The Abolitionist Imagination

Hardcover (Print)
Used and New from Other Sellers
Used and New from Other Sellers
from $10.50
Usually ships in 1-2 business days
(Save 57%)
Other sellers (Hardcover)
  • All (11) from $10.50   
  • New (5) from $20.24   
  • Used (6) from $10.50   


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.

Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This book—actually essays by five authors—continues an argument about the abolitionists, and thus about idealism and extremism in general, that’s raged since the 1840s. It’s taken up by five well-known scholars, of whom Delbanco, the noted Columbia University American studies professor, takes the lead. His position, stoutly argued but not new, is that in their moral fervor the antislavery radicals of the pre–Civil War years both undermined slavery and threatened the republic by their ideological certitude and fanaticism. He keeps company with the likes of Hawthorne and Melville, who, as Delbanco relates, were appalled by slavery yet fearful of the dangers of the abolitionists’ often disordered words and acts. In sharp responses, John Stauffer and Manisha Sinha make muscular cases for the abolitionists; Darryl Pinckney stresses the long absence of black abolitionists from the story; and Wilfred M. McClay applauds Delbanco for his balanced evaluation of the abolitionists. No one will miss the echoes in this argument of public debates raging today and no one can dismiss these essays as irrelevant or about “mere history.” Nevertheless, while a fine book for the classroom and committed readers, it’s more a specialist’s work than one for casual consumption. (Apr.)
David Blight
A brilliant, risky, provocative account of the changing historical reputation of abolitionists in America. Delbanco offers a timely take on just why this prototypical American reform movement never goes away as a template, as a useable past, as a story that can be appropriated by all ends of the political spectrum.
Michael Kazin
With his characteristic eloquence, Andrew Delbanco provides an interpretation of abolitionism, in history and literature, which challenges the received wisdom--and his four critics are up to the challenge. This splendid book demonstrates that the most successful radical movement in American history still retains its power to provoke and enlighten.
Booklist - Brendan Driscoll
The lucidity of the prose and the relevance of the topic to today's cultural divides may attract broader audiences.
Read More Show Less

Product Details

Meet the Author

Andrew Delbanco is the Mendelson Family Chair of American Studies and Julian Clarence Levi Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University.

John Stauffer is Chair of History of American Civilization and Professor of English and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, and the author of Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.

Manisha Sinha is Associate Professor of History and Afro-American Studies at University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Read More Show Less

Read an Excerpt

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.”

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Be the first to write a review
( 0 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star


4 Star


3 Star


2 Star


1 Star


Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation


  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously

    If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
    Why is this product inappropriate?
    Comments (optional)