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]
[Thanks to Vicki Betts]
Vicki found this document during her research into the Confederate Citizens and Business File in Footnote.com. This particular letter struck her as important and decided to pass it on to me, which I greatly appreciate. The letter was written by John D. Berry, Schuyler County, New York and sent to the governor of South Carolina, probably late 1860 or early 1861. Berry is listed as a (col) barber in Schuyler County.
Watkins, Schuyler Co. NY
To the Governor of South Carolina. Sir I hope you will excuse me for ben so forward in droping you a few lines. Sir I am no a Scoler. My dear parents Sent me to School & paid $3 per [ ] And There It would bee imposseble for me to Say more than one leson a day & Some times not that for Pregdise was So Strong in this Country Against the Colored rase that it was imposable for me to Get justice done me in School. Sir this was on the Acount of Slavery & the arguments that you Southern men are obliged to youse to kepe us back & to Corupt the whites of the norther States & this Sir you have done perty efeculy for Clay to Lead of with Compromise After Compromise & then all you have to do is to buy Dou fases & that you Did be guining with Webster[.] but Sir I respect Mr. Colhoun for we new where to find him & his corse wodent of Dun us as much harm as has ben dun us by Henry Clays Corse for if the South had declared Slavery to be the Eakual of Liberty then as now the blood which is to brake on you now wold of brok then in sted of now & the Crash would have been So great that it wold have cosed you and every other Slave holder to Shake with fear[.] your proclamation wodent Save you nor all the Governers in the Slave States. For we Abolitiones have got the North rite & Justice is to be Dun to all men kind north & South & like bfore quiet will come to this Government[.] this is so & you may as well begin one time as Another for the [ ] is rapidly at werk & your Proclomation is [ ] here at the north your bst [?] laff at it with the exception of Benet of the herald & we have Got him tite for he hasent Got eny Enfleuence[.] he is used up Sir & this is so[.] the Crises is upon you & you must Do my People Justice with the rest of mankind & this Sir will save you and your State will flourish & wax with wealth. I Dow respect Southern Gentlemen ten times ye one hundred times more than northern doufase for They Deceive Both north & South & you cant Depend on them[.] all they want is Ofise[.] Sir the South Dun rong when they Sanctioned the Outrage on Sumner it was Bad for you & it was bad for you when you Sanction the execution of J. Brown and his follower & Sustained Walker as the South and Administration did for you have made thousands of votes & people raise their voises & hart & hand Against you I mean your instituatain. But Sir the Day has come for the Deliverance of my people & now humane Agency Can prevent it[.] I thank God I am down on Slavery & in the words of Oconel when he first herd the idea of property in man it Sounded to him as if Some one was Stamping upon the Grave of his mother and so it Seams to me[.] I am for Liberty Every time & care not how it comes either with or with out blud shed[.] Yours for liberty
John D. Berry Schuyler Co.
This week my AP classes are tackling the various reform movements of the Antebellum Period. It should come as no surprise that we spend a great deal of time on the Abolitionist Movement and William Lloyd Garrison in particular. This morning I began class with a fairly vague question to get the ball rolling that asked students to assess Garrison’s philosophy and goals. Their responses are fairly typical and express a collective belief that Garrison ought to be admired for his perseverance and that his goals were laudable. There is nothing necessarily wrong with such a response, but we should not pass up the opportunity to work to understand Garrison’s place both within the broader anti-slavery community and the society as a whole. We do this by first sketching out the goals of the American Colonization Society, which united a broad swath of the population as well as notable political figures from around the country. I then asked students to think about the implications of their goals of gradual abolition followed by colonization; what do these goals tell us about how Americans viewed slavery and race. Most of the students were able to see that the program was intended to cause the least amount of harm to slaveowners while colonization suggests that many Americans were unable to imagine a racially integrated society. This is the context in which to understand Garrison:
On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire, to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hand of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; — but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD.
This broader picture allows students to move beyond their own narrow interpretation of Garrison’s words and actions to a clearer understanding of the extent to which his understanding of race challenged the very foundations of American society. This move from the personal to the historical is the bread and butter of historical inquiry and it is important, but it should not constitute the end of any classroom discussion about Garrison and the radical abolitionists. Continue reading “Coming To Terms With Garrison and Radicalism”
I had one of those moments today in my Civil War course where a student said something that helped me understand a document from a completely different perspective. We are in the middle of a week-long discussion of the coming of emancipation in the summer of 1862. We are following the ebb and flow of battle in Virginia and along the Mississippi and tracking the changes taking place throughout the United States surrounding the push toward emancipation. One of the more interesting documents we read this week was a Congressional address by Ohio Democratic Congressman Samuel S. Cox. On June 3, 1862 Cox delivered a blistering condemnation of emancipation and outlined a horrific picture of what would happen to the good people of Ohio in the event of a general emancipation. It was difficult to read, though it is crucial for my students to understand the strong racist views that white Northerners held at this time.
Today we read Lincoln’s famous response to Republican newspaper editor, Horace Greeley, who urged Lincoln to move more quickly against slavery. We all know Lincoln’s response to Greeley in which he carefully explains how slavery relates to the overriding goal of preserving the Union. I asked my students to think about who Lincoln was addressing in this response and what he was trying to accomplish. A number of interesting points were raised in terms of Lincoln trying to find a middle ground by satisfying the Democrats focus on Union and a growing Republican interest in emancipation. We also discussed the extent to which Lincoln was trying to force those on the extremes to acknowledge that they may have to give up something in return for the preservation of the Union. At one point one of my students asked if Lincoln was trying to set the terms of what it means to be committed to the cause and the nation. In other words, that Lincoln may have been trying to define the language of patriotism and loyalty. With Cox in mind she suggested that Lincoln was forcing him to defend a position that may end up satisfying his own personal/local priorities even if that meant losing the war. I assume we could apply the same line of reasoning in reference to those on the opposite side who were so focused on ending slavery without considering the possibility that this may not bring about the preservation of the Union. To be completely honest, I never thought of this.
I always have to remember to control my facial response when a student says something that I find truly insightful. The last thing I want to do is stifle further discussion. With all of the talk about mischievous teachers steering their students in ways that reflect our own political values it’s nice to be able to point to an example where it’s the student who steers the teacher. As far as I am concerned, it’s not about us anyway.