Tomek on Carter Jackson, 'Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence'

Kellie Carter Jackson. Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence. America in the Nineteenth Century. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020. 225 pp. $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8122-2470-2

Reviewed by Beverly Tomek (University of Houston-Victoria)
Published on H-Nationalism (November, 2022)
Commissioned by Evan C. Rothera (University of Arkansas - Fort Smith)

Printable Version:

Over a decade ago, historian Steven Hahn suggested that we consider the possibility that the US Civil War may have included a massive slave rebellion.[1] Since that time, most historians have generally come to accept, and to expand upon, the importance of black Americans’ efforts not only in winning that war but also in transforming what began as a war to save the Union into a war to end human bondage in the United States. A decade after Hahn’s call to reconsider the centrality of black agency in the conflict, Kellie Carter Jackson has contributed richly to that assessment by taking the analysis of black Americans and their use of what she calls “political violence” further back in time. In Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence, Carter Jackson traces the role of violence in the black abolitionist movement from the beginning of the nineteenth century through the Civil War to illustrate that, though they were willing to give Garrisonian moral suasion a try, black abolitionists realized all along that true freedom—emancipation coupled with equality—would require the use of self-defense and political violence.

Political violence is a central concept in Force and Freedom. Carter Jackson defines this term as “forceful or deadly acts that operate around a political agenda or motivation to produce change” (p. 4). She explains that leaders of slave rebellions and black abolitionists alike were acting in political roles and that, because both groups were excluded from formal politics and thus denied that outlet in their fight for freedom and equality, they were left with no choice but to adopt violence as their political language. Understanding this reality and “imagining violence as a language” allows scholars to make sense both of “how power is maintained and how power is disseminated through conventional and unconventional channels” (p. 4). Black Americans of the nineteenth century learned this lesson from the US founding fathers, who “supplied the language and ideology,” and the revolutionary leaders of Haiti, who “provided the precedent” of using violence to prove black equality (pp. 4, 5).

Carter Jackson begins her study by exploring the limits of moral suasion in the antislavery movement. That concept, championed by white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and his followers, included pacifism, or nonresistance, and focused on convincing white Americans to reject human enslavement on moral grounds. As Carter Jackson explains, it came from a point of privilege and focused on whites giving freedom to enslaved people as a gift. This freedom, however, was limited to emancipation and did not include crucial aspects of real liberty, such as political and social equality. As a result, “nonresistance would not and could not restore the humanity of black Americans” (p. 16).

While most black leaders, at least early on, agreed to consider the merits of moral suasion if it meant increasing their base of white allies, they also kept in mind the lessons of the Haitian Revolution. In contrast to nonresistance, the political violence of that revolution provided an example of oppressed people seizing an opportunity to take their freedom by force. Unlike moral suasion, such direct and forceful action “rendered white supremacy vulnerable and thereby surmountable” (p. 16). Instead of waiting for whites to concede their right to freedom, black Haitians took it without white permission. The power of that situation was not lost to black Americans, who were facing rising levels of white-on-black violence and discrimination.

Because moral suasion did nothing to address northern inequality, dismal economic opportunities, and a lack of avenues for gaining political influence, black Americans began to abandon it in increasing numbers by the late 1830s. Leaders like Pittsburgh’s Lewis Woodson sought to create a “collective racial front against exploitation in general” by putting forth a program of racial elevation (p. 34). Part of that program included creating unity in attitudes toward self-defense. After witnessing or being pulled into violent anti-black riots, leaders such as Henry Highland Garnet and Frederick Douglass began to find “empowerment in political violence in ways that nonviolence failed to provide” (p. 36). Between 1843 and 1849 black leaders increasingly discussed the merits of self-defense, strategically employing both accommodation and resistance as survival strategies. By the end of the decade, white leaders such as Gerrit Smith and Theodore Parker were also increasingly questioning moral suasion. According to Carter Jackson, “leaders of the movement were beginning to understand that violence was not merely insidious or even vengeful but potentially a political tool that could be used to achieve a greater good” (p. 46).

Moral suasion’s limitations were fourfold. First, it did not do anything to help black Americans attain political and economic power. Second, it failed to acknowledge that black Americans were not on a level playing field with whites and were not starting at a point of perceived equality. Thus, it was “nothing more than an emotional decoy that could never sufficiently frighten or endanger slaveholders and the institution of slavery” (p. 46). Third, because slavery was growing and expanding, the political power of slaveholders was growing along with their economic power. Therefore, they had no incentive to bargain, so to speak, and no real reason to act against their own immediate best interests. To assume they would have a moral epiphany in such circumstances was naïve. Because of this monopoly of economic and political influence, the only fear they had was slave rebellion, which moral suasion made no room for. Finally, moral suasion did not have the powerful rhetoric that armed resistance did, especially after the Haitian Revolution showed black Americans that “freedoms given would always play second fiddle to freedom won” (p. 47). Moral suasion was intended to make slave owners fear God, but black leaders realized that whom they needed slave owners to fear were the enslaved.

