William Whipper in the Black Abolitionist Tradition

David Zimmerman


[ Click on WW throughout the document for extended quotations of Whipper's Words]

During the antebellum period, Columbia, Pennsylvania embodied much of the promise, albeit a very tentative and conditional one, that glimmered on the horizons of northern free black communities. Home to two of the wealthiest African Americans of the period,William Whipper and Stephen Smith, Columbia held the prospect of economic stability embodied in its emergent black middle class. According to one scholar, Columbia was a "[Black] Eldorado, a sort of golden paradise that promised earthly riches and a chance to begin a life of dignity and self-reliance."[i]

Yet, if the Columbia free black community offered, on the one hand, a hopeful image of black independence and progress, on the other it was indelibly inscribed with the painful markings of the southern slavery experienced by the African American majority. Regardless of the level of economic well-being and social prestige earned by individual members of the northern free black population, the complex familial, judicial and social ties directly linking the differing, yet intersecting, realities of free and enslaved populations could not be broken. This ambivalence of being, characteristic of northern black identity andthe bittersweet awareness of opportunity and oppression, was most apparent in Columbia as a result of its geographic proximity to the Maryland border.

A large transient black population was drawn to Columbia as a destination and as a stopover en route to destinations farther north. Columbia was the sight of an active abolition society, which had, on occasion, even intervened in attempted kidnappings by southern slaveholders. This abolitionist record encouraged the growth of Columbiaís black population while the increasing numbers additionally offered anonymity to self-emancipated African Americans escaping from the south.[ii] Due to its positioning as both a crossroads of commerce and the first step out of southern slavery, the Columbian black experience testifies to both the potential and the travails of African Americans in the north.

In many regards, William Whipper was a paragon of the positive attributes northern freedom offered African Americans. Born in Lancaster in1804 and later circulating between Columbia and Philadelphia, Whipper amassed a sizable fortune through joint ventures with his business partner Stephen Smith. Their extensive investments included land holdings in Pennsylvania and Canada, lumberyards, railroad cars, and a steam ship on Lake Erie. Many of these assets were directly employed in aiding the escapes of black fugitives from the south.

Whipper came to believe that white prejudice against black Americans sprung "not from the color of their skin, but from their condition."[iii]  From this premise his commitment to moral reformation and the cause of temperance was formulated. While to some historians the advocacy of moral reform by black leaders evidenced a disconnection with the immediacy of the abolitionist cause and the plight of the southern black population, Whipper saw a direct connection between the two concerns.[iv]

  "The slaveholder who says that he desires slavery to be abolished, and will not manumit his slaves; we doubt the sincerity of his assertions. The moderate drinker, who says he wishes drunkenness swept from the land, and still keeps on drinkingóshall we believe him?  These moderate men appear to be true facsimiles of another class of citizens, called colonizationists. They both cry out against the evil, and propose their remedies; but figures, which cannot lie, prove the inefficiency of their plans; for their application has only operated like extinguishing fire with oil; for both intemperance and slavery have flourished under their cure.[v]      WW


As a leader of the American Moral Reform Society, Whipper was strongly dedicated to interracial organizing and opposed the establishment of separate black organizations.

During the mid-1830s Columbia was plagued by a series of racially motivated riots directed mainly against the business establishments of wealthy black Columbians, particularly Stephen Smith and likely Whipper's investments as well.[vi]  Perhaps reflecting a sense of disillusionment with the factionalized abolitionist movement and the limits of interracial organizing, in 1839 William Whipper reversed his attribution of white prejudice from the condition of African Americans to their complexion. It was "not a lack of elevation, but complexion that deprived the man of color equal treatment."[vii]  Despite this apparent revelation for a man who had previously held the opposite to be true, Whipper maintained his dedication to the cause of moral reform although doubting its effectiveness as an anti-slavery tool.

