My reading has been all over the place this summer, though much of it has been centered on the history of the Holocaust and Germany, which I will teach for the first time this year. I’ve also decided as a new transplant to Boston that it is time to look more closely at the abolitionist movement.
Joseph Ellis, Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence, (Knopf, 2013).
Julie Roy Jeffrey, Abolitionists Remember: Antislavery Autobiographies and the Unfinished Work of Emancipation, (University of North Carolina Press, 2008).
Barbara Krauthamer, Black Slaves, Indian Masters: Slavery, Emancipation, and Citizenship in the Native American South, (University of North Carolina Press, 2013).
W. Caleb McDaniel, The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery: Garrisonian Abolitionists and Transatlantic Reform, (Louisiana State University Press, 2013).
Joanne Pope Melish, Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780-1860, (Cornell University Press, 1998).
Henry McNeal Turner, Freedom’s Witness: The Civil War Correspondence of Henry McNeal Turner, (reprint, University of West Virginia Press, 2013).
Bruce Watson, Bread and Roses: Mills, Migrants, and the Struggle for the American Dream, (Penguin 2005).
This historical pageant was performed back in May at Boston’s Tremont Temple as part of the “Freedom Rising” symposium. It tells the story of a young black woman who must write a history essay on an American abolitionist. Her Haitian father impresses on her the importance of Toussaint Louverture, but her instructor forces his student to stick to the textbook. The rest of the show highlights Louverture’s influence on the abolitionist community in Boston and the Civil War. Danny Glover plays Louverture.
It’s well worth watching, but it once again highlights just how central abolitionism is to this city’s Civil War memory. You would think that the abolitionists were always in the majority and even celebrated here in Boston.
You can’t make this stuff up. I’ve written about Sea Raven Press in the past, specifically in reference to their book on Nathan Bedford Forrest for teens. This particular title, Everthing You Were Taught About the Civil War is Wrong, Ask a Southerner, seems to be the most popular given the number of times I’ve seen it referenced on certain websites. Here is a list of a few of the corrections to what you learned. I’ve highlighted a few of my favorites. I particularly like the claim that Abraham Lincoln both wanted to isolate blacks in their own state and transport them back to Africa. Apparently, these were not mutually exclusive options.
• American slavery got its start in the North
• the American abolition movement began in the South
• most Southern generals did not own slaves, and many, like Robert E. Lee, were abolitionists
• many Northern generals, like U.S. Grant, owned slaves and said they would not fight for abolition
• according to the 1860 Census a mere 4.8 percent of Southerners owned slaves, 95.2 percent did not Continue reading
The other day I briefly noted my surprise by how little the war was being discussed in a conference devoted to Massachusetts and the Civil War. What I am struck by now looking back on the three days of talks at the MHS is the overwhelming emphasis on Boston’s abolitionist community. That should not come as a surprise given the location of the conference and the place of the abolitionists in local memory. I learned quite a bit about them and I accumulated a nice list of books and article from the papers, which were wisely precirculated.
By the end of the conference the abolitionists’ agenda had emerged as the dominant narrative of the Civil War. In fact, if this conference can be defined as reflecting a Civil War memory it would have to be that of the abolitionists themselves and their agenda beginning in the antebellum period through the war and into the era of Reconstruction. It was so palpable that even our understanding of the war’s meaning and the success or failure of Reconstruction had little chance of being critically examined without Garrison, Douglass, and the rest of the gang looking over our shoulders. There was little consideration of the importance of Union, as recently analyzed by Gary Gallagher in his new book, The Union War>, nor was there much of an attempt to distinguish between the goal of ending slavery and the question of civil rights. The war had been reduced to an agenda with racial equality as its ultimate goal. In short, it was all or nothing. Continue reading
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]