When I entered graduate school in 1958, the historical reputation of the abolitionists was at a low ebb. The previous generation of historians had portrayed them as self-righteous fanatics who incited sectional conflict between North and South and brought on a needless civil war. These meddling zealots were not genuinely concerned with the welfare of slaves but only with their own self-regard as humanitarians. They ignored the plight of northern laborers in their professed concern for the enslavement of southern laborers. Their attacks on the South undermined moderates in that region and provoked a proslavery counterattack that polarized the nation. These long-haired men and bloomer-clad women were misfits in antebellum America.
This image of the abolitionists persisted into the 1950s even as the tide of historical scholarship began to turn. We view the past through the lens of the present. The most salient facet of the present in the later 1950s and early 1960s was the civil rights movement. The Montgomery bus boycott and the emergence of Martin Luther King Jr., the desegregation imbroglio at Little Rock Central High School, sit-ins and freedom rides in the South, the March on Washington in 1963, and the demands for “Freedom Now!” cast the abolitionists in a new light. They were the civil rights activists of their time. Their notoriety as “outside agitators” became a badge of honor when the outside agitators of the 1960s helped create a progressive flow toward civil and political equality.
For the past half-century the abolitionists’ image has continued to improve, culminating in this prodigious work of scholarship, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition, by Manisha Sinha, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “Abolitionists were pioneers in developing the modern concept of human rights,” she concludes. “The abolitionist struggle for black citizenship and desegregation” was a “nineteenth-century antecedent to the long civil rights movement.” “The enduring heritage of the abolition movement” was, as W.E.B. Du Bois put it, “the finest thing in American history.”
This book is not for the faint of heart. Ten years in the making, its 275,000 words of text and 140 closely printed pages of endnotes are encyclopedic in both the positive and negative meanings of the word. Every antislavery organization that ever existed is here, listed by initials after the first mention (AASS for American Anti-Slavery Society, BFASS for Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society, and so on). Capsule biographies and summaries of the writings and activities of several hundred individual abolitionists are scattered through the pages, along with briefer accounts of at least a thousand others. Some paragraphs seem to consist mainly of a succession of names. Four consecutive paragraphs on pages 505–507, for example, contain twenty-six, sixteen, seven, and twenty-seven names respectively. Some of the names are repeated, but the four paragraphs include the names of fifty-eight distinct individuals. While these and many similar paragraphs contain useful information, the reader’s eyes tend to glaze over. To cite an old cliché, it is often difficult to see the forest for the trees.
Embedded among those trees, however, are several important motifs that add up to a comprehensive interpretation of the abolitionist movement. Sinha chronicles a longer pedigree for the movement than it has received from traditional accounts. “A concerted abolition movement first arose in the British Atlantic world” in the eighteenth century, she maintains, but she has found powerful antislavery voices even earlier, especially among Quakers and other dissenters. By the time of the American Revolution, the transatlantic antislavery movement had laid the groundwork for the abolition of slavery in England itself and in the new American states north of the Mason–Dixon line between 1780 and 1804. “Forgotten antislavery voices and actions of Quaker and African pioneers” emerge in her pages. They “all played a part in laying the foundation of revolutionary abolitionism.”
These events were part of what Sinha calls the “first wave” of the movement. Most histories depict a decline in antislavery activism after 1800 until the sudden upsurge of the “second wave” in the 1830s. But she portrays a ripple rather than a trough between the two waves. The slave insurrection that created a free Haiti, the abolition of the African slave trade by Britain and the United States in 1808, and the revolutions of independence in Latin America where several new nations abolished slavery occurred during this once “neglected period” of abolitionism. Antislavery societies founded during the American Revolution continued their efforts to oversee the process of gradual emancipation in northern states and to promote manumissions in the upper South.
