I am making my way through Andrew Delbanco’s short book, The Abolitionist Imagination (Harvard University Press, 2012), which features his essay of the same name as well as responses by John Stauffer, Manish Sinha, Darryl Pinckney, and Wilfred M. McClay.  The reading is difficult, especially the literary analysis of antebellum literature.  As a historical interpretation it is fraught with problems.  First, Delbanco never provides a satisfactory historical profile of the abolitionist community.  More importantly, he places too much weight on their role in causing the war.

Delbanco is at his best, however, when exploring how recent cultural, social, and political shifts have shaped our understanding of the abolitionists.  This particular paragraph caught my eye.

Would we have regarded the firing on Fort Sumter as the abolitionists did–as a welcome provocation to take up arms against an expansionist power?  Or would we have regarded it as a pretext for waging war, akin to that notorious event in every baby boomer’s memory, the Gulf of Tonkin incident?  If we could have known in advance the scale of the ensuing carnage, would we have sided with those who considered any price worth paying to bring an end to slavery?  Or would we have voted for patience, persuasion, diplomacy, perhaps economic sanctions–the alternatives to war that most liberal-minded people prefer today in the face of manifest evil in faraway lands? [p. 43]

About Kevin Levin

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3 comments add yours

  1. Good for moderns to understand that fighting a war to end slavery was not a “no brained.” I like to remind progressives who criticize Lincoln for taking “so long” to issue the Emacipation Proclamation that our current Pres still has’t endorsed gay marriage and Obama has already served twice as long as Lincoln at the time of the EP.

  2. “a welcome provocation to take up arms against an expansionist power?”… I wish he would have written an expansionist slave power, because surely some abolitionists also recognized the United States as an expansionist power too.

    Delbanco’s final point is insightful. It’s not a new point, but it is not a widely recognized point either and I hope a lot people come to appreciate the point being made.

  3. Any reasonable person would have voted for patient diplomacy. Lincoln made that clear in his many speeches and debates leading up to his Presidency. The Confederacy should have thought of this before seceding before Lincoln was even inaugurated.

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