Leggett & Spooner: Abolishing Slavery without the State
Some abolitionists saw the state as complicit in slavery and tried to fight slavery without its help.
The antislavery movement, while extremely humble in its origins and slow in its growth, steadily gained key converts in American intellectual and political life during the decades before the Civil War. As early as the 1830s, important journalists like the New York Evening Post’s William Leggett provided broad ideological force to the moral and emotional arguments so well‐ and often‐articulated by movement abolitionists. Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, the subject of slavery became increasingly politicized and many northerners found themselves personally confronted with “the Slave Power” for the first time. A turbulent, violent, and transformative period, the Jacksonian and Antebellum eras produced radical and piercing liberal critiques of slavery and proposals for decentralized, individualistic solutions to a seemingly intractable political problem. In the following documents we have two examples of fiercely antislavery northerners advocating and justifying not only slave rebellion, but white Americans’ joining alongside their enslaved countrymen in a grand war for abolition. Writing twenty‐one years apart, William Leggett and Lysander Spooner both insist that the institution of slavery is contrary to the Natural Law and all righteous and proper American traditions. While Leggett spends most of his time lamenting the plight of the slave and sympathizing with slaves’ personal or collective struggles for liberty, Spooner resolved to put ideology into practice. As one of John Brown’s “Secret Six,” a ring of conspirators and financial supporters, Spooner reacted to the infamous and hated Dred Scott decision (1857), which effectively nationalized the institution of slavery, by implementing his own private abolitionist filibustering operations into southern states to raise slave revolts. Though Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry (1859) failed to incite slave rebellions, Spooner’s plan of action for spontaneously‐raised armies of moral crusaders, North and South, black and white, stands as a testament to the moral seriousness of slavery in radical liberal intellectual and activist circles. From the early days of Leggett’s excommunication from the Democratic Party for his abolitionism to Spooner’s demands for private war against slaveholders, antislavery served as a pivot point dividing the ranks of “Thick” or unswervingly radical liberals and the far more numerous ranks of “Thin,” or compromising moderates.
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
By William Leggett, New York Plaindealer, 29 July 1837
Under this head, the Washington Globe copies, from a Boston newspaper, the following paragraph:
“The insolence of some of the reckless agitators who attempt to excite the people by their mad practices, is insufferable. On the fourth, the American flag…was suspended from a cord extended from Concert Hall to the Illuminator office nearly opposite. In scandalous derision of this glorious emblem…a placard…was suspended by the side of the flag, bearing in large letters, on one side, ‘Slavery’s Cloak,’ and on the other ‘Sacred to oppression.’ It remained only till it was noticed, when it was soon torn down. It is creditable to the assembled citizens who saw the scandalous scroll, that their insulted feelings were not urged to violent exasperation against the perpetrators of the outrage, and that the deed was treated with the contempt it deserved.”
The insolence of the abolitionists, in the case here adduced, owed its insufferableness to its truth. While the people are told that the spirit of the federal compact forbids every attempt to promote the emancipation of three millions of fellow‐beings, held in abject and cruel bondage, and that even the free discussion of the question of slavery is a sin against the Union, a “reckless disregard of consequences” deserving the fiercest punishment which “popular indignation” can suggest, we are forced to consider the emblem of our federal union a cloak for slavery and a banner devoted to the cause of the most hateful oppression. The oppression which our fathers suffered from Great Britain was nothing in comparison with that which the negroes experience at the hands of the slaveholders. It may be “abolition insolence” to say these things; but as they are truths which justice and humanity authorize us to speak, we shall not be too dainty to repeat them whenever a fitting occasion is presented. Every American who, in any way, authorizes or countenances slavery, is derelict to his duty as a christian, a patriot, and a man. Every one does countenance and authorize it, who suffers any opportunity of expressing his deep abhorrence of its manifold abominations to pass by unimproved. If the freemen of the north and west would but speak out on this subject in such terms as their consciences prompt, we should soon have to rejoice in the complete enfranchisement of our negro brethren of the south.
If an extensive and well‐arranged insurrection of the blacks should occur in any of the slave states, we should probably see the freemen of this quarter of the country rallying around that “glorious emblem” which is so magniloquently spoken of in the foregoing extract, and marching beneath its folds to take sides with the slaveholders, and reduce the poor negroes, struggling for liberty, to heavier bondage than they endured before. It may be “abolition insolence” to call this “glorious emblem” the standard of oppression, but, at all events, it is unanswerable truth. For our part, we call it so in a spirit, not of insolence, but of deep humility and abasement. We confess, with the keenest mortification and chagrin, that the banner of our country is the emblem, not of justice and freedom, but of oppression; that it is the symbol of a compact which recognizes, in palpable and outrageous contradiction of the great principle of liberty, the right of one man to hold another as property; and that we are liable at any moment to be required, under all our obligations of citizenship, to array ourselves beneath it, and wage a war, of extermination if necessary, against the slave, for no crime but asserting his right of equal humanity–the self‐evident truth that all men are created equal, and have an unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Would we comply with such a requisition? No! rather would we see our right arm lopped from our body, and the mutilated trunk itself gored with mortal wounds, than raise a finger in opposition to men struggling in the holy cause of freedom. The obligations of citizenship are strong, but those of justice, humanity and religion are stronger. We earnestly trust that the great contest of opinion which is now going on in this country may terminate in the enfranchisement of the slaves, without recourse to the strife of blood; but should the oppressed bondmen, impatient of the tardy progress of truth urged only in discussion, attempt to burst their chains by a more violent and shorter process, they should never encounter our arm, nor hear our voice, in the ranks of their opponents. We should stand a sad spectator of the conflict; and whatever commiseration we might feel for the discomfiture of the oppressors, we should pray that the battle might end in giving freedom to the oppressed.
