The Truth About Abolition
The movement gets the big, bold history it deserves.
A secret society called the Anti-Man-Hunting League was organized by Boston abolitionists in 1854 to prevent black people in the “free state” of Massachusetts from being kidnapped and enslaved. Its founders had been outraged to see federal troops hustle Anthony Burns, a fugitive slave from Virginia, through the city’s streets and onto a waiting vessel to be shipped back to his owner. They vowed not to let such an atrocity happen again.
Almost 500 men, white and black, joined the League, which met every two weeks. Members practiced their plan to kidnap visiting slave catchers, who were known to stay at the swanky Revere House, and persuade them, with leaded billy clubs if necessary, to return to the South empty-handed. They never had a chance to test their mettle. Asserting states’ rights in response to the Burns rendition, Massachusetts lawmakers effectively nullified the Fugitive Slave Act. Boston became a sanctuary city for runaway slaves.
Militant, interracial, and nearly forgotten, the Anti-Man-Hunting League epitomizes The Slave’s Cause, a stunning new history of abolitionism by Manisha Sinha, a professor of history and African American studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Abolitionism is the primordial reform movement of American history, creeping into view with the creation of the republic. It spawned other movements, most notably feminism. Whatever their cause, today’s activists look back to abolitionism for inspiration, tactics, and moral authority. No respectable historian today disputes the injustice of slavery. And yet the movement to abolish it remains highly controversial.
Some of the first histories of abolitionism were written after the Civil War by abolitionists themselves, to vindicate what they had done. Apologists for white supremacy in the era of Jim Crow then cast abolitionists as villains who fanned the flames of sectional conflict. After the civil-rights generation rehabilitated the movement’s reputation, more-recent scholars have seen the abolitionists as smug do-gooders and promoters of bourgeois values. Challenging the cynics, Sinha offers a new appreciation of those who struggled against slavery.
The Slave’s Cause is a long book—almost 600 pages of text—but abolitionism had a long history, longer than many think. Sinha discerns two “waves” of abolitionism, spanning 300 years. The first wave began with sporadic critiques of the Atlantic slave trade and slavery in the Americas as far back as the writings of the Spanish priest Bartolomé de las Casas in the 16th century. It gained momentum among Quakers and other Protestant dissidents, and swelled in the revolutionary era from the 1770s to the 1820s, cresting with the Haitian revolution, from 1791 to 1804. Placing abolitionism in its international context is just one of the great strengths of The Slave’s Cause.
The second wave, from the late 1820s through the Civil War, saw abolitionism coalesce into a social and political movement that called for an immediate end to slavery in the United States. This wave grew out of the obvious failure of first-wave abolitionism to stop the spread and growth of American slavery. Yet it also gained strength from the achievements of its predecessor, which included the emergence of substantial free black communities in the Northern states and upper South. The metaphor of waves has its limitations, but it does provide a nonlinear alternative to the image of a relentless forward march of progress.
Black people were central to the movement, Sinha argues. They were not merely the objects of white abolitionists’ sympathy. Slave resistance blew up the big lie that slaves were happy in bondage. Those who made their way out of slavery testified to its cruelty. They bore the evidence on their backs. Black orators and writers hammered away at American hypocrisy, slavery’s “democratic whips—its republican chains,” in the words of the escaped slave and novelist William Wells Brown. Despite meager resources, black subscribers sustained the leading abolitionist newspaper, William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator, as well as newspapers edited by Frederick Douglass, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, and other African Americans. Black churches championed an antislavery theology.
Abolitionism would have come to nothing if black people had not stood up for themselves—black people such as William Hamilton, an unsung hero of abolitionism’s first wave. Said to be Alexander Hamilton’s illegitimate son, Hamilton was a carpenter who helped found the New York African Society for Mutual Relief as well as the AME Zion Church in New York. He participated in the first national conventions of African Americans, in the early 1830s, and spoke out against slavery and racism. Any difference between black and white people “is in favor of the people of colour,” Hamilton announced. His sons Robert and Thomas carried on their father’s (and perhaps their grandfather’s) legacy as editors and activists. Thomas’s Anglo-African Magazine published Martin Delany’s landmark antislavery novel, Blake, in 1859. Paging Lin-Manuel Miranda!
Critics of the abolitionists malign them for condemning one evil while ignoring others. Slavery’s 19th-century defenders, while denying that slavery was evil at all, took aim at abolitionists for turning a blind eye to the “white slaves” toiling in Northern factories and sweatshops. In a more subtle version of this argument, some 20th-century scholars made the case that abolitionists shored up bourgeois capitalist values and practices by attacking only slavery and not all forms of property.
Just as recent books by Edward Baptist and Sven Beckert have plugged slavery back into the development of transatlantic capitalism in the 19th century, however, The Slave’s Cause plugs abolitionism back into the history of anticapitalist protest. In Sinha’s view, the abolitionists were critical of capitalism and “sympathized with the plight of labor.” They insisted that there was a big difference between being whipped to work and being paid. But while decrying the “robbery” of slaves’ labor, they warned that slavery also endangered the dignity and rights of white workers.
