The First Abolitionists

The First Abolitionists

Abolitionism is often depicted as an ineffectual campaign led by white liberals, but it was actually a radical, interracial movement—galvanized above all by the resistance of slaves themselves.

Johnson, William H. (1901–1970) © Copyright. “Underground Railroad,” ca. 1945. Photo Credit: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. / Art Resource, NY.

The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition
by Manisha Sinha
Yale University Press, 2016, 784 pp.

The twin themes of slavery and freedom are having a moment. In recent years, moviegoers have embraced serious films like 12 Years a Slave (2013); Beyoncé’s latest album, Lemonade (2016), intersperses visual references to slavery with images from the present; and two recent best-selling novels—Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (2016) and Ben Winters’s Underground Airlines (2016)—offer gripping narratives about fugitive slaves and their pursuers. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture finally opened in 2016, and historical figures who were previously commemorated primarily during Black History Month have now become subjects of perennial interest. Two members of Congress have crossed party lines to propose a commission honoring the bicentennial of the birth of the legendary abolitionist Frederick Douglass. In Dorchester, Maryland, the recently inaugurated Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center celebrates the life of the famed abolitionist and (pending Trump administration approval) future face of the $20 bill.

Douglass and Tubman are justly regarded as national heroes. Over time, they have become representatives for the greatest social movement in U.S. history: the long struggle to abolish slavery. Manisha Sinha, a professor of history at the University of Connecticut, has written an encyclopedic account of this struggle, aptly titled The Slave’s Cause. Abolitionism is often depicted as an ineffectual campaign led by bourgeois liberals, teetotalers, and “perpetual naysayers,” but Sinha argues that it was actually a radical, interracial movement. Most importantly, she shows that slaves’ resistance galvanized abolitionists, rather than the other way around. The book celebrates the black men and women who pushed their country to live up to its ideals, and subtly encourages readers to finish what the abolitionists started.

Borrowing from the language of feminism, Sinha divides her account into two waves: the first stretching from the Age of Revolutions through the 1820s, and the second from the late 1820s through the Civil War. She provides one example after another of black abolitionists shaping the movement and inspiring white allies. As early as the 1790s, black churches and societies developed pioneering critiques of slavery in petitions to Congress. Attempted slave rebellions radicalized activists. Black abolitionists in Baltimore helped persuade William Lloyd Garrison to demand immediate abolition and oppose efforts to resettle black Americans in Liberia. Black subscribers provided financial support for Garrison’s influential abolitionist newspaper, the Liberator, and their speeches and letters filled its pages. In the 1830s and 1840s, Hosea Easton and James Pennington, both black intellectuals and ministers, wrote groundbreaking treatises on U.S. racism.

Free black communities played essential roles in facilitating the Underground Railroad, and former slaves like Pennington and Douglass became some of the movement’s most persuasive writers and speakers. They combined astute political commentary with observations based on their own experiences. “My back is scarred by the lash—that I could show you. I would I could make visible the wounds of this system upon my soul,” Douglass told a crowd in Boston. Henry “Box” Brown moved audiences by showing how he had been shipped north in a box. Women who had escaped slavery, especially Harriet Jacobs, exposed slavery’s patriarchal underpinnings with scathing accounts of physical and sexual abuse.

Some abolitionist histories are heartbreaking. In 1856, an enslaved woman named Margaret Garner fled with her family from Kentucky. When officials tracked them down in her uncle’s cabin in Ohio, her husband Robert opened fire, and Margaret slit her two-year-old daughter’s throat. In court, she testified that she would rather kill her children than send them back to slavery. The Garners were re-enslaved, provoking an uproar among abolitionists, and, more than a century later, inspiring Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Margaret herself died of typhoid, but her husband lived to fight alongside many other black men in the Union army. They helped realize a prophecy made by fellow abolitionist John Brown, that “the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”

As in any social movement, abolitionists frequently disagreed with one another. Sinha contends that religious and political cleavages were often more meaningful than racial ones, and she urges readers to judge white abolitionists not by contemporary standards but “through the eyes of the enslaved and the newly free.” Early abolitionist societies had no black members and espoused paternalist ideas about “racial uplift,” but Sinha shows that black leaders at the time appreciated their white allies. Nonetheless, interracial cooperation exposed black abolitionists to patently racist treatment. Douglass wrote frankly in My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) of how some white colleagues had wronged him. “I was generally introduced as a ‘chattel’—a ‘thing’—a piece of southern ‘property’—the chairman assuring the audience that it could speak.” Douglass proved that he could speak magnificently, but received only about half the fees normally paid to white abolitionist lecturers.

Despite widespread racism, black men and women did as much to defeat slavery as white abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown, or even Abraham Lincoln. During the Civil War, black soldiers and activists convinced Lincoln to support immediate emancipation and black citizenship. They rejoiced in 1863 when Lincoln officially freed more than three million slaves with a stroke of his pen, but they knew the fight would not end there. Douglass greeted the news of emancipation with a favorite maxim: “The price of Liberty is eternal vigilance . . . Slavery has existed in this country too long and has stamped its character too deeply and indelibly, to be blotted out in a day or a year, or even in a generation.”

