Thursday, December 21, 2006
A Chapter from Revolutionary History: The Radical Abolitionist Party
A Struggle On All Fronts:
The Rise and Radicalism of Political Abolitionism
By Brad Duncan
In the summer of 1855 a couple hundred of the most seditious and radical agitators and
organizers in the United States gathered to form a new organization. These men and women
came together to build a political formation whose central aim was nothing short of the social,
political, and economic reorganization of American society. This new organization was named
the Radical Abolitionist Party and it stood for the immediate liberation of all human beings held
in bondage, the destruction of racial divisions at all levels of society, an end to women’s status as
second-class citizens, an end to the genocidal war against American Indians, and the
redistribution of resources and political power on a democratic basis. But foremost they sought
to contribute to the multifaceted, international movement against slavery.
Although politically groundbreaking, the Radical Abolitionist Party had many forerunners.
The Party’s founding in the summer of 1855 was another bold step in the long march of Radical
Political Abolitionism. They were Radical because they boldly proclaimed the nation’s need to
uproot the slave system and banish racism and social privilege. They were Political because
they believed one of the many ways that the power of slavery should be fought is with ballots
and to that end they attempted to build militant anti-slavery political parties. They were
Abolitionists because all this organizing, and agitating, and educating, and struggling was at the
service of the abolition of slavery.
Radical political abolitionists were boldly opposed to racism and exploitation in a time when
many people simply accepted the permanence of both. Radical political abolitionists parted ways
with their fellow radicals by embracing political parties. As the slave system became
increasingly aggressive in the 1850’s, Radical political abolitionists broke taboos about violence
and openly embraced John Brown and the idea of insurrection.
American Slavery and Its Ideology
Slavery, the brutal system of forced labor that was perpetrated against Africans, was at the
very core of the United States economy. Slaveholders, who accumulated wealth extracted from
the labor of African slaves, held in their hands an enormous amount of political power.
Slaveholders and their apologists held sway in the mainstream political parties, the Supreme
Court, and in the established media outlets. “Slave Power”, as the concentration of political
power in the hands of slaveholders was referred to by it’s critics, seemed to many Americans in
the first half of the 19th century to be too entrenched to ever be moved.
“The national tolerance of slavery becomes, of necessity, the national protection of slavery. If it is not to be treated as criminal, it is to be treated as innocent. And innocence is to be protected by government, of course. If slaveholding is not a crime to be suppressed, it is a natural right, as it is now claimed to be. And it is the business of government to protect natural rights.”
From the Proceedings of the Radical Abolitionist Convention, 1855 page 31
The same social system that fortified slavery in the Southern states, also helped maintain racist
oppression and exploitation of free Black people in the Northern states. The idea that white
people had an exclusive right to land, political franchise, and human dignity in turn fueled and
justified the continuous destruction of the indigenous nations of the Americas. White Supremacy
was a widely held, institutionalized, and state-approved set of beliefs in the early American
Opposition to slavery, the slave trade, and racism more generally existed in North America from the earliest days of colonization. Those who believed in racial equality or opposed slavery, including free Blacks and the slaves themselves, more often than not kept their mouths shut under fear of death. This cage started to crack late in the 18th century. Europe was beginning to shake with popular revolt and ideas like “liberty” and “freedom” were suddenly on a multitude of lips across the continent. This became the era of revolution. The Haitian Revolution began as a slave uprising and ended up collapsing French colonial rule in Haiti and established the first ever Black republic. It was a revolution that brought together the tradition of slave resistance and the republican ideas of the European and American Revolutions. Abolitionists sought to make use of the American Revolution’s leaders public declarations of “the rights of man” to propagate the abolitionist gospel.
One of first national political efforts organized by whites to address the issue of Black people in the United States was the American Colonization Society, which was founded in 1816. The Society believed that the best way to assist free Blacks in the North was to establish a colony in Africa and “encourage” them to move there. The ACS maintained that this scheme sought to address the plight of Blacks by offering them a chance at more freedom, but most Blacks thought it was simply an attempt to remove them from the country where they were born in order to quell anti-slavery sentiment (which was quite clearly strongest amongst Blacks) and hence keep the slave system going. Although the ACS briefly popularized the idea of “African colonization” as an answer to “the Negro question”, abolitionists and free Blacks never lent their support to the cause in large numbers. At it’s core, the ACS supported the idea that whites and Blacks, because of their organic inequality, could never live together without conflict.
Early Anti-Abolitionist Hysteria
Because of racist fear mongering by tabloid newspapers, politicians, and other apologists for slavery, fear of the abolitionist movement came to most communities in the United States long before the actual abolitionist movement did. There were riots against abolitionism even as the movement was in its infancy. Free Blacks in Northern cities often paid the highest price for these sporadic waves of public hysteria. Anti-abolitionist violence also regularly took the form of attacks on the abolitionist press. Mobs attacked printing houses and destroyed presses in the North, and a rumor of abolitionist pamphlets being secretly send by mail could lead to a burning post office in the South.
