The Organic Intellectual

If our greatest task is to liberate humanity, as Paulo Freire asserts, then it is absolutely essential that we create a culture of resistance from below that is able not only to counter, but transcend the limitations of the ruling culture imposed by above. Hopefully, The Organic Intellectual will help serve this purpose.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Critical Review of the Abolitionist Movement

Any movement that adopts as its major objective the overthrow of a chief existing institution, the state apparatus, or the class and social relationships stemming from those institutions, is naturally a radical movement; thus, the abolitionist movement was, without doubt, a radical movement. The general thrust of the abolitionist movement was one of radical change. It should be mentioned, however, that not every individual and group involved in the abolitionist movement was a radical; even more, many of them were often plagued by the foulest racism and conservative political and economic tendencies. Some who seek to analyze things in a linear manner, through a “left-right” paradigm, will attempt to isolate certain figures, groups, or ideologies and place them somewhere along this concocted political line. Those further on the left are considered more radical, and those closer to the center, less radical. More often than not this becomes an arbitrary, academic debate which does little to clarify each individual, group, etc., considering one may adopt a “radical” position which another individual or group rejects, and vice versa. Thus, simply drawing a line of measurement of their “radicalism” in order to place figures here or there can lead to confusion and historical inaccuracy.

A more appropriate analysis would consist of accepting the fundamental concept of the abolitionist movement as radical (as its aim was to overthrow the existing state, social, and political institution of slavery, the backbone of the South) and analyzing each individual and group position in a larger context. It should be noted that each character and faction claimed some positions that could be considered radical and others that were far from it. Thus, to fully understand the often radical elements of the movement, and likewise the conservative elements, each leading character and group must be analyzed based upon their stances on a few key issues: their dedication to the cause, the desired quickness of the transition, the reason for wanting abolition, the level of belief in racial equality, their position on violence, and finally their relationship to other nascent reform movements. One will find, after looking at the various elements within the abolitionist movement, that despite some of the shortcomings and atrocious views of certain abolitionists, that overall the movement was a radical one.

It is obvious that the institution of slavery was one of terrific oppression, hostile dominance, excessive brutality, and cruelty. It is equally obvious that society remains with horrendous remnants of the institution such as massive inequality and extensive racism. Slavery was a vast and powerful institution that was deeply saturated into every realm of society on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, although its barbaric clutch remained upon the South until the very end. As it was so deeply rooted in society at the time, agitation against it was often ill received and sometimes dangerous. Thus, by the very act of coming out against it and in favor of abolition, one could find themselves ousted from social circles, discriminated against, attacked, or killed. Especially in the early part of the 19th century, before abolition had become a national political debate, abolitionists could likely find themselves the target of a mob or hostile townspeople. Therefore, it is safe to say that speaking against such an overarching and colossal institution was a radical step, even if the steps taken against it or the conclusions one came to about how to end it were conservative.

One of the first nascent forms of abolitionism promoted was that of the American Colonization Society. The approach they took to the issue was probably the most conservative and racist of all abolitionist groups. The organization was mostly white, mostly conservative, and often filled with vile racists who were keen to adhere to the pseudo-science of white racial superiority at the time. They desired to make Liberia into a colony for the slaves of America to return to. Likewise, they focused on “Christianization and civilization” for those being sent to Africa in hopes that Christianity would then spread through these black colonists to other parts of the continent. They planned a gradual emancipation which did nothing for those in slavery who could not escape on their own. In other words, “we’ll try to get you out of slavery in the next hundred years or so, but first you have to read this book, believe in our god, preach our religion, get away from us good white folk, and go live in a place where you don’t know the language and have never step foot on before.” Needless to say, the vast majority of blacks were not very partial to this plan. Despite a few black figureheads, it was dominated by a white leadership who seemed to care very little for the well-being of blacks and instead for their own political, social, and economic interests. It is apparent that by far, the American Colonization Society was the most conservative, least influential, and highly racist abolitionist organization to exist.

