Antislavery Activism in America

Long before the Civil War, antislavery activists, both black and white, were fighting at the state level for the equality of blacks. In Until Justice Be Done, Kate Masur has written a rich and rewarding history of “America’s first civil rights movement from the Revolution to Reconstruction.” It is the story of “a struggle for racial equality in civil rights that spanned the first eight decades of the nation’s history, a movement that traveled from the margins of American politics to the center and ended up transforming the US Constitution.” 

This book achieves two things. First, it skillfully lays out the social, political, and legal history of antislavery thought in the years prior to the Civil War. Masur gives a sweeping account of how antislavery political leaders and activists used law and politics in their effort to reconcile constitutional practice with the ideals of the American Revolution. Second, it helps us to understand the development and influence of antislavery constitutionalism by detailing how the Constitution and its principles served as the foundation for contesting racially unequal laws at the state level. Her narrative is long, wide-ranging, and complex, but it offers a powerful and persuasive account of important changes that occurred in American political culture from the nation’s founding to Reconstruction. Masur’s work honors the memory of those Americans — black and white — who truly embraced the constitutional ideal of liberty under law, and worked to see it embodied both in the states and on a national level.     

Masur’s story begins with the American Revolution which “bequeathed to Americans the Declaration of Independence and its ringing promise that ‘all men are created equal.’” She gives a nod to the common argument that the Constitution was contrary to the Revolution, but suggests instead that the Constitution was incomplete. It “gave state and local governments tremendous power over the status and rights of their inhabitants,” she notes. While it would have been more accurate simply to note that the Constitution accepted that sovereign states retained police powers, Masur is right to remind us that most laws relevant to the status and treatment of African Americans were made at the state level. 

The poor law tradition raised difficult legal and practical barriers for African Americans who sought to embrace the revolutionary promise of freedom and the constitutional ideal of equality under the law.

In addressing oppressive laws at the state level, Masur’s chief focus is a category of laws by which states policed free African Americans within their boundaries. She documents how these laws drew from an older tradition of “poor laws,” developed in sixteenth-century England, by which communities tried to prevent paupers and vagabonds from becoming charges of the public. “The core idea in the English poor-law tradition,” Masur explains, “was that families and communities were obliged to provide for their own dependent poor, but not for transients and strangers.” According to these laws, some individuals were deemed to be legally “settled” in a community — generally because they were male heads of households or their dependents. These permanent residents could make claims on public relief funds if they met with unfortunate circumstances. But those without a permanent settlement were not eligible for public relief. 

As Masur further explains, many local and state laws allowed such “unwanted sojourners” to be barred or expelled from a jurisdiction even if it was only suspected they might become a charge on the public. The poor law tradition raised difficult legal and practical barriers for African Americans who sought to embrace the revolutionary promise of freedom and the constitutional ideal of equality under the law. Masur shows how these legal precedents influenced national debates during the founding era, from the Articles of Confederation to the crisis related to the admission of Missouri to the union. 

The Missouri controversy was of the highest urgency in national politics, but the bulk of Masur’s work focuses on a careful unfolding of constitutional arguments against anti-black laws at the state level. She highlights the work of antislavery activists, who organized locally but eventually had an impact nationally. Exemplary among these activists, in Masur’s telling, was the Quaker publisher and abolitionist Benjamin Lundy. He is best known for mentoring the radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who eventually renounced both the Constitution and the effort to address slavery through political means. Lundy, on the other hand, made significant contributions to antislavery constitutionalism, relying on constitutional provisions to oppose slavery, and advancing his agenda through the political process. Substantively, while he conceded that Congress could not regulate slavery in the states, he called for Congress “to attack slavery in places where the Constitution gave it exclusive jurisdiction — the District of Columbia and the federal territories.” He also argued that the commerce clause gave Congress power to regulate the interstate slave trade. Tactically, Lundy used petitions to draw more legislative attention to the plight of oppressed blacks.      

In both ways, Lundy emulated Benjamin Franklin, who, as president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, was the first to submit an antislavery petition to the new Congress in 1790. Franklin called on Congress to “step to the very edge of the Powers you have” in defense of oppressed blacks. Many would emulate Lundy, and Masur observes the effectiveness of petitioning as “a critical and distinctive form of political action. It was different from voting in that, consistent with traditions deeply rooted in English practice, petitioning was understood as an act of supplication available to even the most marginalized individuals.” 

African Americans could and did rely on petitioning to advocate their own case. Though we now associate the tactic with Southern lawmakers who imposed a “gag rule” in the late 1830s and early 1840s to discourage petitioners to Congress, Masur details dozens of petitions submitted to state legislatures in protest of anti-black laws. Underscoring the effectiveness of this tactic over the long term, she concludes with an account of the petitions against anti-black laws that flooded into the Illinois legislature after Republicans swept to power in 1864. One petition from Chicago included 50,000 names; another from Cook County contained 7,000 names and stretched to 125 feet in length. 

Though blacks were once told they were not qualified to enjoy the blessings of liberty, they picked up its burdens and demonstrated otherwise.

Political activism sometimes led to electoral success. Masur documents how once-marginal characters—including Lundy and Theodore Dwight Weld—worked their way into the political platform of the nascent antislavery Liberty Party. Its members presented themselves as the true heirs of America’s founders. Though the party conceded that the national government could not regulate slavery in the states, it insisted on the power of Congress to regulate slavery in the District of Columbia and federal territories, citing the Fifth Amendment’s insistence that “no person” should be deprived of the rights to life, liberty, or property without due process of law. The Liberty Party alienated Garrison and his faction of religious perfectionists, but it still had a powerful impact. Its ideas influenced John Bingham, who would later help to draft the Fourteenth Amendment, and its members included Salmon Chase, who would help to establish the Republican Party. Masur concludes that by the time Abraham Lincoln was elected, “the party stood unequivocally behind the principle of racial equality in civil rights and moved quickly, during the Civil War, to translate that principle into public policy.”      

In Masur’s telling, the perfectionist Garrison had a secondary role in advancing antislavery principles during the early republican era. Nevertheless, she concedes his victory in framing our approach to understanding our national history. On the one hand, she reminds us that antislavery activists, black and white, appealed to constitutional principles to persuade Americans of the justice of their cause. Over time, the public came to recognize that blacks were rightly part of “we the people.” On the other, Masur closes in a Garrisonian tone, acknowledging that she is “[a]ssessing complicity and assigning blame in this nation’s enduring inability to confront entrenched racism.” It seems odd. She herself has capably demonstrated that the rejection of entrenched racism was the most enduring theme of American political culture from the Revolution to the Civil War. Perhaps Masur shares in America’s exceptional guilt regarding slavery, and thus finds it hard to acknowledge even partial success because it falls short of perfection.      

Masur deserves praise for having told the story of antislavery efforts in the early years of our nation’s history. This movement ultimately succeeded in changing the Constitution, which now fully acknowledges that all deserve equal treatment under the law.  Beyond that, as Masur demonstrates, this movement and its successors have successfully transformed American national identity. Though blacks were once told they were not qualified to enjoy the blessings of liberty, they picked up its burdens and demonstrated otherwise. Many other Americans can learn from this, accepting that liberty is not a birthright that can be granted by our fathers but is instead a privilege that must be demanded and secured in the political sphere.