This shifting perspective served as the basis for a reversal on the debate over racially separate versus interracial organizing. In a series of letters published in The Colored American entitled "William Whipper's Letters," a writer under the pseudonym Sidney (believed to be Henry Highland Garnet) issued a treatise on the necessity for self-representation of oppressed peoples. His appeal for independent black initiatives was argued against Whipperís well-known opposition to the issue. However, a decade later, William Whipper's participation in the black convention of 1853 and involvement in planning the National Council of Colored People signaled a softening of his initial insistence on integrated forums. He had come to understand, if not embrace, Sidneys argument for "the essentially peculiar ability of the oppressed, and the necessary incapability of all others."[viii]

Linked to Whipper's ideas of temperance, the restraint of what he viewed as the "base" instincts of human nature, was a commitment to the principles of non-resistance. In "An Address on Non-Resistance to Offensive Aggression," published in four consecutive issues of The Colored American during September of 1937, Whipper outlined his commitment to a strictly non-violent response to the evils of slavery. The contentious nature of this debate among black abolitionists is made clear by an editorial note inserted at the head of the first article. While clearly intending to provide a forum for discussion among black abolitionist perspectives, the editor of The Colored American, Samuel Cornish,could not refrain from inserting the following note:

  We publish this address with pleasure, hoping our readers will make the most of all the principles and arguments presented in favor of universal Peace.  But we honestly confess that we have yet to learn what virtue there would be in using moral weapons, in defence against a kidnapper or a midnight incendiary with a lighted torch in his hand.[ix]

In the article(s) that followed, Whipper cites Biblical texts and appeals to natural law in arguing that "the practice of non-resistance to physical aggression, is not only consistent with reason, but the surest method of obtaining a speedy triumph of the principles of universal peace."[x]  Keeping with the latter pragmatic tone, Whipper ended his address by stating: "Had they [the abolitionists] set out in this glorious undertaking of freeing 2,500,000 human beings, with the war-cry of 'liberty or death,' they would have been long since demolished."[xi]  WW

With the escalating threat of physical danger in the form of kidnappings and racial violence, those holding to non-resistance became the dissenting view by mid-century.[xii]  The idea of moral suasion and the employment of "moral weapons" in response to southern slavery were no longer adequate in the face of "a kidnapper or a midnight incendiary with a lighted torch in his hand."[xiii]  As black abolitionists retrenched within separate black organizations, they sounded a growingly militant tone of direct action against the agents of slavery. In a controversial address before the 1843 black convention in Buffalo, New York, Henry Highland Garnet reversed the religious reasoning of non-resistance by asserting: "TO SUCH DEGRADATION [of slavery] IT IS SINFUL IN THE EXTREME FOR YOU TO MAKE VOLUNTARY SUBMISSION. The divine commandments, you are in duty bound to reverence, and obey."[xiv]

In May of 1852, a William Smith was shot dead in Columbia during an attempted kidnapping by an officer from Baltimore. In a letter to Frederick Douglass regarding the incident, Whipper suggested that the incident was resolved in a manner that was "in favor of the slave, and against the interest of the master."

  In favor of the slave, because it was better to deprive him of his life, than his liberty. It was against the interest of the claimant, because it was an act of emancipation without compensation. All the former theories of freeing the slaves, has met with but little favor from the North; I wonder if "bullet emancipation" will be less objectionable.[xv]  WW

Such reasoning could well have been met with dismay by Douglass whose own definition of a ìbullet emancipationî was very concisely stated in an editorial entitled "The True Remedy for the Fugitive Slave Bill": "A good revolver, a steady hand, and a determination to shoot down any man attempting to kidnap."[xvi]
 
 


Whipper's elevated economic standing no doubt resulted in a more protected position in relation to the threat of kidnappings which allowed for detached pronouncements on the immorality of physical resistance. According to Norrence Jones, the issue of kidnappings in the north reveals the beginnings of a social hierarchy in the black community, "Those blacks who were economically secure, were best protected."[xvii]  Children were the most susceptible to kidnapping, but those of affluent blacks were educated in private schools "uunder a kind of supervision that would have made it more difficult for kidnappers to take [them]." Wealth certainly did not protect northern blacks from white racism as the case of the Columbia race riots demonstrated; however, on the issue of kidnapping (which was the focal point of debates over the use of physical resistance), Whipper was clearly not exposed to immediate danger as a result of his prominence.  For William Whipper and Stephen Smith, a politics of conciliation reflected their entrenchment in the economic fabric of the dominant society.[xviii]

Having successfully repelled the colonization schemes of the 1830s,[xix] African Americans reconsidered the idea of emigration during the National Crisis. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, further strengthening of the 1793 Slave Act,[xx] the Dred Scott decision, and the mounting influence of "slave power" on the federal government all translated into an increasingly perilous position occupied by northern blacks, one in which the distinctions between free and fugitive were being erased.