The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 pressed the cause for self and community defense and led to increasing support for political violence among black and white abolitionists alike. According to Carter Jackson, the law accelerated antebellum political violence, causing black Americans to react with individual and collective actions that “shaped both the conversations and the course of sectional tensions” (p. 49). The law required Northerners, white and black, to aid in returning fugitives from slavery, but blacks and growing numbers of whites refused and, in many cases, chose instead to help fugitives evade capture. The law revealed the South as the bully, providing “just what the abolitionist movement needed” to move beyond moral suasion and embrace a radical abolitionism that worked “not by changing hearts and minds but by causing a paranoid South to overreact in ways that garnered sympathy for abolitionism” (p. 52). Carter Jackson details events such as the Christiana resistance and a number of slave rescues to illustrate resistance to the law and introduce the reader to leaders such as William Parker, who had believed all along in the importance of self-defense and had created the Lancaster Black Self-Protection Society. Her retelling of the Christiana resistance is particularly strong, and she does a masterful job of highlighting women’s centrality to that event.

In the end, the Fugitive Slave Law united varied factions, leading previously apathetic whites to not only accept black resistance but to actively protect runaways in defiance of the Slave Power, even if not out of moral conviction. Moral suasion had proven an ineffective tool for black Americans, given their lack of political power, but the Fugitive Slave Law “presented them with the impetus and the opportunity to take matters into their own hands.” After that, “violence would be the new political tool for the oppressed, the new method of casting a ballot for progress” (p. 79).

Tensions increased throughout the 1850s. Carter Jackson describes how “each piece of proslavery legislation, each incident of slave-catching violence, served to compound militancy among black Americans and bring about the conversion of white abolitionists as they joined their black partners in the belief that violence was the most effective political tool to produce change regarding abolition” (p. 82). The violence in “Bleeding Kansas” awakened more of the public to the realities of what was at stake in the struggle for political balance and led radical political abolitionists to openly embrace the idea of insurrection. It brought most black abolitionists to the realization that politics would be the most effective route to overthrowing slavery. The combination of politics and abolition, according to Carter Jackson, “courted violence because it was the only strategy that could legally eradicate slavery” and was thus a true threat to the Slave Power (p. 90). White abolitionists began to follow the lead of their black comrades in accepting the efficacy of force, and by the late 1850s Garrison had lost nearly all of his following.

Carter Jackson evaluates John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in this context, bringing the spotlight to black leaders, both men and women, who influenced and supported Brown. She brings black women to the center in her telling of the events at Harpers Ferry, explaining how Brown sought out the support and guidance of Harriet Tubman and Mary Ellen Pleasant, a black woman who funded much of the effort. She then details the work of black men before, during, and after the raid to illustrate black agency and buy-in for Brown’s mission. In her recounting, Brown was following the lead of black abolitionists and joining their fight.

Carter Jackson’s final chapter addresses Hahn’s argument for understanding the Civil War as the ultimate example of black armed rebellion in the United States. She explains how black Americans’ actions led to the war, and how their activism was central in turning what began as a war to save the Union into a war not only to end slavery but to prove black equality. She explores emigration plans that developed just before the outbreak of the war and argues that black leaders who went from endorsing those plans to recruiting for, and fighting in, the Civil War were consistent in their goal of self-determination. The war, she argues, created an opportunity for the enslaved to flee and fight at the same time, dropping their tools and taking up arms against those who held them in bondage. Carter Jackson concludes that the movement of the 1830s and 1840s “championed given freedom” but that slavery “collapsed with freedom won by the black Americans who fought against their oppressors and fled fields en masse” during the war (p. 156). She concludes that “for black abolitionists, the Civil War was their revolution. It would not have been waged without the pressure of black Americans, and it could not have been won without the presence of black Americans” (p. 158).

It is fitting that Jackson’s book is part of the University of Pennsylvania Press’s America in the Nineteenth Century series, which is edited by Hahn, Amy Dru Stanley, and Brian DeLay. Her work advances the dialogue Hahn initiated with his earlier work while offering a deeper analysis of the role of revolutionary ideology in the movement from before the Garrisonian period into the Civil War years. Force and Freedom depicts a movement of black leaders who were willing to work with white leadership to further the shared goal of freedom but unwilling to compromise on the importance of making that freedom genuine. While Garrison and other white leaders focused on emancipation through nonviolent persuasion, black leaders knew that the emancipation gained under those circumstances would be limited and would not include equality. The only way to achieve equality was to win their freedom by defending themselves and their community and using political violence to take what was rightfully theirs. Real freedom had to be earned, not gifted. As Carter Jackson explains, “If nonviolent resistance and moral suasion constructed the house that Garrison built, black Americans were merely renters. They never fully owned nonresistant principles” (p. 7).

Carter Jackson ends her study by briefly taking her theme of nonviolence resistance versus self-defense and the use of political nonviolence into the twentieth-century civil rights movement. She contends that, though slavery was defeated, the “spirit of slavery” lives on and that civil rights leaders of the twentieth century, like their abolitionist counterparts a century before, knew the importance of fighting back. Black resistance was central to emancipation, she contends, and self-defense and political violence were, and continue to be, central in forcing the nation to accept black humanity and equality and relinquish remaining notions of white supremacy (p. 160). Acknowledging that many white Americans today “romanticize the Civil War and even the Civil Rights movement, for its leaders’ radical ideas regarding nonviolence,” she warns that “until America reckons with the disturbing fact that freedom for black Americans has been largely achieved through violence, these invaluable lessons will remain largely untaught and wholly unlearned” (p. 159). Force and Freedom offers us a chance to learn and share those lessons. It is an accessible and engaging discussion of the story of violent resistance in the movement and a valuable analysis of its historical meaning and implications for the current day.


[1]. Steven Hahn, The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).

Citation: Beverly Tomek. Review of Carter Jackson, Kellie, Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence. H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews. November, 2022.

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