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!

Who’s afraid of critical race theory?

Donald Trump has turned Critical Race Theory (CRT) into a campaign issue in the hopes of winning white evangelicals and other conservatives who fear that an academic theory that they know little about is somehow threatening American democracy. Between his attacks on CRT and the 1619 Project, he just might win back a few 2016 voters who were contemplating pulling the lever for Biden or another candidate in November.

On Friday night, September 4, 2020, Russell Vought, the director of the president’s Office of Management and Budget, released a memo demanding that the Executive Branch stop teaching CRT as part of required “training” sessions for federal employees.

Vought’s memo condemns seminars that expose employees to the idea that “virtually all White people contribute to racism” or “benefit from racism.” All programs that include discussions of “white privilege” or the notion that the United States is an “inherently racist or evil country,” the memo states, must immediately “cease and desist.”

Trump may have learned about CRT from a segment on Fox News. On September 2, 2020, Fox host Tucker Carlson interviewed Chris Rufo, a fellow at the Discovery Institute, a conservative Christian think tank best known for its advocacy of the “intelligent design” view of creation. After studying CRT for six months, Rufo concluded the theory has become the “default ideology of the federal bureaucracy” and is being “weaponized against the American people.” He described CRT as “a cult indoctrination” and demanded that Trump bring an end to it immediately. The president was apparently listening.

So what should we make of CRT? Like all academic theories, we ought to engage it thoughtfully. Critical race theory is one way of helping us come to grips with the fact that some groups in society oppress other groups based on the color of their skin.

In their helpful introduction to CRT, scholars Richard Delgado and Jean Sefancic identify five major themes of this theory.

First, CRT affirms that racism is an “ordinary” or “common” part of everyday life. In other words, racism is more than just individual acts of prejudice against people of color, it is a system of discrimination built into American institutions, especially the law.

Second, CRT affirms that since White people benefit from such systemic racism, they will not have the incentive to do anything about it. Shock events such as the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis or the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha might alert White people to racial injustice, but it is unlikely such tragedies will lead to a sustained anti-racism.

Third, CRT affirms that race is “socially constructed.” This means that the racial categories we use are not biologically determined but invented by human beings. There is nothing inherent about any race that should lead to its oppression. Racism is thus best explained by a close examination of American history to see how men and women in power “constructed” the idea of racial difference and promoted bigotry based on those differences.

Fourth, CRT affirms, to quote Delgado and Sefancic, that “no person has a single, easily stated, unitary identity.” For example, I am a male, white, a product of the American working class, and a Christian. These different identities are often mutually dependent on one another and when taken together make me a whole person. CRT uses the technical term “intersectionality” to define the way these different identities overlap and intersect.

Fifth, CRT affirms that Black people and other people of color “are able to communicate to their White counterparts matters that whites are unlikely to know.” At the heart of CRT is storytelling. This is the primary way that people of color can explain the racism that they encounter daily. It also implies that people of color are more equipped to talk about the plight of the racially oppressed than White people.

Critical race theorists are often suspicious of liberalism, both the Left and Right variety. As a product of the Western intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment, liberals champion universals—the things that we hold in common as human beings regardless of race. CRT celebrates what makes human beings unique and different. The appeal to the universal values of the Enlightenment, its adherents argue, always favors the White people who have defined and benefited from those values.

Much of CRT sounds a lot like some of the things I learned in college, seminary, and graduate school. Back then we studied these things under the rubric of “American history” and “Christianity.”

For example, I don’t remember reading anything about CRT while working toward my Ph.D in American history. But I did not need these high-falutin academic theorists to see how racism was embedded in the history of the republic. All I needed to do was study the documentary record with my eyes open. One cannot ignore the long history of White people oppressing Black people. White people have had advantages–privileges even–that Black people and other people of color have not. To acknowledge white privilege is to be a good historian.

It is also difficult to study American history and not see continuity between the past and present. The legacies of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, lynching, and white supremacy are still with us just like the founding fathers’ ideas of liberty, freedom, and individual rights are still with us. Indeed, racism is “ordinary” and “common” in American life. It is not some kind of aberration practiced by a few “bad apples” who make occasional appearances in the narratives we teach about the past.

