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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.

Both Stauffer and Sinha focus some attention on the highly successful first phase of the abolitionist movement, from the American Revolution to the 1820s, a time when both white and black reformers sought gradual emancipation by peaceful and legal means. It is easy to forget that Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and Gouverneur Morris were all leaders of abolition societies, or that from 1777 to 1804 Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey all either abolished slavery or adopted laws for the gradual emancipation of all slaves. In 1787 Congress even provided for the prohibition of slavery west of New York and Pennsylvania and north of the Ohio River. But partly because of their acceptance of the profound white prejudice against blacks as an unalterable fact, even highly successful and respected black abolitionists, such as Paul Cuffe, who met with and advised President Madison, favored some emigration to Africa.

As Stauffer points out, the great change began with the Missouri Compromise of 1819–1821 and with the South’s determination to reverse the process of emancipation in the North and prevent future exclusions of slavery from the expanding West. As a result of the booming cotton economy and the South’s accompanying growth in political power, Southerners became increasingly belligerent, moving toward a proslavery ideology and even envisioning a restoration of the slave trade and a new empire of slavery. While Delbanco implies that it was the abolitionists who initiated a national conflict over slavery, Stauffer and Sinha show that it was an aggressive proslavery South that took the offensive and evoked a more radical response from abolitionists, who saw that older forms of gradualism, such as linking slave manumission with the colonization of freed blacks in Africa, were no longer acceptable.

Recent works on American abolitionism have underscored the fact, not mentioned by Delbanco, that black abolitionists such as James Forten, Richard Allen, Samuel Cornish, and David Walker inaugurated the “immediatist” period of the movement by repudiating colonization and demanding acceptance of a biracial society governed by the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. Even Garrison’s revolutionary newspaper, The Liberator, depended for some time on black subscriptions and financial aid from Forten, a very wealthy sailmaker. And Sinha emphasizes that “what distinguished abolitionists from their opponents was not moral rigidity or religious enthusiasm but a principled commitment to black equality.”

It was this commitment that exemplified the unique attainment of “the abolitionist imagination.” And it was this commitment that aroused the greatest hostility from contemporary white Northerners and even from many post–Civil War critics who opposed Reconstruction and accepted, in the name of “Reunion,” a Southern response to the problem of race. One must remember that racism was rampant in the North and that huge numbers of whites feared that if Southern blacks were released from the surveillance of bondage, many would move north, the crime rate would soar, and taxpayers would be burdened with the costs of black welfare. The North barred freed blacks from most occupations and professions, to say nothing of most schools and churches, except for a few segregated ones.

Despite their radical commitment to the ideal of an egalitarian, biracial society, and their rejection of such “gradualist” methods as the earlier British program of “ameliorating” slavery or requiring freed slaves to endure years of forced “apprenticeship” in preparation for freedom, American abolitionists experimented with a host of legal strategies in an attempt to undermine Southern slavery. Drawing on the example of religious conversion, they long tried by the goal of “moral suasion” to reach the conscience of Southerners by refuting rationalizations and exposing the true evils of chattel bondage. They tried to bombard the South with pamphlets, books, broadsides, and newspapers. Southern leaders took these efforts seriously enough to do everything in their power to block the entry or distribution of such materials.

Following the highly successful British example, American reformers also devoted astonishing time and energy to petition campaigns, imploring Congress to take such constitutional steps as abolishing slavery and slave-trading in the nation’s capital, barring the crucial and expanding interstate slave trade, and, after 1836, stopping any move to annex the new slaveholding Republic of Texas. As American abolitionists increasingly witnessed the limitations of such methods, they formed political parties, such as the Liberty Party (1840), the National Liberty Party (1848), and the Radical Abolition Party (1855), despite the opposition of Garrisonians.

While Delbanco gives little attention to specific moderate measures, he acknowledges that the abolitionists showed that a “fringe” group can change public opinion for the better in the long run—opposition to slavery becoming a model for advocates of women’s rights or the acceptance of homosexuals: “They set an example for subsequent reformers of the power of a determined movement to bring American reality into conformity with American ideals.”

Moreover, at one point Delbanco affirms “that the abolitionists made an incalculable contribution to our country and our culture,” a belief more consistently expressed by McClay, who states that “abolition,” “as a particular movement at a particular time in American history…constitutes the most incontestably gold-plated example in American history of a successful radical reform, which transformed American life in fundamental ways.” McClay is eager here to differentiate the actual historical abolitionists from Delbanco’s major concern regarding the persistence of such single-minded and judgmental reform as an American “master concept”: “One can admire such single-mindedness, be grateful for what it achieved, and acknowledge that fundamental change might never have come without it—and yet hesitate to endorse it as a master pattern for American reform.”

It should be stressed that Stauffer and Sinha strive to present an accurate historical account of the abolitionists’ achievements and failures and are not really concerned with the issue of an abolitionist model for dealing with present and future moral problems. Given the similar characteristics of abolitionists from Britain to Brazil, there is reason to question the thesis of a distinctively American master concept. We do of course need at times to ask what kinds of methods and mindsets are appropriate for challenging and trying to eliminate contemporary evils, including slavery and human trafficking. But it makes little sense to join Delbanco’s and Sinha’s very minor debate over whether the anti-abortion movement is modeled on abolitionism or is descended from proslavery ideology.