Central to the “nightmare scenario” fears instilled in white America was the idea that white opponents of slavery were in league with slaves planning revolts. In the minds of many white people, North and South, anti-slavery activists, free Blacks, and rebellious slaves formed a possibly seditious cocktail.
Garrison and the American Anti-Slavery Society
Organized abolitionism came to prominence with the rise of the American Anti-Slavery Society (AAS), founded in 1833. The AAS was formed by veteran reformers, some of who had previously been involved in temperance, feminism, and other social causes associated with the religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening (1820’s-1830’s). William Lloyd Garrison helped found the organization at the age of 25 and soon emerged as the group’s leading light, both as a confident propagandist and orator and as its key philosopher.
Garrison and the AAS popularized a handful of key ideas that would become core principles for a generation of anti-slavery activists to come. One was the idea that women are equal to men and therefore should play a role alongside men in the fight against slavery. Abolitionism recruited and maintained women cadres in great numbers and many of the movement’s most effective organizers were women. Another key idea pioneered by Garrison and the AAS was that the slaves should be freed immediately and without compensation; not gradually, not generations now, as was often suggested by whites professing concern for slaves. “Common sense” in the white America dictated that any change to the slave system (if indeed one was even necessary) would have to be a gradual transition, and a task best left to future generations at that. This argument always made sure to mention that slaveholders would somehow be compensated for their loss of property and wealth. Not only did Garrison advocate immediate emancipation but he mocked the idea that slaveholders, who had stolen people and then stolen the wealth of their labor, had any right to compensation. Nearly all of the key activists of the Radical Abolitionist Party from Gerrit Smith to Fredrick Douglas got their start in the AAS, as did thousands of other anti-slavery activists.
A key part of Garrison’s analysis of United States society was his belief that the established churches had been totally corrupted by the influence of slaveholders. As Christian institutions, churches should be a bulwark against the obvious sinfulness against slavery, Garrison argued. But because they consistently apologized for slavery Garrison maintained that churches were not an appropriate venue for abolitionist organizing. This put the AAS in a difficult position because so many of their members were active and devout Christians. Also problematic for many abolitionists was the AAS slogan “No Union With Slaveholders”, which was widely seen as advocating the dismemberment of the United States. Many people of anti-slavery opinion believed this would do nothing to help those in bondage, and moreover would probably extend the lifespan of the institution. For reasons similar to their refusal of work within existing churches, Garrison and the AAS rejected electoral organizing and party politics or indeed any kind of involvement with formal politics. Garrison believed that the US Constitution contained an essential compromise with slavery. In addition, Garrison argued, the main political parties were in bed with slaveholders and would not act to reform the system even if they could. For many of the organization’s formative years, Garrison also rejected violence or physical resistance as a means to fighting slavery.
So how did Garrison imagine ending slavery if not by politics and not by force? The answer
given in the AAS literature and repeated in a thousand speeches is simple: Moral Suasion.
Garrison preached that moral pressure, created by a rising tide of religion-inspired
humanitarian concern, would force slaveholders to give up their slaves. The public’s conscious
would be so stirred that slavery would have no choice but to collapse, Garrison argued.
`The Rise of Political Abolitionism:
The Liberty Party and the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society
There can be little doubt that Garrison and the AAS helped build the abolitionist movement’s
confidence and radical vision. His leadership and tactical choices also caused division within the
ranks. Eventually, the growing number of the abolitionists began to long for a political voice.
Although they may not win any elections at first, increasingly abolitionists, Black and white,
wanted to use political parties as vehicles of their fight against slavery. Many abolitionists felt
like simply evangelizing against slavery was not doing enough. Garrison hit back at those who
wondered what the AAS was really accomplishing. Here he attacks those amongst his critics
who argued that abolitionists needed a political voice:
It seems, then, according to this logic, that, until the present year, abolitionists have not acted,
but only talked; that, instead of having done their duty, they have only inculcated it upon
others; that, though it has been repeated declared, in the official publications of the American
and other anti-slavery societies, that our cause was making rapid advances, both morally and
politically, from year to year, it was nothing but ‘talk’, and that the only remedy for slavery is
the organization of a third political party!!
If this is not false –if it be not infatuation—if it be not clear evidence of lack of faith in the power
of the truth to overcome the evil that is in the world—if it is not a revocation and a rejection of
the doctrines of old organized abolitionism—then we are totally blind, and can no longer understand the meaning of language.
--William Lloyd Garrison, in The Liberator October 1840 page 73
In 1840 a large group of dissident AAS members and other activists left the Church of Garrison.
