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

Article excerpt

Antislavery Violence: Sectional, Racial, and Cultural Conflict in Antebellum America. Edited by John R. McKivigan and Stanley Harrold. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1999. Pp. ix, 336. $30.00, cloth.)

Reviewing an anthology is very much like kissing your sister. It is something that you are called upon to do on more than one occasion, but it tends not to be fulfilling. The reason for this is simple: far too many collections are hastily put together with the slenderest of common themes running through them. The essays are usually uneven at best and it is inevitable that only a small number will standout as significant. The genesis for the volume under review was a panel discussion at the Southern Historical Association meeting in 1994 and the editors have sought, with success, to keep the theme of antebellum antislavery violence at the core of the book.

The emphasis of this collection of essays is that violence within the antislavery movement was not as unusual prior to the 1850s as hitherto believed; rather such violence was ingrained deep in American history and culture. Whereas previous volumes have tended to concentrate on how white, northeastern, professedly nonviolent abolitionists sometimes endorsed or engaged in violent action against slavery, this volume seeks to move beyond that emphasis to examine the role of antislavery violence in a wide array of regional, racial, ideological, and chronological contexts. The essays range in topics from southern slave rebels to Kansas antislavery women to violent slave rescues in Ohio to northern antislavery politicians. Indeed, as the editors write, "The great majority of [these) essays establish that antislavery violence served as a means of uniting slavery's black and white enemies. This observation contrasts with a long-standing tendency among historians of the antislavery movement to emphasize irreducible differences between black and white abolitionists" (p. 2).

The essayists make no critical judgment about the acts of political violence against slavery but, instead, "analyze that violence as a product of a particular time, culture, intellectual framework, and political environment. They aim to better understand an aspect of the antislavery struggle that has for many years intrigued students of the antebellum period" (pp. 22-23).

Carol Wilson, Chris Padgett, and John R. McKivigan examine antislavery groups committed to using violence against slavery and against Federal protection of slave-owning interests. Wilson studies northern black resistance to those groups who used the national fugitive slave laws to kidnap and enslave free blacks while Padgett demonstrates the willingness of northeastern Ohioans to rely upon mob action to thwart the enforcement of those laws. McKivigan examines the complex secret network maintained by John Brown's associates as they pondered an attack on the South in the aftermath of their leader's capture. James Brewer Stewart concludes that the violent antislavery rhetoric of Congressman Joshua R. …