February 24, 2013, 5:15 pm
By MANISHA SINHA
On the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, discussion over who freed the slaves, fueled by movies like “Lincoln,” have become commonplace. While historians have debated the relative roles of Abraham Lincoln and the slaves themselves in the coming of emancipation, few have paid attention to the abolitionists, the forgotten emancipationists in the story of black freedom.
Actually, they’re hidden in plain sight, even in contemporary emancipation narratives. In Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” which may well win the Academy Award for Best Picture this evening, they are represented by the lone figure of the Radical Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens. In Quentin Tarantino’s fictional western on slavery, “Django Unchained,” perhaps by the articulate German bounty hunter posing as a dentist (Christoph Waltz’s character isn’t pure fantasy; many “Forty Eighters,” refugees from the failed 1848 revolution in the German states, were political radicals and staunchly antislavery). In fact, the idea of a Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution abolishing slavery, the subject of Lincoln, originated with abolitionists.
The problem with movies like “Lincoln” is not that they depict passive black characters — in fact most black characters in the movie are drawn in a nuanced fashion — but that nearly all characters in the movie, including Lincoln himself, are devoid of their proper historical context, particularly the abolitionists and the even larger political antislavery movements. Emancipation was not simply a presidential and congressional game; it was the long and hard-won result of decades of black and white activism before and during the war.
But the abolition movement is rarely the focus of popular depictions on emancipation. Radical “fanatics,” abolitionists do not fit into mainstream, Whiggish depictions of the progress of liberty in United States history. Nor do their severe castigations of the slaveholding republic conform to the conservative ideal of American “exceptionalism.”
The three-part series on the abolitionists airing on PBS (to which I, among other historians, contributed as a “talking head”) seeks to correct this neglect. Yet even while the series does a generally admirable job of rescuing at least the individuals it showcases from historical obscurity, the full and complex story of the abolition movement that advocated emancipation for years before the Civil War has yet to be told.
The roots of the abolition movement lay in the revolutionary era, when outstanding individual abolitionists in Philadelphia like the Quaker school teacher Anthony Benezet and Richard Allen, the former slave who founded the African Methodist Episcopal church, along with newly formed abolition societies and newly emancipated black communities, worked to end the slave trade and slavery. During the American Revolution, African-Americans fought on both sides, ran away and petitioned to gain their freedom, and many abandoned the land of their enslavement. The first wave of antislavery would end with the abolition of the African slave trade by Britain and the United States in 1808 and the gradual emancipation laws of the North. Instead of withering and dying away, as some had hoped it would, Southern slavery expanded and became entrenched in the nation’s economy and its political institutions, even as black freedom in the North fell far short of equality. It would once again be up to the abolitionists to break the national complicity on slavery and racism.
Mary Ann Shadd Cary (October 9, 1823 – June 5, 1893) was an American-Canadian anti-slavery activist, journalist, publisher, teacher and lawyer. She was the first black woman publisher in North America and the first woman publisher in Canada.
During the early part of the 19th century, Northern free blacks helped launch the antebellum abolition movement and determine its program of emancipation and black citizenship in the United States. In rejecting all forms of antislavery severely tainted by racism, including the original Jeffersonian plan to “colonize” African-Americans out of the country, abolitionists did not embrace fanaticism but racial egalitarianism. When William Lloyd Garrison started publishing The Liberator in 1831, he had a keen appreciation of black abolitionists like David Walker, who had preceded him and whose anti-colonization program and radical rhetoric he adopted. African-Americans sustained Garrison’s brand of immediate, uncompensated abolition and his newspaper, forming two-thirds of its subscribers and contributing generously to keep it afloat. They were the first abolitionists.
Few people today appreciate the extent to which grass-roots black activism, enslaved and free, lay at the heart of the abolition movement. Building on Quaker precedent, black abolitionists like David Ruggles and William Still gave organizational form to the abolitionist rebellion against the fugitive slave laws that led to rendition of runaways and wholesale kidnapping of free blacks into slavery.
In the 1840s and 1850s, scores of slave runaways like Frederick Douglass breathed new life into a fractured movement, divided between Garrisonians and evangelical and political abolitionists. They gave the abolitionists their most potent issue, the fugitive slave controversy. Charles Sumner, the Radical Republican senator from Massachusetts featured in a ridiculous cameo in “Lincoln,” called them the “heroes of our age.”
