One of the mostoutspoken heroes of the abolition movement was a former slave by the name of Jermain Loguen, who escaped from Tennessee in the 1830s and eventually became a preacher in Syracuse, N.Y. The city was a hotbed of antislavery activity, where fundraising events on behalf of the Underground Railroad were held in City Hall and the city council warned the New York Central Railroad that its tracks through the city would be torn up if it allowed fugitive slaves to be carried back to bondage over them. Loguen felt so secure there that he openly advertised his home as a safe haven for fugitives. When the enhanced Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 put the power of the federal government behind the recapture of runaway slaves, Loguen defiantly declared, “I don’t respect this law—I don’t fear it—I won’t obey it! It outlaws me, and I outlaw it.” He would go on to help found the Fugitive Aid Society, andFrederick Douglass estimated that, in the years before the Civil War, Loguen assisted more than 1,000 fugitive slaves.
Loguen is significant not only because he did so much but also because, like many other abolitionists, both black and white, he was nearly erased from the historical record. This act of collective forgetting took place during the long dark age of Jim Crow, when abolitionism was largely dismissed by historians as a form of zealotry that was responsible, in part if not in full, for causing the Civil War. Beginning in the 1960s, a new generation of scholars recovered many aspects of abolitionism from oblivion, but until now none has attempted the kind of sweeping account that Manisha Sinha, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, has undertaken in “The Slave’s Cause.”
An 1861 poster featuring the text of the Declaration of Independence and calling for the freeing of slaves.PHOTO: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
THE SLAVE’S CAUSE
By Manisha Sinha Yale, 768 pages, $37.50
Loguen’s story is but one of many that Ms. Sinha provides in this comprehensive and often revelatory history of American abolitionism from its origins in early colonial New England to its triumphant advance into the mainstream of the Republican Party before the Civil War. For most of its history, abolitionism was a moral and religious movement rather than a political one, and for whites, at least, mostly non-confrontational. Only in the 19th century did it begin to develop a serious political dimension. But even then it remained, for most of its adherents, a moral crusade that was disdained by national politicians of almost every stripe. As late as 1850, Sen.William Seward, one of a tiny number of abolitionists in Congress, could still shock most of America by proclaiming that a “higher law”—the law of God—commanded men to break mere human law in order to assist freedom-seeking slaves. By that time, however, abolitionism was fast percolating through the sectional divide and profoundly shaping debates over the nation’s future development and its very identity. Those debates would ultimately lead, after the Civil War, to what some have called a “second Founding” based on guaranteed civil rights for all Americans. It is a story in which idealists and preachers, firebrands and revolutionaries, and (eventually) politicians, abound.
Lucidly written, compellingly argued and based on exhaustive scholarship, “The Slave’s Cause” captures the myriad aspects of this diverse and far-ranging movement and will deservedly take its place alongside the equally magisterial works of Ira Berlin on slavery and Eric Foner on the Reconstruction Era. Ms. Sinha seems to have read just about everything ever written on the subject of antislavery, including sermons, diaries, broadsides, speeches and legal arguments by the famous and the obscure alike. It is a measure of her command of the material that even as she leads us through the deepest thickets of antebellum polemics she is rarely dull.
The first voices to oppose slavery were often lonely ones, but they were not negligible. At the end of the 17th century, the influential Puritan preacherCotton Mather forcefully rejected arguments for racial inferiority based on skin color. Soon afterward, Mather’s contemporary Samuel Sewall, who had served as a judge during the Salem witch trials, challenged the widely held belief that Africans had been condemned to everlasting slavery by the Bible. Organized antislavery activity began with the Quakers, who held that every human being possessed a godly inner light that made enslavement a sin against God himself.
By the mid-18th century, Quaker meetings from the Carolinas to New England were calling on their own members to free their slaves, and they soon began urging manumission upon non-Quaker slave owners as well. In the first political lobbying campaign in American history, in 1790, Quakers petitioned the First Congress to legislate against slavery. They failed, and a panicked Congress pushed the whole question of slavery aside. Undeterred, Quakers became leading figures in the moral campaign against slavery and mainstays of the Underground Railroad.
