Bourne, the son of the abolitionist George Bourne, formed the African Civilization Society, using the name of the abolitionist British society rather than that of the ACS. Garnet joined forces with Delany, who founded the African Civilization Society of Canada. The new society soon found itself in bed with the ACS. Delany and the Jamaican-born teacher Robert Campbell formed the Niger River Valley Exploring Party, which was backed by antislavery colonizationists such as Benjamin Coates and William Coppinger in Philadelphia, Rev. John B. Pinney in New York, and Joseph Tracy in Massachusetts. Coates, the Quaker benefactor of the Institute for Colored Youth, where Campbell taught, was a member of both the PAS and PCS. He corresponded with leading black abolitionists, and his pamphlet of 1858 on cotton cultivation in Africa influenced Garnet. Active in the free produce movement, he argued that African sugar, coffee, and cotton grown by black migrants would undercut the market for slave produce and lead to the peaceful abolition of slavery. H. O. Wagoner recognized the sincerity of Coates’s efforts, telling him, “I do not look upon your enterprise in the same light” as the ACS. Coates’s attempt to convert Douglass on colonization failed. Douglass contended that Coates, rather than Garnet, was the mastermind behind the African Civilization Society. When black Bostonians refused to let Garnet promote his society in Grimes’s church, Martin let him speak at his Joy Street church. Garnet insisted that he was “not a colonizationist.” His aim was “to establish the grand center of Negro nationality, from which shall flow streams of commercial, intellectual, and political power which shall make colored people respected everywhere.”33
Emigrationist sentiment became increasingly popular among black abolitionists. In their opening editorial in the Weekly Anglo-African in 1859, Robert and Thomas Hamilton, the sons of William Hamilton, announced their support for emigration. Their paper became a major outlet for emigrationists. That year Delany left in the Liberian-owned Mendi, and Blyden wrote of his triumphant welcome in Monrovia, where he gave a well-attended lecture portraying emigration as a natural evolution of black abolitionism. Campbell, who raised funds in England, assisted by the British and Foreign ASS, joined him in Liberia. With the help of the African Anglican missionary Rev. Samuel Ajayi Crowther in Lagos, Delany and Campbell signed a treaty with the Alake and other ruling chiefs of the Egba at Abeokuta for the land between the two cities. In April 1860 both men left for England, and the Egba, advised by a British missionary, repudiated the treaty. The accounts they left of the expedition reveal that the cultural distance between them and native Africans was mediated by their political commitment to a composite black nationality. Campbell’s description of the beautiful country of highly cultivated, industrious Africans was an exercise in boosterism. Emigrants, he wrote, should make efforts to raise native Africans to the “proper standard” rather than “supercede or crush them” and follow the “laws” of the Egbas. Thomas Hamilton published Campbell’s A Journey to My Motherland. Dedicated to Coates, it praised native governments and the beauty of the “African form.” Campbell settled in Africa with his family and published the Anglo-African there.34
Delany wrote an official account of the expedition in London. Ever the medical doctor and mindful that one of the greatest objections to African emigration was mortality, Delany devoted large sections to the diseases of Africa. Like Campbell, Delany was struck by the natural beauty of Yoruba land and its people. According to him, the continent needed civilization, that is, Western modernization, directed by black emigrants, “a new element introduced into their midst. . . . This element must be homogenous in all the natural characteristics, claims, sentiments, and sympathies—the descendants of Africa being the only element that can effect it.” His motto, “Africa for the African race, and black men to rule them,” was not simply a black counterpart to white imperialism but a prescient call for Pan-African nationalism and modernization that could have resisted the Scramble for Africa among European powers at the turn of the century. Delany also embarked on a successful lecturing tour for emigration. His introduction by Lord Brougham and speech at the International Statistical Congress led to a walkout by the entire American delegation except for Edward Jarvis, who is often misidentified as a racist but who had praised McCune Smith’s exposé of Calhoun’s faulty use of census data to prove black inferiority. The incident made Delany a celebrity in Britain and contributed to the success of his lectures. He gained the support of the Africa Aid Society, a descendant of Buxton’s African Civilization Society. On his