American Quarterly 55.1 (2003) 103-112
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Abolition and the Color Line
The history of American abolitionism has traditionally been oddly segregated. Classic studies of "American abolitionism" feature few black characters, while the activities of African-American abolitionists, most of whom worked with white allies, are chronicled separately in works on African-American history and black abolitionism. 1 Yet to be fully explored are the fragile and fractious interracial allegiances formed by black and white abolitionists and the flow of ideas and political agendas across color lines.
At first glance, John Stauffer's The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionism and the Transformation of Race promises to integrate the black and white histories of abolitionism. The book tells the story of an interracial alliance between four antebellum era abolitionists, two white and two black. Two of them, Frederick Douglass and John Brown, need no introduction, while the other two, Gerrit Smith and James McCune Smith, are both far less well known today than they were in their own lifetimes. The first African American to receive an M.D., New York physician James McCune Smith was prominent among antebellum blacks for his successful medical practice, scientific [End Page 103] and political writings, and community leadership. White reformer and philanthropist Gerrit Smith was still better known. One of the wealthiest men in America, Smith served briefly in Congress and was dedicated to many causes. During the 1840s and 1850s Smith devoted the lion's share of his prodigious reform energy and charitable giving to abolitionism.
Presenting an especially rich portrait of the fascinating eccentric Gerrit Smith, The Black Hearts of Men maps the friendship and political collaboration between these four men, who became acquainted in the late 1840s and who worked together in the short-lived Radical Abolition Party, which was founded in 1855. Yet this "collective biography," which Stauffer describes "as a braiding together of four lives," will disappoint anyone looking for either an analysis of the relationship between black and white abolitionism or for fully fleshed out portraits of all four men (3). Stauffer's intensely romantic portrait of the friendship between these men stresses their commonalities rather than their differences, often obscuring the distinctions in class, race, and common sense that divided them.
The four men met through Gerrit Smith, the book's "lead protagonist" (3). Inspired by a desire to "'abolitionize the public mind,'" in 1846 Smith donated one hundred twenty thousand acres of "wilderness land" in the Adirondacks to three thousand New York blacks (135). Smith aimed to create an independent and self-sustaining community of black property owners. Among other things, he hoped to help his grantees to qualify to vote under New York State's racially discriminatory suffrage laws, which imposed stiff property requirements on black voters. Among the three black trustees Smith selected to administer the land grants was James McCune Smith who, along with Frederick Douglass and several other black leaders, also received a plot of land. Called "'Timbucto,'" by its settlers, Smith's "'colored Colony'" was perhaps doomed from the start (141). The land that Smith gave away was of poor quality and buffeted by a harsh climate. None of the black leaders Smith favored with land grants chose to move to the remote settlement, and the colony attracted barely one hundred settlers. Although the land was free, few black New Yorkers had the wherewithal to start farms there, and avaricious white neighbors fleeced those that did.
An exception among the white neighbors and the fourth character in Stauffer's story is, of course, John Brown, who moved to Timbucto in [End Page 104] 1849 after a series of business failures. Although deeply in debt, Brown was able to get land from Smith on extended credit, in part perhaps because he offered to make himself useful. Devoutly antislavery, Brown saw a mission for himself in Timbucto. "I will take one of your farms myself," he wrote, approaching...