The crisis over the admission of Missouri as a slave state in 1820—when northern congressmen tried in vain to exclude bondage from that new state and a compromise banning the institution in other territories north of 36° 30’ finally resolved the issue—was further evidence of antislavery persistence. The growing movement in Britain during the 1820s to abolish slavery in its West Indian colonies, which achieved success in 1833, inspired American abolitionists during these years.
Yet the very notion of a first wave and second wave implies some discontinuity. Many abolitionists in the first wave were gradualists—that is, they supported the process by which slavery had been abolished in the northern states, where all slaves born after a certain date were freed when they reached the age of twenty-one or twenty-five. Many first-wave emancipationists were also colonizationists—that is, they advocated the emigration of free slaves (and already-free blacks) to Africa or elsewhere. They founded the American Colonization Society in 1816 to promote this program, acquired land in West Africa, and established the nation of Liberia as a destination for colonized freed people. While some white first-wave abolitionists rejected the idea of colonization as racist and urged equal citizenship for freed slaves, these principles were not dominant at the time.
The second wave was much more radical. For abolitionists of the 1830s and after—a new generation—slavery was not merely an evil, it was a sin. Inspired by the evangelical fervor of the Second Great Awakening in American Protestantism, second-wave abolitionists urged the expiation of social sins like slavery as well as personal sins. They were immediatists, not gradualists, calling for the immediate end of slavery. They rejected colonization and demanded equal citizenship for freedpeople. But perhaps the most vivid difference between the first and second waves was the militancy of second-wave rhetoric, as demonstrated by the movement’s most famous leader, William Lloyd Garrison, in the inaugural editorial of his weekly newspaper, the Liberator, on January 1, 1831:
I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire, to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen;—but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—AND I WILL BE HEARD.
Along with the wealthy merchant brothers Arthur and Lewis Tappan and the feminist Quaker Lucretia Mott, Garrison founded the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. Eloquent abolitionist lecturers like Theodore Weld and, a little later, the escaped slave Frederick Douglass fanned out across the North to carry the abolitionist message to audiences large and small. The half-dozen years after 1833 saw a remarkable growth of the American Anti-Slavery Society and its state and local auxiliaries. By 1838 the movement claimed more than a thousand auxiliaries with 250,000 members. These societies published pamphlets and newspapers, held conventions, sponsored lectures, and sent 600,000 petitions with nearly two million signatures to Congress and state legislatures urging the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, the ending of the interstate slave trade, the rejection of the admission of new slave states, and equal rights for black people.
The two principal goals of abolitionists in the 1830s were to convert Americans, including southerners and slaveholders, to a belief that slaveholding was a sin, and to win equal rights for free blacks. These goals and the means to achieve them were modeled on the revivals of the Second Great Awakening, the religious revival that climaxed in the 1830s. Having themselves experienced “conversion” to abolitionism, the reformers hoped to convert others. Once convinced that slavery and racial discrimination were sins against God and humanity, Americans would cease sinning, surmount racism, abolish slavery, and grant equal rights to the freed people.
These hopes were doomed to failure. The South closed its mind to the abolitionists. Some slave states put a price on the head of Garrison and other leading reformers. Southern congressmen instituted a “gag law” that automatically referred antislavery petitions to an obscure committee where they were tabled and never heard from again. Intrepid abolitionists who ventured into the South were assaulted and driven out or imprisoned. Mobs broke into southern post offices and seized and burned abolitionist pamphlets. President Andrew Jackson approved of this type of action and ordered his postmaster general to ban abolitionist literature from the mails on the grounds that it might foment a slave rebellion. Those few southern whites who did become abolitionists—such as the Kentuckian James G. Birney and the South Carolina sisters Angelina and Sarah Grimke—had to move to the North to proclaim their beliefs.