There were frustrations with his overbearing leadership style and his insistence on burning
bridges to the churches, but mostly the split was about political parties. The two organization
produced by the split were the Liberty Party and the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery
Society (AFAS). They set out to build a political movement squarely opposed to the mainstream
parties. The quote below, from the founding convention of a later radical political abolitionist
project, neatly sums up the Liberty Party (and later Radical Abolitionist Party) position on their
“The Whig and Democratic and Know-Nothing parties are each made up of slaveholders, as well as non-slaveholders; and hence, the condition of their continued existence is, that they shall not attack slavery. Members there are, of each of these parties, who are opposed to slavery. But for any one of these parties to assail slavery would be to dissolve itself.”
From the Proceedings of the Radical Abolitionist Convention, 1855 p 3
(The Liberty Party was the direct forerunner of the Radical Abolitionist Party)
The Liberty Party wanted to find the members “of each of these parties” and tell them they should join a real anti-slavery party.
The Liberty Party was the first political party to support immediate emancipation of all slaves and the first party to run Black candidates for office. Starting from their bases in the Midwest and upstate New York the Liberty Party set out to build a viable abolitionist electoral effort that made no compromise with slavery. Candidates would campaign on such issues as slave laws, the rights of free Blacks in the North, the slave trade: every facet of Slave Power could be challenged by grass roots candidates who pulled no punches.
Despite early enthusiasm for the projects by key leaders like Gerrit Smith and some important
Black radicals, the Party had a generation of anti-electoral prejudice to overcome. In the
editorial below, Garrison tries to skewer the move towards party organizing
“Jesus and his apostles had no political power –they sought none—they only ‘talked’ against idolatry, oppression and all iniquity, whether legalized or otherwise—they merely relied upon ‘the foolishness of preaching’—and yet they accomplished something for the world, even though they were not politicians and in despite of the political logic of the Friend of Man”
William Lloyd Garrison, from The Liberator
November 1840, p 175
But those that broke with Garrison imagined developing a movement of preaching and political power.
The American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Association was the Liberty Party’s sister organization. It was to be the campaigning organization: organizing speaking tours, publishing literature, engaging the public beyond elections, seeding new local efforts, and collaborating with anti-slavery and anti-racist movements and organizations in other countries. The AFAS was designed to develop abolitionist agitation in other spheres in society, including the potentially the churches. The Garrison tradition of not reaching out to organized religion was scrapped. Many activists in the Black community had long favored both political engagement where possible and an end to Garrison’s sectarian posture towards all churches. Eight of the American and Foreign Anti-slavery Society’s founders were free Blacks. Critically, all of these eight Black movement leaders were preachers or clergy.
One of these Black activists was the young preacher Henry Highland Garnet. At an 1843 National Negro Convention in upstate New York he welcomed the birth of the Liberty Party as a new tactic in the struggle. Garnet’s impatience with the pace of the anti-slavery movement was widespread. Garnet was among a section of Black abolitions whose calls for radical action were becoming more radical. His speech at the convention moved far beyond hailing the new party. Garnet told the audience that slaves in the South should organize a general strike against slavery. When the slaveholders moved to crush the strike, the slaves would rebel with full force. If a rebellion could last long enough to spread, it was argued, it would spread faster and authorities would be repelled. The audience cheered his plan. It was put forward as a resolution to the convention floor and lost by one vote.
For generations contact between the white-dominated abolitionist organizations (including the AAS and the Liberty Party/AFAS) and Black political organizations had been cordial but quite limited. In fact there was a whole network of Black political and social organizations across the country that the white-dominated abolitionist groups hardly knew about. These groups defended Black rights, organized protection from slave catchers and white violence, and provided much of the Underground Railroad’s infrastructure. Many prominent Black leaders looked to the Liberty party as a possible vehicle for increased collaboration with white anti-slavery activists.
The Liberty Party also attempted to popularize ideas like land reform, which was aimed at breaking up land monopolies. In their newspaper they championed the nascent labor movement in the major cities and attempted to connect the struggle against slaveholders with the struggle against ruthless industrialists. Although the Liberty Party ultimately never strayed too far from the issue of slavery, they attempted to articulate a radical egalitarian vision of America. For much of the 1840’s the Liberty Party experienced modest success. It brought up the issue of emancipation and Black rights in local and national elections like no party had before, even managing to win a few seats in New York and elsewhere. Most importantly, perhaps, the Liberty Party gave radical abolitionists confidence they could fight slavery in venues they had not previously fought in.
