Abolitionists Were Really Liberal, Right?

Nkrumah History

Fact #15 of 28

John Brown

John Brown

When we study history, we have to be careful not to take things out of their proper context or to project our current expectations onto it. When we look at Abolitionists we might want to imagine them as modern liberals, but don’t. What it meant to be a Conservative or Liberal in 1859 is quite different from today.

Conservatives in 1831 tried and convicted Nat Turner, a Virginian slave of leading a slave revolt. His punishment? Turner was hanged, skinned, dismembered, and his body parts were distributed souvenirs to the family of his victims. I don’t even think Ted Cruz would do that to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Liberals in 1859 believed that slavery was a moral wrong but rarely went so far as to consider enslaved Africans equal to Whites.

American Abolitionist John Brown, stands apart from all other White Abolitionists in history, mostly for his extremism. He often cited how as a young boy witnessing an enslaved black child beaten by his masters with iron shovels as the reason he was so against slavery. Fredrick Douglas said of Brown, “in his sympathy, Brown is as deeply interested in our cause, as though his own soul had been pierced by the iron slavery.” This was saying a lot coming from Douglass. Douglass often boiled at the prejudice and condescension he saw readily displayed by many White abolitionists toward Blacks. Brown was also considered “odd” by other White Abolitionists because Brown “called Negroes by their surnames, with the prefixes of Mr. and Mrs.”. And remember, this is coming from the liberals, the tree huggers, the bleeding-hearts of 1859.

So when these Abolitionists learned that Brown believed only by armed insurrection could slavery in the United States be overthrown, they felt his radicalism was consistent with someone who called Negros Mr. and Mrs. Even still, as radical as he was, Brown never got to the point where he viewed Blacks as equal to Whites. In Brown’s post-slavery vision of America, Brown and other Whites live at the top of the mountain while Blacks live at the bottom of the mountain, albeit working together in harmony…just as long as Blacks stayed at the bottom of the mountain.

In the South, many people questioned the morality of Slavery, even while they were benefiting directly from it. The reason why enslaved Africans scarcely benefited from this sympathy was because of WHO these sympathies were coming from.

Southern women, like Mary Chesnut, who described her father-n-law James Chesnut as being “an absolute a tyrant as the Czar of Russia, the Khan of Tartary, or the Sultan of Turkey,” scathed , “he and others like him would brook no interference with their own sweet will by man, woman or devil.” Louisianan Kate Stone spoke not only for herself but also for several of her sisters when she wrote, “I always felt the moral guilt of it (slavery), I felt how impossible it must be for a slave-owner to get into heaven.” But as we know, in 1859 women couldn’t vote and had no constitutional power whatsoever anywhere in America, let alone the South. Hell, they wouldn’t even get the right to vote until the passage of the nineteenth amendment in 1920 some 60 years later. So sadly, their sympathies, albeit genuine didn’t really amount to much.

In 1859, even progressives in the North, sympathetic to the plight of enslaved Africans thought Negro Equality still was a ridiculous assumption. Black inferiority to Whites, as far as they were concerned, was obvious. For Black people in 1859, that was about as good as it was going to come from Whites, so they took it. For White Abolitionists, the question of slavery was a moral issue about one human being owning another human being, not a matter of recognizing Negroes as social, intellectual equals. That was stand-up comics to kick about in comedy routines.

So we must resist the temptation to assume that just because someone viewed Slavery as a moral wrong that they rode that bus all the way to Negro Equality because that just wasn’t the case. In 1859, that bus was all but empty by the time it got there.