A few weeks ago I was teaching the students in my U.S. history survey course about seventeenth-century Virginia. This colonial society passed laws that defined Black men and women as slaves for the purpose of quelling disgruntled poor whites (former indentured servants) who had a propensity for social and political rebellion. The codification of race-based slavery in Virginia law resulted in the social, economic, and political advance of these marginalized White colonials.

Were there individual acts of racism in colonial Virginia? Of course. But what the Virginia government did was systemic–its leaders embedded racism in the culture of the settlement. While this is an early example of systemic racism, we can point to many other instances in American history where White people were able to achieve something called the “American Dream” on the backs of slavery and other oppressed and marginalized people.

Trump’s decision to root-out CRT will inevitably win him points with his Fox-News-watching Christian conservative base, but is CRT something Christians should fear?

As an undergraduate and seminary student at evangelical institutions, I learned that Christians should not be surprised by injustice and evil in this world. Rather, we should expect it. The world is a fallen and broken place. My professors drilled this into my head through a reading and re-reading (occasionally in the original Hebrew language) of Genesis 3. Sin manifests itself in both individual lives and cultural systems.

Since Christians believe in human sin, we should have no problem embracing CRT’s affirmation of systemic racism. At the same time, we should always be ready to offer hope–rooted in Christ’s atoning work on the cross and the promise of resurrection—as a means of healing a world that is broken. We may never overcome the damage of systemic racism on this side of eternity, but we cannot ignore our call to be agents of reconciliation.

Is it true that White people have no incentive to do anything about racial injustice because they benefit from it? American history certainly bears this out. The story of our nation is filled with White men and women who witnessed racism on a regular basis and did nothing to stop it. Some of them knew it was wrong but lacked the courage to do anything about it. Others simply did not care.

Christian critics of CRT celebrate abolitionists such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Wilberforce, or William Lloyd Garrison, but these courageous activists were the exceptions to the rule in 19th-century America. The “heroic man” or “heroic woman” view of the history of moral reform does not account for the long record of White Christian complacency on racial injustice. In the end, any Christian who takes a deep dive into the American past will find heroes to emulate, but they will also find that most White people were complicit in sustaining a system of white supremacy.

What about the social construction of race? When Thomas Jefferson said in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1781) that Africans were “inferior to whites in the endowments both of body and mind,” he was degrading the human dignity of Black people, men and women created by God in His image. Racism entered the world when sinful human beings forged communities that privileged some and excluded others.

Christians can also agree, to an extent, with the idea of intersectionality. We all possess different social identities and there are times when we face injustice that stems from those identities—injustices that our legal system fails to address.

Our urge to downplay the identities that define us as human beings is understandable and, in many cases, good. A flourishing society will always be built upon the things we hold common as human beings. A thriving Church will always be built upon the knowledge that one day White Christians and Christians of color will share together in the new heavens and new earth promised in the Book of Revelation. A central message of the Book of Acts and Pauline epistles is summed-up best in Galatians 3:38: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you all one in Christ.”

But God has also made us different. We are products of history. Our faith will always be understood and navigated through the circumstances that have shaped us and provided us with multiple identities in this world. While we all want to be one in Christ, and should always be about the work of reconciliation and unity as Jesus reminded us in John 17, we must also remember, as theologian Miroslav Volf writes, that God notes not only our “common humanity,” but also our “specific histories.”

Finally, CRT’s emphasis on storytelling is something Christians should value. The Christian tradition is full of men and women telling stories of suffering, sin, and redemption. When Black people tell their stories of encounters with racism it should provoke empathy in the hearts of White Christians. We understand the power of testimony.

Of course, stories can be manipulated for selfish or political ends. And personal experience does not always translate to expertise on a subject such as African American history or literature. But those who dwell on these matters miss an opportunity to cultivate a more just democracy through compassion and understanding. It is time to exercise some humility. This means we need to stop talking and start listening to the stories African Americans are telling us.

