United against slavery?

Marie-Jeanne Rossignol returns to the origins of the movement for equal political rights in the United States, whose origins are often located in a recent period, neglecting the temporal depth and complexity of the phenomenon.

Professor at the University of Paris-Diderot, Marie-Jeanne Rossignol offers a work of synthesis that could be described as a protohistory of the civil rights movement in the United States, a movement that many historians misuse starting in 1954, without history and without precedents. For the author, this movement takes shape at the end of the XVIIIe century and is based on the alliance of white progressives and black activists to obtain the abolition of slavery and equal rights. But the paths taken to achieve this objective are diverse and not always conclusive. The presentation is chronological, covering a period which goes from colonial America to the presidency of Andrew Jackson, who hardened the clashes which would lead to the civil war. But the author takes care territorialize a movement which is not free from contradictions. It also offers historiographical updates based on an exhaustive bibliography, quite useful for sketching comparisons with other situations, in particular the abolitionist movement in Western Europe.

First period: before the Revolution

The first period, before the American Revolution, is that of the affirmation of activism against slavery, largely driven by the Quaker movement (1688-1776). At the turn of the 1750s, principled anti-slavery became more radical, embodied by activists such as John Woolman and especially Antony Benezet, whose activism led to the founding of the first anti-slavery society in Philadelphia. Essays, with a pamphleteering tone, irrigate the circles clearof which An historical account by the same Benezet, recently translated by Bertrand Van Ruymbeke and Marie-Jeanne Rossignol under the title A History of Guinea (1771). A correspondence was established between the two shores of the Atlantic, which then became part of the same imperial entity, under the aegis of the Quaker movement. The author keeps her distance from the terminternational abolitionist, because it is indeed an internal movement in the English-speaking world. It seeks to show the specificity of slavery (the English colonies in America were slave societies rather than slave societies) and American anti-slavery (of a rather religious nature because, in parallel with the Quaker movement, a Protestant reform movement called the Great Awakening in the years 17301740). In the following decades, however, abolitionism spread beyond the borders of the English-speaking world, and we can only note its internationalization, at least in the years 1787 -1791.

Second period: the Revolution and after

Regarding the second period – the American Revolution and its aftermath – Marie-Jeanne Rossignol makes nuanced and argued clarifications concerning certain recent trends in historiography. The first discussion concerns the sincerity of the Founding Fathers, a certain number of whom were slave owners, in their assertions concerning the conciliation of slavery and freedom. Historians who doubt the sincerity of the emancipatory positions of the Founding Fathers rely on the presentation of the independence project as a self-defense reflex of an exclusively white (and male) community. Conversely, M.-J. Rossignol affirms that there was indeed a liberating moment linked to the universalist ideals of the revolutionary Enlightenment. From 1776 to 1784, gradual abolitions of slavery took place in several Northern states, alongside a wave of private manumissions in the Southern states. Thus, the community of free people of color went from a few thousand in 1775 to 180,000 in 1810.

The second clarification concerns the commitment of blacks in the ranks of Insurgents. The emphasis is placed on the flight of thousands of slaves from the South to British positions, which would amount to a criticism in action of the ideals conservatives of the American white revolution (p. 74) The author recalls the approximately 5,000 black soldiers who fought for the United States, as well as their subsequent commitment to anti-slavery causes (which also clarifies their motivations).

Once independence was acquired, the southern planters organized an offensive for the preservation of slavery. It is in this context that the debates around the drafting of the Constitution of 1787 took place, which some present as a constitution racist. Rossignol sees it rather as the product of a conservative balance between slave owners from the South and businessmen from the North. Slavery (the particular institution as the drafters of the Constitution wrote) is never named as such, and southerners can take advantage of this silence as protection. In return, the Constitution takes up the terms of the North-West Ordinance which prohibits the practice of slavery in the new territories opened to colonization. From then on, the entrepreneurs of the North-East will strive to maintain this compromise, while the southern owners only think of extending the slave mode of production towards the new territories. This white elite from the Northeast advocates the gradual abolition of slavery, and supports targeted actions for a rapid end to the transatlantic slave trade. In the black community, the hope of emancipation is carried by the evangelical churches (Baptists and Methodists).

