I never became an acolyte at the feet of Henry Thoreau as many of my peers did when introduced to his writings on civil disobedience in the 1960s. At a time when protest against American involvement in Vietnam was ratcheting up, Thoreau’s writings were an example to follow for young revolutionaries. However, there were living exemplars of nonviolent resistance putting their lives on the lines right then and there in the form of Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis et al, and Gandhi was not yet a historical figure to older members of the movement.
However, Thoreau’s name came up again and again. Having learned more about him now, it does not seem to me that this rather fey character who had not much more to resist than paying taxes and who seemed to live rather on the outside of the turmoils of his time rather than getting his hands dirty is the model I would have chosen. (True, the nonpayment of taxes was in protest of the horrible Mexican-American War, the US’s first venture into imperialism, and that is commendable.)
As it turns out, there was an African-American abolitionist named William Whipper (1804-1876) who articulated a theory of nonviolent resistance at least 12 years before Thoreau, according to Thomas Lessl in a brief tract about Whipper in the book From African-American Orators: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook.
William Whipper was a free black who received a good education and put it to work to become an entrepreneur and one of the richest African-Americans in the country. He was an orator and journalist as well. Of his wealth, he put much of what he had back into the abolition movement and Underground Railroad both in Philadelphia and Columbia, Pennsylvania. His mother was a slave, his father a European-American. It is not clear whether his father owned his mother, or what his father’s name was. But the man did acknowledge William as his son and had him educated privately along with his white children. The father also shared left a timber and logging business to his “illegitimate” son.
Whipper was born in the Lancaster area of Pennsylvania and moved to Philadelphia at the time in the 1830s when that city had become a haven for both free blacks and fugitive slaves. The city was a major cog in the complex Underground Railroad and most free blacks were involved in it. Whipper had moved to Columbia by the time he first broached his theory of nonviolence in 1837 in “An Address on Non-Resistance to Offensive Aggression.”
What separates Whipper’s philosophy from Thoreau’s was his Christian idealism and his belief in the original nonviolent resistance model, Jesus of Nazareth. As a younger man, he was clearly influenced by the Enlightenment and thought that reason alone might end slavery. As he grew older and more experienced, he turned more to his faith on which to base his abolitionist ideals. The inherent sinfulness of mankind made it obvious to him that reason alone would not solve this problem.
So why isn’t William Whipper’s name more familiar to students of the abolitionist movement? Nonviolent resistance was not what a lot of abolitionists wanted to talk about, though. Neither was Whipper’s adherence to creating a biracial society, based upon his utter belief that we are neither black nor white but children of the one God, whom he often called the “Author.” More than a century before Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown began to seek justice in a blacks-only movement, there were those who also wished to work only within the framework of African-American society. Perhaps Whipper’s parentage had a psychological impact on his desire not to cut off the white part of himself.
No one could have worked harder, though, than he did in feeding and clothing the destitute slaves who came to him and then sending them on their way with money to freedom in Canada. He did this even after the Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850, under which he himself could have been imprisoned, and possibly enslaved, had he been caught.