Black proponents reconceptualized emigration as an empowering move enabling the establishment of independent black communitiesóand possibly a nationóoutside the boundaries of the United States. Remaining a disputed issue among black abolitionists, emigration was no longer perceived as a forced abandonment of America at the hand of white society, but a potential strategy for strengthening the anti-slavery struggle from an autonomous land base abroad. For many, however, the choice of emigration was a pragmatic decision forced by dismal circumstances.

In Columbia, the black population rallied in opposition to the work of the Colombia Auxiliary Colonization Society, which gained increasing support among white residents following outbreaks of racial unrest. Yet, this position likewise changed as a result of the proscribed legal and social standing of northern blacks. Following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1851, Columbiaís black population drastically decreased as residents sought refuge to the north.

For several decades, William Whipper operated an active station of the Underground Railroad in Columbia. From his review of William Still's Underground Railroad (1872), Leroy Hopkins writes the following of Whipper's involvement.

  Once in Columbia the fugitives were sent by Whipper in one of two directions: either west by boat to Pittsburgh or east in his train cars to Philadelphia. In this way, by his own account, between 1847-1859 Whipper "passed hundreds to the land of freedom, while others, induced by high wages, and the feeling that they were safe in Columbia, worked in the lumber and coalyards of that place." The "land of freedom" Whipper alludes to was not the North. He states quite baldly "I always persuaded them to go to Canada, as I had no faith in their being able to elude the grasp of the slave-hunters."[xxi]

According to Whipper, between the years of 1950-55 he organized migrations to Canada that lowered the black population of Columbia from 943 to 487.[xxii]  Whipper entertained personal plans for resettlement in Canada West as well; however, they were interrupted by the outbreak of the Civil War and were never enacted.

The tactical shifts that characterized William Whipper's thought are not simply personal inconsistencies but are symbolic of the evolving strategies which were a necessary result of the changing political and judicial landscape in the United States. The black population in Columbia and across the nation evaluated local and national events as they affected their lives. Strategies of resistance were reformulated over time in order to remain relevant to the varying conditions of African Americans. While bearing the mark of his own class standing, William Whipper's dedication to the abolitionist cause reflects the complex ties that existed even between the wealthiest of free northern blacks and enslaved southern compatriots.
 
 

Notes


[i]Leroy Hopkins, "Black Eldorado on the Susquehanna: The Emergence of Black Columbia, 1726-1861," Journal of the Lancaster County Historical Society Vol. 89, No. 4 (1985) 128.
[ii]Ibid. 117.
[iii]The Black Abolitionist Papers Vol. 2 Ed. C. Peter Ripley. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1985) 119.
[iv] James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton, In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Community and Protest Among Northern Free Blacks, 1700-1831 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997) 223.
[v]The Black Abolitionist Papers Vol. 2 Ed. C. Peter Ripley. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1985) 128.
[vi] Willis Shirk, "Testing the Limits of Tolerance: Blacks and the Social Order in Columbia, PA 1800-1850," Pennsylvania History Vol. 60, No. 1 (January 1993) 39.
[vii]The Black Abolitionist Papers Vol. 3, 129 n. 1.
[viii]Sidney, "William Whipperís Letters," Witness for Freedom: African American Voices on Race, Slavery, and Emancipation Ed. Roy E. Finkebine, Michael F. Henbree, and Donald Yacovone. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993) 123.
[ix] William Whipper, "An Address on Non-Resistance to Offensive Aggression," The Colored American 9 September 1837 http://accessible.palinet.org/accessible/text/freedom/00000028/00002802.htm
[x] Ibid.
[xi] Ironically, in the completion of this quotation Whipper states, "or a civil war would have ensued; thus they would have died the national soil with human blood."
[xii] "Modern Voices: Eric Foner on Abolitionists and Violence," Africans in America http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4i2975.html
[xiii]Witness for Freedom: African American Voices on Race, Slavery, and Emancipation Ed. Roy E. Finkebine, Michael F. Henbree, and Donald Yacovone. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993) 162.
[xiv] Henry Highland Garnet, "An Appeal for Violence," Witness for Freedom: African American Voices onRace, Slavery, and Emancipation Ed. Roy E. Finkebine, Michael F. Henbree, and Donald Yacovone. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993) 166.
[xv] "Letter From William Whipper," Frederick Douglass Paper 9 June 1854, http://accessible.palinet.org/accessible/text/freedom/00000259/00025991.htm
[xvi] Frederick Douglass, "A Good Revolver," Witness for Freedom: African American Voices on Race, Slavery, and Emancipation Ed. Roy E. Finkebine, Michael F. Henbree, and Donald Yacovone. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993) 184.
[xvii] "Modern Voices: Norrece Jones on kidnapping and class," Africans in America http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part3/3i3121.html
[xviii] Stephen Smith willingly conceded to the demands of Columbiaís white citizens that he sell his property by putting it up for sale. His tactics clearly worked to diffuse the animosity felt towards the black population by the white working class and the property ultimately remained in Smith's hands as no buyers came forth.
[xix] See Richard Allen's address to the black convention gathered in Philadelphia which denounced the colonization scheme. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part3/3h512t.html
[xx] "Modern Voices: Eric Foner on the Fugitive Slave Act," Africans in America http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p2951.html
[xxi] Hopkins, 129.
[xxii] Skirk, 130.
 

