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Ideas | Amy Crawford

The forgotten abolitionists

Stuart Bradford for The Boston Globe

On Jan. 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation officially freed most of the country’s 4 million African-Americans from bondage. Cemented three years later by the ratification of the 13th Amendment, the end of slavery was the consummation of the Abolition Movement, a centurylong crusade that played as important a role in American history as the Founding Fathers’ fight for independence.

The story of abolition gets short shrift in most Americans’ historical education, however. We might learn about a zealous Boston journalist named William Lloyd Garrison, the escaped slaves whose stories horrified enlightened white Northerners, and a best-selling novel called “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” — but that is hardly the whole story, says Manisha Sinha, a professor of Afro-American studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and author of a new history, “The Slave’s Cause.” For one, blacks themselves played a much larger role than is generally acknowledged in bringing about their own liberation. From the beginning of trans-Atlantic slavery in the 17th century, black thinkers shaped the strategies and ideology of abolitionism, grappling with the legal, religious, economic, and pseudo-scientific underpinnings of America’s peculiar institution. On the ground, slaves themselves resisted by rebelling, escaping, protesting, and challenging their status in court — efforts that were crucial to the realization of the abolition movement’s goals.


Sinha argues that the successful fight against slavery launched a great American tradition of radical social movements. It’s a history, she notes, that activists, from the LGBT movement to Black Lives Matter, would do well to understand.

Sinha spoke to Ideas from her office in Amherst. Below is an edited excerpt.

IDEAS: How did we wind up with such a simplistic narrative of abolition?

SINHA: The narrative of white abolitionism — and especially of hypocritical, bourgeois, paternalistic white abolitionists — began with their contemporaries, Southern slaveholders and Northern conservatives who viewed abolitionists as hypocritical fanatics. They had this notion that abolitionists were these armchair philosophers who had never been to the South and had no idea what they were talking about. Ignoring the black presence in the abolitionist movement was important for slaveholders because their whole philosophy was based on the idea that African-Americans weren’t resisting slavery. That continued at the turn of the century, when the American academy had completely excluded African-Americans and did not do African-American history. It became as entrenched in American historiography as views about the Civil War being a needless conflict between brothers.


IDEAS: You write that black abolitionists were the first to speak out against what you describe as the theory of racism. Can you explain?

SINHA: Slaveholders deployed so-called scientific racism to justify racial slavery. The idea that somehow people of African descent are not part of the same species as whites was accepted by European men of science in the early modern period. [Thomas Jefferson] repeated some of the most pernicious ideas about race that were circulating among European intellectuals, and black abolitionists openly took him on. In the beginning, they used the Christian argument, that God has made of one blood all races of man. Toward the end, they were developing more moral and ethical arguments against scientific racism.

IDEAS: You also write about speeches, pamphlets, and petitions in which black abolitionists criticized America’s founding documents, which championed equality while allowing slavery to continue. What was their aim?

SINHA: They developed a critical view of the hypocrisy of the revolution’s ideals and challenged the Americans to really rethink some of the premises of their ideology. They were arguing that you could not have a republic, that you could not have genuine democracy without African-Americans as full and equal citizens in every sphere of life. In our day, that’s a sentiment that most people at least would pay lip service to. At that time, when over 90 percent of the black population is enslaved, those are pretty radical ideas.


IDEAS: Did their arguments have an impact?

SINHA: It prompted white abolitionists like Garrison to say, “Yes, the aim of the movement is not simply to end slavery, but it is also black citizenship and equality and getting rid of all these markers of racial inferiority.”

My big “Aha!” moment was that Garrison burned a copy of the Constitution, condemning the Union with its slaveholders, and called the Constitution “a covenant with death” and “an agreement with Hell.” Everyone knows that Garrison said that, but then I found that there was this black abolitionist minister, James W.C. Pennington, who actually used those words before Garrison. So many historians have written about Garrison, but it escaped their attention that one of his central ideas actually came from a black minister.

IDEAS: Many of the black abolitionists you write about were free, but you also examine the efforts of enslaved African-Americans to fight slavery. What forms did their activism take?

SINHA: Enslaved people are literally trying to do everything that they can to end slavery. To me, those stories are part of the broader story of abolition, and they’ve never been told in that manner. In New England, for example, enslaved people had the right to sue for wrongful enslavement. [One 1783 case, involving a black man named Quock Walker,] went right up to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, and the judge pronounced that slavery was inconsistent with the principles proclaimed in the new state constitution. Fugitive slaves also played a very important part, giving abolition some of its most eloquent spokesmen and women. Frederick Douglass is the most well-known, but there are so many more who became prominent within the abolitionist movement. One, Henry Bibb, ends up in Canada, and he publishes a newspaper called The Voice of the Fugitive. Some of them travel to Europe and speak and write against slavery. It’s remarkable if you think about it. They are the real heroes of the age.


IDEAS: You also argue that slave revolts, like Nat Turner’s 1831 uprising, were part of the abolitionist movement. But didn’t they just frighten slaveholders and lead to more repression?

SINHA: Slave rebellions, especially the [1791] Haitian Revolution, had an ongoing effect on the ways in which abolitionists talked about ending slavery. Certainly, slaveholding regimes all over did not want their enslaved people to be infected by these ideas, so they could end up making slavery even more oppressive in reaction. But they could also put abolition and emancipation on the political agenda. Slaveholders were putting forth a notion that slaves benefited from the institution of slavery: “The slaves are happy. We take care of them. We feed them well. Yes, they’re laboring for us, but their condition is far better than that of free white workers in the North.” They said that abolitionists were just these meddling fanatics from outside. A lot of Northerners believed them, by the way. But revolts showed that this was simply not true.


IDEAS: You make an argument for abolition as America’s prototypical social justice movement. How did it influence other struggles?

SINHA: We often forget that the women’s rights movement actually grew out of the abolition movement. It is really within abolitionism that many of the leading women’s rights advocates gained experience as organizers and lecturers. They also shared the ideology of human equality and human rights — this is one term abolitionists used a lot, “human rights.” This notion of human rights regardless of race and sex.

In trying to address the systemic problem of racial injustice, we would do well to look at abolitionism, because here is a movement of radicals who did manage to effect political change. Despite things that radical movements always face, differences and divisions, they were able to actually galvanize the movement and translate it into a political agenda — and then to actually win.

Amy Crawford has written for Boston Magazine, Smithsonian, and Slate. Follow her on Twitter @amymcrawf.