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  • Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence by Kellie Carter Jackson
  • Richard S. Newman (bio)
Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence. By Kellie Carter Jackson. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019. Pp. 224. Cloth, $34.95.)

What role does violence play in the struggle for social change? That is the challenging question Kellie Carter Jackson asks in her stimulating and thought-provoking book on black abolitionists and the politics of violence [End Page 263] before the Civil War. More than an examination of violent means in the classic abolitionist struggle, Jackson’s book offers a deeper meditation on the way that force has framed black freedom struggles. As she notes, “The trajectory of change in black America has almost always depended upon the local, state, and federal government’s willingness to accept (or be forced to accept) black humanity” (162). And that struggle has always entailed forceful confrontations with white politicians and citizens—sometimes physical, sometimes rhetorical, but always ramifying. From slave rebellions to self-defense measures to explosive oratory that galvanized blacks and scared white audiences, Jackson notes that force was never far from the black freedom movement. Yet, she asserts, too many abolitionist scholars still “privilege the performance of nonviolence” (3). Only when we see “violence as the great accelerator in American emancipation” will scholars have a more accurate understanding of black abolitionism’s power and importance (3). Though Jackson perhaps underrates the way that other scholars have examined violence in abolitionism, this book is an essential read. Indeed, it is a book meant not only for scholars of abolitionism and the Civil War but for anyone interested in the way that activist struggles often straddle the line between prophetic words and forceful (even violent) action.

Jackson’s book is forcefully argued. While she ranges beyond the nineteenth century in introductory and concluding sections, Jackson focuses tightly on black abolitionists’ understanding of violence as both tactic and strategy during the antebellum era. In five main chapters, she examines several key themes in the black radical tradition: the creation of a usable iconography of black rebellion, debates over the limits of moral suasion and the importance of physical self-defense tactics in northern black communities, and the wider meaning of black resistance on the eve of sectional war. Jackson flips the traditional script in abolitionist historiography by making nonviolent activists and antislavery political organizers the outliers to a black-centered struggle held together literally by the concept of force. As she notes, white reformers consistently contained black activists’ call for physical responses to proslavery violence. In the wake of Elijah Lovejoy’s killing in Alton, Illinois, in 1837, white abolitionists counseled local blacks against arming themselves. Little wonder that African Americans revered John Brown, who, far from containing black uprising, sought to join it. That search for truly forceful friends became a key component of black liberation.

Jackson joins a host of other scholars in noting that the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 served as a tipping point for the entire abolitionist movement. Yet while many white activists now supported black self-defense tactics, many others still saw nonviolence (in the form of political mobilization or [End Page 264] moral suasion) as the best strategy for undercutting slavery as a national institution. Blacks dissented, espousing proactive forms of rebellion. They valorized slave uprising and made enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law “a dangerous endeavor” (53). In this way, blacks helped make the 1850s “one of the most violent eras in US history” (53). The Civil War didn’t just come; it was beckoned by black activists who literally wanted to fight for freedom.

Though Jackson’s book takes on abolitionist historiography, it also flows from broader scholarly attempts to place violence at the center of American history. From Joanne Freeman’s The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War (2018), on violence in American politics, to Ari Kelman’s A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand Creek (2013), which focuses on state-sponsored violence against Native Americans during the Civil War, a range of scholars has sought to link violence, reform, and nation...