 

Bibliography

Allen, Richard. "Address to the Free People of Color of these United States." Africans in Americahttp://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part3/3h512t.html

Douglass, Frederick. "A Good Revolver." Witness for Freedom: African American Voices onRace, Slavery, and Emancipation Ed. Roy E. Finkebine, Michael F. Henbree, and Donald Yacovone. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993) 183-4.

Henry Highland Garnet, "An Appeal for Violence," Witness for Freedom: African American Voices onRace, Slavery, and Emancipation Ed. Roy E. Finkebine, Michael F. Henbree, and Donald Yacovone. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993) 183-4.

Hopkins, Leroy. "Black Eldorado on the Susquehanna: The Emergence of Black Columbia, 1726-1861." Journal of the Lancaster County Historical Society Vol. 89, No. 4 (1985): 110-132.

Horton, James Oliver, and Lois E. Horton. In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Community and Protest Among Northern Free Blacks, 1700-1831New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

"Letter From William Whipper," Frederick Douglass Paper 9 June 1854, Accessible Archives, http://accessible.palinet.org/accessible/text/freedom/00000259/00025991.htm

"Modern Voices: Eric Foner on Abolitionists and Violence,î Africans in America http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4i2975.html

"Modern Voices: Eric Foner on the Fugitive Slave Act," Africans in Americahttp://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p2951.html

"Modern Voices: Norrece Jones on kidnapping and class," Africans in Americahttp://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part3/3i3121.html

Ripley, C. Peter. Ed. The Black Abolitionist Papers Vol. 2 and 3. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1985.

Shirk, Willis. "Testing the Limits of Tolerance: Blacks and the Social Order in Columbia, PA 1800-1850." Pennsylvania History Vol. 60, No. 1 (January 1993): 35-50.

Sidney, "William Whipper's Letters," Witness for Freedom: African American Voices onRace, Slavery, and Emancipation Ed. Roy E. Finkebine, Michael F. Henbree, and Donald Yacovone. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993) 183-4.

Whipper, William. "An Address on Non-Resistance to Offensive Aggression." The Colored American. 9 September 1837 Accessible Archives http://accessible.palinet.org/accessible/text/freedom/00000028/00002802.htm
 
 
 
 

William Whipper's Words
 
Whipper's Words I
 
The slaveholder who says that he desires slavery to be abolished, and will not manumit his slaves; we doubt the sincerity of his assertions. The moderate drinker, who says he wishes drunkenness swept from the land, and still keeps on drinking, shall we believe him? He, like the former, says that ìI am strictly in favor of temperance, but I hate your fanatical denunciations, your cold water societies for reform. Let every man be his own guardian. I hate both drunkards and drunkenness. I like moderation in every thing.î So says the moderate drinker. But yet, under his very system of self-government, has the evil arisen with all its accumulated power. Will the same evil or the same legislation cure itself? Certainly not. And if this ìuncontrollable libertyî is to be the ruling monitor, it will be impossible to fix a moral boundary. The man who drinks his small glass of brandy in a day or a week, will infringe on anotherís rights, if he reproves him who drinks his quart in a day or an hourófor each, in the exercise of this guaranteed liberty, only satisfied his own thirst. We should despise neither the drunkard nor those engaged in the traffic; we should hate their ways, and our admonitions should flow from a love to their welfare. These moderate men appear to be true facsimiles of another class of citizens, called colonizationists. They both cry out against the evil, and propose their remedies; but figures, ìwhich cannot lie,î prove the inefficiency of their plans; for their application has only operated like extinguishing fire with oil; for both intemperance and slavery have flourished under their cure.
 
*Excerpt from an address by William Whipper before the Colored Temperance Society of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 8 January, 1834 The Black Abolitionist Papers Vol. 2 Ed. C. Peter Ripley. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1985) 128.