It would appear that Delbanco’s depiction of American abolitionists has been strongly influenced by his fear of a radical, single-minded, perhaps religiously inspired response to current problems, combined with his admiration for men whose grasp of the complexities of life induces them to take the middle ground and accept compromise. Given these commendable motives, he may not have realized that the generally negative representations of abolitionists that he discovered were part of an extensive post–Civil War transformation brilliantly analyzed in David W. Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.6 To greatly oversimplify Blight’s main point, the Northern desire for national reunion, following the carnage of the war, led not only to the failure of the abolitionist-inspired Reconstruction but to a Southern ideological victory with respect to emancipation, white supremacy, and the “memory” or interpretation of the causes and meaning of the Civil War. In both history and literature this involved a caricature of abolitionists, who were really redeemed as heroes only in the 1960s with the emergence of a civil rights ideology. As Sinha notes, this heroic portrayal of abolitionists was linked with their commitment to racial equality and was relatively short-lived. Her major problem with Delbanco’s essay is the way it fits in with the Southern-inspired revisionist histories that depicted a fanatical minority bringing on a “needless war.”

While there is some truth to this critique, Delbanco also recognizes, as we have seen, the historical contributions of the American abolitionists and makes it clear that he has very mixed feelings about them. His own rejoinder, coupled with McClay’s response, combines insight with understandable uncertainty. Daniel Carpenter concludes, in his foreword, that “ambivalence” is one of the messages of the book. By balancing a range of important questions with much corrective historical information, The Abolitionist Imagination is a thought-provoking if limited introduction to the subject. And one should remember that “the subject” reaches out to include the abolitionist century, from the 1780s to the 1880s, when abolitionists were largely responsible for outlawing slavery throughout the Western Hemisphere—for the most part peacefully, except in Haiti and the United States.

This larger global perspective, coupled with the very negative consequences of America’s bloodiest and most destructive war, magnifies the importance of the question regarding the fate of New World slavery if the South had been allowed to peacefully secede and create a proslavery republic—something that Garrison and many of his followers initially favored. Given the wide range of variables and possibilities, and the general unpredictability of history, such huge counterfactual questions can never be answered with anything approaching certainty. But as we have seen, Delbanco’s book suggests a need to briefly weigh the remarkable dynamism of transatlantic abolitionism against the likely expansion and economic success of an independent Confederacy. If Lincoln’s predicted century (for ending slavery within the Union) seems exaggerated, how long could the Confederacy have sustained its treasured institution if Lincoln had not been committed to saving the Union?

One line of argument would be that a seemingly irreversible tide toward freedom in the Western world would have led Britain, France, and other countries to boycott Confederate products and bring other economic and diplomatic pressures on the South to free its slaves and perhaps even create a biracial society that would avoid the appalling evils of Jim Crow and penal labor (although the consequences of emancipation from Haiti to South Africa and Brazil raise further questions about whether the consequences of the Civil War were uniquely racist, as some have supposed).

An independent Confederacy would almost surely have revived and strengthened an Anglo-American antislavery movement, which would probably have gained some support from liberal leaders like Britain’s Prime Minister William Gladstone. In fact, various European countries joined England in beginning to bring antislavery pressure on Africa and the Muslim Near East, often for imperialist motives (though Saudi Arabia did not abolish slavery until 1962). The new abolitionists would have gained strength from the growth of free labor ideology and the increasing liberation of the English working class, which had already supported West Indian emancipation in the 1830s and then supported the Union cause in the Civil War.

Gradual slave emancipation, moreover, might have been promoted by prominent Southerners like the novelist George W. Cable and Robert E. Lee, especially in Virginia, but then Virginia and some other Upper South slaveholding states might not have joined the ardently proslavery Confederacy. One can also argue that many members of the next generation of Southerners would have sought college education outside the Confederacy and would have been influenced by prominent Western figures, especially in science and technology, who found slavery wholly repugnant. Such younger Southerners might have felt great discomfort in being identified with Cubans and Brazilians, in being members of the only really modern slaveholding country in the world.

Still, Britain and France came very close to supporting Confederate independence and trying to stop the war in 1862, and Britain never exerted meaningful antislavery pressure on Cuban and Brazilian slavery, as distinct from the oceanic slave trade. I am more impressed by the fact that the American Civil War, by suddenly freeing the largest number of slaves in the hemisphere, represented a momentous breakthrough and turning point that revived the pioneering image of British emancipation and then exerted a decisive abolitionist influence on Cuba and especially Brazil. It was the Civil War that provided the telling evidence of an irreversible tide toward freedom, and it was the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, supplemented by civil rights legislation and temporary black suffrage, that stood as commitments to racial equality and as crucial historical precedents for later generations.

Had there been no Civil War, a thriving, independent Confederacy would not only have gone far in presenting a wholly “modernized” view of racial slavery—probably a renamed institution, adapted to industry and reinforced by the shocking rise and spread of “scientific racism” (the article on “Negro” in the renowned 1911 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica underscored the semiofficial consensus that “mentally the negro is inferior to the white”7). Given the expansionist dreams of Southern leaders in the 1850s, coupled with the later Euro-American imperialism exemplified by the “Scramble for Africa” and the Spanish-American War, it is also quite possible that the Confederacy would have taken the lead in conquering Cuba and Puerto Rico and extending a proslavery empire into Central America. While such expansion might well have been checked by a war with the United States or Britain, it seems probable that an independent Confederacy would have retained slavery well into the twentieth century, significantly setting back “the century of New World emancipation,” especially in Cuba and Brazil. As for any argument that slavery is wholly incompatible with “modernized” nations, in the 1940s the productive German and Soviet economies became dependent on more enslaved people than ever existed at one time in the New World.

  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.” 

  6. 6

    Harvard University Press, 2001. Delbanco takes account of this book in his excellent review of David Blight’s more recent American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2011), The New York Review, February 9, 2012

  7. 7

    Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition (1911), Vol. 19, p. 344. 

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