The next organization which played a larger part in the abolitionist struggle was the American Anti-Slavery Society. Begun in 1833, the original group who started the AASS was composed of “Garrisonian abolitionists,” (followers of William Lloyd Garrison) or those who desired an end to slavery though moral conversion of the majority of the people rather than through violent or political means. Despite this, the group consisted of a wide range of figures with various political and social positions. The AASS is much harder to define in terms of radical or conservative, mostly because it consisted of so many people with conflicting ideas. Some within the movement may have been infected with the view of racial inferiority among blacks. Others, like Garrison, fought tirelessly against the idea that blacks were inferior to whites. A split occurred in 1840, just before the World Anti-Slavery convention in London, between the “moral suasonists” and political abolitionists. At the conference, an even larger rift when the convention organizers refused to seat women delegates. Garrison, a staunch proponent of women's right, joined the women delegates in protest in their section rather than sit with the men. This highlights, more than anything, how certain characters in particular organizations could be rather radical while other leaders remained less so. A look at a few key individuals, reformers such as Garrison and Douglass, and militant revolutionaries like Nat Turner and John Brown, will outline how the distinction between radical and conservative can very easily become blurred. A host of contradictions were present in each, rendering them conservative in some ways and radical in others.

Garrison, who, aside from being one of the most important players in the AASS, also founded The Liberator, an abolitionist agitation newspaper. He was one of the most outspoken and direct critics of the institution of slavery. Based on moral principles which he often derived from scripture, he vehemently attacked slavery, racism, women’s inequality, and colonization schemes. His belief was that both violent and political means of ending slavery were useless and his preferred method, “moral suasion,” was what would lead a sort of moral revolution and change the hearts of white Americans. Therein lies the very contradictions which are so often present in radical reformers; namely, he desired an immediate emancipation but only through (slow-working) moral perseverance and agitation, in his opinion, would emancipation occur. Garrison, despite all his fiery rhetoric and blanket condemnation of political rivals, had very few concrete steps and serious suggestions for how to combat such a horrendous institution. Undoubtedly, education and moral argument can be strong motivators, yet, completely relying on them and throwing away two key valuable weapons (political reform and violent means) severely limits the effectiveness of one’s agitation work. Thus, Garrison’s rhetoric was often radical, yet his outlined plan of action was left lacking. This gap between words and action stemmed partly from his religious conservatism (which was also a main source of his inspiration, yet another contradiction) and “nonresistance” ideology. Likewise, his dedication to racial equality and women’s rights was both inspiring and radical, yet his condemnation of the labor movement was equally disturbing and reactionary. Therefore, one cannot simply align Garrison on one side of the political spectrum, but instead each issue must be looked at separately.

Frederick Douglass, a runaway slave who met up with Garrison early in his abolitionist career, soon began to take a turn away from Garrison’s anti-political stance. Unlike Garrison, Douglass contended that political reform was an important tool in the fight against slavery. His understanding of race relations, and how the wealthy slave owners exploited both the black slaves and the poor whites, is a lesson radical activists can still learn from today. Like Garrison, he fought for women’s rights, especially early in his career, and was one of the first signers of the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments (a women’s rights declaration based on the Declaration of Independence), despite shying away from the issue later in his life. Douglass quickly became an integral part of the system, serving in government and directing his life toward political work. One of his main contentions with Garrison was over the constitution; Garrison held that the constitution was a pro-slavery document (citing extensive evidence such as the 3/5ths and insurrection clauses among others) while Douglass defended the constitution and argued that it instead gave rhetoric and backing to the anti-slavery cause, apparently failing to take into account that a majority of the framers were slave-holders with prodigious interests in protecting the institution. Like Garrison, Douglass also has a clash of thought and action. He did not shy away from his support of insurrection, and similarly spoke of the time he beat a slave-breaker in a fight, explicating the “cleansing” utility of violence. Yet, when the time came for him to take part in John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, Douglass withheld support and used his prestige among other abolitionists to keep them from joining Brown. After the act was done and Brown was hanged, Douglass wrote of his own cowardice and his admiration for the failed insurrection. Again it appears that one cannot simply pin Douglass down as a radical or a conservative; he is instead composed of a myriad of positions, sometimes seamlessly fitting in to his radical persona while at other times clashing against it and withdrawing him from radical political endeavors.

The last two figures, both militants who attempted to lead a slave revolution, must be juxtaposed to fully comprehend the radical militant abolitionists. Both men attempted to overthrow the enormous institution of slavery through violent means where others had simply relied on political legislation and moral persuasion. They both wished for the rebellion to spread through plantations all across the South in hopes that the entire institution would be smashed. Nat Turner wanted to lead a slave uprising lead by himself, a slave, and comprised of slaves. John Brown desired a slave rebellion, once again lead by himself, composed of both slaves and abolitionists of all colors. Nat Turner and his slave army moved quickly from place to place, freeing slaves wherever possible and killing white overseers and children alike. John Brown holed himself and his band of militant followers up in Harper’s Ferry in an attempt to control the weapon’s arsenal there. Turner and his band continued to move until finally they were overcome by white militias, culminating in a devastating battle between the escaped men and the white mobs where finally his rebellion was crushed. Brown’s indecisiveness, and his failure to listen to some of his comrades who wished to retreat to the hills, lead to the destruction of his grand plan of supplying weapons to local slaves. Likewise, both uprisings were crushed and both Turner and Brown, along with many of their freedom fighters, were executed.

The militancy displayed by both groups was beyond a doubt radical. The underlying cause of their fight, the emancipation of all slaves, and destruction of the system which enslaved them were as radical demands as one can wish for. Some of their decisions and actions, however, were not so radical. Although morally debatable, Turner’s policy of unconditional death for all whites is not something to be cherished (for instance, the many white children who were slaughtered) yet condemning him for simply reversing the policy of the white slave master is rather hard to do. One journal claims, however, that this indiscriminate policy toward whites was only something Turner had to resort to at first to “strike terror” into the hearts of whites and planned to be abandoned once they gained a foothold. Likewise, some sources claim he spared the hovels of some poor whites, knowing that they were forced to endure squalor and poverty much like the slave, although they simply lived “freely” in misery. The moral battles which raged inside Turner must have been enormous, yet a policy of indiscriminate killing, regardless of the circumstances, is not something one can easily label as radical, but is instead rather reactionary. Brown, on the other hand, displayed a very radical outlook concerning his idea for a united uprising of black slaves, black free men, and abolitionists of all colors. At the same time, evidence has circulated which shows he may have been somewhat of a “racialist,” or, simply, assumed that his leadership would be superior to black leadership due to some innate ability in whites to lead and distrust of blacks handling important duties. Likewise, his conservative leadership upon taking the arsenal and failing to retreat to the hills for protection remains the foremost factor in the group’s defeat. Once again, the balance between radical motives and conservative (or reactionary) acts play a part in analyzing the role of militant abolitionists.

Of the various methods, tactics, and strategies employed in the abolitionist movement, it is rather difficult to defend a specific position which would work best today. The three major abolitionists themes are political action, “moral suasion,” and violent uprisings. Every situation, every country, region, and city have a range of variables and conditions which define their historical and material level of development. These factors play a gigantic role which method may be most suitable. Assuming that an institution the size of slavery must be overthrown (for instance, the much more expansive system of “capitalism” adopted in most 1st world nations), a mix of many tactics must be employed in order to most efficiently bring down the system. Political legislation is useful in bringing about small reforms which may buy time or give the people (generally, working-class people) more time to organize and better conditions under which to do so. Many must be morally convinced of the inferiority of the established social order and thus, “moral suasion” is a valid tactic. Violence may also be necessary to take control of the political, social, and economic machinery in order to dismantle the system. Likewise, violence in defense of economic and social gains is a very serious possibility. Ultimately, as with the case of slavery, it took a civil war to finish what the abolitionists started. It appears rather na├»ve, however, to assume that only one option is the key to liberation. Each specific instance requires the movement to be flexible and dependent on the multitude of possible variables which impact a particular scenario and the vitality of the movement challenging the system. Overthrowing such an established institution may require all three techniques and simply adhering to one or throwing away options will render a movement useless in the face of a constantly changing, consistently adapting, and monstrously large enemy.

The abolitionist movement is, without a doubt, one of the most radical and inspiring events to take place in the history of the United States. It far outweighs the radicalism of the American Revolution and many other historically significant events. It brought an end to a system of the most intense brutality. It did not, however, bring true freedom and equality to all people. Many of the effects of slavery still exist in society today, taking on other forms or being skillfully hidden so as no connection is made apparent. The death of slavery punctured the heart of a corrupt, oppressive system. It took radicals from all walks of life whom, despite their sometimes conservative shortcomings, fought desperately for the abolition of a system they viewed as incompatible with humanity. The abolitionist movement supplies today’s activists with a plethora of lessons to be learned. Radicals who wish to carry on the cause of equality and justice have a far way to go, but looking to radical movements of the past is necessary to help create the radical change one wishes to see today.

Works Cited

Cain, William E., William Lloyd Garrison and the Fight against Slavery (Boston: St. Martin’s Press, 1995).

Oates, Stephen. "Children of Darkness" (American Heritage Magazine).

Pope, Daniel, American Radicalism (Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 2001).

Richmond Enquirer, November 8, 1831, quoted in Herbert Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolt (New York: Intenational Publishers, 1993), 299.

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