Although the growing crisis over slavery and expansion in the late 1840’s and early 1850’s was
pushing more and more Americans to be critical of slavery, hard-line abolitionists were still in
the minority. Additionally, there were still thousands of anti-slavery citizens who were, if not
AAS members, sympathetic to Garrison’s rejection of the party politics and therefore did not
vote at all. Most opponents of slavery in the 1840’s were still wedded to either the Whigs or the
Democrats and held out hope that those parties could be made to challenge slavery.
Lesser Evils: Rise of Free Soil Party
and the Challenge to Political Abolitionism
Although they can take credit for pioneering the bold idea of immediate emancipation at the
ballot box, the Liberty Party was soon upstaged by less radical anti-slavery groups. The Free
Soil Party was started at the end of 1847 by disgruntled members of the two mainstream
parties (Democrats and Whigs) along with members of the Liberty Party. After considerable
struggle to keep newly won Texas out of the hands of slaveholders, advocates of “free soil, free
labor” lost the battle and once again Slave Power marched westward. The ‘Wilmot Proviso’ was
an effort to block slavery’s extension into Texas or any land taken from Mexico, and despite
passing the House, it was defeated. This tear would lead to a serious split.
“Free Soil” advocates in both parties were disgusted with their party’s leadership. Anti-slavery Whigs could not believe their party had sunk so low, and anti-slavery Democrats were finally giving up hope of changing the party’s course. Under the banner “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Speech, and Free Men”, the Free Soil Party was founded in 1848 in New York. Anti-slavery Whigs (called “Conscience Whigs”), anti-slavery Democrats (who were allied with Martin Van Buren and were called “Barnburners”), and members of the Liberty Party were the three main constituencies at the party’s core. These three groups had some serious political differences between them.
Members of the Liberty Party had to compromise to get a place at the table. These former
Liberty Party members left the confines of hard abolitionism to work with people they thought
were way too moderate on the issue of slavery. The people they were now sharing a political
party with were against slavery’s expansion, but not necessarily for it’s immediate end as
Liberty Party veterans were. In fact, some Free Soil Party members wanted to keep slavery
out of the West for purely racist reasons: they wanted no Black people in the West period.
Others saw it less as an issue of racial justice and more an issue of protecting wage earners
against competition from chattel labor. The Free Soil Party was created to block Slave Power’s
geographic expansion, which meant many abolitionists were laboring to build a party that fell
significantly short of their aspirations. But they were hopeful the Free Soil Party could become a
real electoral force, whereas they saw the Liberty Party as just a protest party.
The Liberty Party Hangs On
Gerrit Smith was determined to keep the Liberty Party going regardless of the rise of the Free Soil Party. Those who remained in the Liberty Party saw the conflict over slavery was deepening. What the country needed was not a patched-together compromise, but a clarion call for liberation. The Liberty Party carried the torch for resolute abolitionism, hoping that this deepening national crisis would open up new opportunities for struggle. The Compromise of 1850, specifically the Fugitive Slave Law, proved to the remaining Liberty Party members that militant abolitionists still had a role to play. Anti-slavery sentiment was burning across the North and they hoped to fan the flames.
In the fall of 1851 the Fugitive Slave Law came to the Liberty Party’s upstate New York home turf. When federal marshals arrested an escaped slave name Jerry, local abolitionists stormed the prison, allowing him to escape. When Jerry was recaptured soon after, abolitionists rallied over two thousand people and surrounded the courthouse. Jerry was freed and spirited away to Canada. The federal government was publicly humiliated and Slave Power stung badly, and all at the hands of abolitionists willing to organize direct action against slavery. Gerrit Smith was at the center of the effort and made sure New York voters knew that voting for him at the polls was a show of solidarity with Jerry’s escape. The incident captured the imagination of anti-slavery force across the country.
The Republican Party
The political crisis that produced the Free Soil Party was still unfolding at the turn of the 1850’s. When Slave Power won the battle over Texas, anti-slavery forces from both parties and the Liberty Party initiated the Free Soil Party. When Slave Power imposed the Fugitive Slave Law and seemed poised to claim Kansas as well, the Free Soilers were joined by massive numbers of Northern Democrats and disgruntled Whigs and together they formed the Republican Party.
Political Abolitionists, anti-slavery voters, and free Blacks were thrilled that a new, stronger party—hated by slaveholders—was emerging across the North. But, like the Free Soil Party that preceded it, the Republican Party did not come out publicly for the abolition of slavery. There were certainly leaders of the party that were committed abolitionists. But what Republican founders all agreed on was the containment and regulation of the political and economic power of the slave system, and so that was the line put forward in party literature. Slavery was morally frowned upon in Republican literature, but Garrison-styled denunciations were plainly avoided. Could the Republican Party fight Slave Power and yet maintain an agnostic position on emancipation?