Increasingly, the Quakers were joined by numerous Northern evangelicals, whose revivalist approach to abolition infused new passion into the movement, demanding that society as a whole—not just individuals—cleanse itself of the sin of slavery. By the 1820s every Northern state had ended slavery, and by the 1830s abolitionist bastions in New York and New England were electing their members to local and state offices, creating a base of power to begin influencing national politics. Although Congress rode out crises over slavery’s westward expansion in 1820 and 1850, the intensified hostility between the free North and slavery’s defenders in the South would soon fracture the prevailing party system, leaving a vacuum that would be filled in the South by secessionists and in the North by political men who gradually came to embrace antislavery’s goals.
Ms. Sinha delivers concise accounts of numerous slave revolts, including Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion in Southampton County, Va.: Fifty-seven whites were killed, and more than 100 blacks lost their lives, including both captured rebels and innocent victims of retaliatory white vengeance. Less known are Gabriel’s Conspiracy, which took place in 1800, in Henrico County, Va., and the 1811 rebellion of Charles Deslondes in Louisiana, both inspired by reports of the Haitian revolution. Gabriel’s Conspiracy, in which hundreds were allegedly implicated, was exposed by an informer, and 27 plotters were executed. The Deslondes rebellion wound up with the decapitated heads of 100 slaves rotting on stakes as a warning to other would-be rebels. The largest, if often overlooked, instance of mass resistance was the defection to the British of at least 20,000 American slaves (estimates vary widely) during the Revolutionary War, including several owned by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.Thousands of them took up arms against their former masters in what Ms. Sinha believes should be regarded as the largest slave rebellion in American history. (A similar hemorrhaging of slaves took place during the War of 1812 and has been superbly recounted by Alan Taylor in the “The Internal Enemy,” published in 2013.)
Idealistic blacks who fought alongside the Americans in the Revolutionary War, hoping for general emancipation when the fighting was over, were doomed to disappointment (although some slaves who served as substitutes for their masters did gain freedom for their efforts). Nevertheless, in the decades that followed, black aspirations for freedom cohered into a movement that continued to agitate for emancipation, voting rights and an end to discriminatory laws in the Northern states. Absalom Jones and Richard Allenestablished the first independent black churches in Philadelphia in the 1790s, laying the foundation for the first truly free sphere of activity for African-Americans. Black churchmen would remain at the forefront of the abolition movement, while their congregations often became key nodes of underground assistance to freedom seekers.
Meanwhile, secular black activists became increasingly willing to confront white power head-on. One of the most fearless was David Ruggles, the two-fisted leader of the New York Committee of Vigilance in the 1830s, who stormed onto ships in New York harbor and into private homes to liberate men and women held in captivity against the existing laws of New York state. In Boston in the 1850s, Lewis Hayden, a former slave and Underground Railroad operative, organized mass demonstrations to free fugitives captured by the authorities and kept barrels of gunpowder in his basement with which he threatened to blow up slave hunters if they dared to attack his home. From the 1840s on, periodic conventions of black abolitionists from across the North also began demanding citizenship for African-Americans, a movement that both influenced white abolitionists and schooled blacks in the political process, an effort whose importance Ms. Sinha rightly underscores.
Ms. Sinha is equally attentive to white activists, some of them well known, such as William Lloyd Garrison, Lucretia Mott and John Brown, and others less so. Isaac T. Hopper, for instance, helped found the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia at the turn of the 19th century, pioneering techniques for shifting fugitives among safe houses and using disguises to conceal them as they were moved from place to place. On the political plane, the jurist William Jay of New York, the son of John Jay, was perhaps the single most influential antislavery legal theorist in the country, penning a stream of opinions and articles that drew a decisive line between abolitionism and the so-called colonization movement, which advocated the deportation of freed slaves to Africa based on the belief that blacks and whites could never live together on equal terms. Jay pointed out that, by the 19th century, slaves brought from Africa were vastly outnumbered by American-born blacks, who rightfully considered themselves Americans, not Africans.
