Historian David Blight Offers Some Context for Troubled Times

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Here is Blight at The Atlantic:

At the heart of the protests over the recent police killings that have swept the nation is Donald Trump’s presidency. Trump’s depraved rhetoric, his vile racism, his willful ignorance, his vicious contempt for the free press, his extraordinary mishandling of the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic, and his preening with a Bible while trying to militarize Washington, D.C., are the template on which incidents such as those in Minneapolis; Louisville, Kentucky; Brunswick, Georgia; and New York City’s Central Park have exploded into public consciousness. Authoritarians thrive on chaos and on sowing distrust in institutions, and Trump has done both. We need some historical grounding.

If America is coming apart, the 1850s provide poignant lessons. That decade was the only time in our history when the nation dissolved, militarized, and ultimately went to war over competing visions of the future. It offers a stark warning about what can happen when political and legal institutions lose their hold on public trust and collapse.

In that decade, slavery was tearing America apart, socially and politically. As part of the Compromise of 1850, which temporarily and uneasily settled the question of slavery’s expansion, the Fugitive Slave Act became law. It mandated that any escaped slave who managed to reach the northern free states had to be returned to his or her rightful owner, adjudicated by special magistrates who were paid twice as much for returning a black bondsman to the South as for releasing him. The law struck fear into thousands of fugitives already living in northern states—and it radicalized the American abolition movement. It also led to numerous fugitive-slave rescues, some by violence against the state and police authority. The heroic runaway slave, still property under American law, became more than ever an object of sympathy and protection. The fugitive-slave issue broadened the antislavery movement into open resistance and a politicized crusade. Abolitionists had to act outside and against the law if they truly intended to defeat slavery. Many abolitionists who had previously preferred the strategy of moral suasion—nonviolent advocacy to change of hearts and minds—began to see that the governmental power at the heart of slavery had to be attacked. And some increasingly began to act with physical force and violence.

The great orator Frederick Douglass is a case in point. By the early 1850s, after nearly a decade of practicing primarily as a moral suasionist, the former slave came to embrace action through political parties and even the threat of violence. He called the Fugitive Slave Act the “hydra … begotten in the spirit of compromise” and “legalized piracy,” and he lost his moral ambivalence about violent resistance to slave-catchers and to slaveholders themselves. By his count, he participated in helping at least 100 fugitives escape through western New York State and into Canada over the course of the decade. And his rhetorical rage burst forth with stunning furor.

“I do believe that two or three dead slaveholders will make this law a dead letter,” Douglass declared in a speech in Syracuse in 1851. Although he found himself increasingly desperate for direct action against slavery over the course of the 1850s, and though he morally and financially supported John Brown’s exploits that led to the raid on Harpers Ferry (while himself refusing to join what he deemed a suicide mission), Douglass nearly always preferred radical reform to revolutionary violence. At the same time, he struggled to believe that African Americans could achieve a future in the United States via faith in natural rights alone. His tilting between rhetorical and real violence, between political antislavery and radical organizations operating outside of government, provides a rich, if sobering, cautionary tale about the tortured relationship between protest and change.

Read the entire piece here.