In the end, if critical race theorists can teach me something I don’t know about how I may have benefited from white oppression (even if I may not commit overt acts of racism) or how to have greater solidarity with my black brothers and sisters, why wouldn’t I want to consider it?

As a Christian, I want to see the world through the eyes of my faith. I want my “theory” to be the teachings of the scriptures and the Christian tradition. This may mean that I embrace parts of CRT and reject other parts. I know very few academics—Christian or secular—who adopt theories in toto.

There is much truth in CRT, and all truth is God’s truth. We have nothing to fear.

Who freed the slaves?

Lincoln GOP

Did this guy have anything to do with it?

Princeton historian Matt Karp talks with Jacobin magazine’s Megan Day and Micah Uetricht about his recent Catalyst essay, “The Mass Politics of Anti-Slavery.” This is a wide-ranging discussion about abolitionism, Karl Marx, Abraham Lincoln, the Republican Party of the 1850s, and contemporary politics.

Here is a taste:

MU: Let me ask the classic question that is debated by Civil War–era historians: Who freed the slaves?

MK: I will answer this, but I have to preface it with a lame disclaimer, because in some ways I think that question actually was framed by people who want to produce a simplistic answer. In fact, Jim McPherson, God bless him, wrote an essay called “Who Freed the Slaves?” and the last sentence of that article is “Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves.” You have to give the man credit. He asks historical questions. He doesn’t complicate; he doesn’t do a dialectic. He answers the fucking question.

Whereas I’ve got my hands waving, I’m all over the place. But I think I would say the antislavery movement freed the slaves. That would include antislavery politicians; antislavery voters; the Union Army, which became an armed wing of that movement; and, of course, the slaves themselves, who both took part in the Union Army and destabilized the system of slavery on the ground during the war.

I think a lot of the other answers are actually pretty ahistorical. I think “Abraham Lincoln” isn’t a historical answer. You see people trying to find a line of transmission, like “Lincoln wrote this document, and that empowered the army to do this.” They’re trying to solve it like it’s an engineering problem. Same thing for people who say the slaves freed themselves. While it’s true that thousands of slaves did free themselves, if you’re actually trying to give a historical answer to this question and not an engineering answer, you have to think about the forces that brought a situation about in which slaves could free themselves in the first place.

That’s why I would say that the answer is this antislavery movement — not the abolitionists narrowly, but the broad movement against bondage in America. W. E. B. Du Bois wrote about “the abolition democracy” in the North, which ultimately formed a political alliance with slaves in the South. I think that’s the coalition that freed the slaves.

MU: What’s useful about your article is the way that it focuses on each of those pieces of the antislavery movement, which includes the slaves themselves but understands that what the slaves were able to do was often stoked by the organizing of the Republican Party. So there’s a complex interplay between all of these components of the antislavery movement.

MK: Not to be too polemical, but to say that the slaves freed themselves entirely is to say that all of the other enslaved people that did not free themselves at other points in history, and in other countries, etcetera,to free themselves every day that they were enslaved. Which is insane, because this is an overwhelming system of power and oppression that made the individual will to free oneself almost irrelevant. In terms of challenging the system of slavery, obviously that resistance was a necessary ingredient, but not sufficient. You needed, as you need now, a larger political movement to challenge something that powerful.

Read the entire interview here.

Harrisburg’s history of racial injustice

Harrisburg_capitol_building

Two of my colleagues in the Messiah University history department, Bernardo Michael and David Pettegrew, have an op-ed at PennLive today on their work on the African American communities of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Pettegrew is the director of the university’s Digital Harrisburg Initiative. He and my colleague Jim LaGrand edited the most recent issue of Pennsylvania History journal, a volume which focuses on the work of Digital Harrisburg and includes short essays by several of our students.

Here is a taste:

One of the long-lasting outcomes of the racial protest movements this summer should be a broader recognition among the American public about how unjust historical policies perpetuated by systemic racism ended up dividing our nation’s communities.

In the mid-state, we are gradually gaining a clearer historical picture of the processes that segregated our own region in the later 19th and 20th centuries. African Americans were placed under constant surveillance while being denied equal access to social services, education, employment, housing, worship, transportation and entertainment. There are many episodes in this history that are coming to light.

