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Antislavery Violence: Sectional Racial and Cultural Conflict in Antebellum America.

John R. McKivigan and Stanley Harrold, Editors. Antislavery Violence: Sectional Racial and Cultural Conflict in Antebellum America. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1999. Pp. ix, 322.

Originating from a session at the 1994 Southern Historical Association, Antislavery Violence addresses the use of violence by slaves and abolitionists during the antebellum period. Inspired by earlier studies such as Herbert Aptheker's 1943 American Negro Slave Revolts, the book asserts that antislavery violence united black and white enemies of the system, and lay deep in American History and culture (2). Divided into two parts, the first five essays address slave revolts, and self defense by fugitive slaves and free blacks. The remaining five essays discuss antislavery violence and rhetoric by white abolitionists. The result is a book that presents a picture of an antislavery movement that was fought on various fronts and emphasized interracial cooperation, self-defense, and necessary violence to defeat slavery.

Antislavery Violence dispels any myths about slave passivity by shrewdly beginning with the discussion of slave rebellions. Douglas R. Egerton's essay affirms that the 1791 Slave Rebellion in Saint Domingue inspired a series of rebellions in Virginia, culminating in the infamous slave rebellion in 1800 led by the slave Gabriel. "For black Virginians, determined to fulfill the egalitarian promise of the American Revolution," states Egerton, "the news from the Caribbean reminded them that if they dared, the death of slavery might be within their reach (41). Edgerton vividly recalls details of Gabriel's rebellion from its plot to kidnap then Governor James Monroe and the Virginia state legislature to his capture, trial, and execution.

Junius Rodriguez examines the dramatic but rarely mentioned 1811 Louisiana Slave Rebellion. Led by mulatto slave driver Charles Deslondes, a group of slaves numbering 180 to 500 rebelled and destroyed several plantations along the Mississippi River 40 miles below New Orleans. Fearing an attack of the city, U.S. troops were dispatched and brutally suppressed the rebellion. Two whites and a slave were killed in the rebellion, whereupon U.S. troops and executions resulted in 150 rebels dead. Once again, the 1791 Saint Domingue revolt is mentioned as a motivating factor for the rebellion: "Ideas of rebellion, imported from Santo Domingo, inspired slaves who rose in rebellion (82)."

Carol Wilson's essay discusses the assertive role Northern free blacks and fugitive slaves took to protect themselves from slaveholders emboldened by the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. Free blacks in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston formed vigilance committees that used the law and, if necessary, violence to prevent kidnappings. Fugitive slaves confronted by pursuing masters and the law used violence to prevent their return to slavery. One example mentioned is the 1851 Christiana (Pa.) Riot, where a group of fugitive slaves and their defenders violently clashed and killed their former master. The group fled and escaped to Canada with the assistance of Frederick Douglass in Rochester, New York (122).

Part Two, "White Abolitionists and Violent Means," asserts by its title that some whites that abhorred slavery considered violence. The five remaining essays discuss the actions of those who fought against slavery regardless of public ridicule or threat of violence. James Brewer Stewart's discussion of Joshua Giddings is one example.

Serving as a House representative from Northeast Ohio, Giddings defied his fellow Southern congressmen by speaking out against slavery, and advocated free blacks and slaves defending themselves from slaveholders. Incensed by Giddings's speeches, Southern congressmen resorted to violence to silence him. Several times he was assaulted, once with a bowie knife, his life was threatened, and oftentimes was ridiculed (181). Nonetheless, Giddings stood steadfast and continued on his crusade against slavery before retiring in 1858 after twenty years in Congress.

Kristen A Tegtmeier takes a unique look at the antislavery conflict by examining gender issues in the "Bleeding Kansas" conflict of 1856. As "Border Ruffians" poured into Kansas from Missouri, many "Free Soil" men went to defend their beliefs and homes, leaving free soil women at home alone. As word of atrocities against free soil women from proslavery raids trickled back home, many women realized that violence in the name of self-defense was necessary. Consequently, according to Tegtmeier, "many women actively engaged themselves in the process of self-protection, thus openly challenging accepted gender norms (220)."

Lastly, John R. McKivigan's essay addresses the antislavery activities of the surviving members of John Brown's Raid. Stating that previous studies end with the execution of John Brown, the author asserts that Brown's spirit continued with the remaining members. When the Civil War started, many enlisted for Union service and became officers. Thomas Wentworth Higginson and James Montgomery rose to brigadier general and headed all-black units. John Brown Jr., served as a captain before he resigned because of poor health (288).

Antislavery Violence, overall, is an eclectic collection of well-researched and detailed essays that illuminate the role violence played in the fight against slavery. Each author stays loyal to the book's thesis and presents a detailed, clear analysis. Most important, the articles demonstrate that slaves were not passive characters in their fight for freedom and white abolitionists supported the use of violence in self defense. McKivigan's and Harrold's compilation is particularly useful for scholars of antebellum slavery.
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Author:Williams, Oscar
Publication:Afro-Americans in New York Life and History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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