But most northerners refused to accept the abolitionist message of total emancipation and equal rights. Such objectives threatened too many economic and racial interests. Northern rioters attacked abolitionist lecturers, destroyed printing presses, burned abolitionist property, nearly lynched Garrison in Boston in 1835, and murdered Elijah Lovejoy in Alton, Illinois, in 1837. These mobs consisted mainly of lower-class whites who feared that emancipation would loose a horde of freed slaves to come north and compete with them for jobs and social equality. But some mobs included “gentlemen of property and standing”—merchants and lawyers who had business connections with the South and conservatives who believed that abolitionist radicalism threatened the Union and the very basis of social order.
While confronting hostility and violence in both North and South, second-wave abolitionists also began to fragment among themselves over pragmatic and ideological issues. By the late 1830s the failure of moral suasion to convert the nation to abolition prompted some abolitionists to turn to politics. In 1839 they founded the Liberty Party, which nominated James G. Birney for president in 1840. He received a tiny percentage of the vote, but the formation of the party was one of several factors that caused a split in the antislavery movement. Garrison led a faction of abolitionists who opposed political action because they believed it would lead to a compromise of principle. Garrisonians refused to vote under the US Constitution, which sanctioned slavery. Moreover, in their disappointment with the refusal of major church denominations to endorse militant abolitionism, some followers of Garrison attacked organized religion as a “den of thieves.” The “come outerism” of Garrison’s followers from mainstream churches angered some evangelical abolitionists, who founded new antislavery societies in the 1840s.
The principal issue that drove a wedge into abolitionist unity, however, was women’s rights. A large number of abolitionists—perhaps a majority—were women. Many Garrisonians, male as well as female, were feminists as well as abolitionists. They gave women important speaking roles in the movement and in 1840 elected a woman to the executive board of the American Anti-Slavery Society. This was the spark that touched off the secession of nonfeminist male abolitionists from the society. It also intensified the feminism of many Garrisonians. Having denounced racism for years, they began to focus also on sexism. As Angelina Grimke expressed it, “The investigation of the rights of the slave has led me to a better understanding of my own.” Sinha concludes that “the nineteenth-century woman rights movement, as it was called, grew out of abolition.” The schism of 1840 in the American Anti-Slavery Society was the first step toward the famous Seneca Falls women’s rights convention eight years later.
Earlier historians of the antislavery movement tended to dwell on abolitionism’s internal divisions. This factionalism seemed to prove the idiosyncratic nature of the movement. But Sinha downplays these differences—correctly in my opinion. Many Garrisonians voted for Liberty Party candidates and even ran for local and state offices. Political abolitionists became reconciled to women’s rights; one of them, Henry B. Stanton, was married to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who organized the Seneca Falls convention in 1848. Evangelical and come-outer abolitionists buried the hatchet and went on to work together in attempts to prevent the annexation of Texas, to support the Wilmot Proviso to exclude slavery from new territories acquired in the Mexican War, and to oppose a fugitive slave law. “Despite their differences,” writes Sinha, “abolitionists shared enough common ground to recommend unity of purpose.”
The original abolitionist goals of immediate emancipation and civil rights were attenuated as the Liberty Party expanded its base and evolved into the Free Soil Party (1848) and eventually the Republican Party (1854). Their platforms were “antislavery” rather than “abolitionist”—that is, focused on preventing the expansion of slavery rather than its abolition. As Garrisonians had predicted, this broadening of the movement diluted its religious and humanitarian emphasis. Yet as Sinha makes clear, abolitionists who became or supported Republicans formed the cutting edge of that party, which ultimately abolished slavery and enacted equality before the law during the Civil War and Reconstruction. In Sinha’s words:
Radical political abolitionists such as [Gerrit] Smith and [Frederick] Douglass, who inhabited the left wing of antislavery politics, and abolitionist free soilers like [Charles] Sumner, [Joshua] Giddings, [George] Julian, and [Thaddeus] Stevens made sure that the center of gravity of the new party remained antislavery.
During the Civil War, “abolitionists and their Radical Republican allies pushed the Lincoln administration from nonextension to abolition to black rights.”
