John A. Andrew’s Abolitionism Through Whiggish Eyes

I am making my way through and thoroughly enjoying Henry Greenleaf Pearson’s, The Life of John A. Andrew, which was published in 1904. It’s nice not having to compete with multiple biographies of the Massachusetts governor and in this case Pearson’s biography is a different kind of beast altogether. It’s been a while since I read one published at the beginning of the twentieth century. Like many biographies published at this time this one has a strong Whiggish bent to it.

You have to turn off or at least soften the analytical side of your history brain. Pearson interprets Andrew as part of the broad sweep of American history defined by an inevitable expansion of democracy and freedom. The purpose of the biography is to explain Andrew’s place within this moral narrative. That job is no doubt made easier given the fact that Andrew died so soon after the end of the war.

Such an agenda leaves little room for critical questions and analysis. That’s just not part of the project. A perfect example of this is the author’s handling of the beginning and early evolution of Andrew’s anti-slavery beliefs. Pearson cites a speech that Andrew made in 1864 in honor of British abolitionist, George Thompson, who visited Bowdoin College in 1834 when he was still a student.

I remember a single sentence which fell from his lips, and has adhered to my memory, and will last there while memory itself endures… “Sirs, I hesitate not to say, that in Christian America, the land of Sabbath schools, of religious revivals, there exists the worst institution of the world. There is not an institution which the sun in the heaven shines upon, so fraught with woe to man as American slavery.” These were the words of George Thompson thirty years ago. I remembered that I was an American; that all my destiny, humble though it might be, and the destiny of all my own posterity, was bound up in the destiny of that America; that I and they, and all of us, were linked indissolubly, by eternal bonds, to that “worst institution in the world,” so long as it should exist; and I dreamed by night, and mused in leisure hours, and read and thought by day, and wondered if the “worst institution in the world” would forever last, and if it would cleave like the dead carcase to the living body, to the name and fame, and fortunes, and future of my country. (pp. 20-21)

This excerpt from Andrew’s speech certainly fits into Pearson’s narrative, but we are left with little understanding beyond what is remembered thirty years later by the subject himself. Andrew’s anti-slavery views emerge fully formed. A more critical eye would have to wonder whether the speech tells us more about the erosion of slavery by 1864 and Andrew’s role in it than it does about the earliest influences on his anti-slavery views.

Andrew’s place within the anti-slavery community in Massachusetts is something that I plan on exploring in great detail. There has been a good deal of work on it of late, but I don’t remember reading much about Andrew. Your recommendations are much appreciated. Certainly, Pearson’s book includes a good deal of relevant material to ponder, but it’s usefulness is limited.

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4 comments… add one
  • Virtuous Yankee Aug 18, 2014 @ 12:42

    Myth of the virtuous Yankee.

    Since you earlier nominated General Benjamin Butler for the Museum of the Confederacy’s “Person of the Year,” you may be interested to learn that Massachusetts Governor Andrews wrote the state’s two senators, Charles Sumner and Henry Wilson, “I am compelled to…declare that the whole course of proceedings under Major General Butler in this Commonwealth seems to have been designed and adapted simply to afford means to persons of bad character to make money unscrupulously, and to encourage men whose unfitness had excluded them from any appointment by me…”

    • Kevin Levin Aug 18, 2014 @ 12:52

      Let’s just say that there’s was a very complicated relationship and one that I am looking forward to exploring during the course of my research.

  • M.D. Blough Aug 14, 2014 @ 7:13

    It would be interesting in your research to see if there is anything on which to compare his views on slavery and abolition to those of his fellow leader among the War Governors, Andrew Curtin of Pennsylvania.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 14, 2014 @ 7:15

      Same here. Curtin is also right up there on the list of governors who deserves a biography.

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