A PLAN FOR THE ABOLITION OF SLAVERY.
By Lysander Spooner (1858)
When a human being is set upon by a robber, ravisher, murderer, or tyrant of any kind, it is the duty of the bystanders to go to his or her rescue, by force, if need be.
In general, nothing will excuse men in the non‐performance of this duty, except the pressure of higher duties, (if such there be,) inability to afford relief, or too great danger to themselves or others.
This duty being naturally inherent in human relations and necessities, governments and laws are of no authority in opposition to it. If they interpose themselves, they must be trampled under foot without ceremony, as we would trample under foot laws that should forbid us to rescue men from wild beasts, or from burning buildings.
On this principle, it is the duty of the non‐slaveholders of this country, in their private capacity as individuals—without asking the permission, or waiting the movements, of the government—to go to the rescue of the Slaves from the hands of their oppressors.
This duty is so self‐evident and natural a one, that he who pretends to doubt it, should be regarded either as seeking to evade it, or as himself a servile and ignorant slave of corrupt institutions or customs.
Holding these opinions, we propose to act upon them. And we invite all other citizens of the United States to join us in the enterprise. To enable them to judge of its feasibility, we lay before them the following programme of measures, which, we think, ought to be adopted, and would be successful.
The formation of associations, throughout the country, of all persons who are willing to pledge themselves publicly to favor the enterprise, and render assistance and support, of any kind, to it.
Establishing or sustaining papers to advocate the enterprise.
Refusing to vote for any person for any civil or military office whatever, who is not publicly committed to the enterprise.
Raising money and military equipments.
Forming and disciplining such military companies as may volunteer for actual service.
Detaching the non‐slaveholders of the South from all alliance with the Slaveholders, and inducing them to co‐operate with us, by appeals to their safety, interest, honor, justice, and humanity.
Informing the Slaves (by emissaries to be sent among them, or through the non‐slaveholders of the South) of the plan of emancipation, that they may be prepared to co‐operate at the proper time.
To encourage emigration to the South, of persons favoring the movement.
When the preceding preliminaries shall have sufficiently prepared the way, then to land military forces (at numerous points at the same time) in the South, who shall raise the standard of freedom, and call to it the slaves, and such free persons as may be willing to join it.
If emancipation shall be accomplished only by actual hostilities, then, as all the laws of war, of nature, and of justice, will require that the emancipated Slaves shall be compensated for their previous wrongs, we avow it our purpose to make such compensation, so far as the property of the Slaveholders and their abettors can compensate them. And we avow our intention to make known this determination to the Slaves beforehand, with a view to give them courage and self‐respect, to nerve them to look boldly into the eyes of their tyrants, and to give them true ideas of the relations of justice existing between themselves and their oppressors.
To remain in the South, after emancipation, until we shall have established, or have seen established, such governments as will secure the future freedom of the persons emancipated.
And we anticipate that the public avowal of these measures, and our open and zealous preparation for them, will have the effect, within some reasonable time—we trust within a few years at farthest—to detach the government and the country at large from the interests of the Slaveholders; to destroy the security and value of Slave property; to annihilate the commercial credit of the Slaveholders; and finally to accomplish the extinction of Slavery. We hope it may be without blood.
If it be objected that this scheme proposes war, we confess the fact. It does propose war—private war indeed—but, nevertheless, war, if that should prove necessary. And our answer to the objection is, that in revolutions of this nature, it is necessary that private individuals should take the first steps. The tea must be thrown overboard, the Bastile must be torn down, the first gun must be fired, by private persons, before a new government can be organized, or the old one be forced (for nothing but danger to itself will force it) to adopt the measures which the insurgents have in view.
If the American governments, State or national, would abolish Slavery, we would leave the work in their hands. But as they do not, and apparently will not, we propose to force them to do it, or to do it ourselves in defiance of them.
If any considerable number of the American people will join us, the work will be an easy and bloodless one; for Slavery can live only in quiet, and in the sympathy or subjection of all around it.
[The following note is to be addressed to some person at the South, and signed by the person sending it, giving his own residence.]
Please accept, and exhibit to your neighbors, this copy of a document, which we are intending to distribute very extensively through the South, and which, we trust, will give birth to a movement, that shall result not only in the freedom of the blacks, but also in the political, pecuniary, educational, moral, and social advantage of the present non‐slaveholding whites. Please let me hear, from you often, informing me of the progress of the work. Direct to me at
WE, the subscribers, residents of the Town of in the County of in the State of believing in the principles, and approving generally of the measures, set forth in the foregoing “Plan for the Abolition of Slavery,” and in the accompanying address “To the Non‐Slaveholders of the South,” hereby unite ourselves in an Association to be called the League of Freedom in the Town of for the purpose of aiding to carry said plan into effect. And we hereby severally declare it to be our sincere intention to co‐operate faithfully with each other, and with all other associations within the United States, having the same purpose in view, and adopting the same platform of principles and measures.