Shall We Fight with Chains upon Our Limbs?

women marching and holding posters

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 10 No. 6, "Waging Peace." Find more from that issue here.

From The Liberator, 1842 

In 1842, the participation of blacks in the military came under serious question when the United States threatened to go to war against England to force the return of 134 slaves who the year before had seized a ship taking them from Louisiana to Virginia. During the mutiny, led by Madison Washington, one of the crew was killed. The ship put in at the British port of Nassau in the Bahamas. England, which had abolished slavery in 1834, refused to return the people to America. As talk of war escalated, a black newspaper, The Liberator, published the following editorial on April 1, 1842. 


Whilst we look forward with some degree of curiosity to learn in what manner our Secretary of State [Daniel Webster] will sneak out of the bullying position into which his late dispatch has placed him, we cannot shut our eyes to the fact, that the decision of the British Parliament, neither to indemnify, nor to deliver up the self-liberated slaves of the Creole, may lead to war. And as it is well "in time of peace to prepare for war," let us seriously and solemnly ask our brethren to make up their minds now, as to the position they may assume in such a catastrophe. 

If war be declared, shall we fight with the chains upon our limbs? Will we fight in defence of a government which denies us the most precious right of citizenship? Shall we shed our blood in defence of the American slave trade? Shall we make our bodies a rampart in defence of American slavery? 

We ask these questions, because there is no law in existence which can compel us to fight, and any fighting on our part must be a VOLUNTARY ACT. The States in which we dwell have twice availed themselves of our voluntary services, and have repaid us with chains and slavery. Shall we a third time kiss the foot that crushes us? If so, we deserve our chains. No! Let us maintain an organized neutrality, until the laws of the Union and of all the States have made us free and equal citizens.