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Off the Plantation

It is also worth noting that in spite of legislation hostile to private manumissions, Upper South owners continued to find ways of manumitting slaves, and slaves found ways of manumitting themselves. Slavery was deteriorating in economic importance in the Upper South, as Berlin writes, in one of the bravest and most challenging sections of his very important work. In suggesting that economic forces may have been equal to or even more significant than demographic ones in distinguishing between patterns of treatment in different parts of the South I do not mean to suggest that Berlin overlooks these factors. It is merely a matter of emphasis.

So much has now been written about disagreements among abolitionists over the best means to ring down the curtain on slavery that there would seem to be little to add. But there is. Jane and William Pease, who have been for some years the closest students of race relations in the abolition movement, have shown in their new work, They Who Would Be Free: Blacks’ Search For Freedom, 1830-1861, that it was not only the question of the best means to end slavery that divided the antislavery forces. They also show that between the black abolitionists and the white there were widely differing perceptions of freedom itself. “Whites,” they write, “conceiving of their own freedom as absolute and never having experienced its opposite extreme, embraced a simple duality. For blacks the alternative was not between slavery or freedom but between more or less freedom and more or less slavery.”

This “basic dualism” is central to understanding the problems black leaders had with their white colleagues, and it is the unifying theme of the Peases’ sensitive exploration of the quality of leadership provided by those who suffered the economic and social consequences of second-class status while simultaneously working to liberate Southern slaves. White abolitionists were simply less interested in the problems of Northern blacks than they were in the struggle against slavery. The more sophisticated conception of freedom and bondage as a continuum was the only possible position for those who daily struggled with what one black abolitionist called “semi-emancipation.” Until Northern “free” blacks had equal civil rights, he maintained, the North could not possibly “concentrate its moral and intellectual power….”

Excluded from the franchise, forced into the lowest paying jobs, denied equal access to education, the larger part of the Northern free black population was relegated to pauperism, many unable even in their own living to illustrate that emancipation was a practicable course. Or unable to do so to their own satisfaction, or to stop the mouths of those who quoted morbidity and mortality statistics to “prove” black maladjustment to “freedom.” From this point of view the struggle for equal rights in a “free” society was an indispensable corollary, or precondition, for emancipation in the South. The consequence for organized abolition was that blacks had a more pragmatic and flexible attitude to issues, and less and less sympathy for the more abstract perfectionism of their white colleagues. Some of their time, in short, was given to advocacy of race pride, self-help, and to an insistence that blacks be allowed to take more dominant positions in the antislavery societies.

These conflicts have a curiously contemporary ring. Blacks resented being kept in “the short frocks of childhood,” as one put it, excluded from decision-making roles, and patronized. Samuel Ringgold Ward, speaking to an English audience, charged that whites “assume the right to dictate to us about all matters,” that “they dislike to see us assume or maintain manly and independent positions; they prefer that we should be a second-rate set of folks, in intellectual matters.”

There was ample ground for these charges. After Frederick Douglass defied the advice of the Garrisonian abolitionists with whom he had worked so closely for so long, to found the North Star, a paper dedicated specifically to black aims, Garrison’s anger fell upon him, his paper, his supporters, and his character. Douglass was “thoroughly base and selfish,” “destitute of every principal of honor, ungrateful to the last degree, and malevolent in spirit.” When James McCune Smith accused the Garrisonians of excluding black speakers from their lecture series in 1854, the National Anti-Slavery Standard denied the intention, pointing to William Wells Brown’s participation and charging Smith with thinking that no man was “really ‘colored’ who [had] not by faithlessness to old friends proved his heart to be as black as his skin.”

Whites rang the changes on the ingratitude theme. It would be agreeable to add that the vicious in-fighting stopped at the color line, but it did not. There were the historic disputes over nomenclature, and whether to organize separately for specific black aims. Some black leaders deplored the attention the majority gave to economic and civil advancement of the black community, and held that separate black movements and organizations were diversionary, racism in reverse.

After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 this position became harder to defend. Abolitionists, white and black alike, could only view this law as a giant step backward in a seemingly fruitless twenty-year struggle. But for blacks the measures for the recapture of escaped slaves, and the legal hurdles the government placed in the way of a fair trial for those accused of being runaway slaves jeopardized the freedom of all blacks, not merely that of bona fide fugitives.

