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Subversives: Antislavery

Prior to the Civil War, abolitionists had a nickname for the District; they called it the “great Man-Market of the Nation.” At the time, both geographically and symbolically, Washington rested at the center of the nation’s burgeoning debate about the morality of slavery. Slave pens dotted the shores of the Potomac. Ships crammed with slaves sailed in and out of port. Black families trudged through the streets chained together, en route to the auction block. And in the three decades leading up to emancipation, a group of anti-slavery activists infiltrated the city and undermined the slave trade through both subterfuge and open defiance.

In Subversives: Antislavery Community in Washington, D.C., 1828-1865, historian Stanley Harrold documents this movement, using a profusion of primary sources including newspaper articles, autobiographies, and correspondence to trace key events and profile important leaders in the local abolitionist community. Harrold justifies his D.C.-centric analysis by emphasizing the symbolic importance of the District in the broader debate about slavery. “While many antislavery northerners accepted the contention that they had no say in what transpired in southern states, Washington was a different matter,” writes Harrold. “As a national capital, it belonged to all Americans.”

In the early 19th century, the heart of the slave trade in the Chesapeake region had shifted from Baltimore to Washington. The District offered traders a central location with good coastal access and few commercial restrictions. In 1820, the District had a population of 33,039 people, of whom 6,277 were slaves. According to law, all blacks were treated as slaves unless they could prove otherwise. “[K]idnappers preyed on the local black population to supply the Deep South market,” writes Harrold. “As Washington became a major depot in the trade, residents grew accustomed to the coffle gangs trudging along city streets on their way to southerly destinations.”

And by the 1830s, Washington had emerged as a destination for national and international travelers. Many foreign dignitaries, businessmen, and journalists caught their first glimpses of slavery in the streets of D.C. Those who were appalled by the brutality returned home with horror stories about the hypocrisy that marred the seat of American democracy.

From both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, Americans grabbed onto D.C. and struggled for control over slavery in the nation’s capital. Neither side intended to let go without a fight. Slave traders and their henchmen lashed out at free blacks and white abolitionists. “Those who challenged slavery and racism risked beatings, mob violence, imprisonment, and death,” writes Harrold.

These “subversives,” as Harrold dubs them, consisted of both free blacks and whites who, overlooking their racial and economic differences, congregated in local churches to plot local actions to hasten the downfall of America’s peculiar institution. “Throughout its existence the Washington antislavery community was a southern outpost of northern abolitionism,” Harrold writes—but with one chief difference: The District’s subversives stalked the front lines of the battlefield. Surrounded by hostile forces, they cultivated a confrontational attitude. They publicly challenged their slaveowning neighbors. They broke the law regularly. And they plotted escapes that were sometimes bold and reckless.

Harrold, a history professor at South Carolina State University, previously penned American Abolitionists and The Abolitionists and the South. For the similarly scholarly Subversives, he has dug up a copious amount of information concerning D.C.’s anti-slavery activists. Harrold channels dense historical data into a series of sprawling narratives, which manage to be gripping despite being convoluted. The author’s devotion to detail is both the book’s strength and a major weakness. Throughout, tangents abound. Footnotes run wild. And seemingly discrete episodes leak from one chapter to the next.

The most trenchant moments are when Harrold traces the myriad strains of abolitionist thought that were crystallizing in the American consciousness; even among the small subversive community, individuals supported different methodologies for achieving emancipation. Harrold tells the story of Charles Torrey, a Yale graduate who moved to D.C. as a newspaper correspondent. Torrey saw slavery in strict moral terms. He believed that helping slaves escape would make “property in slaves…so insecure that it would hasten emancipation.” Torrey’s brash nature led him into constant clashes with the District’s slave traders. In 1842, he crashed the Maryland slaveholders convention and was promptly “held against his will by convention delegates, rescued by some Annapolis residents, captured by a mob, and jailed by local authorities.” For years, he ran an underground railroad in the District, helping countless individuals escape to freedom in the north. Torrey opposed paying slaveowners to set their slaves free, comparing the practice to rewarding a criminal for his misdeeds.

