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As reflected throughout his writing and oratory, the environment figured prominently in Frederick Douglass’s life. Notably, his engagement with the environment extended well beyond its personal impact to its broader place in the lives of all black people in the United States, enslaved and free alike. Drawing on life experience as well as leading eco-political discourse of his day, Douglass’s representation of the environment reveals an underexplored dimension of his calls for black liberation, which preceded and followed the abolition of slavery. Examining the extent to which the biophysical world and black life are entwined in Douglass’s work invites fresh insight into his thinking on a range of subjects, including the more consequential such as slavery and freedom.
The chapter concludes the section by describing the relatively open operations of the Underground Railroad in the Free Soil Region. The roots of a distinct Free Soil culture of violence based on open defiance lay in the emergence of an African American ethos of self-assertion and community self-defense and in the abolitionist movement’s break with the culture of dignity, which led the movement to embrace the use of restrained violence to defend the “free soil” of the North. As a consequence, Underground activists in the region pioneered new and more open modes of operation. In Upper North strongholds such as Detroit; Oberlin, OH; central New York State; and Boston, abolitionists and vigilance committees publicly announced the passage of fugitives from enslavement and their efforts to provide assistance. The chapter concludes by examining the region’s increasingly open and successful defiance of state and federal fugitive slave laws, paying particular attention to the communal, interracial, and public nature of the resistance with which activists defended the region against the intrusion of slave catchers, regardless of the latter’s behavior.
The Epilogue explores the impact of competing cultures of violence on secession and the coming of the Civil War. The collapse of the Fugitive Slave Act convinced many in the South that slavery could no longer be preserved within the Union. The rendition of Lucy Bagby from Cleveland, OH, in 1861 marked an attempt to conciliate the South by rebuilding a national consensus on the normativity of proslavery violence. The public condemnation of the Republican officials who returned Bagby to slavery, along with the party’s rejection of compromise measures, demonstrated that this consensus could no longer be restored. For many in the North, the violence of mastery was a moral horror that they were determined to repudiate. For white Southerners, however, the violence of mastery lay at the heart of their understandings of identity and membership in the national community. The violence of mastery also shaped the manner in which the South approached separation from the North, producing acts of aggression and demands for submission during the secession winter of 1860–1861. The Civil War was thus in part the product of an irreconcilable conflict in the cultural perception of violence.
The chapter focuses on the renewed campaign by Southerners to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act in the Free Soil Region, from which few fugitives had hitherto been recovered. The law’s passage triggered a storm of indignation across the region as communities gathered in public meetings and pronounced the law void and of no force. Nevertheless, the law emboldened slaveholders to pursue fugitives from enslavement who had taken refuge in abolitionist strongholds in the Upper North. In response, Underground activists took pains to publicize their activities and promised to protect fugitives who settled within the United States. As slave catchers ventured into the region, a series of spectacular public rescues garnered national attention. These large-scale acts of outright defiance revealed the determination of the region’s residents to defend the “free soil” of their communities by violence if necessary. Free Soil residents gathered in interracial crowds numbering in the thousands to confront slave catchers, humiliate those cooperating with the law, and punish those who performed the violence of mastery within their communities.
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