Although men dominated the antislavery organizations, women played an important role in them, agitating, speaking out, carrying and signing petitions, raising money to help fugitive slaves, and feeding, concealing and guiding them. The sense of empowerment that women achieved, not to mention the organizational experience, propelled them into other reform movements and ultimately, Ms. Sinha argues, “laid the groundwork” for the feminist movement.
All the organizers of the first women’s rights conference at Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848 were veterans of abolitionism. One of them, Elizabeth Cady Stanton,had spent weeks each summer at the home of her radical abolitionist cousin Gerrit Smith, in upstate New York, where she personally met fugitive slaves and where abolitionism was a favorite topic at the dinner table. Stanton later wrote: “I felt a new inspiration in life and was enthused with new ideas of individual rights and the basic principles of government, for the antislavery platform was the best school the American people ever had on which to lean republican principles and ethics.”
Smith, a pivotal figure in the abolitionist movement, was one of the founders of the Liberty Party, in 1840, the first political party in American history to call openly for abolition. Although Smith was elected to Congress, the party fared poorly in general elections. Most of its members switched to the Republican Party by the mid-1850s, helping to push it toward a more vigorous anti-slavery stance.
Even at its peak on the eve of the Civil War, the abolitionist movement was never the monolith that pro-slavery Southerners thought it to be. It always comprised an array of rivalrous groups that diverged over such matters as the public participation of women, collaboration with mainstream political parties, financial compensation for slaveholders and the use of physical force. Ms. Sinha deftly elucidates these fissures, which became especially evident when Garrisonians, who rejected the Constitution as a pro-slavery document and shunned mainstream politics, squared off against Smith and his allies, who hoped that an abolition-influenced party might triumph at the polls and who sometimes allied themselves with the Whig Party, which included slave owners in its ranks.
When the Fugitive Slave Law sent federal officers into Northern communities to help Southern masters hunt their slaves, compelling ordinary citizens to assist them no matter what their views on slavery, infuriated whites increasingly resisted. The law turned “honest American men into conscientious law-breakers,” as the Massachusetts radical Thomas Wentworth Higginson put it. Meanwhile, black abolitionist speakers, many of them former slaves, were fanning out across the North, making the realities of slavery ever more vivid and personal to their listeners. A few short years later the federal government’s surrender to pro-slavery interests that sought to dominate the Kansas and Nebraska territories intensified the already widespread feeling that the Slave Power, as it was often called, was determined to bend white Northerners to its will. By then, absolutists like John Brown were advocating not just resistance but revolutionary violence.
Antislavery, in short, was no longer a reform but a revolution. The fiery Jermain Loguen told William Lloyd Garrison in 1854 that “my brethren”—the slaves—“should strike a blow for themselves and not wait for the hair-splitting of politician and speakers.” In the event, the wait was not long. With Lincoln’s election and secession, Ms. Sinha observes, “antislavery could finally harness the power of the state.”
For most whites, the spirit of abolitionism faded after emancipation and then sank away into the moral quicksand of the Reconstruction Era. But it continued to inspire black Americans, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, who considered the biracial NAACP, founded in 1909, to be the “New Abolition Movement.” At least a few white reformers also harked back to its change-making tradition. In his 1925 autobiography, for instance, Samuel Gompers, the founder of the American Federation of Labor, urged his followers to remember that “the great struggle against human slavery . . . was of vital interest to wage-earners.”
“Abolitionists for the most part challenged rather than shored up the status quo,” Ms. Sinha writes. Thus they contributed to a variety of causes, not only women’s rights but also temperance, the campaign against capital punishment, and immigrants’ and workingmen’s rights. But the “enduring heritage of the abolition movement is even broader,” Ms. Sinha observes as she closes this watershed account of one of America’s most transformative movements. Its heritage of “unyielding commitment to human rights and a call to action,” she says, remain embedded in Americans’ stubborn desire to better society, even against long odds.
—Mr. Bordewich’s most recent book is “The First Congress: How James Madison,George Washington and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government.”
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. After leaving the State Department in order to express opposition to the planned invasion of Iraq, he taught courses at Georgetown University pertaining to the tension between propaganda and public diplomacy. For many years he shared ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" with Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future; now online).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States (also online). In the past century, he served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.