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Should You Have Been an Abolitionist?

The Abolitionist Imagination

by Andrew Delbanco, with commentaries by John Stauffer, Manisha Sinha, Darryl Pinckney, and Wilfred M. McClay
Harvard University Press, 205 pp., $24.95
Talladega College, Talladega, Alabama
Hale Aspacio Woodruff: The Underground Railroad, 68 3/16 x 123 1/2 inches, 1942; from the exhibition ‘Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College,’ at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, June 9–September 2, 2012. The catalog, by Stephanie Mayer Heydt, is published by the museum and distributed by University of Washington Press.

In 1776, the year of the Declaration of Independence and “all men are created equal,” racial slavery was a legal and thriving institution from Canada all the way south to Argentina and Chile. The transatlantic slave trade was moving toward its peak in the 1790s and would continue for ninety-one more years. But in 1775 Philadelphia Quakers had led the way in founding the world’s first antislavery society and in 1777 Vermont adopted a constitution that outlawed slavery—the first place in the New World to do so.

In 1888, roughly a century after the founding of the first major antislavery societies in Britain, France, and the United States, Brazilian abolitionists succeeded in outlawing the institution in the very last place it existed in the New World. Since we now know that New World slavery was very productive and profitable, and that abolishing the slave trade and slavery was generally contrary to economic self-interest (the historian Seymour Drescher has shown that Britain’s abolition of its own slave trade in 1807 was an act of “econocide”1), one can argue that abolitionism produced the greatest moral achievement in human history.

For the United States that conclusion is of course complicated by the Civil War and by the agreement among many historians today that without a strong Anglo-American abolitionist movement, there would have been no such war. Of course it should be stressed that without the abolitionist movement, there would have been no possibility of slave emancipation in the nineteenth century, and that it was Southern proslavery expansionism that brought on the war. Nevertheless, the terrible destructiveness of the Civil War, with some 750,000 military deaths,2 has long cast a backward shadow on American abolitionists, raising the question whether American slavery could have been ended by peaceful means and also without leading to a century of Jim Crow and continuing discrimination against African-Americans.3

This central question hovers over The Abolitionist Imagination, which focuses only on the United States and wholly ignores the global perspective mentioned above. The book originated as one of Harvard’s Alexis de Tocqueville Lectures on American Politics, delivered by Andrew Delbanco, an eminent literary critic and American studies scholar at Columbia. The book, like the lecture, includes very critical commentaries by John Stauffer, a prize-winning expert on abolitionists and a professor of English and African and African-American studies at Harvard; and by Manisha Sinha, an expert on slavery and abolition and a professor of Afro-American studies and history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. In the third commentary Darryl Pinckney, a noted African-American novelist, does not mention Delbanco’s essay, but describes his own discovery of the pivotal importance of black abolitionists, a subject largely ignored by white writers including Delbanco. In the fourth commentary, Wilfred M. McClay, a prize-winning historian who holds a chair in humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, repeatedly praises Delbanco’s essay but in effect revises its arguments in a far clearer and more convincing way.

Finally, Delbanco concludes with a rejoinder, explaining that “my point was to try to get away from the heroes versus villains narrative and to suggest some reasons why people of conscience, even ‘idealism,’…tried desperately to find a middle way.” This rejoinder, while eloquent, reveals a greater sense of uncertainty concerning the moral legacy of American abolitionists.

Delbanco’s essay tells us much less about the actual imagination of abolitionists than about the ways they have been depicted and judged since their own time, and about the bearing of this evidence on abolitionism as a supposed recurrent strategy—what McClay defines as a “master concept”—for eradicating a perceived evil “not tomorrow, not next year, but now.” While Delbanco briefly recognizes the diversity and complexity of American abolitionism and warns against the danger of stereotyping, he soon reduces the reformers to a psychological type or model that repelled a series of distinguished commentators from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Henry James and Lionel Trilling.

Delbanco’s historical survey of course includes a few positive assessments of the abolitionists, such as Eric Foner’s point, in his analysis of Abraham Lincoln’s own conversion to abolition, that they had made “thinkable what had once been unthinkable, namely, black freedom.” Yet Delbanco’s later pages present a tide of distorted and highly negative testimony against abolitionists as a group, as if John Brown was a more typical reformer than Theodore Dwight Weld, who advised Congressman John Quincy Adams and wrote the single most important indictment of American slavery. We receive an overall picture of abolitionists as “fanatics” and “monomaniacs,” men above all guilty of great “hubris.”

As John Stauffer acknowledges, Delbanco is at his best when he turns to Melville, who spent part of his youth with black people aboard whaleships and warships and who denounced slavery as a “sin…no less;—a blot, foul as the crater-pool of hell.”4 Yet like his friend Hawthorne, Melville was “squeamish” about the abolitionist response and backed away from the feared consequences of what Delbanco terms “the zealotry that was rising, in 1850–1851, on both sides of the slavery divide.” Delbanco stresses that critics identified Ahab, in Moby-Dick, with both William Lloyd Garrison and John C. Calhoun. It was thus a sign of Melville’s deep grasp of human nature that he could convincingly portray the paranoid nature of extremism and conclude that, with regard to slavery, “Not one man knows a prudent remedy.” Stauffer even ends his brilliant commentary with an imprudent speculation that “if every American had been required to read Moby-Dick when it was published in 1851, the Civil War might have been avoided.” He then fortunately adds that this “begs the question of how slavery could have ended peacefully,” which is the central question Delbanco and the commentators never explore, in part because they focus exclusively on the United States.

As a compliment, McClay compares Delbanco’s approach to abolitionists with the qualities of “the American studies movement in its mid-twentieth century heyday…without falling into the oversimplifications and parochialisms to which it was prone.” Since I received my own Ph.D. in 1957, in Harvard’s version of American studies, I can testify that McClay is wrong only in his second point. Delbanco’s focus on what he considers a unique American form of radical abolitionism that became a “persistent dynamic” for dealing with perceived evil brings back the kind of parochial view of American studies I experienced as a student. This Americancentric view ignores British and American efforts to end the 366 years of transatlantic slave trading, the centrality of the British abolitionist movement and its impact on the US, the ways in which slaves were freed outside the US, and the decisive impact of the American Civil War on Cuba and Brazil. I don’t mean that all such topics should be included in a book on American abolitionists, only that the latter subject cannot be understood without some reference to the related larger picture.

For example, the decisive shift from “gradual” to “immediate” abolitionism occurred simultaneously in Britain and America. Americans were not only influenced by British “immediatist” publications but key abolitionists like Theodore Dwight Weld were converted by visiting British abolitionists. From William Lloyd Garrison to Frederick Douglass, white and especially black American abolitionists spent much crucial time in Britain. The success of Britain’s abolitionists in mobilizing an astonishingly large and active public and in peacefully securing the emancipation of some 800,000 colonial slaves in the 1830s became a pivotal model for Americans, and yet is briefly mentioned in the book only by Manisha Sinha. Moreover, given the influence of discredited past theories that New World slavery was on the road to economic extinction, none of the authors discusses the extraordinary economic growth and expansion of American slavery, despite its obvious effect on any prediction of “compensated” or peaceful emancipation. Readers of the book would never suspect that in 1860 two thirds of the richest Americans lived in the South, or that the value of slaves equaled 80 percent of the GNP, or what today would be equivalent to $9.75 trillion.

Delbanco’s preference for Northerners who tried to hold to a “middle ground” and avert a war ignores the economic, political, and ideological factors that gave support to Abraham Lincoln’s prediction, in 1858, that “I do not suppose that in the most peaceful way ultimate extinction [of slavery] would occur in less than a hundred years at the least”—or, in other words, after 1958.5 If in 1858 this time frame was acceptable to Lincoln, whose actual decisions would bring legal, constitutional slave emancipation in seven years, I doubt whether it would be acceptable to many Americans today, especially African-Americans, despite the ghastly costs of the Civil War and the probably avoidable failure of Reconstruction. Regardless of the horrors of Jim Crow, millions of Southern blacks clearly enjoyed and benefited from freedoms that would have been inconceivable during further generations of chattel slavery.

Both John Stauffer and Manisha Sinha succeed in correcting Delbanco’s simplistic misrepresentation of American abolitionists and in providing a historical frame that helps explain their successes and failures. Stauffer begins his remarkably concise and insightful survey by stressing that we must look at historical circumstances before judging whether a conservative, centrist, or idealist perspective is appropriate for confronting an evil. Slavery and totalitarianism, he argues, “dehumanized hundreds of millions of people through murder, torture, and intimidation,” and were distinct from most other evils “because they foreclose compromise and preclude the possibility of a middle way.”

While thus endorsing the temporal need for what Delbanco considered “idealism and utopian thought,” Stauffer disagrees with Delbanco’s assessment that in cases such as abolitionism, they “necessarily, or even typically, lead to corruption, brutality, and the impulse to revenge and dominance.” Indeed, Delbanco overlooked the central facts not only that Quakers launched the Anglo-American abolitionist movements and continued to have a key part in it, but that Quakers were pacifists and compromisers who “tempered their perfectionism with a sense of humility before God and their fellow humans.”

Sinha adds that the Garrisonians complemented the Quakers’ pacifism and that until John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, only a very few figures like Brown put violence above their commitment to peace. In fact, it was the defenders of slavery who led countless mobs attacking and stoning the abolitionists, burning their literature, and destroying their printing presses. It was Southern slaveholders who first invoked a “higher law” to justify the lynching of abolitionists, the interference with federal mail, and the suppression of antislavery petitions.

As a result, antebellum abolitionists, always a small minority, were able to link their aims with freedom of speech, the press, association, and petitioning, causes that won the support of moderates like William Ellery Channing and especially John Quincy Adams, who became the great political hero of the movement as he defended the Amistad’s African captives and waged a long and ultimately successful war in Congress against the so-called Gag Rule suppressing antislavery petitions.

  1. 1

    Seymour Drescher, Econocide: British Slavery in the Era of Abolition, second edition (University of North Carolina Press, 2010). 

  2. 2

    See J. David Hacker, “A Census-Based Count of the Civil War Dead,” Civil War History, Vol. 57, No. 4 (2011). 

  3. 3

    See, for example, Douglas A. Blackmon’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II ( Doubleday, 2008), and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New Press, 2010), which were preceded by David M. Oshinsky’s shocking revelations in “Worse Than Slavery”: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice (Free Press, 1996). It should be noted that the condition of freedpeople from Haiti to Brazil was not markedly better than in the United States. 

  4. 4

    Delbanco has written a monumental biography of Melville: Melville: His World and Work (Knopf, 2005). 

  5. 5

    The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy P. Basler (Rutgers University Press, 1953), Vol. 3, p. 181. Far from being an abolitionist in 1858, Lincoln added that he had no doubt that slavery would be ended “in the best way for both races in God’s own good time.” 

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