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

By Bruce, Dickson D. JR. | The Journal of Southern History, August 2001 | Go to article overview

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


Bruce, Dickson D. JR., The Journal of Southern History


Antislavery Violence: Sectional, Racial, and Cultural Conflict in Antebellum America. Edited by John R. McKivigan and Stanley Harrold. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, c. 1999. Pp. [x], 322. $30.00, ISBN 1-57233-059-7.)

The essays collected in Antislavery Violence comprise an important addition to the scholarship on abolition. Dedicated, appropriately, to Herbert Aptheker, the volume should lead readers to appreciate more fully the role of violence in abolition, both as a dimension of antislavery thought and as a practical, organizing factor in the movement itself. The volume begins with a fine introduction providing an overview of the existing scholarship on anti-slavery violence, as well as an account of the historical role of violence in abolition. The subsequent essays then consider the topic from a variety of angles. Two, by Douglas Egerton and Junius Rodriguez, examine early nineteenth-century slave revolts and document the influence of the Haitian Revolution on slaves and slaveholders alike. Essays by James Brewer Stewart and Chris Padgett then focus on Ohio abolitionists, especially the fiery Ohio congressman Joshua Giddings, to illustrate an openness to antislavery violence, including slave revolt, sharply at odds with a view of abolition that mainly emphasizes Garrisonian themes of nonresistance. Complementing Padgett's piece in particular, Carol Wilson's essay shows how violent resistance to the kidnapping of accused fugitives--much of it involving black "vigilance committees"--helped to galvanize antislavery sentiment while encouraging the movement as a whole toward a more violent position.

Several of the essays also help to root abolitionist ideas in a larger cultural framework. Stanley Harrold and John Stauffer use literary evidence to draw important connections between abolitionist ideas about violence and abolitionists' views of manhood. In doing so, they emphasize that, for all their radicalism, abolitionists themselves were far from immune to primitivist, romantic notions widely diffused in mid-nineteenth-century American culture. Kristen A. Tegtmeier similarly looks at women's roles in the Kansas civil war to show how important questions about mid-nineteenth-century gender conventions were raised by connections the crisis created between antislavery warfare and antislavery ideas. Finally, two valuable case studies by James H. Cook and John McKivigan analyze the surprisingly complex role of violence in the career of Frederick Douglass and in abolitionists' responses to John Brown's Harpers Ferry raid. …

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