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The Problem of Emancipation: The Caribbean Roots of the American Civil War (review)

From: Journal of Social History
Volume 43, Number 4, Summer 2010
pp. 1109-1110 | 10.1353/jsh.0.0364

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Scholars of the Civil War-era United States, the rise and fall of New World slavery, and the internationalizing trend in American history will find much to ponder in this interesting and valuable study, which seeks to situate the evolution of (U.S.) American pro and antislavery thought in an Anglo-Atlantic context. In particular, this work focuses on the impact of early-19th-century British abolitionism and of British West Indian emancipation on arguments in the United States.

Part One of Rugemer’s work deals with American reactions to the rise of British abolitionism. In his first chapter, Rugemer makes the case for the existence of an Anglo-Atlantic world spanning Britain, the Caribbean, and North America, composed as late as the 19th century by economic ties, common religious developments, and a shared print culture. Although Rugemer’s description of this Anglo-Atlantic as an “organic whole” (p. 20) may go a bit too far, this chapter nonetheless helps explain antebellum American interest in British abolitionism and then emancipation. The next three chapters explore American concern with the rise of British abolitionism and British Caribbean slave revolts in 1816, 1823, and 1831. To understand American commentary, Rugemer argues, one first has to consider the influence of the 1797 narrative of the Haitian Revolution written by the British planter, parliamentarian, and historian Bryan Edwards. By claiming that French abolitionists, and not the conditions of slavery itself, caused the revolution, the “Edwards thesis” offered proslavery Americans a means of condemning abolitionism itself. This thesis proceeded to shape slavery debates for the next six decades, and restatements of it could be heard in American reactions to subsequent slave rebellions and the growth of abolitionist sentiment throughout the Anglo-Atlantic. Yet Rugemer also contends that the Edwards thesis contained a grain of truth: abolitionist agitation did help spark some rebellions. While attempting to demonstrate this leads to some intriguing forays into Caribbean history, it also raises some doubt about whether slaveholders would have needed to have known of Edwards’s narrative to echo his arguments. The idea that abolitionists were responsible for slave insurrections was, moreover, of fairly obvious polemical value, and surely did not depend on Edwards for its existence or pervasiveness. This, however, is not to argue that Edwards had no impact on American opinion, and Rugemer demonstrates that Americans purchased, read, and discussed his writings. These chapters also contain interesting discussions of American press coverage of West Indian slave rebellions, British reactions to slaveholder recriminations against missionaries in Jamaica, the transatlantic orientation of early African American abolitionists, and still other topics.

The second half of Rugemer’s work continues these themes but turns to American interpretations of British West Indian emancipation in the 1830s and subsequent developments on the islands. Chapter five focuses on the changing opinion of the influential Unitarian and Whig, William Ellery Channing. Initially opposed to both slavery and its more radical critics, Channing, over the 1830s, moved toward abolitionism, inspired in good measure by evidence that British emancipation had not precipitated race warfare or economic collapse in their Caribbean islands. Channing, Rugemer points out, made an impact in the North, including upon rising political abolitionists like Charles Sumner. Next, Rugemer focuses on southern proslavery conspiracy theories that held British abolitionism to be merely a front for powerful interests, and offers an extended analysis of the viciously racist diplomatic dispatches from Robert Monroe Harrison, an American consular official in Jamaica from 1831 until his death in 1858. Harrison’s rants about Jamaica, Rugemer shows, were available to proslavery statesmen Abel Upshur and John C. Calhoun as they waged their campaign, rife with Anglophobia, to annex Texas. Rugemer then turns to documenting the spread and analyzing the role of public celebrations of British West Indian emancipation in the North from the 1830s through the 1850s. Here, he argues that in August 1st abolitionists found a commemorative event to rival and challenge July 4th and through which they could cultivate a transnational reformist imagined community. In his final chapter, Rugemer explores the continuing significance of British abolitionism and emancipation during the heightening sectional tensions of the 1850s, analyzing the ongoing ties of African American abolitionists...