The Abolitionist Imagination grows out of Andrew Delbanco’s 2010 Alexis de Tocqueville Lecture on American Politics, given at Harvard University. John Stauffer, Manisha Sinha, Darryl Pinckney, and Wilfred McClay provided responses to Delbanco’s strident reassessment of American abolitionism. The end result is one of the odder examinations of American abolitionists in recent memory.
For Delbanco, abolitionists were religious extremists, idealists, and immediatists; in the tradition of Arthur Schlesinger Jr., he advocates a centrist position and has an extreme faith in compromise that surely could have averted the war. His nineteenth-century soul mates, men like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, were “sensitive to the crime of slavery but squeamish about the abolitionist response” (35). Yet, Delbanco is not at all squeamish about his stance’s implications for contemporary politics. Self-righteous, uncompromising fanaticism has been a “persistent impulse in American life,” he claims (3). Time and again we lose our ability to deal squarely, fairly, and reasonably with one another. But in scoring his political points, Delbanco too often sacrifices the logic of historic ones. In lumping abolition into a single category of extremists, he muddles the moral and intellectual complexities that drove these men and women to confront the crimes of a nation.
In the response essays, the reader receives a healthier dose of historical context. John Stauffer argues quite sensibly that it was the southern slaveholding elites, not the [End Page 537] abolitionists, who had deviated most profoundly from American self-understandings, just as it was the fire-eaters, not their foes, who proved to be the uncompromising idealists. The abolitionist movement, he stresses, started from rather conservative origins, denying membership to African Americans and working across sectional boundaries to minimize rifts between North and South. Things came to a head only with the explosion of cotton and subsequent profits associated with using slave labor. To protect these profits and expand that empire, southerners began to call for a massive expansion of slave territory and a silencing of the abolitionist voice in Congress by way of the gag rule. Only in response did abolitionists shift course to a more immediatist stance, and even then people like Abraham Lincoln were willing to extend offers of an amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing slavery in the southern states.
For Manisha Sinha, the victories of the abolitionists were staggeringly short-lived. While Sinha may have overextended herself with comments regarding the abolitionists’ “principal commitment to black quality,” she nevertheless articulates the plans of abolitionists in the postwar period that unfortunately failed at the expense of reconciliation and political expediency (95). Darryl Pinckney’s “The Invisibility of Black Abolitionists” discusses the omission of prominent black abolitionists and writers from the slavery and emancipationist narrative, while Wilfred McClay comes to Delbanco’s aid in an effort to praise the work of the American studies scholar in describing how abolitionists “changed the terms of cultural engagement, changed the available discourse of their time, and thereby changed the scope of what was possible” (143).
Despite their disagreements, the essayists have a general tendency to lump the abolitionists of the late antebellum period into one camp. While that may be convenient, it was hardly the case. All abolitionists, for instance, were not religious extremists. Indeed, many abstained from formal religious establishments, viewing churches as part of the slavery problem. It is also unfortunate that they uniformly focus on American abolitionists, consistently neglecting the movement’s transnational dimensions. In short, while it is important to revisit the many factors that led down the path to war, The Abolitionist Imagination adds little to old debates about how we should feel about a diverse group of men and women who were infuriatingly self-righteous and indubitably right.