A significant contribution of Sinha’s book is its emphasis on the crucial part that black abolitionists played in the movement. Sinha has rescued scores of black writers, lecturers, preachers, organizations, and activists from undeserved obscurity. Lawsuits and petitions by slaves for freedom during the American Revolution paved the way for abolition of slavery in northern states. Black antislavery churches, societies, and self-help associations in this first wave were usually separate from white organizations. But the abolitionist societies of the second wave were interracial—the first genuinely integrated movement in American history.
African-Americans were the principal early supporters of and subscribers to the Liberator. Black men and women were not only members but also officers and lecturers of antislavery societies in the 1830s and after. By the 1840s, escaped slaves like Douglass and William Wells Brown became the most effective lecturers because they could offer vivid personal testimony to the cruelties and injustices of slavery. Fugitive slave autobiographies provided similar powerful witness. The prominent place of blacks sustained the movement’s goal of equal rights as well as abolition.
Another important thesis of The Slave’s Cause is the contribution to abolitionism of slave resistance. The Haitian revolution, the Gabriel Prosser insurrection conspiracy in Virginia in 1800, the Denmark Vesey conspiracy in Charleston in 1822, the Nat Turner rebellion in Virginia in 1831, and other uprisings demonstrated the slaves’ desire for freedom, an “essential precondition to the rise of abolitionism.” Sinha underemphasizes the savage response in the South to these rebellions, which fastened the manacles of slavery ever more tightly. Southern whites reversed the cause-effect relationship Sinha emphasizes between the insurrection conspiracies and abolitionists. White southerners blamed “outside agitation” for riling up otherwise contented slaves. Many of the anti-abolitionist riots in both North and South were generated by these accusations of fomenting slave rebellions.
Whether slave resistance in the form of insurrections was an essential cause of the abolitionist movement is debatable. But Sinha is on firm ground in her emphasis on another type of resistance, running away. Fugitives risking their lives to escape to freedom did more, perhaps, to convert northerners to the cause of antislavery than any number of editorials, lectures, or sermons. The action of a Congress dominated by southerners and “doughfaces” (northern men with southern principles) that passed a draconian fugitive slave law in 1850 convinced many northern whites that an overweening “Slave Power” threatened their freedoms.
Resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law united all factions of abolitionists in “vigilance committees” to help spirit escapees over the Underground Railroad to Canada in the 1850s. “Slave resistance gave abolition its most enduring issue, the fugitive slave controversy, and provided the movement with its most dynamic exponents,” writes Sinha. “Slave resistance moved abolition into northern states and courthouses and inspired grassroots militancy.” This militancy provoked a southern counteroffensive as the controversy over fugitive slaves became, next to the issue of slavery in the territories, the spark that inflamed sectional conflict into civil war—and the victory of abolition.
That victory was sealed by the enactment of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. Of all the names of abolitionists and antislavery politicians scattered through The Slave’s Cause—well over a thousand—one name is conspicuously missing, that of James Ashley, the congressman from Ohio who shepherded the Thirteenth Amendment to passage by the House on January 31, 1865. Viewers of Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln may remember Ashley, though he was outshone by Thaddeus Stevens as portrayed by the actor Tommy Lee Jones. Nevertheless, it was Ashley who was the real-life hero of the drama that finally ended slavery, as made clear by Leonard Richards’s recent study of how the Thirteenth Amendment was passed by the House.* Surely Ashley deserved at least a passing mention in The Slave’s Cause.
Despite this omission, Manisha Sinha has cemented in place the last stone in the scholarly edifice of the past half-century that has rehabilitated the abolitionists’ reputation. “The age of Obama, like the age of Lincoln,” she concludes, “has its critics and its admirers, but neither would have been possible without the abolition movement.” And she is right.
Who Freed the Slaves? The Fight Over the Thirteenth Amendment (University of Chicago Press, 2015). ↩