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Polemical Pain

Slavery, Cruelty, and the Rise of Humanitarianism

Margaret Abruzzo

Publication Year: 2011

In 2008 and 2009, the United States Congress apologized for the “fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery.” Today no one denies the cruelty of slavery, but few issues inspired more controversy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Abolitionists denounced the inhumanity of slavery, while proslavery activists proclaimed it both just and humane. Margaret Abruzzo delves deeply into the slavery debate to better understand the nature and development of humanitarianism and how the slavery issue helped shape modern concepts of human responsibility for the suffering of others. Abruzzo first traces the slow, indirect growth in the eighteenth century of moral objections to slavery's cruelty, which took root in awareness of the moral danger of inflicting unnecessary pain. Rather than accept pain as inescapable, as had earlier generations, people fought to ease, discredit, and abolish it. Within a century, this new humanitarian sensibility had made immoral the wanton infliction of pain. Abruzzo next examines how this modern understanding of humanity and pain played out in the slavery debate. Drawing on shared moral-philosophical concepts, particularly sympathy and benevolence, pro- and antislavery writers voiced starkly opposing views of humaneness. Both sides constructed their moral identities by demonstrating their own humanity and criticizing the other’s insensitivity. Understanding this contest over the meaning of humanity—and its ability to serve varied, even contradictory purposes—illuminates the role of pain in morality. Polemical Pain shows how the debate over slavery’s cruelty played a large, unrecognized role in shaping moral categories that remain pertinent today.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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p. v

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pp. 1-15

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Americans and Europeans recoiled from the infliction of pain with a depth of disgust unknown to their ancestors. Earlier generations had not enjoyed pain, but their eighteenth- and nineteenth-century descendants turned vast amounts of moral energy against it. They created a cause. Or, rather, they created countless causes...

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1 Self-Denial, Martyrdom, and the Formation of Quaker Humanitarianism

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pp. 16-49

At first glance eighteenth-century Quakers seem unlikely humanitarians. Pain appalled few early eighteenth-century Americans, but in the young Society of Friends it upset fewer still. Instead of finding su√ering repugnant, many eighteenth-century Quakers gloried in the idea (if not the practice) of martyrdom. The Society’s theology encouraged members to embrace and even relish the opportunity to testify to the truth by enduring pain patiently...

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2 Humanity, Human Nature, and the Problem of Cruelty

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pp. 50-84

Alate eighteenth-century observer listening in on American moral rhetoric would hardly need good ears to catch the words humaneness, sympathy, or benevolence. A chorus of Quakers, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, and countless others joined in a refrain denouncing those who inflicted pain on helpless victims. Across the religious spectrum, voices insisted...

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3 Moral Responsibility and Removal, 1800–1832

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pp. 85-119

Humanitarian sentiment thrived in the early nineteenth century. Moral objections to cruelty abounded in American public culture, and activists drew on this concern to challenge the morality of the slave trade. They did not convince everyone, but the willingness of many slaveholders to denounce the cruelty of the trade weakened any chance of defending the trade as humane...

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4 Politicizing Humaneness, 1832–1839

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pp. 120-158

By 1830 humaneness had grown deep roots in American moral thinking, but beneath the surface those roots were tangled. Humaneness could mean any number of things in practice, and early reform e√orts only reinforced the tendency to define humanitarianism broadly. The attraction of early rhetoric about cruelty lay in that malleability and capaciousness. Consciously or unconsciously, early reformers pitched their cases...

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5 Suited for Slavery, 1840–1851

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pp. 159-189

By 1839, when Theodore Dwight Weld published American Slavery as It Is, proslavery and antislavery activists had committed themselves to proving slavery’s humaneness or cruelty. Both sides also expected such proof to settle the debate. Humaneness gained moral power precisely because humaneness seemed so clear; it demanded an end to the deliberate infliction of unnecessary pain...

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6 The Contradictions of Benevolence, 1852–1861

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pp. 190-227

By 1852 the debate over slavery and the debate over its humaneness had grown practically inseparable, albeit theoretically distinguishable. Decades earlier, that overlap had provoked less concern: both sides believed that the meaning of humaneness was clear. But the ensuing decades had shattered that illusion: invoking humanitarianism did not settle the debate or establish moral clarity. The malleability of the shared cultural sensibility of humaneness sapped attempts...

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pp. 228-242

In March 1865, as the Civil War was drawing to a close, Abraham Lincoln famously reflected that Northerners and Southerners ‘‘read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.’’∞ Lincoln could have easily added that the warring regions also invoked the aid of humaneness against each other. Yet sharing a moral language and appealing to similar moral principles did not mean that Americans shared concrete moral convictions...

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pp. 243-246

In the course of completing this book, I have relied on the generosity of many people and institutions, and it is a true pleasure to thank those who have played a role in shaping me or this book. A Charlotte W. Newcombe fellowship from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation gave me invaluable free time for writing. The University of Notre Dame funded five years of graduate work, including a service-free year for my research travel...


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pp. 247-320


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pp. 321-330

E-ISBN-13: 9781421401270
E-ISBN-10: 1421401274
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801898525
Print-ISBN-10: 0801898528

Page Count: 344
Illustrations: 10 halftones
Publication Year: 2011

OCLC Number: 798295743
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Polemical Pain

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Subject Headings

  • Slavery -- Moral and ethical aspects -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Slavery -- United States -- Psychological aspects.
  • Slavery -- United States -- History -- 19th century
  • United States -- Moral conditions -- History -- 19th century.
  • Antislavery movements -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Abolitionists -- History -- 19th century.
  • Quaker abolitionists -- History -- 19th century.
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