The Author’s Corner with John Oldfield

John Oldfield is Professor of Emancipation and Slavery at The University of Hull. This interview is based on his new book, The Ties that Bind: Transatlantic Abolitionism in the Age of Reform, c. 1820-1866 (Liverpool University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write The Ties that Bind?

JO: I wrote The Ties that Bind in an attempt to challenge more orthodox histories that tend to place antislavery within narrow national contexts, whether American exceptionalism, in the case of the USA, or Britain’s history of humanitarian interventionism. Antislavery, I argue, should be seen as an international movement that rested on dense networks that brought together activists on both sides of the Atlantic. American abolitionists, particularly so-called “second wave” reformers like William Lloyd Garrison, relied heavily on British antecedents and borrowed many of their ideas, whether it was their use of “agents” or antislavery lecturers, the pledging of “parliamentary” candidates or the importance of grass-roots organization. But these influences also flowed the other way and part of my intention in The Ties that Bind was to explore how figures like Garrison influenced British activists, George Thompson being an obvious case in point. There were always limits to international co-operation, perhaps most evident in British reactions to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). For some British reformers, American abolitionism would always seem too sensationalist, too “popular” and even potentially dangerous. This is what Garrison was getting at when he said that British abolitionists “walked in silver slippers.” Antislavery in Britain, he went on, had “never been tried in the fiery furnace, nor compelled to encounter a single storm of persecution, and therefore is no more a test of English character, than is the opposition of Americans to a monarchical form of government.” So, while there were obvious affinities here, there were also important differences. Finally, I wanted to explore the related question of opinion-building, the processes whereby activists turned an idea (that slavery was wrong) into a social movement. This, again, is a transatlantic story but one not without its stresses and strains, as the British reaction to things such as antislavery songs and antislavery performers makes abundantly clear.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Ties that Bind?

JO: Simply put, The Ties that Bind argues that we should see antislavery as an international movement based on close ties that bound together activists on both sides of the Atlantic. Adopting an interdisciplinary approach, it stresses the importance of opinion-building techniques and, above all, the role of personality in shaping the abolitionist world of the nineteenth century.

JF: Why do we need to read The Ties that Bind?

JO: I think two points are relevant here. The Ties that Bind, like my previous books, makes the case for seeing antislavery as an international movement. Abolitionists, from Granville Sharp to William Lloyd Garrison, saw themselves as “citizens of the universe” and that outlook dictated their political outlooks, as well as the policy choices they made. American abolitionists learned a great deal from their British counterparts and Garrison, in particular, played on these Atlantic affinities; hence his preoccupation with celebrating 1 August, the anniversary of emancipation in the British Caribbean. Of course, American abolitionism was always more than a pale imitation of British antislavery but it is instructive, I think, to stress the importance of these international “connections.” My second point leads on from the first. One of the things I was keen to do in The Ties that Bind was to emphasize the importance of antislavery for activists today and for broader histories of humanitarianism. I think there are a number of issues at play here. One is the importance of grass-roots organization. On both sides of the Atlantic, abolitionists created complex networks that linked center to periphery, being careful at the same time to give rank-and-file members a chance to air their views. This mix between guidance and independence, I would argue, kept the movement fresh and relevant, and it is a model that has been adopted successfully elsewhere, notably in US campaigns around gun rights, tobacco control and drunk-driving reduction. Another crucial factor, which again has implications for activists today, was the willingness of abolitionists (not all of them, admittedly) to engage with electoral politics. Historians may question the effectiveness of the Liberty Party, to take an obvious example, but there is little doubt in my mind that such initiatives helped to divorce the federal government from the idea of slavery. Finally, as I have already said, antislavery was an international movement, based on close ties that bound together British and American reformers in dense transatlantic networks. Indeed, cosmopolitanism was an important dynamic within nineteenth-century abolitionism, evident in common political attitudes and assumptions that flowed from east to west and from west to east. In this sense, antislavery was never a parochial British or American affair, any more than the US Civil Rights Movement or the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa were narrow parochial affairs.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JO: I was an undergraduate in the UK during the 1970s, a decade that seemed to be dominated by the USA, not always for the right reasons. Whether it was the Vietnam War or the unfolding drama surrounding the Watergate break-in, it was difficult not to be affected by these events in some way, inside or outside the classroom. The 1970s also witnessed a remarkable outpouring of revisionist studies of US slavery, from John Blassingame’s The Slave Community (1972) to Eugene Genovese’s magisterial Roll, Jordan, Roll (1974). Collectively, these books not only seemed to speak to the contemporary situation in the USA but also to break new ground, not least in their use of sources (slave narratives, for instance) and their openness to other disciplinary approaches. As a result, I found myself drawn to courses on US history and to anything that dealt with the American South or slavery, race, and identity. I guess this was the start of my journey towards becoming an American historian. After graduating, I went on to graduate school, choosing to write my PhD thesis on the nineteenth-century black leader, Alexander Crummell (1819-1898). Over the past forty years, my research interests have broadened and today I would consider myself as much a historian of the Atlantic World, as an American historian. I have also developed a lifelong interest in the history of antislavery, both at a national and international level. But I have always taught US history and in many ways The Ties that Bind marks a return to many of the themes that first excited me as an undergraduate.

JF: What is your next project?

JO: Good question! I am currently co-editing a volume on European colonial heritage, which should appear in the second half of 2021. Beyond that, I want to build on the work I did in The Ties that Bind on William Lloyd Garrison and George Thompson, using it as a template to explore other transatlantic friendships that centered on reform. Then there is the ongoing debate here in the UK about the history and legacy of slavery, which is bound to quicken in pace as we inch ever closer to 2033 and the bicentenary of emancipation in the British Caribbean. Now more than ever there is a need for an “integrated” history of British antislavery, which not only commemorates the achievements of people like William Wilberforce but also recognizes Britain’s deep and tragic involvement in both the slave trade and the wider business of slavery.

JF: Thanks, John!