return to the States in 1861, Delany introduced two new articles to the African Civilization Society’s original constitution, restating its goal as “Self Reliance and Self-Government, on the principle of African Nationality, the African race being the ruling element of the nation, controlling and directing their own affairs.” He added Pennington’s name to the list of all present at the meeting of the society, but to Pennington the African Civilization Society was a “one horse team.” He preferred the prospects of Jamaican emigration but later came out against all forms of emigration. The society’s list of vice presidents included Delany, Whipper, Daniel A. Payne, Coates, Wayland, Giddings, Robert Hamilton, Tunis Campbell (the author of a guide to housekeeping, hotel management, and waiting on tables that included recipes), destined to become a prominent Reconstruction leader in Georgia, and Rev. R. H. Cain. Garnet followed Delany to Britain, lecturing on behalf of the Africa Aid Society and the Yoruba settlement.35
Conservative Republican exponents of colonization tried to woo the emigration movement. In 1860, Joseph Dennis Harris, an emigrationist from Cleveland, published A Summer on the Borders of the Caribbean Sea. A series of letters containing an extensive account of the Haitian Revolution, the work touted the economic potential and natural scenic beauty of the area to black emigrants. Harris, who emigrated to Haiti, predicted the rise of an Anglo-African empire ruled by colored men. In his introduction to Harris’s book, George W. Curtis pointed out the affinity of a number of Republicans like Francis P. Blair Jr. of Missouri, the brother of Montgomery Blair, and Sen. James R. Doolittle of Wisconsin for colonization. Like some slaveholders who dreamed of an empire for slavery in the Caribbean and Central America, the Blairs imagined a commercial southern American empire. Blair championed the acquiring of land in Central or South America to establish a black colony as a dependency of the United States, holding that it would be the best way to prevent the expansion of slavery. Black emigrationists corresponded with Blair, setting up a land company for emigration. Blair recommended following British imperial policies and creating “our India” in South America. A staunch believer in the separation of the races, he also judged that free blacks, like Native Americans, should be removed from the country. Blair trumpeted his plans before mercantile societies, citing the advantages of commerce and empire for American business while getting rid of an unwanted race. Like Blair, Doolittle, in his speech against the acquisition of Cuba, advised the “peaceful emigration” of free blacks to Central or South America. The “colored race,” he opined, was ordained by nature and God to occupy the tropical regions of the hemisphere. During the war, he opposed any plans for emancipation without colonization, and during Reconstruction he wanted to save the white South from “Africanization and Military despotism.” The Blairs, also foes of black equality, and Doolittle defected back to the Democratic Party after the war.36
The Civil War marked the waning of Republican colonization and black emigration. Lincoln experimented with plans to send black Americans to Chiriqui, Panama, and to Haiti. James Mitchell of the ACS, Lincoln’s “Commissioner of Emigration,” insisted that the survival of republican institutions depended on the removal of African Americans. The report in 1862 of the House select committee on emancipation and colonization, of which Blair was a member, included Delany’s Cleveland address from 1854. At Lincoln’s behest, Congress appropriated six hundred thousand dollars on emancipation in the District of Columbia for colonization. Sen. Samuel Pomeroy of Kansas announced that thousands of blacks had signed up to emigrate to Central America. Henry Winter Davis of Maryland, Sumner, Hale, Lovejoy, and Seward opposed colonization. When Lincoln invited a black delegation from Washington to recommend colonization, Frances Harper wrote, “We neither see the wisdom or expediency of our self-exportation from a land which has in great measure [been] enriched by our toil for generations, till we have a birth-right on the soil, and the strongest claims on the nation for the justice and equity which has been withheld from us for ages.” Abolitionist criticism, black military service, and the failure of his colonization schemes led Lincoln to abandon colonization and favor suffrage for black soldiers and the educated. In 1863 Delany was commissioned a major in the Union army. Garnet, who had tried unsuccessfully to solicit funds for emigration from Mitchell, became the first black man after emancipation to address Congress on Lincoln’s birthday. He was later appointed the American minister and consul general to Liberia and died shortly after arriving there in 1882.
