White Racism and Black “Emancipation”

The Frontier Against Slavery: Western Anti-Negro Prejudice and the Slavery Extension Controversy

by Eugene H. Berwanger
Illinois, 176 pp., $5.95

Powder Keg: Northern Opposition to the Antislavery Movement, 1831-1840

by Lorman Ratner
Basic Books, 172 pp., $6.00

Free But Not Equal: The Midwest and the Negro During the Civil War

by V. Jacque Voegeli
Chicago, 215 pp., $5.95

Black Scare: The Racist Response to Emancipation and Reconstruction

by Forrest G. Wood
California, 219 pp., $6.00

From the opposite ends of American history has come impressive evidence of white racism, of both its antiquity and its intensity. Winthrop D. Jordan in White Over Black (1968) unearthed its origins in Elizabethan England and sixteenth-century Europe and traced its growth as the functional rationale of white supremacy and American identity down to 1812. The Kerner Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (1968) spelled out the disastrous consequences in the violence and riots of contemporary America. But what of the period between? Was there not, as legend has it, an interlude of virtue in the mid-nineteenth century when white Americans, inspired by the antislavery crusade, put aside their racism, rededicated themselves to their ideals of equality, and waged a heroic war for freedom and a temporarily successful campaign for racial equality? Or was the crusade itself corrupted and frustrated by a sickness endemic among the crusaders?

Answers to these questions are obscured by time and propaganda, by vested interests of racial and national pride. For one thing, the justification of the bloodiest war in our history, the sacrifice of 600,000 lives—more than the number of Americans killed in two world wars—is at stake. Answers will be slow in coming and may never be clear. From time to time, however, additional insights are provided by historians, even when they have other purposes and problems in mind.

One exceptionally illuminating source is Eileen S. Kraditor’s study of the abolitionists’ strategy and tactics, The Means and Ends of American Abolitionism. To her surprise she came out with a new and favorable revision of the prevailing interpretation of William Lloyd Garrison. She began with the received opinions, presented most recently in two able biographies of Garrison, one by John L. Thomas and the other by Walter M. Merrill, both published in 1963. As she says, whatever respect they inspire for their subject is “more than balanced by the conviction that he was bullheaded, arrogant, vindictive, and incredibly blind to some obvious truths.” For more than a generation it has been standard practice, even among the most strongly pro-abolitionist historians, to protect the reputation of the movement by disavowing Garrison’s importance or centrality in it. Dwight L. Dumond, for example, though an ardent champion of abolitionists, puts Garrison down as “insufferably arrogant” and (in italics) “a man of distinctly narrow limitations among the giants of the antislavery movement.”

Miss Kraditor does not contend that Garrison was a typical abolitionist or that he represented majority opinion on antislavery strategy. Nor does she deny his personal idiosyncracies and foibles (though she does put in a timid and not too convincing claim for his sense of humor). But she is “struck by the logical consistency of his thought on all subjects,” granted his principles, with which she finds herself usually in agreement. She admits that he changed his opinions from time to time but holds that “the changes themselves represented a logical development.” Though she does not use the terms, she sees Garrison…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.