Whipper's Words II

The moral powers of this nation and the world is fast wakening from the sleep of ages, and wielding a swift besom, that will sweep from the face of the earth error and iniquity with the power of a whirlwind. But a few years ago and dueling was considered necessary to personal honor, and the professional Christian, or the most upright citizen might barter away the lives and happiness of a nation with his guilty traffic in ardent spirits, with impunity. But now a regenerated public sentiment not only repudiates their conduct, but consigns them with ìbody and soul murderers.î Though the right to be free has been deemed inalienable by this nation, from a period antecedent to the declaration of American Independence, yet a mental fog hovered over this nation on the subject of slavery that had well nigh sealed her doom, were it not that in the Providence of God a few noble spirits arose in the might of moral power to her rescue. They girded on the power of truth, for their shield, and the principles of peace for their buckler and thus boldly pierced through the incrustations of a false and fatal philosophy, and from the incision, sprang forth the light of glorious liberty, disseminating its delectable rays over the dark chasms of slavery, and lighting up the vision of a ruined world. And the effect has been to awaken the nation to her duty with regard to the rights of man ? to render slaveholders despicable and guilty of robbery and murder ? and in many places, those that profess christianity have been unchurched, denied the privilege of christian fellowship. And the same moral power is now awakening in the cause of peace, and will bring disgrace and dishonor on all who engage in wars and fighting.
***

And now, Mr. President, I shall give a few practical illustrations, and then I shall have done. It appears by history that there have been many faithful advocates of peace since the apostolic age, but none have ever given a more powerful impetus to the cause of peace, than the modern abolitionists. They have been beaten and stoned, mobbed and persecuted from city to city, and never returned evil for evil, but submissively, as a sheep brought before the shearer have they endured scoffings and scourges for the causeís sake, while they prayed for their prosecutors. And how miraculously they have been preserved in the midst of a thousand dangers from without and within. Up to the present moment not the life of a single individual has been sacrificed on the altar of popular fury. Had they have set out in this glorious undertaking of freeing 2,500,000 human beings, with the war-cry of ìliberty or death,î they would have been long since demolished, or a civil war would have ensued; thus would have dyed the national soil with human blood. And now let me ask you, was not their method of attacking the system of human slavery the most reasonable? And would not their policy have been correct, even if we were to lay aside their christian motives? Their weapons were reason and moral truth, and on them they desired to stand or fall ? and so it will be in all causes that are sustained form just and christian principles, they will ultimately triumph. Now let us suppose for a single moment what would have been our case, if they had started on the principle, that ìresistance to tyrants is obedience to God?î ? what would have been our condition, together with that of the slave population? Why, we should have doubtless perished by the sword, or been praying for the destruction of our enemies, and probably engaged in the same bloody warfare.

*William Whipper, "An Address on Non-Resistance to Offensive Aggression," The Colored American 9 September 1837 http://accessible.palinet.org/accessible/text/freedom/00000028/00002802.htm
 
 
 

Whipper's Words III

It was a decision given by Officer Ridgely, of Baltimore, in favor of the alleged slave, and against the interest of the master. In favor of the slave, because it was better to deprive him of his life, than his liberty. Let no one be intimidated by the example! It is heroic, and should command the highest admiration. ? Let others do likewise. Let them say to the slaveholder, the pound of flesh is yours; by the claims of your constitutional laws, take it; but the living spirit then animates it, is mine, by all laws ? natural and divine. You cannot possess or control it ? it shall return to the God who gave it.
 
It was against the interest of the claimant, because it was an act of emancipation without compensation. All the former theories of freeing the slaves, has met with but little favor from the North; I wonder if ìbullet emancipationî will be less objectionable. ? The whole drama was performed in a true spirit of loyalty to the Constitution; no one interfered, to prevent the arrest. The alleged slave, with an officer at each side, holding his arms, formed a trinity that would have warmed the hearts of many Rev. Divines, so that they would have exclaimed, O Lord, Thy will be done. The alleged slave moved but slow, and the officer shot him in the head, to quicken his step. He fell lifeless, and the officers walked away coolly, and pursued their course to their homes, unmolested. This was done at about 3 oíclock, P.M.
 
*Excerpt from a letter written by William Whipper to Frederick Douglass, May 13, 1852 Frederick Douglass Paperhttp://www.accessible.palinet.org/accessible/text/freedom/00000259/00025991.htm

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