“The new [Republican] party, only a few months old, yet beginning to swallow up the older ones, encounters similar difficulties, becomes rotten before ripe, and declines before half reaching the meridian. A national party without a distinct creed on the slave question is becoming an acknowledged impossibility. Pro-slavery and anti-slavery can no longer live in the same party.”
From the Proceedings of the Radical Abolitionist Convention, 1855 Page 48
John Brown in Kansas
In 1854 politicians like Stephen Douglas said that the white male voters of Kansas should
determine whether or not slavery would be allowed in Kansas. Abolitionist saw this as
pandering to Slave Power, a shallow compromise designed to satisfy their expansionist aims.
War broke out in Kansas within a year of the infamous Kansas-Nebraska Act being signed.
Slaveholders organized and funded hundreds of armed men to invade the state, instruct the
locals how they were to vote, and make Kansas the latest installment in their empire of forced
labor. New York white abolitionist John Brown, his sons, and a small handful of anti-slavery
radicals set out to stop them.
Brown had longed to use violence against Slave Power. By the time he got to Kansas in the fall of 1855 (after receiving aid from his comrades at the Radical Abolitionist convention), Brown had already told Fredrick Douglas and others about his plans for organizing an armed slave insurrection. He had already essentially enlisted his sons into his private army, they had all trained with weapons for years, and they all understood that they were at war with slavery.
Radical Abolitionist Party Founders: James McCune Smith, Fredrick Douglass,Gerrit Smith:
Waging a campaign to repel pro-slavery movement into Kansas would accomplish two important things, Brown figured. Firstly, it would be a victory against the expansion of slavery in very concrete terms. Secondly it could help put abolitionists and anti-racists back on the offensive, and remind the public that struggle was possible. Five dark years after the signing of the hated Fugitive Slave Law, anti-slavery forces were increasingly looking for openings to push back. John Brown and his men wanted to show the world that anti-slavery forces could fight back and win.
The Radical Abolitionist Party Steps Forward
“Our undertaking, as Radical Political Abolitionists, is to remove slavery from the national territories by means of our national political power, and to remove it from the States also, by means of the same power, whenever the States shall themselves refuse to remove it. For the success of this undertaking, we must depend, under God, upon ourselves.”
from the Proceedings of the Radical Abolitionist
The founding convention was held in the anti-slavery heartland of upstate New York in the
summer of 1855. It brought together not just grass roots abolitionist militants, but also some of
the movement’s most respected (and feared) leaders. The convention was called by Gerrit
Smith, who for years had been buying land for free Blacks (many newly freed) to farm in
upstate New York. Smith’s farmlands in Peterboro and North Elba, New York were thriving
experiments in multi-racial communal living. Smith had spent most of his years in the
movement struggling to build the Liberty Party.
Also a leading force behind the party’s launch was Fredrick Douglas, whose position in the
movement was nothing less than the public face of Black protest in the United States. Douglas
was not just one of the movement’s most forceful and eloquent critics and speakers, he was
himself an escaped slave and his best-selling autobiographies had seriously contributed to the
growing public interest in the issue of slavery. But Douglas was also friendly with many in the
Free Soil and later Republican parties and it was not clear that he would stay with the much
smaller Radical Abolitionist Party forever. Douglas came to the movement through Garrison’s
AAS, and he still had long-standing working relationships with many in that group. His heart
was always with Gerrit Smith and the Radicals, but he was also a political personality that was
bigger than one small party with one small newspaper.
Lewis Tappan singed the call to found this new party and was involved in the convention.
Tappan was the anti-slavery veteran who was at the center of the Amistad court case fourteen
years earlier. That case had given anti-slavery activists everywhere a sense of hope that you
could fight slavery, defend rebellion, and win. Years earlier Tappan had been a co-founder of the
American Anti-Slavery Society along with William Goodell, who also lent early and enthusiastic
support to the new Party and was recruited to be Party Secretary. Goodell was a prolific and
uncompromising enemy of slavery, racism, and social caste who, like many of the party’s
founders, spent years trying to build an explicitly anti-slavery political party fully independent
of the mainstream parties. In recent years Tappan, Goodell, Douglas, James McCune Smith and
their comrades had seen many Liberty Party members desert the party in recent favor parties
that were in some way critical of slavery without explicitly condemning slavery. They saw the
founding of the new Radical Abolitionist Party as the alternative for those who sought no
compromise with Slave Power, either in the expanding West or in the heart of the South.
“The day of “compromises” with slavery has gone by, and can never return. Slavery itself abjures and repudiates compromise! The same Divine Providence that watched over the anti-slavery cause from the beginning, that shielded it from violence, that gave it utterance amid the strife of tongues, that pioneered and seconded its agitations and confirmed its testimonies by a series of startling disclosures, that led it out of obscurity into the daylight of national discussion,—that same Divine Providence, still ruling in the midst of its enemies, and confounding their counsels, has wrought out this DELIVERANCE FROM COMPROMISE, at a time when it was least expected, through instrumentalities that seemed most unpromising, and in a manner that, for a time, has shrouded the victory with the dark mantle of apparent defeat.”
