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  • Douglass’ Impersonal
  • Douglas A. Jones Jr. (bio)

By the mid-1850s, the losses and shortcomings of abolitionism and the campaigns for black citizenship were unmistakable. With the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the opening of the Kansas and Nebraska territories to slavery by fiats of popular sovereignty in 1854, and the regressive course of race relations throughout the decade, a host of abolitionists still committed to moral suasion not only admitted that appealing to the nation’s collective conscience was largely ineffective as a political strategy; they also carried out a remarkable volte-face and embraced physical resistance, if not concerted violence, as essential to their efforts to abolish the institution of chattel slavery. The most notable of these abolitionists who became increasingly more emphatic in their calls for antislavery violence was Frederick Douglass, and in a June 1854 editorial for Frederick Douglass’ Paper he told his readers that “resistance,” which included the murder of “kidnappers” (i.e., slave-catchers) employed to recapture fugitive slaves in the north, was “wise as well as just.”1 To be sure, Douglass’ championing of politicized violence emerged in some part from his own personal ethic of self-defense that he acquired as a slave and maintained while serving as a speaking agent on the abolitionist lecture circuit.2 But just as significantly, [End Page 1] and perhaps paradoxically, his public advocacy of physical resistance from the early 1850s onwards also reflected his evolution as a thinker more and more concerned with ethics, normative politics, and the metaphysical.

Indeed, Douglass argued that murdering the enslaving “monsters who deliberately violate” the “rights and liberties of the [human] race” was an act of compensation, a fitting “penalty” for those who transgress the laws that “the All-Wise has established.” He wrote, “As human life is not superior to the laws for the preservation of the physical universe, so, too, it is not superior to the eternal law of justice, which is essential to the preservation of the rights, and the security, and happiness of the [human] race.”3 Fewer than three months before Douglass published these sentiments in his periodical, Ralph Waldo Emerson made the same claims in his “The Fugitive Slave Law” lecture that he delivered at the Tabernacle in New York City: “Slavery is disheartening; but Nature is not so helpless but it can rid itself at last of every wrong. But the spasms of Nature are centuries and ages, and will tax the faith of short-lived men. Slowly, slowly the Avenger comes, but comes surely . . . . ‘For evil word shall evil word be said,/ For murder-stroke a murder-stroke be paid./ Who smites must smart.’”4 Thus Emerson justified violence against, indeed the murder of, violent and murdering enslavers as a natural and ineluctable requital administered to those who violate the will of Nature whose “voice . . . pronounces Freedom.”5

Of course Emerson affirmed the inevitability of such world-corrective action well before 1854, describing it in “Compensation” (1841) as a “levelling circumstance that puts down the overbearing, the strong, the rich, the fortunate substantially on the same ground with all others.”6 But if in the 1840s Emerson understood acts of compensation to be primarily the work of Nature, in the 1850s he more regularly recognized and encouraged the leveling function that positive human action performs, especially in regard to the eradication of American slavery: “Whilst the inconsistency of slavery [End Page 2] with the principles on which the world is built guarantees its downfall, I own that the patience it requires is almost too sublime for mortals, and seems to demand of us more than mere hoping.”7 With this and in other reform speeches throughout the decade, Emerson intimates a transcendentalist politics that “urges solidarity—indeed mobilization” on behalf of the downtrodden, notwithstanding his idiosyncratic demurrals from “public questions,” which he called “odious and hurtful, and it seems like meddling or leaving your work.”8 So even if Emerson “never failed to regret the time he spent publically opposing slavery” because “immersion in [political] activity may . . . be a huge distraction from the life of the mind” that he craved, as George Kateb argues, Emersonian Transcendentalism provided abolitionists such as Douglass...


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