Consider the location of recent protests in Harrisburg around the State Capitol Park, which, historians have shown, occupies the site of the vanished neighborhood of the Old Eighth Ward, the heart of the city’s African American and immigrant communities from 1850-1913. The Old Eighth was vital to abolitionist work in the Commonwealth before the Civil War—here Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison met an angry crowd of revelers in 1847—and was significant in the fight for suffrage after the war.

Although the neighborhood was the heart of Black political organizations, societies, businesses, and churches, legislators felt it an eyesore to the new state capitol building dedicated in 1906 and campaigned successfully to replace it with green spaces and state buildings in the subsequent decade.

Read the rest here.

Does Donald Trump Want Frederick Douglass to Go Back to Where He Came From?

frederickdouglass01

Some of you may remember that Donald Trump thinks Frederick Douglass, ex-slave-turned-abolitionist, is still alive.  Douglass is not only alive, but he is doing “an amazing job.” (I am not sure if any corrected him on this. For the record, Douglass died in 1895).

So I wonder what Trump would think about this passage from Douglass’s “What to a Slave is the Fourth of July”:

“What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?

I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy-a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.”

How unpatriotic.  Look–if Frederick Douglass does not love this country he is free to leave.

Yup.

It looks like Trump is going to use his Twitter feed to attack Douglass after he is done with Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Talib, and Ayanna Pressley.  Like the women of “The Squad,” Douglass hates America.  This is why he uses such disgusting language.

And while he is at it, Trump should also target William Lloyd Garrison.  I hear he is getting more and more attention lately.  He burned the Constitution. HOW UNPATRIOTIC!  WHEN WILL GARRISON APOLOGIZE TO THE COUNTRY?

Historian H.W. Brands Paints a Scenario in Which the Battle Over Abortion Might Lead to Civil War

john Brown

H.W. Brands‘s piece at The Washington Post is worth pondering.  Here is a taste:

Suppose Roe is reversed, and the states are allowed to restrict abortion as they see fit. Red states reduce access to abortion, in some cases nearly eliminating it. Blue states maintain or even liberalize their existing laws. The red states proclaim themselves right-to-life, the blue states right-to-choose. Women seeking abortions travel or move to the blue states, leaving the red states redder still.

Having repealed Roe, opponents of abortion would be tempted to push for a further step: the restriction or outlawing of abortion nationwide. Just as Massachusetts abolitionists felt compelled to condemn slavery in Georgia, so anti-abortionists in Texas would feel conscience-bound to try to prevent abortions in California.

They might not succeed, but the effort alone would cause many Californians to ask themselves whether their liberties were safe any longer in a Union with such people. California’s economy would rank it fifth in the world if it were an independent country. Californians might conclude that they could stand on their own and vote to secede. Perhaps they would be joined by Washington and Oregon, adding Amazon, Microsoft and Nike to the economic heft of the Pacific republic.

What would happen then is anyone’s guess. Would the heartland fight to keep the left coast in the Union? Maybe not. It’s worth noting that when the South seceded in 1860-61, many Northerners, not all of them abolitionists, applauded its departure. Lincoln took the opposite view, but another president might have let the South go. In fact, another president did let the South go: James Buchanan stood by amid the first wave of secession.

Read the entire piece here.

 

Teaching Liberty

Liberty Appeal

Over at The Junto, Tom Cutterham writes about his course on the “meaning of liberty” from the American Revolution to Civil War.    Here is a taste:

The truth is, I find it hard even to begin thinking collectively about freedom. Our starting point is unfreedom. It was the same for Thomas Jefferson. His Declaration of Independence gives meaning to liberty by listing its violations. When we read David Walker, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Jacobs in my class, we try to glimpse freedom by looking deep into its absence. But it’s too easy for students to assume that because slavery has been abolished in America, the problem of liberty has already been solved. Spend too long pondering slavery, and just about anything else starts to look like liberty.

