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Modern Voices
Eric Foner on abolitionists and violence
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Q: What caused abolitionists to turn from pacifism to condoning violence?
Eric Foner

A: The whole issue of fugitive slaves had a tremendous impact on the Abolitionist Movement, both black and white. Up to 1850, most abolitionists (not all, but most abolitionists) believed in what they called moral suasion. They were pacifists. Most abolitionists condemned the Nat Turner uprising of 1831, because they said: "Slavery is a system of violence, but you cannot overthrow it by using violence. You have to overthrow it by persuading people to change their ways, to see the moral sin, the evil of slavery, and to persuade the North to have nothing to do with slavery." For 20 years, the Abolitionist Movement operated on this basis of moral suasion.

But with the Fugitive Slave Law, a number of abolitionists who were pacifists began to say: "Well, this is a law which justifies armed resistance. You can't just let this be enforced." People like Frederick Douglass said the way to prevent the rendition of fugitives is to make a few dead fugitive catchers. In other words, it [would] be justifiable to kill someone who was trying to apprehend fugitive slaves.

So the Fugitive Slave Law played an important role in this shift in the Abolitionist Movement toward a growing acceptance of violence as a legitimate means for attacking the institution of slavery. This would reach, you might say, its final point in 1859, with John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry. Most abolitionists had nothing to do with John Brown, but very few would condemn him. They would accept the fact that, okay, violence is a possible means for attacking the institution of slavery.
Eric Foner
Professor of History
Columbia University

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