The idea of black nationhood never completely died out among African Americans. In 1861 Crummell visited the United States. His speeches on Liberian emigration made a convert of Rev. Henry McNeal Turner, destined to become the major black spokesman for emigration in the post-Reconstruction South. Crummell, who made the reverse journey back to the States in 1872, became an intellectual idol of Du Bois, who wrote of the “world-wandering of a soul in search of itself.” Despite receiving a land grant in Lagos, Delany never returned to Africa, although he returned to advocating emigration after Reconstruction. After falling from grace for endorsing the Democrat and former Confederate Wade Hampton’s gubernatorial campaign in South Carolina, he was reduced to soliciting the “Office of Door Keeper of the US Senate.” He died in 1885. That year Crummell debated Douglass at Harper’s Ferry. Douglass wanted “black people to remember slavery and forget they were black,” while Crummell wanted them “to remember that they were black and forget slavery.”37
On the eve of the war the Republican Party appealed to the white majority even as the abolition movement made slave resistance its lodestar. Southerners connected the two, referring to Republicans as the “Brown-Helper” party, after John Brown and the North Carolinian critic of slavery Hinton Rowan Helper. Helper’s The Impending Crisis was a scathing economic indictment of slavery for oppressing nonslaveholding whites. During the congressional speakership controversy of 1859, Democrats blocked the election of any Republican who, like John Sherman, had endorsed the book. Abolitionists and Republicans appeared to slaveholders as an existential threat, inciting the subaltern classes of southern society, slaves and nonslaveholding whites. Helper’s antislavery morphed into a racist ethnic cleansing of the South after the war. He became a paranoid segregationist, advocating the deportation of the entire black population. Helper committed suicide in 1909.
Republican attempts to fashion itself as a “white man’s party” confused abolitionists. At the MASS meeting in 1859, Garrison opposed Pillsbury and Kelley Foster’s resolution characterizing the party as the biggest hindrance to emancipation. Garrison admitted that the party was a “heterogeneous coalition” but asked abolitionists to judge it not by abolition standards but by its commitment to free soil. Abolitionists who arraigned the party as proslavery, Garrison editorialized, lacked judgment and discernment. To Douglass, the Republican Party was the source of both hope for presenting the possibility of attacking slavery through mainstream politics and despair over its relatively backward position on racial equality. When New York went heavily Republican but defeated a black suffrage amendment, he complained that the “black baby of Negro suffrage was thought too ugly to exhibit on so grand an occasion.” Similarly, the Weekly Anglo-African noted, “Where it is clearly in their power to do anything for the oppressed colored man, why they are too nice, too conservative, to do it.” H. Ford Douglas criticized a party that “wants to make the Territories free” but was unwilling to give free blacks all their rights. But both he and Douglass, who loyally voted for Smith’s tiny abolitionist party rather than for Lincoln, recognized the “antislavery tendencies” of the party. Garrison as well, after criticizing the Republican Party for its “timeserving” tactics, avowed that it had “materials for growth.” Rock placed the party on a graded antislavery scale, with abolitionists at the forefront. According to Child, abolitionists constituted the “van” and the Republicans the rear of the antislavery movement.
The Republican Party, most abolitionists conceded, was antislavery, and radicals such as Owen Lovejoy and Sumner impressed them. Phillips pointed out that the radicals acknowledged the existence of slavery, not just its extension as a problem. Lovejoy, who was reelected to his congressional seat in 1858 by a huge majority, drew attention to the “Fanaticism of the Democratic Party,” its attempt to annex Cuba, reopen the slave trade, and extend slavery. The abolitionist press had publicized the very public instances of violation of the African slave trade laws in the lower south in the two years before the war and the aggressive nature of proslavery imperialism. Two years later Lovejoy delivered a speech in Congress in which he refused to “curse John Brown.” The speech nearly resulted in fisticuffs on the floor of the House, southerners calling Lovejoy a “nigger-stealing thief” for his well-known involvement in the UGRR.
