Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010


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By Wiz

Hey- what I study is in the news! (Sort of)

Charles Lane, in a thoroughly stupid piece on how the “attitude” of the modern tea-party is the same as the “attitude” of previous dissenting groups like the American revolutionaries, tries to pass off a false equivalency between the abolitionists and the fire-eaters in the South:

“ Some in the antislavery movement were as extreme, in their way, as the Southern “fire-eaters.” We tend to think of the secessionists as resisting federal authority during the run-up to Fort Sumter. But the antislavery side had its moments of nullification as well. In 1851, a Boston crowd broke into a federal courthouse to free “Shadrach,” a black man being held there by U.S. marshals enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law. Abolitionist Theodore Parker declared this blatant defiance of Washington “the most noble deed done in Boston since the destruction of the tea in 1773.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates deal with him pretty well here.

Lewis Hayden, who led the rescue of Shadrach

But I think even Coates doesn’t go far enough. What both Lane and Coates miss when they describe the Shadrach rescue is one relevant fact: the “Boston crowd” who freed Shadrach was composed and led entirely by free black Bostonians, not by white abolitionists. The leader was Lewis Hayden, who I’ll claim to know a little about, and who himself was a fugitive from slavery. He was eventually arrested and only avoided jail by a lucky coincidence (an abolitionist ally ended up on the jury). Here is what that model of bipartisan compromise- Henry Clay- had to say about the rescue: “This outrage is all the greater, because it was by people not of our race, by persons who possess no part in our political system, and the question arises whether we shall have a government of white men or of blacks.”

So Lane’s equation, then, goes something like this: both Southern “fire-eaters” and northern free blacks thought about breaking the law. One group- a group of people excluded from most of the mechanisms of normal citizenship (they “possess no part in our political system”)- broke a law which they had no part in helping to make in order to protect the members of their community from enslavement, torture, and dehumanization. To call this communal self-protection an “attitude” of “extremism” is to make those words completely meaningless. That the other group broke the law in order to maintain their position as parasitic elites, living off the labor of an enslaved and oppressed minority, only makes Lane’s point all the more absurd and morally blind.

The comparison between free blacks and fire-eaters is absurd. But even were their tactics comparable, Trotsky’s remark about the Civil War is apt:
“History has different yardsticks for the cruelty of the Northerners and the cruelty of the Southerners in the Civil War. A slave-owner who through cunning and violence shackles a slave in chains, and a slave who through cunning or violence breaks the chains – let not the contemptible eunuchs tell us that they are equals before a court of morality!”


Written by Peter Wirzbicki

April 2, 2010 at 14:31

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