restricted access 4. John Brown's Forerunners
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Chapter Four JOHN BROWN'S FORERUNNERS "Seven of our citizens are now in southern prisons," the abolitionist editor of the Green Mountain Freeman observed in December 1844.1 The seven included two students and a carpenter from a school for missionaries in Illinois, two ministers from New York, a Cape Cod seaman, and a schoolteacher from Vermont. They were only the better known of scores of people from the North who had ventured into the slave states to undertake what the Freemanseditor believed was a holy mission to help slaves escape from bondage. During the next six years there would be other well-publicized cases in which northerners risked their lives and freedom to rescue blacks from slavery . These individuals were not typical of most of those who went south to aid slaves to escape. They nevertheless enjoyed acclaim and financial support among abolitionists, who generally regarded them as significant actors in the antislavery drama. Such high regard has not persisted. Just as the imagery associated with slavery's black and white opponents in the South has not been integrated into an understanding ofabolitionism, the role ofthose who ventured into that section to help slaves escape has been generally ignored by historians of the sectional struggle. A significant amount ofwhat has been written aboutthe slave rescuers is negative, and there has been no serious evaluation of their role in the antislavery movement. In the 1890s, Wilbur H. Siebertgave the slave rescuers their due in his study of northern efforts to help fugitive slaves on their way from the South to secure freedom in Canada. But, in his chronicle of what contemporaries called the underground railroad, Siebert concentrated on those who aided slaves who had already reached the free states. More recently, Larry Gara has argued that the activities John Brown's Forerunners 65 ofthose who went south to help slaves escape had little relevance to organized abolitionism. Most studies of John Brown-the most famous northerner who entered the South to free slaves-do not mention his predecessors. Only Brown biographer Richard O. Boyerlinks Brown's efforts to the example set by these individuals, and only HerbertAptheker suggests thattheywere an importantpartofa much more physically aggressive antislavery movement than is generally described.2 The tendency to ignore the northerners who went south to rescue blacks from slavery or to disparage their significance in the antislaverystruggle is consistentwith recenttrends in abolitionist studies. As the introduction to this book suggests, historians have during recentyears become less likely to characterize abolitionists as radicals challenging racial oppression in the South.The process that resulted in this climate ofopinion began in the 19608asliberalhistorians sought to counteractearlier Revisionist portrayals ofthe abolitionists as neurotic fanatics on the ideological fringe of northern society. The process continued in the 1970s and 1980s as studies of the abolitionists stressed what they held in common with other white northerners, including racial prejudice. These studies, which investigated the roots of northern immediatism in the interrelated forces of religious revivalism and an emerging northern market economy, greatly improved understanding of what caused some white northerners to oppose strongly an institution that had little impact on their daily lives. According to this interpretation, individuals who embraced evangelicalism and economic change regarded slavery in the South not so much as an act of oppression against black people but as a symbol of immorality and inefficiency that prevailed among less enlightened portions of the northern population. In other words, by emphasizing the abolitionists ' cultural environment in the North, such studies created a portrait ofwhite abolitionists as middle-class reformers who rhetorically opposed slavery in reaction to conditions in the North rather than as radicals who aggressively sought to end slavery in the South. Often the abolitionists are portrayed as inwardly directed individuals essentially concerned with their own moral purity and salvation. Contentions that the abolitionists had minimal relevance to the sectional struggle follow logically from this portrait.3 66 The Abolitionists and the South The role historians have assigned to the intensely negative southernwhite reaction to the antislaverypostal campaign ofthe mid-1830s isjust as important in currentportrayals ofabolitionists as exclusively northern in orientati~n. The assumption is that this southern reaction forced the abolitionists to concentrate thereafter on influencing popular opinion in the North rather than acting directly against slavery in the South. Historians contend that it took a general northern perception of southern aggressiveness in the 1850s to finally lead abolitionists to seek the kind of direct physical confrontation with slavery that culminated inJohn Brown's...