This was the Northern counterpart of the problem Ira Berlin’s free Southern blacks faced in the same decade. In three fine closing chapters the Peases trace the response of Northern leaders who now gave themselves to the rhetoric of violence in the face of a new dilemma. Separatism and nationalism gained ground, and there were curious shiftings of position among the advocates of accommodation and resistance. Even a militant leader like Martin Delany organized an emigration project, saying that there was no hope for black equality in the United States, and Frederick Douglass gave up the pacifism of the Garrisonians, announcing firmly that he was finished with nonresistance. Blacks were in the vanguard of those who resisted the Fugitive Slave Act, forcibly releasing black captives, often in the teeth of the courts. Blacks who did not advocate insurrection came very close to doing so when they applauded the prospect.

Neither extreme, of course, emigration or insurrection, carried the day. Aiding the escape of fugitives from the South was the outer boundary of violence, because it was the outer boundary of common sense. The Peases explain. “Nowhere in the North was there a population density of Negroes sufficient to sustain race war—even had the inarticulate been ready to respond to rhetoric.” The rhetoric, they observe, “offered no viable solutions,” and was only a gauge of banked frustration. The talk of emigration was headed off by leaders who recognized these schemes as colonization in reverse, who declared the equal right of blacks to remain in their own country.

One reasonable test of a work of history is whether the facts are delivered, and have been made to say enough and not too much. The Peases have written an authentic account of what was a failed effort. If it sometimes lacks focus, the reason is that the movement they record was hardly a movement at all, but an accumulation of individual performances responding to events beyond individuals’ control, but not beyond their criticism. In that respect their literary problem is much the same as Berlin’s, to synthesize the actions of a minority within a minority. The Peases honestly and reluctantly concede that neither black nor white abolitionism had achieved much by 1860, if “partisan victories and visible changes” in social institutions are “the only measures of success.”

But they are not the only measures, and the authors believe the antislavery movement stiffened popular resistance to the encroachments of the slave power. Most Northerners rated the Fugitive Slave Act an outrageous encroachment, and when white antislavery leaders organized for the specific purpose of flouting this law (even to the point of violence if necessary), they were building an antislavery public opinion. They were also for the first time following the leadership of the black antislavery spokesmen, who had been organized for fugitive slave rescues for several decades when the act of 1850 was passed.

Other “very real achievements” for the black leaders were the blocking of colonization and emigration plans, the black convention movement, and the creation of new organizations for specific aims of the black community. And yet it is only fair to say that some historians have seen in the evidence more positive achievement than the Peases do, and that others have been less critical than the Peases are of the white abolitionists in their dealings with the blacks in their organizations. Among honest historians there will always be such differences of emphasis, and they require no referee. If some scholars have celebrated victories, the Peases explain why they were so limited.

The women’s rights movement was related to the antislavery cause in much the same ways blacks’ struggle for civil equality in the North was: women and blacks alike were frustrated in their advocacy of abolition by legal and social restrictions on their activities. If blacks were mobbed, and even denied passports when traveling abroad as antislavery lecturers, a woman’s presence lecturing before a “promiscuous” audience was enough to announce her as a promiscuous woman. Conservatives in abolitionism were always nervous that too prominent a role for either group would discredit the entire movement before a general public that disliked seeing either far from their customary “places.” But opposition notwithstanding, it was through involvement in antislavery that a number of American women had their first taste of independent action and personal recognition. Angelina and Sarah Grimké threw antislavery circles into a general furor when they toured New England in 1837 telling audiences what they knew about American slavery from personal experience.

The Grimké sisters were the most improbable recruits in the entire roster of antislavery, two young aristocrats from a large, brilliant, and affluent slaveholding Charleston family, whose complex relationship with one another and the two causes they served are Katherine DuPre Lumpkin’s subject. The emancipation of Angelina Grimké is on one plane the translation of a vivacious antebellum belle into an electrifying orator, a translation which was an essential step, if not the first or the last, in Angelina’s private road to personal autonomy.

The first lap of Angelina’s long journey was her conversion from the formalism of her wealthy family’s Episcopalian creed to a pious and devout Presbyterianism preached by a young evangelical minister with whom Angelina soon fell in love. “Life had taken a glorious turn,” writes her biographer, for Angelina’s vigorous involvement in church affairs brought her knowledge of her abilities, and “a conviction of high purpose,” though she did not know what her mission was to be. The second lap was more costly. Under the influence of her older sister Sarah, who had become a Quaker during an extended visit to Philadelphia, Angelina began unloading the trappings of her girlish and worldly life. “My dear Angelina proposes destroying Scott’s novels,” wrote sister Sarah, “which she had purchased before she was serious. Perhaps I strengthened her a little.” The sisters cut up the novels; Angelina’s personal finery, the laces, veils, and flounces, all “superfluities of naughtiness,” came next. The Reverend William MacDowell and his church cost Angelina more, but she made the sacrifice, went to Philadelphia and joined her sister’s faith.