There were critics of abolitionists who tried to raise the same problem. In my class, we read William West’s series of letters to The Liberator, describing “wages slavery” as a system of dependence, abjection, and poverty which West calls “worse” than chattel slavery. It is wage slavery that can most truly claim to be the “sum of all evils,” West writes, because it is only this variety of slavery that hypocritically appropriates “the name of liberty.” We read West critically, of course. But when I ask my students if they ever felt like their boss was a tyrant, that’s when they begin to understand that freedom is a problem of the present, not just of the nineteenth century.

It’s the curse of such a topic—the meaning of freedom in American history!—to be so deeply bound up with progress. Didn’t things just keep on getting better; sometimes faster, perhaps, and sometimes more slowly, but basically, better? We read Judith Sargent Murray in the second week, then Sarah Grimké in the seventh, the Seneca Falls declaration and Lucretia Mott in the tenth. One of my students noted how depressing it is to see the same good arguments repeated, periodically, over sixty years of alleged progress. The way we raise and teach our children, the way they imbibe the ideology infused in their surroundings—as those women powerfully described—is an unfreedom none too easily abolished.

Read the entire post here.  I love the way Cutterham challenges his students to think historically about the “meaning of liberty.”  History teachers take note.

Trump’s War on the Press in Historical Context

Garrison

Over at “Made by History,” a history blog at The Washington Post, University of Alabama history professor Joshua Rothman offers some historical context for the Trump administration’s attacks on the news media.

Here is a taste:

Accused of being purveyors of “fake news,” journalists who write stories critical of the Trump administration regularly receive warnings on social media that they or members of their family will be killed. The Twitter feeds of Jewish reporters are bombarded with images of gas chambers and ovens. Female reporters get emails telling them they will be raped. Black reporters are assailed by racial epithets and threats of lynching.

In some measure, the public’s antagonism toward the press is not new, and presidents going back to John Adams have expressed frustration with and pursued action against media coverage they believe biased or unfair. But sustained rage directed at reporters has not reached the current level of ferocity since the 1820s and 1830s, when members of the anti-slavery press faced violence and suppression as a matter of course.

Then, as now, reactionary forces aimed their vitriol and hostility at the wrong targets. Many white Americans believed that the increasingly loud voices calling for the abolition of slavery were destabilizing the United States and imperiling white lives. In reality, the problems were the injustices and distortions of democracy wrought by slavery itself. Abolitionists claimed that slaveholders and their supporters ruthlessly stifled opposition to preserve their own power. Trying to intimidate and terrorize reporters who revealed slavery for what it was only proved the point.

Read the entire piece here.

The Spiritual Discipline Against Resentment

moral-manThis is what I am thinking about today.

From Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society, p.248-249:

“One of the most important results of a spiritual discipline against resentment in a social dispute is that it leads to an effort to discriminate between the evils of a social system and situation and the individuals who are involved in it.  Individuals are never as immoral as the social situations in which they are involved and which they symbolise.  If opposition to a system leads to personal insults of its representatives, it is always felt as an unjust accusation.  William Lloyd Garrison solidified the south in support of slavery by the vehemence of his attacks against slave-owners.  Many of them were, with the terms of their inherited prejudices and traditions, good men; and the violence of Mr. Garrison’s attack upon them was felt by many to be an evidence of moral perversity in him.  Mr. Gandhi never tires of making a distinction between individual Englishmen and the system of imperialism which they maintain. “An Englishman in office,” he declares, “is different from an Englishman outside.  Similarly an Englishman in India is different from an Englishman in England.  Here in India you belong to a system that is vile beyond description.  It is possible, therefore, for me to condemn the system in the strongest terms, without considering you to be bad and without imputing bad motives to every Englishman.”  It is impossible completely to disassociate an evil social system from the personal moral responsibilities of the individuals who maintain it. An impartial teacher of morals would be compelled to insist on the principle of personal responsibility for social guilt.  But it is morally and politically wise for an opponent not to do so.  Any benefit of the doubt which he is able to give his opponent is certain to reduce animosities and preserve rational objectivity in assessing the issues under dispute.”

Frederick Douglass v. William Lloyd Garrison

I wish I had more time in my U.S. Survey course to distinguish the differences between Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison on the issue of abolitionism.  It is hard enough to get my students to see that the “anti-slavery” faction in antebellum America could include immediate abolitionists, gradual emancipationists, and promoters of colonization.

