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book review

Putting blacks at the center of abolitionism in ‘The Slave’s Cause’

The Great Massachusetts Petition sought to put an end to the state’s connection with domestic slavery.
Massachusetts Archives
The Great Massachusetts Petition sought to put an end to the state’s connection with domestic slavery.

“The Slave’s Cause,” Manisha Sinha’s sprawling new history of the abolitionist movement, offers a powerfully unfamiliar look at the struggle to end slavery in the United States.

Going far back into the revolutionary era and on up to the outbreak of the Civil War, Sinha, a UMass-Amherst history professor, weaves together a vast amount of research — the book was 10 years in the making. While the sheer amount of material seems to often overwhelm Sinha’s ability to elegantly present it as a narrative, she does offer fresh insights.

She is quick to defend abolitionism from charges that it was too white, too middle class, too extreme — a caricature, she contends — claiming it as a progressive movement for the ages, one more diverse, international, and wide-ranging than conventionally understood. “Abolitionists were the intellectual and political precursors of twentieth-century anticolonial and civil rights activists,” she writes, “debating the nature of society and politics, the relationship between racial inequality and democracy, nation and empire, labor and capital, gender and citizenship’’ in western societies.

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Abolitionism’s familiar figures are here: David Walker, whose thunderous 1829 appeal decried the moral wrongs of slavery, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and Wendell Phillips, but so are scores of lesser knowns who grappled with the issue.

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Though associated with the years just before the Civil War, abolitionism’s roots lie deep in the 18th century, Sinha argues. In the revolutionary era, Quakers and others spoke out against slavery in the colonies. Sinha stresses, however, that black people were at the center of the movement from the outset. Slave revolts, resistance, and runaways were commonplace. African-American activists held the founders to account. Writing to New York Governor John Jay in 1796, black abolitionist William Hamilton (alleged to be Alexander Hamilton’s illegitimate son) noted “[h]ow falsely & contradictory do the Americans speak when this land a land of Liberty & equality a christian country when almost every part of it abounds with slavery and oppression.”

Emancipation proceeded only fitfully in the North — slavery did not end in New York until 1827, and there were still slaves in New Jersey as late as 1860. Throughout that period free blacks founded a panoply of groups to press their cause. (Be warned: Sinha’s heavy reliance on acronyms can bog things down.) Black churches formed their own distinctive Christian discourse on the wrongs of slavery. Others drew inspiration from the bloody Haitian Revolution, whose violence horrified even well-meaning whites, but showed that slaves could overthrow their masters. The robust British antislavery movement also inspired with its successful campaigns to end the transatlantic slave trade and later the peaceful winding down of West Indies slavery.

The first black newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, founded in 1827 by Samuel Cornish, a New York clergyman, “became the voice of black protest.” Boston, New York, and Philadelphia emerged as centers of activism. James Forten, a wealthy black sailmaker from Philadelphia, provided crucial funds — and subscribers — to Garrison as he launched in 1831 the Liberator, the fiery, uncompromising voice of radical abolitionism.

In the 1830s, various individuals, white and black, evangelical and secular, coalesced around the American Anti Slavery Society, which by the end of the decade had some 250,000 members. An interracial vanguard that demanded an immediate halt to slavery, the organization infuriated southerners with its vigorous petitioning to Congress and pamphleteering. A torrent of eloquent moral outrage poured forth from Garrison and his allies. “Interracial immediatism,” as Sinha writes, “brought together the moral and religious sensibility of white reform efforts and the antislavery tactics of early abolitionists in Britain and the United States with the black tradition of protest.”

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“The Slaves Cause’’ is as multifaceted as the movement it chronicles. Sinha includes lengthy thematic chapters on women in the fight and how abolition linked up — and clashed with — other reform movements. Sinha examines the heated debates over colonization efforts, a largely white effort to resettle slaves in Africa; even Garrison was initially a proponent. (As Quaker abolitionist Benjamin Lundy witheringly noted, the American Colonization Society was not interested in the “abolition of slavery” but in the “removal of free people of color.”) She also details how the movement responded to the Fugitive Slave Act (1850), which even put figures like Douglass, who had escaped to freedom decades earlier, in its cross hairs.

To her credit, Sinha shows throughout how the distinction North=free, South=slave is too simplistic. In tandem with their attacks on slavery, black abolitionists waged a long campaign in the North against disenfranchisement and discrimination.

How much did the movement contribute to the ending of slavery? Historians still debate this. Abolitionists were political outriders: anathema in the South, reviled in the North, where they were regularly attacked by mobs. It took military emancipation and a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery for good. Still, the voices ring out across the centuries.

THE SLAVE’S CAUSE: A History of Abolition

By Manisha Sinha

Yale, 768 pp., illustrated, $37.50

Matthew Price is a regular contributor to the Globe. He can be reached at mprice68@gmail.com.

Correction: Because of an editor’s error, a previous version of this story contained an incorrect title.