The two were never parted in all the years that followed; from Quakerism to antislavery to women’s rights, through a curious period of marriage, childbearing, and semiretirement for Angelina, they lived together. Few public figures have left so intimate a record of their restless combings of conscience, or so full an account of the failings of the dearly beloveds in their lives as Sarah, Angelina, and Angelina’s husband Theodore Dwight Weld.

The psychological dynamics of this trio are Ms. Lumpkin’s special fascination. Until Angelina became an avowed abolitionist, ready to write and expose herself publicly in the cause (something Sarah’s conservative sect of Quakers disapproved of), Sarah maintained a personal ascendancy that she obtained at the age of twelve, when she stormed successfully to be named the godmother of baby “Nina.” Until the girls were grown Angelina often addressed Sarah as “Mother.” Only when Angelina determined that it was God’s purpose that she should become an antislavery lecturer were the tables turned. Over Sarah’s objections she held to her plan, and then Sarah too defied the Quakers, saying “Whither Thou goest I will go….”

Angelina’s stunning successes on the platform owed much to her first-hand remembrances of slavery, much to her phenomenal speaking voice, and even more to her brains and ambition. The ambition was worrisome, for Angelina feared the acclaim she received gave her too much personal gratification. Her husband, Weld, worried about it too, and so did sister Sarah. They told her so, from time to time, for these God-driven people took the state of their souls seriously indeed. That there could be furtive self-serving motives on Weld’s part (he excelled in oratory too) for parking Angelina’s ambition and her career (along with his own) and on Sarah’s as well, for similar reasons, seems not to have occurred to any of this curious maison à trois, though Ms. Lumpkin is clearly on to the pattern of their conscientious criticism. One can’t avoid sympathy for those who exposed themselves so thoroughly in their diaries and letters to each other, which were read by all parties, often more than once.

Maybe there should be a rule protecting the psychological naïveté of the last century from the analytic pryings of our own, but biographers would be out of business, and the public would be deprived of some good books, of which this is among the number. Although Ms. Lumpkin is occasionally heavy-handed, especially with Sarah and Weld, the lapses are rare, and the general sensitivity of her explanations is enough to redeem psychohistory from some of its extraordinary contemporary malpractice.

Much to the author’s credit she does not attribute the “calling” of Weld and the Grimkés to psychological malad-justments, but to a sincere religious conviction. This is refreshing and convincing, for we see that we are not dealing with hypocrites. If in their innocence they hamstrung one another, they did so in ways we have come to see are endemic with the human condition.

In antislavery work the Grimké sisters were far more free from the latent (and sometimes not so latent) racism the Peases see as dividing the movement than most of their fellows. Angelina found occasion to beg black women to participate in antislavery meetings and to speak of their injuries arising from racial prejudice, and to do so even if they suffered social slights. The mortifications “will tend to your growth in grace and will help your paler sisters more than anything else to overcome their own sinful feelings….” The sisters easily made Francis and Archibald Grimké, who were the natural sons of their brother Henry by his household slave, members of their own family. Angelina’s conversion to women’s rights came quite naturally, because her own human rights were “invaded” when she worked for the slave. Both causes were “a part of the great doctrine of Human Rights” and thus “the rights of the slave and women blend like colors of the rainbow.”

But theory is not action, and Angelina remained long under the subtle dictation of her duties as wife and mother. The final step in her self-manumission was her recognition that for twelve years following her marriage she had seen her duty in life more through the eyes of her husband and her sister than through her own. Thus ended Angelina’s withdrawal from active participation in her causes, a period in which she bore three children, and nursed the home fires after her fashion, restlessly and without much talent. In this period she had again deferred to sister Sarah, who had the knack (and the drive) to mother Angelina’s children.

By 1854 Angelina again put her foot into the water, hesitantly at first, and then more firmly, as an advocate of women’s rights. The day of her great fame had passed, and younger feminists were leading the charge, but one supposes that Angelina in bloomer costume had found a kind of peace. The Emancipation of Angelina Grimké is, simply, an interesting book. Although it deals with a significant epoch in the history of freedom, it says less that is new about antislavery and feminism than it does about human interaction in a high cause and the difficulties of self-liberation from the toils of custom.

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