When teaching the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass I usually point to David Blight’s editor’s introduction to the Bedford edition in which he mentions the conflict between the two abolitionists.

In the hopes of providing some more context to the PBS series The Abolitionists, Caleb McDaniel reminds us that Douglass wrote a second autobiography in 1855 entitled My Bondage and My Freedom.  In this book he goes into more detail about the events discussed in the Narrative and expounds on his differences with Garrison.  Here is a taste of McDaniel’s piece:

The reasons for strain between Douglass and the Garrisonians were both personal and ideological. On a personal level, Douglass sensed a patronizing tone among many of his patrons, a mistrust of him that in many cases bordered on or crossed over into a malicious bigotry. While touring in Britain, for instance, Douglass learned that Maria Weston Chapman, a leading Boston Garrisonian, had corresponded with some of Garrison’s friends in Ireland and warned them to keep an eye on Douglass’s management of his money. Incensed by this and other letters, Douglass wrote an anguished reply to Chapman that foreshadowed his eventual break with the AASS. 

But those personal conflicts cannot be separated from the ideological disagreements that increasingly divided Douglass from the Garrisonians—disagreements about the wisdom of “buying” slaves in order to free them, for instance, or about the position of the Constitution on the issue of slavery. At any rate, by the early 1850s, both faultlines—the personal as well as the principled—had opened into a complete fracture, with both parties sniping at each other and crying foul. Douglass repudiated the Garrisonians; the Garrisonians likewise repudiated Douglass. These new circumstances, in Douglass’s mind, called for a new autobiography, and My Bondage and My Freedom was the result.

There is much more to read from this piece.  Read it all here.

Reviewing "The Abolitionists"

A couple of days ago I did a post at The Anxious Bench on the new PBS three-part series on abolitionism.  It focuses on the lives of five prominent nineteenth-century opponents of slavery: Frederick Douglass, Angelina Grimke, John Brown, William Lloyd Garrison, and Harriett Beecher Stowe.

Over at The Junto, Jonathan Wilson and Ken Owen (with whom I had an invigorating conversation this weekend in New Orleans about the American Revolution in Pennsylvania) review the series

They are not very impressed.

Here is a taste of Wilson’s analysis:

So Part I of The Abolitionists leaves a lot to be desired. But I’m still thinking of using it in my course. Mostly, a good teacher should be able to fill in the gaps. Taken as the story of certain abolitionists rather than “the” abolitionists, this part of the film leads in some promising directions. It just doesn’t go there itself. I found the dramatizations effective; I think they will make it much easier for students to visualize life in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. (Tim Cragg’s cinematography is downright pretty.) And I consider that to be one of the most important — and difficult — things to get right in a history classroom.

And here is a taste of Owen’s analysis:

While the abolitionists are brought strikingly to life, 19th century society seems strangely flat. In contrast to Jonathan, I was disappointed by the portrayal of religion. The beliefs of all the key participants were mentioned, but (brief cameos from Stauffer and Gilpin aside) seemed to be skated over quickly, rather than explained in greater detail (positioning this within a wider movement of religious revival would have been helpful). The ideology of paternalism, in all its hypocrisies, was never adequately explained. Perhaps this highlights the biggest difficulty in portraying slavery to a modern audience. The complicated story to us today isn’t why Garrison, Grimke, Brown and Douglass despised slavery and campaigned so vigorously against it – it is why so many other people remained complicit with the slave system. Hopefully the next installments will go some way to creating a more vivid and dynamic world in which the institution of slavery became more strongly challenged.

In addition to these thoughtful reviews, this post also includes links to seven other reviews of the documentary. Check them out.

Read the Introduction to Caleb McDaniel’s New Book on Transatlantic Abolitionism

Check out the Introduction to Rice University historian Caleb McDaniel‘s new book, The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery: Garrisonian Abolitionists and Transatlantic Reform (LSU, 2013).