From The Proceedings of the Radical Abolitionist Convention, 1855
With this position they sought to couple the struggle for political enfranchisement and social
liberation of free Blacks in the parts of the country where slavery had already been banned.
The man overseeing the proceedings and serving as emcee was James McCune Smith. Like
Douglas, McCune Smith’s name was synomous with the Black liberation struggle and defiance of
racism. When he discovered that no medical school in the United States would admit him as a
student because of his skin color he went to Scotland and attained a doctorate. By the time he
took to the podium at the Radical Abolitionist founding convention he had a national reputation
as a medical doctor, an ally of escaped slaves, and as Philadelphia’s most outspoken advocate of
the city’s free Black community. Also playing an important role at the convention was John
Brown, who had over the last decade corresponded and collaborated with many of the men that
he shared the podium with that weekend. As the 1850’s intensified, Brown emerged as the
leading practitioner of revolutionary physical force abolitionism. He came to the founding
convention of the Party looking for support for his efforts in Kansas.
The party was created in a time of crisis for abolitionists. From the slaveholder-financed gangs
fighting to make Kansas a slave state, to the influx into Northern states of armed slave catchers
escorted by Federal marshals as ushered in by the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, to the
increasingly bellicose pronouncements of slavery’s spokespeople, across the country “Slave
Power” was becoming more powerful and bold in the 1850’s. Abolitionists had been speaking
out and hurling critiques at this rising threat to liberty for decades, but their voices were
repeatedly drown out and their ability to organize stifled. If anti-slavery forces did not go on the
offensive immediately, Radical Abolitionists argued, Slave Power might snuff out their
"The expectation of enlisting larger numbers, by taking a moderate, middle course, has been disappointed. The attempt to organize a mere anti-Nebraska movement, being still more moderate, has still more signally failed. The public mind, though still hesitant, vague, indeterminate, and thoughtful, cannot be roused to action on half issues. It is waiting for something more. It is reserving its strength for an occasion worthy of being put forth. The slumbering Hercules will not be roused to the hunting of a fly—the pruning of a limb—the recovery of a lost fraction. BUT IT WILL BE ROUSED."
From the Proceedings of the Radical Abolitionist
Convention, 1855 Page 49
The Radical Abolitionist Party was a part of a broad, increasingly militant abolitionist movement
but was in many ways unique in that movement. Unlike some of their comrades in other
anti-slavery organizations, the Radical Abolitionist Party believed in a using a wide variety of
tactics in the fight against slavery. Central to their political position was the belief that slavery
had to be entirely done away with, not simply contained. This put them in sharp contrast with
the Republican Party. Radical Abolitionists did not want to trim the branches; they wanted to
pull up the root.
"That we, therefore, reject as useless, all schemes for limiting, localizing, confining, or ameliorating slavery—all plans for protecting the non-slaveholding States from the aggressions of slavery, and from the liability of becoming overspread and overborne [overwhelmed] by it—which do not look, directly, to the immediate and unconditional prohibition and suppression of slavery in all parts of the country."
From the Proceeding of the Radical Abolitionist Convention, 1855 p 87
They also strongly disagreed with Garrison who maintained that the political process was too
corrupted by slavery to participate in. They sought to reject the condescending racial
paternalism that was pervasive amongst white opponents of slavery at the time. The Radical
Abolitionist Party set out to include Black people as members, activists, and leaders. Members
of the Radical Abolitionist Party participated in the Underground Railroad at a time when some
white abolitionists feared it aggravated sectional tensions or was too risky.
They disagreed with the Free Soil and Republican goals of merely “resisting the encroachments
of slavery”. The only way to resist slavery was to end it once and for all, as explained below:
“Resolved, 1. That experience has now fully proved that there is no way to get rid of the evils of slavery, but by getting rid of the existence of slavery—no successful method of resisting the encroachments of slavery but by the overthrow of slavery—and no appropriate plan or measure for SECURING the abolition of slavery, but by ABOLISHING it.”
Resolution #1, from the Proceedings of the Radical Abolitionist Convention, 1955
They also advocated sweeping egalitarian land reforms and used the language of class struggle
at a time when some of the abolitionist movement’s important leaders and key financiers were
in opposition to these sentiments.
Resolved, That recognizing, as we do, the fact of MAN’S EQUALITY, as the foundation principle, which underlies the Anti-Slavery movement, we abhor, and will use our every effort to annihilate, that abominable spirit of caste
From the Proceedings of the Radical Abolitionist Convention,
1855 p 55
The Radicals were building on the work of the Liberty Party and other abolitionist groups by
attempting to connect with labor rights. Radical Abolitionists insisted that the struggle against
the tyrannical boss was linked to the struggle against the tyrannical master. Abolitionists
insisted that the struggle against slavery was the most urgent struggle facing the nation and this
did not always square with the priorities of urban labor leaders in the North.
