- Reviewed by
Despite being, to all appearances, among the heroes of American history, abolitionists have not always been looked upon kindly by American historians. In the estimation of many, if not most, historians writing in the century after the Civil War, they were self-righteous meddlers, at whose feet was placed a large share of the responsibility for plunging the nation into civil war. Skepticism about abolitionists, surprisingly, persisted long after the overt racism of the Dunning and Phillips schools was replaced in the 1960s and 1970s with more sympathetic attitudes toward the plight of African American slaves. In The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (1975), David Brion Davis famously argued that abolitionists performed ideological dirty-work by valorizing free labor and thereby buttressing (if half-unwittingly) nascent capitalism. To Charles Sellers, and indeed to the entire generation of social historians whose work he synthesized in his Market Revolution (1991), abolitionists represented a “vanguard of capitalist liberalism”; their ostensible humanitarianism masked an agenda of cultural imperialism and “social control.” Denigration of abolitionism has abated somewhat in recent years, but it has by no means disappeared from within the profession. That abolitionist-bashing is still alive and well, at least in some quarters, is demonstrated [End Page 424] by Andrew Delbanco’s The Abolitionist Imagination (2012), which portrays antislavery crusaders as impatient zealots guilty of hastening an avoidable bloodbath.
Rehabilitating the historical reputation of abolitionists is just one of the several accomplishments of Manisha Sinha’s magnificent new study The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition. Drawing on an impressive array of both primary and secondary sources—the footnotes are truly a marvel to behold—it traces the abolition movement’s personnel, writings, and activities from the colonial period to the start of the Civil War. Sinha deftly combines a chronological approach, which allows her to move steadily forward in time, with chapters that treat one or another theme or issue, such as “The Woman Question,” “Fugitive Slave Abolitionism,” and “The Politics of Abolition.”
According to Sinha, abolitionists were at the vanguard not of capitalism but of an expanded and more capacious conception of democracy and human rights. “Abolition was a radical, democratic movement,” Sinha writes at the start of her book, refusing to mince words about where she stands, one that “made a signal contribution to the discourse of both human rights and humanitarianism.” “It is no coincidence,” she notes, “that the brief, incomplete triumph of the abolitionist vision resulted in the greatest expansion of American democracy, and that the demise of abolition went hand in hand with the greatest contraction of democracy” (pp. 3–4).
Sinha’s association of abolitionism with democratization not only runs counter to historians’ traditional skepticism about abolitionists’ motives but also questions the dominant understanding within the profession of the three-way relationship between capitalism, democracy, and antislavery activism. The dominant “market revolution” school sees antebellum American democracy as evolving in reaction to and in tension with the rise of capitalism and tends to lump antislavery crusaders with the aiders and abettors of capitalism rather than of democracy. Because abolitionists professed to be advocates of liberty and equality for all, arguing that they were actually carrying water for industrialists has always been akin to pounding a square [End Page 425] peg into a round hole, with concepts like “false consciousness” and class “ideology” acting as the hammers.
According to Sinha, this is all nonsense. Not only were abolitionists sincere and passionate small-d democrats, but closer attention to their writings shows that most excoriated the excesses of capitalism and the emerging culture of the market. Within many of her rapid-fire but colorful and evocative portraits of individual abolitionists, Sinha is quick to emphasize their tendency to condemn not just slaveholding but the larger sins of acquisitiveness and rapacity with which they associated it. The Quaker John Woolman, for example, denounced “luxuries and wealth, developing an incipient critique of market society,” the black writer Venture Smith voiced “an indictment of the worldwide...