Book Review: Symbols of Freedom: Slavery and Resistance before the Civil War

Symbols of Freedom: Slavery and Resistance before the Civil War. By Matthew J. Clavin. New York: New York University Press, 2023. 304pp, Hardcover, $29.95.

Reviewed by Tim Talbott

It is no secret that citizens in the United States and the Confederate States each claimed the heritage of the American Revolution. Soldiers wrote about that tradition as a motivation for fighting, and statesmen exclaimed its importance as a primary reason for their national existence from the halls of government. The problem, of course, came with their different perceptions of their Revolutionary War inheritances. While Northerners looked at their Revolutionary War legacy through the lens of creating of a perpetual and indivisible Union, Southerners claimed the right of secession when the bond of Union produced situations that no longer benefitted their part in that Union.

Unfortunately, too often left out of this discussion are the claims of the enslaved and their allies. These individuals also saw the importance of what came from the Revolutionary War and Early American eras as a potential means of securing their national birthright of freedom through adopting the nation’s symbols. Symbols of Freedom: Slavery and Resistance before the Civil War by Matthew J. Clavin, serves as a beneficial reminder of this fact.

Patrick Henry’s famous “Give me liberty or give me death” speech, the flag of the United States, the Declaration of Independence, the Fourth of July, the United States Capitol Building, and other symbols all became contested grounds during the decades before the Civil War. As the new nation started to emerge after the Revolutionary War and into and through the first half of the nineteenth century, these iconic phrases and distinct symbols of United States nationalism gained a solid place in pro-slavery practice and rhetoric.

For example, it was not uncommon for domestic slave trade coffles to include one of the enslaved forced into carrying the Stars and Stripes. It was not happenstance. Slave traders planned it for effect. Doing so promoted their pro-slavery vision of a United States wedded to the “peculiar institution.” Likewise, the Fourth of July, a holiday intended in certain parts of the country solely to celebrate the Declaration of Independence, the separation from England, and freedom, also became an opportunity to advertise and sell Black men, women, and children in other locations. Additionally, pro-slavery elements used the Capitol Building and the White House; then the very seats of the nation’s legislative, judicial, and executive branches, as symbols of support for the pro-slavery laws, judicial decisions, and presidential orders handed to the nation.

However, as Clavin clearly demonstrates through numerous documented examples, the enslaved and a small but vocal and growing group of abolitionist allies were unwilling to allow such a misappropriation of national symbols. In doing so, they offered a much different perspective. Abolitionists used the Capitol Building and the flag in their anti-slavery illustrations. Enslaved people used the celebrations on the Fourth of July as opportunities to seek self-emancipation and plan other resistance efforts. Orators like Frederick Douglass showed through their speeches the insincerity of the Declaration of Independence’s statement that “all men are created equal” when viewed from the viewpoint of enslaved people.

Consisting of two parts, Symbols of Freedom covers seven chapters and an important epilogue. In “Part I-Contesting,” Clavin discusses the various national symbols in contention and their opposing perspectives with its three chapters. With “Part II-Fighting,” Clavin offers readers the responses—sometimes violent—that the enslaved and abolitionists incorporated in exposing the hypocrisy of pro-slavery claims on U.S. symbols and how they should instead serve as symbols of freedom for all people. The four chapters of Part II feature historical figures and events, both famous and otherwise, to illustrate the author’s arguments. The epilogue, “Fighting for Old Glory,” incorporates the story of 54th Massachusetts, and specifically Sgt. William Carney’s (pictured on the book’s cover) bravery in rescuing the national colors at Battery Wagner as an example to show “that as long as there has been a United States, there have been African Americans who were willing to fight and die for it.” (208)

As one might expect, Symbols of Freedom contains numerous period images that provide visual evidence of how abolitionists incorporated symbols into their anti-slavery efforts. These images enhance and complement Clavin’s written arguments well. The 50-page section of endnotes are proof to the diverse sources Clavin utilized in his research.

Symbols of Freedom adds significantly to our understanding of the various methods used to resist and abolish slavery in the United States. In doing so, it is sure to receive a warm welcome from enthusiasts wanting to learn more about this important part of United States history.


1 Response to Book Review: Symbols of Freedom: Slavery and Resistance before the Civil War

  1. Sounds like a superb book.

    I would like to see more secondary works written on those who were not just ‘written out’ of the Declaration of Independence, but those as well whom such was specifically it was ‘written against’; Aboriginals and French Canadians.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!

%d bloggers like this: