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
davis_1-062112.jpg
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 …

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  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.