They parted ways with much of the organized abolitionist movement in their open embrace of
physical violence as a tool for ending slavery. While some abolitionists silently supported armed
resistance in their hearts, few organized abolitionist
groups exclaimed their support for violent attacks on slavery so loudly. Pacifism was a widely
held tenant in abolitionist circles at the time, with Garrison as it’s leading radical advocate. At
the time of the Radical Abolitionist Party’s emergence John Brown was making a name for
himself battling pro-slavery forces in Kansas and was recruiting both Blacks and whites into an
anti-slavery guerrilla army. The Radical Abolitionist Party was very proud to count firebrand
Brown as a party supporter. Whenever Brown or his comrades addressed a Radical Abolitionist
Party meeting or convention, as they did repeatedly, they received overwhelming moral
support in addition to donations of cash and arms. Although they usually insisted they wished it
could be peaceful, Radical Abolitionists believed that the forced end of slavery would involve
bloodshed. Slavery, they argued, was itself a state of war.
Connecting with the Image of the Indian
In their writings, letters to each other, and in public writings, Radical Abolitionists celebrated the struggle of American Indians—or at least their romanticized image of American Indians. Historian John Stauffer looks at this issue extensively in his book The Black Hearts of Men (2001), which pays special attention to the bi-racial comradeship of James McCune Smith, Gerrit Smith, John Brown, and Fredrick Douglas. These men identified with the image of the Indian for divergent but related reasons. John Brown bragged that his skills shown in Kansas were learned growing up in Ohio with Indians. In Brown’s mind Indians represented cunning and bravery, qualities he longed for the abolitionist movement to show more of. Fredrick Douglas imagined Indians as rebels against white racism. Both McCune Smith and Brown saw Indians as people who first and foremost knew how to deal with oppression—make war on the oppressors. Stauffer points out that these radicals knew the difference between their fantasy of American Indians (constant sublime resistance) and the reality (broken treaties, death). But Indians nonetheless remained a powerful image of righteous struggle against all odds to men like Douglas and Brown.
Preparing for Insurrection
John Brown was serious about his plans to lead an armed slave insurrection. He had been telling Fredrick Douglas of his plans since the two first met at an abolitionist house in upstate New York in the late 1840’s. He had told McCune Smith of his plans too, and Gerrit Smith agreed to help sponsor. Douglas was sympathetic to Brown’s intentions, but always played devil’s advocate in their conversations about the plan. Douglas argued that the plan could trigger horrific retaliation against the slave population, or harsh repression against the abolitionist movement (which was already plenty repressed), or both. Brown was not afraid of his actions bringing down repression because he was confident the movement would surge forward even if the raid itself failed.
The plan seemed plenty daring: Brown and his recruits would take over a federal armory, steal the weapons, and escape to the hills where the process of running off slaves from nearby plantations would begin. As newly escaped slaves amassed in the mountains, Brown’s army, now doubly reinforced, would organize them and distribute pikes. Dividing themselves into flying columns, Brown’s swarming fugitive army would cut a river of escape through the mountains leading North. As rumor spread, more slaves would rebel which would give courage to more rebellions. White militias and state forces would of course try desperately to suppress the rising, but a guerrilla force operating in small cells deep in the mountains is a hard force to pin down. Brown knew the history of escaped slave communities, he knew there had been maroon communities that had escaped white society, and he hoped that his raid would tap into this tradition of resistance. Brown also anticipated solidarity risings in the North. Once the façade of slavery’s invincibility was cracked, the walls would come down.
Although Douglas had always been skeptical of the specifics of Brown’s plan, Brown continued to
urge Douglas to get involved right up to the raid in 1859. Brown imagined using Douglas’
organizing and communication skills to quickly shape freed slaves into a resistance force. Brown
wanted Douglas to be his liaison to the newly freed slaves. Harriet Tubman actually agreed to
participate. She had been corresponding with Brown and he had high hopes she could connect
him with more Blacks sympathetic to a planned rising. She became ill and lost touch with Brown
the week before he was set to attack the arsenal. Brown had been in the area of Harper’s Ferry
for weeks planning the attack on the armory before October 16th. He and his men had made
some contact with local slaves and revealed to them the plan. They knew these efforts to
canvass local slaves had not been extensive enough, but they were confident that local slaves
knew and were ready to rally to the standard. They did not rally to the standard as Brown had
hoped. After 36 hours of fighting John Brown and his inter-racial band of radical abolitionists
surrendered to federal authorities.