Here is a taste:

On April 14, 1865, hours before Abraham Lincoln sat down for the last time at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., the famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison sat down for the first time in Charleston, South Carolina. More than three decades before, Garrison had founded the Boston Liberator, a newspaper dedicated to universal, immediate slave emancipation. In 1833, he helped found the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS), a group devoted to the same goal. And by the time he went to Charleston, Garrison had served as the society’s president for over twenty years. Only in the last few, however, had emancipation changed from a despised, minority opinion to the official policy of federal armies in a cataclysmic civil war. With the war now ending and a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery awaiting ratification, Garrison had come to Fort Sumter to attend a flag-raising ceremony at the invitation of Lincoln’s administration.

Undoubtedly Garrison’s emotions about the trip were difficult to express, and not only because he met recently emancipated slaves, one of whom pressed a ten-dollar bill into his hand. Garrison’s emotions were also stirred because he could now celebrate a country he had long regarded with deep disillusionment—even disgust. That disillusionment had two main causes. Four million of Garrison’s countrymen had been considered chattel property just three years before. But the abolitionists who had worked for three decades to abolish this evil met with nearly unremitting hostility, even in the “free states” of the North. Garrison once confessed to feeling more at home in Britain, which abolished slavery in its West Indian colonies only two years after he started his paper, and as recently as 1860, Garrison had objected to having the American flag wave over his head. Now, five years later, he literally helped pull the Star-Spangled Banner up the flagpole at Fort Sumter, accompanied by his friend of thirty-two years, British abolitionist George Thompson. 

Read the rest here.  I am looking forward to reading this book.

 

William Lloyd Garrison Did Not Like the U.S. Constitution

I am in the midst of writing a chapter on God and the United States Constitution. As part of my research I am reading a lot of primary material from Christians who did not like this venerable document.

The title of my post is actually an under-statement.

For William Lloyd Garrison, the early nineteenth-century’s leading spokesperson for immediate emancipation of the slaves, the Constitution was a “covenant with death and an agreement with hell.” Why such harsh words? I’ll let Garrison explain from the pages of the December 29, 1832 edition of his abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator:

There is much declamation about the sacredness of the compact which was formed between the free and slave states, on the adoption of the Constitution. A sacred compact, forsooth! We pronounce it the most bloody and heaven—daring arrangement ever made by men for the continuance and protection of a system of the most atrocious villany ever exhibited on earth. Yet—we recognize the compact, but with feelings of shame and indignation, and it will be held in everlasting infamy by the friends of justice and humanity throughout the world. It was a compact formed at the sacrifice of the bodies and souls of millions of our race, for the sake of achieving a political object—an unblushing and monstrous coalition to do evil that good might come. Such a compact was, in the nature of things and according to the law of God, null and void from the beginning. No body of men ever had the right to guarantee the holding of human beings in bondage. Who or what were the framers of government, that they should dare confirm and authorize such high-handed villany—such flagrant robbery of the unalienable rights of man—such a glaring violation of all the precepts and injunctions of the gospel—such a savage war upon the sixth part of our whole population? They were men, like ourselves—as fallible, as sinful, as weak, as ourselves. By the infamous bargain which they made between themselves, they virtually dethroned the Most High God, and trampled beneath their feet their own solemn and heaven-attested Declaration, that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights—among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They had no lawful power to bind themselves, or their posterity, for one hour—for one moment—by such an unholy alliance. It was not valid then—it is not valid now. Still they persisted in maintaining it…A sacred compact! A sacred compact! What, then, is wicked and ignominious.

William, why don’t you tell us you really think?

Perhaps this explains why Garrison burned a copy of the Constitution in 1854, an act that has inspired future flag burners and all sorts of other protest groups.

Several things strike me about this passage. First, Garrison mocks the idea that the Constitution is somehow a “sacred” document. America was no Christian nation as long as the Constitution allowed slavery to exist. This is an interesting observation from a devout evangelical Christian such as Garrison. Second, he argues that the Constitution rejects the spirit of the Declaration of Independence, which declared that all human beings have unalienable rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Later Garrison would lead a movement for a “peaceful dissolution of the Union.”

More to come on this topic.