From its origins in the 1750s, the white-led American abolitionist movement adhered to principles of "moral suasion" and nonviolent resistance as both religious tenet and political strategy. But by the 1850s, the population of enslaved Americans had increased exponentially, and such legislative efforts as the Fugitive Slave Act and the Supreme Court's 1857 ruling in the Dred Scott case effectively voided any rights black Americans held as enslaved or free people. As conditions deteriorated for African Americans, black abolitionist leaders embraced violence as the only means of shocking Northerners out of their apathy and instigating an antislavery war.


In Force and Freedom, Kellie Carter Jackson provides the first historical analysis exclusively focused on the tactical use of violence among antebellum black activists. Through rousing public speeches, the bourgeoning black press, and the formation of militia groups, black abolitionist leaders mobilized their communities, compelled national action, and drew international attention. Drawing on the precedent and pathos of the American and Haitian Revolutions, African American abolitionists used violence as a political language and a means of provoking social change. Through tactical violence, argues Carter Jackson, black abolitionist leaders accomplished what white nonviolent abolitionists could not: creating the conditions that necessitated the Civil War. Force and Freedom takes readers beyond the honorable politics of moral suasion and the romanticism of the Underground Railroad and into an exploration of the agonizing decisions, strategies, and actions of the black abolitionists who, though lacking an official political voice, were nevertheless responsible for instigating monumental social and political change.


Kellie Carter Jackson is the Knafel Assistant Professor of the Humanities at Wellesley College. She is coeditor of Reconsidering Roots: Race, Politics, and Memory.


"In this original and important contribution to the history of abolitionism, Kellie Carter Jackson draws on newspapers, pamphlets, speeches, and convention proceedings to trace how black abolitionists abandoned Garrisonian 'moral suasion' and increasingly called for violent resistance to slavery. As she demonstrates, violence was both a political language and a concrete strategy, a means of galvanizing support in the North, drawing attention to the violence inherent in slavery, preventing the rendition of fugitive slaves, and paying tribute to the revolution that had overthrown the slave system in Haiti."—Eric Foner, author of Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad


"Kellie Carter Jackson reveals that revolutionary violence was a valuable weapon in the abolitionist arsenal, especially among African Americans. Black abolitionists, this book documents eloquently, were waging a war against slavery long before the booming of guns during the Civil War."—Manisha Sinha, author of The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition

Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence

  • University of Pennsylvania Press 2020

    New paperback

    224 pages