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The abolitionists of the mid-nineteenth century have long been painted in extremes--vilified as reckless zealots who provoked the catastrophic bloodletting of the Civil War, or praised as daring and courageous reformers who hastened the end of slavery. But Andrew Delbanco sees abolitionists in a different light, as the embodiment of a driving force in American history: the recurrent impulse of an adamant minority to rid the world of outrageous evil.
Delbanco imparts to the reader a sense of what it meant to be a thoughtful citizen in nineteenth-century America, appalled by slavery yet aware of the fragility of the republic and the high cost of radical action. In this light, we can better understand why the fiery vision of the "abolitionist imagination" alarmed such contemporary witnesses as Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne even as they sympathized with the cause. The story of the abolitionists thus becomes both a stirring tale of moral fervor and a cautionary tale of ideological certitude. And it raises the question of when the demand for purifying action is cogent and honorable, and when it is fanatic and irresponsible.
Delbanco's work is placed in conversation with responses from literary scholars and historians. These provocative essays bring the past into urgent dialogue with the present, dissecting the power and legacies of a determined movement to bring America's reality into conformity with American ideals.
I find myself in the peculiar position of agreeing substantially with my critics while not always recognizing what I wrote in their critiques. Let me begin with Professors Sinha and Stauffer who, evidently provoked by their sense that I have attacked abolitionism, offer eloquent briefs in its defense. I appreciate both their candor and their civility, but my aim was neither to denigrate nor celebrate. It was to suggest that what seems in retrospect to have been a simple moral situation in antebellum America had, at least for some people of good will, its inhibiting complexities. In particular, I tried to propose some reasons why serious people of conscience could have withheld themselves from the abolitionist crusade for as long as they did. My hope was to discourage the kind of hagiography and demonology into which writing about this subject often descends.
On that score I have been obviously less than fully successful. Sinha and Stauffer want to organize the public figures of the period according to one criterion: how deeply did they feel the outrage of slavery? By this standard, slaves themselves—current, fugitive, former—will always lead the list, since the human capacity for empathy is inherently limited and no one, with the possible exception of parents witnessing the suffering of their children, can fully grasp the depth of another’s anguish or feel it as if it were their own. Next on such a list will come those who devoted their lives to bringing slavery to an end—people such as William Lloyd Garrison (whose passionate commitment, as Darryl Pinckney remarks, led some black people of his time to think he must have been black) or John Brown, whose zeal to end slavery was manifest in word and deed. Among literary artists, Melville stood higher in the hierarchy than Hawthorne. Among politicians, Lincoln’s qualifications for inclusion improved as his enmity toward slavery grew (“one could criticize the pace of his evolution,” as Sinha puts it) until, half way through the Civil War, his private feelings reached conformity with what he judged to be his public responsibilities. (A quarter-century earlier, as Stauffer reminds us, John Quincy Adams traveled a similar path.) As for figures such as Daniel Webster and Lemuel Shaw, who defended the Fugitive Slave Law as part of what they deemed an imperative political compromise, they were, at best, offended by, and, at worst, indifferent to, slavery—so they don’t make the list at all.
So while I admire the heat and fervor of Sinha’s and Stauffer’s dissents from what I wrote, I feel compelled to remark that fervor can sometimes be distorting, as in Sinha’s sanitized version of John Brown, who may not have planned “to slaughter innocents” at Harper’s Ferry, but who, a few years earlier, had led, or at least countenanced, a slaughter in Kansas. In her comments on Lincoln, Sinha fails to mention that he supported the Fugitive Slave Law well into his presidency with the same kind of reluctance I attribute to Webster and Shaw. It is true, as she says, that Lincoln eventually “landed in the right place,” but Webster and Shaw both died before the attack on Fort Sumter (in Webster’s case, nearly a decade before)—so who knows where they would have landed had they lived longer? And there seems little room in the heroic narrative for the sort of sentiment expressed by a frontier abolitionist whose animus against slavery was, at least in part, an animus against non-whites: “Every Sioux found on our soil deserves a permanent homestead six feet by two. Shoot the hyenas. Exterminate the wild beasts.”