Similarly, Sumner’s philippic “The Barbarism of Slavery,” delivered in the Senate, spoke the mind of most abolitionists. In response to proslavery assertions of the historical ubiquity of human bondage, Sumner deduced that slavery was a relic of “ancient barbarism” that must recede with the advance of human civilization. He rigorously critiqued the pretension of the “alleged inferiority of the African race,” reminding the Senate that Polish aristocrats used the same myths to justify the serfdom of their peasants. New threats of violence reached Sumner, and some men attempted to assault him again. Douglass wrote that Sumner had “exceeded our hopes and filled up the measure of all that we have long desired in Senatorial discussions of Slavery.” Letters of praise from Purvis, Still, Rock, Joshua B. Smith, and H. O. Wagoner came pouring in, and Frances Harper wrote an ode to the radical senator:
Thank God that thou hast spoken
Words earnest, true and brave;
The lightning of thy lips has smote
The fetters of the slave.
Thy words were not soft echoes,
Thy tones no siren song;
They fell as battle-axes
Upon our giant wrong.
The speeches of Lovejoy and Sumner embarrassed conservative Republicans, but they rallied abolitionists. Sumner attempted to rescind the racial restriction in the federal militia law at the request of his black constituents, foreshadowing his wartime and Reconstruction career as a champion of black equality. Giddings, who had challenged Phillips’s description of Lincoln as the “slave hound from Illinois” for his sanctioning of fugitive slave rendition, along with Lovejoy and Sumner, led most abolitionists into backing Lincoln. Sumner and Lovejoy became Lincoln’s confidantes, pressuring him to move on emancipation.38
Before the war Lincoln presented himself as an antislavery man who would do nothing to interfere with southern slavery. In his address of 1860 at Cooper Union in New York, he distanced Republicans from John Brown. He emphasized the constitutional nature of the free soil platform of the party. He agreed to speak at Beecher’s Brooklyn church, but the venue was changed at the last minute, possibly to avoid identification with the abolition movement. Lincoln argued that his party, unlike abolitionists, did not endorse slave insurrections. During the presidential elections of 1856 and 1860, slave conspiracy scares had cropped up, especially in Texas. Addressing southern fears, he contended that rebellions were usually not possible given slaves’ scattered locations, lack of communication, and the loyalty of the few who betrayed conspiracies. The Haitian Revolution had succeeded because of “exceptional” circumstances. And if slaves rebelled, it was their masters’ fault, whose loud mischaracterizations taught them to hope for the assistance of “Black Republicans.” Lincoln reiterated that the Republican program was eminently conservative and stood on the same ground as that of the founding fathers, that is, to restrict the expansion of slavery and let it continue in the states until they themselves decided to abolish it. The northern states, however, could not agree with the notion that slavery was right, even though they would honor constitutional compromises on slavery, and they would not impair the foundations of democratic government, free speech, civil liberties, and fair elections in order to perpetuate or expand slavery.
Lincoln’s candidacy was acceptable to all Republicans since Chase and Seward, with their support of fugitive slaves and black rights, were too closely identified with abolition to carry the lower north. He was everyone’s second choice. Lincoln shared the radicals’ moral abhorrence of slavery, the moderates’ reverence for the Union and the Constitution, and the conservatives’ pet project of colonization. The Republican platform of 1860 stuck to nonextension and, on Giddings’s suggestion, contained an endorsement of the Declaration, which had come under increasing proslavery criticism. It contained not a word on the divisive issues of black citizenship or colonization. The result of the four-way presidential election revealed sectional polarization but also unionist sentiment in the upper south. The South divided between a majority for the southern Democratic proslavery candidacy of John Breckinridge of Kentucky and the unionist ticket of John C. Bell of Tennessee and Massachusetts’s Edward Everett. A northern antislavery majority of over 50 percent elected Lincoln, who did not appear on the ballot in most southern states, garnering nonnegligible votes only in the nearly free state of Delaware and among Missouri free soilers. New Jersey split its electoral vote between the northern Democratic candidate, Douglas, and Lincoln. Ironically, Douglas only won Missouri, whose citizens had made a mockery of popular sovereignty in Kansas. Lincoln carried every county in the abolitionist heartland of New England and nearly all the northern states, and he received more votes than all three of his opponents combined.39 Abolitionists had sowed the seeds Republicans reaped. The northern antislavery majority that elected Lincoln to the presidency was the product of at least three decades of arduous and persistent abolitionist work.
