Time to Acknowledge Wrongful Convictions

During Black History Month, one thing that has a tendency to get forgotten is the fact that some black and white Americans attempted to end slavery by armed rebellion before it was finally abolished by the Civil War. From the time this country was founded to the start of the Civil War, the United States quelled attempted slave revolts, convicting and even executing those involved.

Full restitution for slavery cannot be made. One major reason for this is that while slavery stills casts an ugly shadow on racial conditions in America, both the slaves themselves and those who perpetuated their enslavement are long dead. However, issuing a blanket posthumous pardon to everyone who was involved in or attempted to start a slave rebellion in the United States would still be a laudable way of expressing regret for our nation’s perpetuation of slavery.

It is common knowledge that slaves in the United States were being held hostage and kept as property. What is sometimes ignored is the fact that the military, the police, the courts, the Southern governors, Congress, and the president would not intervene to help them. In fact, they would actively aid the slave masters. Laws were passed, including a clause in the Constitution, mandating the return of fugitive slaves. Police were expected to arrest runaways.

When a group of white and black abolitionists rioted in 1854 in an attempt to free a runaway slave about to be returned to Virginia from Massachusetts, President Franklin Pierce sent in the Marines. They were not sent in to rescue the hapless slave being held hostage and deprived of his liberty. Instead, they were sent in to make sure that the runaway slave, a man named Anthony Burns, was returned to bondage. Imagine if you were being held captive and were told that if you tried to escape, the government would side with your kidnappers and that if you came across police officers, they would arrest you and return you to your masters. In such a situation, armed rebellion by slaves was basic self-defense.

In antebellum America, there were white people like John Brown and Thomas Wentworth Higginson who acknowledged that slavery was evil and that black people deserved equal rights. Rather than sitting back and doing nothing, they chose to stand up for the freedom of others by attempting to start a slave rebellion. Even abolitionists, black and white, who had not taken an active part in Brown’s raid tended to understand why Brown had done what he had. The great abolitionist orator, Wendell Phillips, gave Brown’s eulogy. Frederick Douglass said of Brown, “I could live for the slave, but he could die for him.”

It is indeed true that atrocities took place in slave rebellion. In Nat Turner’s revolt, children were slaughtered. John Brown did not kill randomly, but he did have people killed execution-style, out of revenge. Yet we must look where the greatest guilt for these horrors lies. The masters who held their slaves deserve a great deal of the blame. Yet the federal and state governments, including the presidents, governors, legislators, police, and soldiers all had a sacred obligation to protect the rights of all Americans. As a group, they failed, despite the strong support for freedom shown by some individual government officials, such as Senator Charles Sumner. Worse, they actively maintained the enslavement of millions of people. Had they fulfilled their moral obligation, slave rebellions would never have become necessary. The blood of innocent people who died in slave rebellions is on the hands of those who maintained the system of slavery more than it is on the hands of any of the rebels. Given both the cruel nature of enslavement and the responsibility of the American political system for causing slavery, a blanket posthumous pardon for all those convicted of participating in or trying to start a slave rebellion is the only just course of action.

 

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