The abolitionists’ problem was that white workers, by and large, did not sympathize with them. Neither did most Northern capitalists. A few wealthy people did help bankroll abolitionism. Arthur and Lewis Tappan, pioneers of credit rating, poured funds into the movement, but they were not representative of the North’s complacent upper crust. Attacking the nomination of Zachary Taylor for president in 1848, for example, Charles Sumner blasted what he saw as a Whig Party alliance between “lords of the lash” and “lords of the loom”—the Southern planters and Northern factory owners who joined forces against abolition.
Abolitionists championed a more egalitarian economy in which all people could enjoy the fruits of their labor, and they championed a more inclusive democracy, too. What distinguished abolitionism from other strains of antislavery activism was its insistence on black citizenship. The dominant antislavery program in the early United States, the brainchild of Thomas Jefferson, called for gradual emancipation along with the removal of freed people to Africa. This chimera was kept alive by the American Colonization Society (ACS), which founded Liberia, and despite its utter failure to make a dent in slavery, colonization remained popular among white Americans, including Abraham Lincoln. As a solution to slavery, it failed because slave owners did not want to let go of their human property, and free black people did not want to go to Africa.
In fact, black opposition to the ACS helped propel abolitionism’s second wave. Black activists in the North sabotaged colonization. “America is more our country, than it is the whites[’],” declared David Walker, a used-clothing dealer in Boston. “We have enriched it with our blood and tears.” Black resistance turned William Lloyd Garrison, who was briefly associated with the ACS, into a true abolitionist. His vision for America was one in which black people were free citizens with equal rights. This inclusive nationalism, endorsed by white and black abolitionists, inspired them to fight against Northern racism as well as Southern slavery.
“Let the friends of human rights rally around the sacred banner of Immediate Emancipation,” implored a leader of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1834. Abolitionists spoke of human rights more than a century before the idea gained traction in the United Nations. They insisted that the natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness asserted by the revolutionary generation were not limited to white people; they were the common heritage of all. For challenging racism, abolitionists were shouted down in public, dragged through the streets, and even murdered. It took courage to join the cause.
But it took more than courage to overthrow slavery. Admirable principles are one thing; effective politics are another. The abolitionists’ disavowal of politics, Sinha persuasively argues, has been overblown. Some of them thought American politics was so corrupted by slavery that they retreated to utopian enclaves or championed Northern secession. But most of them engaged in the streets, in the courts, and at the polls. Some dug in on the cultural front, preaching abolition in oratory, literature, and music. They even wrote children’s stories. Others sought to pry open Jacksonian America’s two-party political system by pressuring the Whigs and Democrats from within, or supporting third-party disruptions, beginning with the thoroughly abolitionist Liberty Party in 1840. These efforts finally paid off in the 1850s as the Whigs crumbled and a new antislavery party, the Republicans, arose in the North.
The Republican Party inevitably fell short of abolitionist ideals. Its platform was the nonextension of slavery, not immediate abolition. It diluted its antislavery message to broaden its electoral appeal. The party’s presidential nominee in 1860 endorsed colonization and the hated Fugitive Slave Act. A leading abolitionist called Lincoln “the slave-hound of Illinois.” Nevertheless, most abolitionists held their noses and supported the Republicans. As billy clubs gave way to bullets, they pushed the party toward more-radical measures against slavery.
Southern secessionists saw no daylight between the upstart party and the abolitionists. They perceived the “black Republicans” as the political wing of abolition and, after John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, as a mortal threat to slavery. Now enters the irony: Disunion had been an abolitionist fantasy for decades, but it was finally instigated by slavery’s defenders, and turned out to be slavery’s doom after all. Who says history gives no reasons for hope?
I wish Sinha had devoted more attention to the Civil War, when the abolitionist waves finally crashed onto shore. Abolitionists pressed Lincoln to attack slavery and enlist black men in the fight. They went into the South as soldiers, judges, journalists, missionaries, doctors, nurses, and teachers. They did not just want to stamp out slavery; they wanted to civilize the South and rejuvenate America. Among their number was Harriet Jacobs, the author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, who tended to newly freed people in Alexandria, Virginia, during the war.
Was abolitionism a success? True, slavery was abolished, but it took a devastating war. That’s not how most abolitionists imagined it would go down. And then there is the problem of inequality. The American Anti-Slavery Society shut its doors in 1870, after the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment gave black men the right to vote. The abolitionists’ vision of equal rights for black men, at least, was realized, or so it seemed. Over the next century, though, America broke its promise of “the equal protection of the laws,” and much of what the abolitionists fought for had to be fought for all over again.
Yet the abolitionists deserve tremendous credit for holding America to its ideals. They invented language to attack racist inequality, and devised cultural and political strategies for getting heard. Their legacy resonates in current struggles against police brutality and mass incarceration, contemporary reminders of the deep and continuing insecurity of African American life. At a recent Chicago Police Board meeting, Geneva Reed-Veal, the mother of Sandra Bland—who mysteriously died in a Texas jail last summer—charged that some police in America have become “body snatchers.” What may sound like science fiction has precursors in the abolitionist vocabulary of kidnapping, man stealing, and man hunting. The spirit of vigilance that animated the abolitionists echoes in today’s activism. “I am a body watcher,” warned Reed-Veal.
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