The resistance of runaway slaves had repercussions that resonated in the halls of Congress and Northern state and courthouses, and fugitive slave narratives long preceded Harriet Beecher Stowe’s best-selling antislavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” These “freedom seekers” were the forerunners of the slaves who sought freedom in Union Army lines and who with their abolitionist allies pushed the Lincoln administration to move on emancipation during the Civil War.
Their real-life stories are far more compelling than the seductively gratifying fantasy of slave resistance depicted by a lone slave gunman in “Django Unchained.” To give Tarantino his due, the vengeful violence unleashed by Django evokes Nat Turner’s no-quarter-given rebellion. But even Turner had at least 50 to 60 followers and perhaps many more sympathizers. And slave rebels like Turner, Cinque, Madison Washington and above all the participants in the Haitian Revolution continued to exercise a powerful influence on the abolitionist imagination. This was true not just of black abolitionists but also of pacifist Garrisonians and the more conservative evangelicals led by Lewis Tappan of New York.
Abolitionists critiqued not just Southern slavery but also Northern racism, which became increasingly ubiquitous in intellectual circles and popular culture in the years before the Civil War, acting as a powerful argument against emancipation. Black abolitionists in particular opposed federal and Northern state laws that discriminated against free African-Americans.
Despite what some scholars have dubbed the “romantic racialism” of some white abolitionists, all factions of the abolition movement would share this programmatic commitment to black civic and political equality. Indeed the problem that abolitionists confronted was the fundamental failure of a majority in the country to imagine African-Americans as fellow citizens of the American republic. Abolitionists are often accused of not developing a full-fledged program for emancipation, since they opposed compensation for slaveholders and long periods of “apprenticeship,” a euphemism for new forms of servitude, for emancipated slaves.
But the attempt during the years following the Civil War to base Reconstruction on black citizenship, which was codified in the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, had abolitionist origins. Some now argue that citizenship was not enough, but the fact remains that even that minimal abolitionist demand was not met until the civil rights movement a hundred years later. And many abolitionists proved to be more radical, demanding the redistribution of land among former slaves and advocating for labor rights.
Abolitionism would also inspire the struggle for “woman’s rights” as women fought for equality both within and outside the movement. One of the first American women to speak out in public for “African liberty” was the black female abolitionist Maria Stewart. (The abolitionist feminist and labor-rights spokeswoman Francis Wright had preceded her in the United States, but she was British.) As another activist, Angelina Grimke, put it, “In striving to strike the slave’s chains off, we found most surely, that we were chained ourselves.”
Nor was female abolitionism a purely white woman’s domain, as is the common misperception. The first female antislavery society, founded in 1832, was an all-black group in Salem, Mass., which would later start admitting white women into its ranks. Women’s rights would prove to be a bone of contention among abolitionists, as evangelical abolitionists parted company with the Garrisonians on this issue. In turn, some predominantly white suffragists, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, would split with abolitionists and most African-Americans over the Reconstruction amendments to the Constitution that excluded women. Still, it was the Garrisonian commitment to citizenship regardless of race and gender that had given birth to their movement; the American women’s movement became more autonomous after the war but it also lost the abolitionist commitment to racial equality.
Abolitionist advocacy of black citizenship, as well as the movement’s inclusion of African-Americans and women, incited “gentlemen of property and standing” to launch a long campaign of harassment against it. Mob violence and censorship married the cause of abolition with that of civil liberties and republican government.
By the eve of the Civil War, hundreds of thousands men and women, primarily from the Northern states, had joined the abolition movement, and nearly two million abolitionists and fellow travelers signed petitions against slavery and the domestic slave trade. And they waded into politics, too: even as the Garrisonians rejected what they increasingly viewed as the essentially proslavery nature of the American state and church, many more would vote for the abolitionist Liberty Party and the Free Soil party.
Ironically, as abolitionists divided over politics, religion and women’s rights, antislavery would become more popular in the North. While abolitionists remained a minority, large numbers of Northern citizens came to oppose the western expansion of slavery in the aftermath of the Mexican War and the 1854 Kansas Nebraska Act. The antislavery majority in the North that elected Abraham Lincoln to the presidency on the Republican platform of the non-extension of slavery in 1860 was the product of at least three decades of abolitionist agitation to overturn the proslavery consensus.
“In order to form a more perfect Union, they tore the nation apart,” reads the blurb advertising the PBS abolition series. But abolitionists, even John Brown, did not start the Civil War. Southern states, which refused to abide by the results of a presidential election, seceded from the Union and fired the first shot on Fort Sumter, did. Abolitionists may have expected violence, but they didn’t seek it. In the end, we can blame the abolitionists for emancipation but not the carnage.