Harrold contrasts Torrey’s outlook with that of William Chaplin, a lawyer by trade, who was Torrey’s successor as the de facto leader of the District’s anti-slavery community. Chaplin favored manumission through lawful means—in other words, compensating slaveholders. At one point, Chaplin proposed a national “Bureau of Humanity,” a sort of anti-slavery superfund to bankroll the freedom of the masses.

There were also subversives who favored education as the key to emancipation, such as Myrtilla Miner, a white woman from Madison County, N.Y., who in 1851 founded one of the District’s first schools for black girls. The school moved around town until 1855, when Miner purchased “a small frame house and several cabins on a three-acre tract in rural northwestern Washington.” There it survived for many years despite persecution and hazing from white Washingtonians. Many of Miner’s students went on to open schools of their own.

Throughout the book, Harrold explores the influence that the local anti-slavery activists had on nationally elected politicians and vice versa. In one surprising passage, the author documents how Jane Appleton Pierce, the wife of President Franklin Pierce—who was adamantly pro-slavery—supported Miner’s school, visiting it in an attempt to secure its safety.

Though Harrold clearly admires his subjects’ bravery and sympathizes with their cause, he resists the temptation to turn every activist into a hero. Instead, the author revels in the complexity of his characters and chronicles their weaknesses under the strain of a situation that had them living in such proximity to their aggressive enemies. Torrey, Chaplin, and Miner all succumbed in the end to the burden of their lifestyles. Torrey died in 1846 of tuberculosis in a Maryland penitentiary, serving a six-year sentence for illegally helping slaves escape. Chaplin fled north in 1850, after a botched mission to rescue two slaves ended in gunplay with members of the Washington Guard. Shortly thereafter, he disappeared. Miner became suicidal and was institutionalized in 1855 for fatigue and nervous problems.

But ultimately it was national politics, not fatigue, that disarmed and disbanded the District’s subversive community. The advent of the national Free Soil Party changed the dynamics of the anti-slavery movement in the District. By 1850, 14 members of that party were serving in Congress, and for the first time, an explicitly anti-slavery presence took hold in national politics. “With the rise of the Free Soil party, antislavery politics in the capital city quickly began to limit interracialism,” writes Harrold. “[T]he development of a white Free Soil social circle in the city—combined with a desire among Free Soilers [to] appeal to a regional southern white constituency—circumscribed biracialism, politically, socially, and religiously.”

Then, in 1861, President Abraham Lincoln was sworn in. “[A]lmost immediately the Lincoln administration transformed government policy concerning slavery and black rights in Washington,” Harrold writes. “It also began employing abolitionists as clerks in the executive departments, thereby swelling the ranks of the local antislavery community.” By May 1862, Congress had emancipated slaves in the District and repealed the local black code. Lincoln then made the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation that September, and the Final Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863.

The transformation of D.C.’s anti-slavery activists from freedom fighters to bureaucrats makes for a bathetic ending to Harrold’s otherwise uplifting book. Like many of his subjects’, Harrold’s energy dissipates toward the end. But, unwilling to go out with an anticlimax, the author makes a mawkish attempt at distilling the story of the subversives into warm, fuzzy lesson: “Yet the fact that the community lasted for so long and achieved so much is a tribute to the spirit of northern abolitionism and to its aggressive determination to confront slavery on southern soil,” he writes. “The subversives remind us that much can be achieved through interracial cooperation.”

More to the point, Subversives reminds us that radical action often precedes government reaction. Harrold provides a nugget of hope to those activists who are currently fighting against local injustices (such as D.C.’s lack of voting rights) with national implications. The subversives struggled for decades before their cause jumped from the streets of the city to the chambers of Capitol Hill. In the meantime, they didn’t sit back and wait for an anti-slavery majority to emerge in Congress. They fought to reinvent their society, and, ultimately, they succeeded. CP