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The Radicalism of Abolitionist Radicals

(Remarks originally delivered as part of a panel celebrating the publication of Manisha Sinha’s The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition, Yale University Press, 2016.)

I was not surprised to hear UMass Provost Katherine Newman, in her opening remarks for this book launch, recall the days when historians told us that abolitionists were well-intentioned but feckless bourgeois reformers. It put me in mind of an earlier school of thought, dominant in the 1950s, that looked askance at popular movements of all stripes—any challenge to consensual patterns of thought and the expected ways of doing things. Such scholars considered abolitionists to be abnormal, nearly psychotic cranks, bent out of shape, according to one scholar, by overbearing mothers. Some current-day postmodernists think that abolitionists were racists.

Manisha Sinha’s tour de force takes us well beyond such regrettable stereotypes. The Slave’s Cause is at once encyclopedic in narrative detail and broadly interpretive, squeezing new meaning from known figures and texts, and introducing readers to other, more obscure actors, many of them African Americans, who escaped the attention of even seasoned scholars—men like Adam Carmen, to name just one unsung activist, someone most of us never heard of. Such deep and thoughtful work will send some scholars to the penitent’s bench, and many more back to the archives. Manisha firmly harnesses this prodigious research to major re-interpretive themes, not least her claim of the dialectical fit between slave resistance and abolitionism. This alone amounts to a significant revision of the interpretive line.

But there’s more, much more, to applaud here. She especially struck me with her exposure of the American Convention, the little known black group that bridged the divide between the first and second abolitionist movements, plus the heady reminder just how glacial the gradualist phase of the movement was really. If nothing else, the chapter on the Neglected Period makes this book well worth your time. Strung through the narrative is the important point, made repeatedly in her analysis of black intellectuals: that white abolitionists were not paternalists, they were egalitarians. Those who leaned toward such a patronizing posture were surely deterred by the egalitarian black voice, not just that of the thunderous Douglass, but also lesser known agitators, who let it be known that they did not intend to be anyone’s client.

One can only wonder what would have happened if white America at the time was not so imbued with the dominant racist etiquette. Perhaps they would have better  appreciated the critiques of black intellectuals—like James W.C. Pennington, William Wells Brown, and James McCune Smith—who turned their attention to the Haitian Revolution, not simply to celebrate Toussaint and his fellow rebels, but to make the stinging point that theirs was a complete revolution, while ours remained myopic, incomplete, and unfinished. As Wells Brown memorably put it, Toussaint’s “government made liberty its watchword, incorporated into its constitution. . . freedom universal among the people. Washington’s government incorporated slavery and the slave trade. . .  Toussaint liberated his countrymen. Washington enslaved a portion of his, and aided in giving strength and vitality to an institution,” he presciently proclaimed a decade before  the Civil War, “that will one day rent asunder the UNION that he helped form.”

Haiti, of course, had an unhappy post-emancipation experience. A listless economy in conjunction with repressive laws turned former slaves into impoverished peasants. The pre-emancipation North in the United States proved to be a very different place. It boasted a dynamic economy with busy port cities and rising industrial towns that offered myriad jobs for even the poorest people. The tragedy was that free blacks were frozen out of work on the docks, or muscled out of them by hungry white immigrants, and kept out of industrial work by a tacit agreement between white employers and workers. Black abolitionists and their white allies proposed any number of reforms for the black masses, notably manual training schools and better education generally. But the iridescent thread that ran through black programs, Manisha reminds us again and again, was land for the landless—through landed societies in Canada and the Caribbean, among other places. In the midst of the Civil War, and through Reconstruction, many former slaves and abolitionists alike demanded land redistribution in the South. One abolitionist asserted that voting rights for blacks would come to naught without “the right to property in the common elements.” “You will find,” he wrote, “the security of this right indispensable to the reconstruction of our southern communities. Immense landed estates in a few hands (baronies) the world over, are death to Democracy.” In a note that resonates to this day, he added: “If three or four men own a whole country, they will be its governors.” It was this critique of property rights, Manisha wisely informs us, that made abolitionist radicalism radical. 

But that’s not what I’ve been asked to comment on. I’ve been asked to comment on the question of abolitionist internationalism, a theme Manisha threads though her narrative, also devoting a full chapter to this subject. I have two questions for her that could stand elaboration. What did the American visitors learn from their English colleagues? And why did the British movement become a mass movement earlier by at least four decades? It may be that the British economy industrialized earlier but my guess is more was at stake.

Nonetheless, I do not wish either to end on a negative note, or to come off as an ingrate, asking for more. There’s more than enough already in this weighty and distinguished tome to advance the study of abolitionism far beyond anything any of us imagined possible. In his magisterial Making of the English Working Class, the incomparable English historian, E.P. Thompson said that he intended to rescue the working class from the condescension of history. In her masterwork, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition, Manisha Sinha heroically rescues abolitionism from the condescension of historians.

 Bruce Laurie is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the author of, among other works, Artisans into Workers: Labor in Nineteenth Century America (1989) and Rebels in Paradise: Sketches of Northampton Abolitionists (2015)






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