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