All agreed that Lincoln’s election marked a historic turning point in the progress of antislavery. Chase declared, “The Slave Power is overthrown.” Douglass wrote that it had “vitiated” the slaveholders’ “authority, and broken their power” and “demonstrated the possibility of electing, if not an Abolitionist, at least an anti-slavery reputation to the Presidency.” Phillips enthused that for “the first time in our history the slave has chosen a President of the United States. We have passed the Rubicon.” Disunion soon followed Lincoln’s election, as the secessionist state par excellence, South Carolina, led the lower south out of the Union on December 20, 1860. Throughout the North abolitionists became victims of mob attacks led by conservative unionists who blamed them for secession. Garrison printed a book-length pamphlet on the “new reign of terror” in the South against suspected rebels and abolitionists after Brown’s raid, which had resulted in the expulsion of John G. Fee and his followers from Kentucky and continued until the presidential election and secession. Garrison distinguished between his revolutionary commitment to disunion, chiding Henry C. Wright and Greeley for advocating a peaceful separation, and southerners’ claim that the right to secession was a constitutional one. Everything changed with the firing on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. Four more upper south states seceded, and abolitionists were now seen as farseeing prophets. Rock speculated that out of the “rebellion for slavery . . . emancipation must spring.” Once again forced to choose between peace principles and abolition, Garrison and most abolitionists chose an antislavery war over a proslavery peace. Slaveholders, who refused to abide by the results of an election and fired the first shot, linked the cause of the slave with the survival of American democracy.40 They solved Lincoln’s dilemma: abolition, union, and the Constitution became compatible, not competing, values.
The Civil War, as Douglass insisted, was an “abolition war.” It proved to be the midwife of emancipation. Military emancipation, however, was far from being a foregone conclusion. Starting with the colonial wars and the American Revolution to the war between Brazil and Paraguay, military confrontations had not, after all, resulted in complete emancipation. The Haitian Revolution and the American Civil War were the only two wars that became unqualified abolition wars. Historical events seldom occur with an inexorable logic of their own. For wartime emancipation to occur, abolition must first be an option, and that option must be exercised. The slaves who defected to Union army lines initiated the process of emancipation, and their abolitionist and radical Republican allies enacted familiar roles, calling for abolition, black recruitment in the Union army, and, as uncompromising critics of gradualism, compensation and colonization. They helped make the Civil War into an abolition war, a “remorseless revolutionary struggle” against slavery. Lincoln did not move from Union to abolition but from nonextension to abolition. He achieved greatness by adopting the slave’s cause. Before his death, Lincoln inhabited abolition ground, the possibility of black citizenship. And just as the Gettysburg Address was his best articulation of the connection between the cause of the slave and American democracy, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address best defined the meaning of the abolition war: it would not end “until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn by the lash, shall be paid by another drawn by the sword.”
Wartime emancipation was not a singular event; it was a historical process that involved many actors, great and small, the enslaved, abolitionists, congressional Republicans, the Union army, and the president. Lincoln understood that process. Modestly, he claimed that events had ruled him and that he was merely the instrument of emancipation: “The logic and moral power of Garrison and the anti-slavery people of the country and the army, have done all.” Mindful of the history of the conflict over slavery, he had written before the war that every schoolboy recognized the names of Sharp and Wilberforce (at least they did then) but few could recall the names of their opponents. With the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 Lincoln was well on his way to becoming the Great Emancipator, and abolitionists, who had agitated so long for emancipation, the forgotten emancipationists. The slaves themselves lay forgotten as the architects of their own liberation.41