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Edward Renehan, historian, on
the curve toward violence

Ed Renehan

RENEHAN: In the wake of the Fugitive Slave Law, many abolitionists in the Northeast began to lobby for secession from the Union, and in particular in Massachusetts. People like Thomas Wentworth Higginson and William Lloyd Garrison were saying, listen, we want out, we don't want to be a part of a country where there's slavery and where slavery is allowed to spread, and we feel we have to isolate this.

So the northeastern abolitionists were really in a radical state of mind, after the compromise of 1850 and the dawn of the Fugitive Slave Law. And non-violence, although Garrison and a few others still clung to the credo, was fast going by the boards as a practical solution in the minds of many leading abolitionists.

In a way, there was really no device by which one could passively resist the Fugitive Slave Law; it was impossible. You could stand up and make a stand and make a speech or sing a song or ... write an editorial. But, as a practical matter, if you wanted to stop deportations of fugitive slaves from northern states back down into the South, you were forced to step in a violent manner and rescue the fugitive slaves from custody. It was the only practical solution. So, in a way, the fugitive slave law forced a new breed of radicalism onto the northeastern abolitionists. And we see this with Thomas Wentworth Higginson in May of 1854. Here we have this upstanding member of the community, a descendent of the first colonial governor of New Hampshire, a cousin of Cabots and Lowells, a graduate of Harvard, a minister in Worcester, Massachusetts, and we see him leading a riot, a mob, to the courthouse in Boston, the federal courthouse, and attacking the courthouse with pikes and guns and any instrument of violence they could find, attempting to break into the courthouse and rescue the fugitive slave Anthony Burns, who was due to be deported back to the South. In fact, he was deported back to the South, just a few days later. In the course of this riot, one federal marshall was killed. Higginson and the other people involved in this altercation escaped and, but some were brought up on charges. All this is happening while John Brown is in various courts of law in Ohio and Pennsylvania and New York, settling law suits and trying to untangle his financial affairs. This must have been very frustrating for Brown. In a way, the movement was catching up with Brown and his modus operandi for radical, violent abolitionism. But, he was too preoccupied with other matters to join the fracas.

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