The definitive abolition of the transatlantic slave trade on 1erJanuary 1808 raises the problem of cohabitation on the same territory of two deeply antagonistic human groups. Jefferson had long emphasized this impossible cohabitation. Even before the abolition of the slave trade, plans for the deportation of blacks had emerged, proposing different possible reception areas: return to Africa? Forced migrations to newly acquired Louisiana? Granting of a territorial reserve in the new territories open to colonization?

Third period: 1810-1830

These questions open the third period, from 1810 to 1830, for which the analysis is mainly spatial. The diversity of territories conditions the diversity of anti-slavery commitments. In 1816 was created the American Colonization Society, which advocates the return of freed blacks to Africa, and therefore separation from whites, the only real owners of land in the United States. This solution has enjoyed enormous success with a predominantly white audience. Unsurprisingly, the reaction from the black community is very hostile; Black people do not want to leave, their demands are the abolition of slavery (freedom) and equal civil rights (citizenship). In December 1821, the United States government purchased land on the coast of West Africa to settle captives who had been freed during the anti-draft crusades. This land would become Liberia: access was open to volunteer African-Americans, but the offer met with little response: only 13,000 volunteers came forward between 1822 and 1860.

In the Northwest Territories, anti-slavery movements asserted themselves while becoming radicalized. In Tennessee, in 1820, appeared The Emancipator, the first newspaper entirely devoted to slavery. Its main editor, Elihu Embree, criticizes deportation plans and gradualism. These same territories are located on the route of illegal immigrants fleeing the southern states (underground railroad). The militants provide direct aid to the fugitives, who reach the lands of the refuge: Canada, and certain northeastern states. Another center of emigration is Haiti – Claire Bourhis-Mariotti showed to what extent the Caribbean republic of President Boyer had appeared as a promised land.

In the North-East, a large community of free blacks has been organized since 1780, constituting an essential center for those who fight for the immediate abolition of slavery (theimmediatism). New York is home to a high proportion of slaves; 20,000, or 14% of the population. There New York Manumission Society was active there until 1799, the date of the gradual abolition of slavery in the state of New York. It was chaired by John Jay, then Alexander Hamilton, sealing the alliance between the federalists and the abolitionists, provoking in return a racist hardening on the side of the Democratic-Republicans. Marie-Jeanne Rossignol translated manumission by mancipation. In the West Indies, the term manumission returns lpostagea legal measure affecting individuals, whilemancipation is a collective political measure (its equivalent is the general freedom.) Between the suppression of the slave trade in 1808 and the massive arrival of European migrants, the number of freedmen increased greatly. The action of anti-slavery activists consisted, for the most part, of protecting these freedmen from gangs of kidnappers who crisscrossed the states in search of labor to sell to slave planters.

In addition to New York City, other urban centers in the Northeast will mark the civil rights movement through the empowerment of black communities. Philadelphia, the epicenter of the civil rights movement according to the author, Richard Allen, former slave, founder of the first black Methodist church, independent of the Protestant hierarchy and the white community, is the leading figure of the movement. Boston is the capital of radical, multiracial anti-slavery. The state of Massachusetts immediately abolished slavery in 1783. The following year, Prince Hall, a veteran of the War of Independence, founded the first black Freemason lodge there. Then a black school appeared, more or less in the wake of the African Baptist Church. In 1827, the Freedoms Journal is the first newspaper designed and edited by black people.

Why end the sequence around 1830? Due to Nat Turner's revolt in Virginia (1831) which would usher in a more violent phase of abolitionist activism? However, Rossignol points out that the escapes of slaves played a much more decisive role than the revolts.

The conclusion emphasizes the autonomy and originality of the black anti-slavery movement, particularly in the Northeastern states. Sometimes linked to the white abolitionist movement, sometimes critical of it, the study encourages reflection on the complexity of a historical fact (the movement for equal political rights) which we tend to simplify, and whose origins we often locate in a recent period, neglecting the temporal depth, and the permanence of conflicts beyond moments of alliance or common struggle: the coexistence of two antagonistic communities on the same territory. This story encourages us to think about the difficulties and scope of a project of political and social reform in universalist terms. A reflection which is not specific to the United States alone, but which is also encountered in France at the same time.