Abolition and the Personal
Prior to his days as a gadfly to President Abraham Lincoln, Douglass lived two decades under the crushing, totalizing system he invested his entire adult life in abolishing. Born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, an enslaved Black man in Maryland, Douglass recounts how he paced himself down the cobblestone streets leading up to the railroad station in Baltimore, embarking on a death-defying trip to New York—a freedom excursion riddled with trepidation. He moved painfully cognizant of the terror of the slave's lot and the anxiety of running away. While we regularly give due attention to the maneuverings of the Underground Railroad, the act of braving the danger of escaping slavery alone was most common. David Blight contends:
Eighty percent of these fugitives were young males in their teens and twenties who generally absconded alone. Indeed, [between 1838 and 1860] 95 percent fled alone.
Young slave women were much less likely to run away because of their family and child-rearing responsibilities. Entire families with children did attempt flights to freedom, but such instances were rare.10
A part of this majority, Bailey disguised himself as a free Black sailor the day he actually escaped, an ingenious ruse in a city like Baltimore known to laud sailors during his time. Just two years before he ventured toward freedom successfully, the indiscretion of another enslaved Black man foiled his plans and led to a stint in jail. The local authorities transferred him back to his master, who leased him out as a laborer in the Baltimore shipyards. As a precaution, Bailey borrowed free papers from a Black seaman, although he hardly favored the phenotypical details listed on the document. On multiple occasions during that daylong commute from Maryland to New York, Bailey faced the prospect of punishment if someone identified him as runaway slave.
After twenty years of enslavement and two failed attempts, Bailey arrived in New York and worked to outlive and outmaneu-ver his experiences of racialized violence, laborious punishment, personal loss, and grotesque dehumanization. Once in New York, he changed his name from Bailey to Douglass. Douglass celebrated September 3, 1838, as his birthday—the day when his "free life began." He changed his name and his birthday in commemoration of his independence. For Douglass and three million enslaved Black people, slavery and freedom were personal. Self-definition through name creation and biographical adjustments model the personalization of emancipation and policy. Black abolitionists, like Douglass and Sojourner Truth, understood policy less as a function of government and more as a resource for identity-building. Imagine if we, as teaching and learning leaders, imagined abolition with students in our classroom as a personal agency of identity-building, as much as a function of governmental influence? For example, when we invite students to name and rename themselves beyond the names on official school records, it is a seemingly mundane, yet epic engagement in the personal agency politics of abolition.
In 1851, Truth uniquely personalized the policy of slavery and its patriarchal intersection:
And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman?
I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?11
Like all systems of tyranny, slavery was not about singular political personalities or parties. It was the law of the land enforced by courts, churches, Congress, and the commander-in-chief that shaped real lives. The capacity to make abolition personal—how it impacts kitchen tables and wallets, desks and textbooks, cafeterias and playgrounds—confronts the public with the atrocities it longs to unsee, rationalize, or further capitalize. A strength of many Black abolitionists rested in the oration and publications of their personal experiences, windows into their nightmares offered as a pathway to expand the window of the possible.
Perennially, it remains important to note how the president with which Douglass targeted his policy discussion functioned far outside the spirit of abolitionism. The romanticization of Abraham Lincoln as an antiracist, in fact, denigrates the resolve and political genius of the Black abolitionists forcing his hand on the "slave question." During a debate with incumbent Democrat Senator from Illinois in 1858, Lincoln argued:
I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, [applause]—that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.12
In 1858, three years prior to the first shots of the Civil War, our nation's bloodiest military engagement, Lincoln highlighted personal issues like the right to be employed as a public servant and marrying whomever you love. Freedom is always personal for impacted people.
Attending a public event, Elizabeth "MumBett" Freeman, a woman owned by Colonel John and Hannah Ashley of Sheffield, heard a reading of the Massachusetts State Constitution. The newly ratified constitution that overwhelmingly appealed to her innate sense of freedom read:
All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.13
Immediately, she decided to secure legal counsel to sue for her freedom on the grounds of the unconstitutionality of slavery. In her initial conversation with Attorney Theodore Sedgwick, a slaveholder with antislavery leanings,14 Freeman opined: "I heard that paper read yesterday, that says, all men are created equal, and that every man has a right to freedom. I'm not a dumb critter; won't the law give me my freedom?"15
She decidedly weaponized the constitution against slavery. She made it personal.
In May 1781, Great Barrington's County Court ruled in MumBett's favor, granting her family's freedom, defined them as workers, and awarded compensation. Another enslaved African, Quock Walker, sued his abusive captor for his freedom and won. Ultimately, these decisions circulated in the chambers of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The Supreme Court Chief Justice William Cushing argued that the state's 1780 Constitution and the stated American ideals rendered slavery unconstitutional because Massachusetts declared "all men are born free and equal—and that every subject is entitled to liberty .. ,"16 As a result, the chief justice concluded that slavery was "inconsistent with our own conduct and Constitution; and there can be no such thing as perpetual servitude of a rational creature, unless his liberty is forfeited by some criminal conduct or given up by personal consent or contract."17 Their personal narratives, their lived experiences and their human stories raised in the court of law dealt a crushing blow to the system of slavery in Massachusetts. An abolitionist approach is a personal approach.