White Southerners were not surprised that someone like John Brown would attack a federal armory, newspapers had been telling them to expect that for ages. What surprised Southern whites and indeed many in the North was the incredibly outpouring of support for Brown’s actions shown in cities across the North. Massive rallies and meetings in Boston and New York and Syracuse and Philadelphia cheered him as a freedom fighter.
After the Rising
“And, therefore, while the specific action of Brown at Harper’s Ferry was insane, the controlling motive of this demonstration was sublime.
While it is the duty of the slave patiently to endure his lot so long as he sees no way out of it, is it wrong for him when, by swiftness of foot or strength of arm, he can seize the opportunity of freedom, to use it rather? Is it wrong in the sight of God for any man to help him in this by peaceable means? While the oppressed must suffer patiently so long as there is no hope of redress, it is wrong for the, when there is a reasonable prospect of success, to rise to achieve their own emancipation?
From The Liberator, December 1859 page 190
For the most part, the abolitionist movement was absolutely electrified by Brown’s raid. The Radical Abolitionist Party, on the other hand, was essentially destroyed by the raid. Gerrit Smith, who had been in on the plan and had been funding Brown the whole time, suffered a nervous breakdown. After a lifetime of ever increasing activity and militancy, Smith fell back to earth with burned wings. Douglas was widely suspected in the newspapers of being behind the plan. Douglas, of course, lied to journalists and said he had never heard of the plan. Douglas then left for Britain. Although anti-slavery sentiment was boiling over everywhere, those closest to Brown were laying low.
The Liberator had always condemned Brown’s tactics on pacifist grounds, but they could not deny that Brown was of their movement and spoke for many abolitionists. Though they ridiculed his poor planning and romanticism, The Liberator realized John Brown’s execution ushered in a new period of struggle against slavery. And, ultimately, it would be the slave system that would be tried and hanged.
Not John Brown but Slavery will be gibbeted, when he hangs upon the gallows. Slavery itself will receive the scorn and execration it has invoked for him. That execution will strengthen and consolidate the feeling of the North in determined and irrepressible hatred of the barbarism that makes traitors and criminals of those who seek to deliver the oppressed
From The Liberator, December 1859
After extolling all that his brave actions and impending execution brought to the movement,
The Liberator turned more introspective and self-critical as the day of the execution arrived.
Garrison is melancholy as he meditates on what rising against slavery really means. Here he
recognizes that his movement contributed to the emergence of John Brown and wonders what
other dark implications might come from his work:
In accordance with this recommendation, circulars have been distributed over the country, suggesting to the friends of abolition everywhere—in all the cities and towns of the North, to have the bells tolled for an hour publicly on Friday, the second of December. This is Boston abolition philanthropy. Through the instigation of the Anti-Slavery fanatics preaching resistance to the laws as a religious duty, crazy old Brown and a half dozen insensate vagabonds like himself, have got their necks in nooses, and the Anti-Slavery Society having push them into this strait, have nothing better for their relief than going through the melancholy farce of ‘tolling bells for an hour’, while outraged laws are choking the poor dupes of their wicked folly of death.
It must be highly gratifying to Brown and his associates, and deeply consolatory to their unfortunate and distressed families, to know that these men go ignominiously out of the world, while the instigators of the mischief for which they died are making a general clamor over their victims for the ‘good of the cause’. A more heartless farce over a sad tragedy could not be performed. But it is of a piece with the sympathy and philanthropy, which teach that, to free the Negro, it is necessary to cut his master’s throat. To change the condition of three millions of slave to one where starvation is assed to degradation, it is necessary to stir up the embers of civil war among thirty millions of free men, and drench the country in blood from one end to another.
William Lloyd Garrison, in The Liberator
December 2nd, 1859
(The day of John Brown’s execution)
By the elections of 1860, the Republican Party looked ready to take power nationally. Fredrick Douglas pledged his support to the Republican’s candidate, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was no abolitionist, as every Radical knew. But he was hated by slaveholders (who saw little difference between Lincoln and John Brown) and stood a solid chance to winning the presidency. The Radical Abolitionist Party watched most of its’ members support the Republican Party in 1860
Radical Political Abolitionists seeded political opposition to slavery at a time when slavery’s power was growing. They were the first US party to run a Black person for office, and the first Black person elected in the US was a Liberty Party member. As Slave Power expanded its’ influence, the political abolitionists became more and more radical. With the founding of the Radical Abolitionist Party, this current had fully blossomed into a political movement that defied mainstream US society in every imaginable way.
“To the Radical Political Abolitionists:
WE are few but we are not, therefore, to cease from our work. Work for a good cause, be that cause popular or unpopular, must be work to the end.”
From the Proceedings of the Radical Abolitionist Party, 1855