RECAP: “The Other Fire Bell: African Americans and the Long Shadow of the Missouri Compromise,” Zoom Colloquium w/ RIT Prof. Richard Newman

Previewing his chapter for the Kinder Institute and MU Press’ forthcoming edited volume examining the Missouri Crisis at its bicentennial, Rochester Institute of Technology Professor of History Richard Newman described his contribution to the book as one that would detail the vital role that African Americans played in shaping the meaning and historical memory of the 1820-21 Missouri Compromise—not only in the immediate aftermath of the legislation but also, as his talk showed, before its passage.

Tackling this task, he noted in introducing his presentation, required situating his chapter within the context of two current scholarly approaches to interpreting antebellum African American protest politics and political agency. As exemplified in Kellie Carter Jackson’s 2019 Force and Freedom, one approach uses the lens of slave resistance and Black nationalism to explore how many Black abolitionists saw violence—and even the prospect of violence—as the missing piece in reform struggles. These scholars argue, for example, that the attention paid to white abolitionists’ politics of peaceful protest unduly marginalizes how instrumental the threat of slave revolution was to advancing the anti-slavery cause. On the other hand, Prof. Newman continued, works like Christopher Bonner’s 2020 Remaking the Republic highlight 19th-century Black activists’ interest in institutional reform, placing particular emphasis on how securing citizenship rights was viewed as a necessary means of thwarting the expansion of the slave empire.

Without at all taking away from the tradition of slave resistance as powerful both before and after the Civil War, Prof. Newman explained that his chapter’s argument falls more in line with Bonner’s research, as it shows how African Americans worked within existing political institutions—and created new ones—to aggressively push back against the prevailing politics of compromise that was allowing slavery to grow westward. Among other things, he outlined how this reading would de-center figures like Sumner in the history of abolitionism and reveal how Free Soilers were, in fact, following the lead of “compromise is death” African American activists in gravitating toward attacking the slave empire head on.

In unpacking how institutional reform was ultimately pursued, Prof. Newman first explored the work of Black legal freedom seekers who, beginning in the 1810s, used the Northwest Ordinance as an abolitionist tool to contend in courts that their liberty was implied by their having lived in the territory outlined in the 1787 legislation. Acknowledging the political impact of these liberty claims—rather than treating them as mere loopholes—adds important new contour to our thinking about the Missouri Compromise by framing it not as an argument between white politicians but instead in terms of how Missouri territorial representatives’ fervent petition for statehood was very much responding to a threat to their vision of a slaveholding West that was issued by African Americans. As more 19th-century court records are digitized—we have already seen this happen in Missouri, Ohio, and Maryland, among other states—what will become ever more apparent is the degree to which these liberty claims marked a concerted and often successful Black-led push to neutralize slavery on its own ground.

Prof. Newman then turned toward David Walker, whose Appeal channeled Atlantic-wide Black resistance in articulating a vision of slave rebellion as perhaps the most important means of combatting white political temporizers and compromisers—most notably, for Walker, Thomas Jefferson—who were paving the way for slavery’s expansion into the West. To be sure, Walker conceived of resistance in terms of the rising up of enslaved people. At the same time, Prof. Newman argued, he likewise saw mass organization as a more institutionally-oriented tool of rebellion. He was, for example, an ideological force behind the Black conventions that arose in states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio, in which participants demanded the repeal of black laws and the recognition of their claims to equal citizenship as ways to wall off these territories from slavery. A key factor in the disintegration of major political parties, these conventions—which occurred at both the state and national level—are, Prof. Newman offered, a crucial measure of Walker’s legacy.

Finally, he probed the intersection of public outreach—whether in speaking or writing—and institutional reform. At the forefront of this was Frederick Douglass. Not only did Douglass use his orations and newspaper columns to decry compromise—“I spit on compromise,” he declared in an Ithaca speech—in advancing the cause of emancipation. Through this, he also entrenched himself in dissident politics, first with the Free Soil Party and then with the Radical Abolition Party, becoming a key spokesperson for African Americans’ voices as central to the vision of any third party that thought itself capable of standing up to the slave republic. Though Douglass was at all times willing to embrace righteous violence as a means to ending slavery, Prof. Newman closed by noting that he was equally open to institutional political alternatives to resolving his growing concern with the conservatism of many Republican denizens.

A recording of the talk can be found here.