Slavery in the United States is often remembered as a “peculiar institution,” but in fact, slavery and freedom developed in tandem across the Atlantic world. It’s worth keeping in mind that, of the millions of Africans who were transported against their will to the Americas, only about 5 percent were taken to what is now U.S. territory. Sinha emphasizes some of abolition’s international dimensions, and rightly points out that abolitionists were inspired by Haiti, the only nation in the world formed through a successful slave rebellion, but her account understandably focuses on the United States. In most of the Caribbean and Latin America, slavery was abolished through more gradual and legalistic means, but the actions of slaves and free people of African descent were crucial there too.

By some measures, the most committed slave societies in the nineteenth century were Brazil and Cuba. Precise statistics are hard to come by, but Brazil and the United States probably had similarly sized slave populations of about one million around 1810, while Cuba’s numbered nearly 200,000. Brazil imported as many as two million slaves over the course of the nineteenth century, and Cuba more than 600,000. Neither had as large a slave population as the United States’ at its peak in 1860, in part because slaves tended to live shorter lives on Brazilian and Cuban plantations. (This difference in life expectancy had nothing to do with how slaves were treated; rather, slaves in Latin America, especially those born in Africa, were more likely to die of tropical diseases.)

In both Brazil and Cuba, the U.S. Civil War stoked fears of slave revolts and antislavery sentiment, but forms of legal enslavement persisted into the 1880s. Brazil had its own multiracial abolitionist mass movement, led in part by mixed-race activists, and many slaves there escaped or purchased their own freedom. In Cuba, a multiracial army fought multiple wars for independence from Spain and against slavery. Slaves fled plantations to join insurgent forces, and antiracist rhetoric flourished on the island until the United States invaded in 1898. Across the Americas, abolition was in part “the slave’s cause.”

In their rhetoric and their tactics, abolitionists provided a model for subsequent grassroots movements. In the United States, the most direct link is to first wave feminism. The women’s suffrage movement grew up alongside antislavery sentiment, before parting ways over the Fourteenth Amendment, which extended voting rights to black men. After the Civil War, white women applied the lessons of abolitionism to fight for their own rights, even as they embraced racism and betrayed their black allies. (Susan B. Anthony allegedly declared that she would rather cut off her right hand than lobby for the vote for black men before white women.)

Black women regularly confronted racism and sexism, and they persisted in using abolitionist tactics to fight for the rights of women and former slaves. Shortly after the end of the Civil War, a train conductor ordered Harriet Tubman to move into the smoking car. When she refused, the conductor forcibly ejected her, injuring her arm in the process. Tubman’s story inspired another black abolitionist, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, to deliver a searing speech at the National Women’s Rights Convention in 1866. Harper was frustrated by white women who refused to recognize the double bind that black women faced. “You white women speak here of rights,” she observed. “I speak of wrongs. . . . If there is any class of people who need to be lifted out of their airy nothings and selfishness, it is the white women of America.”

Nineteenth-century abolitionists did not eradicate racism or sexism, but they left behind promising recipes for interracial cooperation. In a fleeting epilogue, Sinha points out that abolitionist words and deeds have inspired activists and leaders of varying political persuasions, including W. E. B. Du Bois, Eugene Debs, and Barack Obama. Recently, abolitionist rhetoric has cropped up in debates about mass incarceration, police brutality, and even climate change. As Alicia Garza, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, explained in an interview with the Nation in 2015, “What we are dealing with right now is a disease that has plagued America since its inception . . . the institution of policing is rooted in the legacy of catching slaves.”

For readers struggling to respond to the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and too many others, or to Trump’s travel ban and his troubling response to white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, The Slave’s Cause makes for timely reading. The book’s implication is clear: those who wish to curb the excesses of capitalism and defend human rights could learn something from these nineteenth-century examples. This optimistic vision echoes an older generation of historians, writing during the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, who described abolitionists as an “antislavery vanguard.”

The history of abolition highlights the promises and the perils of interracial activism, and we must remember both if we seek to improve on the abolitionists’ legacy. Nineteenth-century black activists made indispensible contributions to a movement that did not always value them as equals, and they fought for a country that has tended to forget their sacrifices. Sinha’s impeccably researched account offers plenty to ponder, with nearly 600 pages of text and more than a hundred pages of notes. Ultimately, the volume’s heft reminds us that successful resistance depends partly on numbers: bodies on the ground and, sometimes, the slow passage of time.

Christine Mathias is a lecturer in Modern Latin American History at King’s College London.

Socialist thought provides us with an imaginative and moral horizon.

For insights and analysis from the longest-running democratic socialist magazine in the United States, sign up for our newsletter: