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The American Experience: The Abolitionists by Rob Rapley (review)

From: Civil War History
Volume 60, Number 1, March 2014
pp. 83-85 | 10.1353/cwh.2014.0014

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

Marking the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, this three-part documentary traces the history of the radical antislavery movement through the interconnected lives of (in order of appearance) Angelina Grimké, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and John Brown. While some of these reformers receive more attention than others, the documentary places abolitionists at the center of the national struggle over slavery and serves as a useful challenge to the popular portrayal of emancipation in Stephen Spielberg's film Lincoln (2012). As the narrator states at the end of part 2, these abolitionists, with their passion and perseverance, forced Americans to take sides on the slavery issue. The documentary is less clear on how they did so and what it took to sustain a movement for forty years. Its surprising strength is the actors who play the five abolitionists; they capture the spirit and drive of activists like Garrison and Grimké, who in still images appear cold and unappealing to undergraduates. With each episode lasting just over fifty minutes, the documentary will work well in the classroom.

The first part is the strongest and most compelling, following the spark of abolition in each of the main characters. Grimké fights a lonely battle in her native South Carolina slaveholding family, leaving the south for Philadelphia, and eventually, Garrison's American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS). Douglass experiences the brutality of the peculiar institution as a slave in Maryland. A devout Christian, Garrison converts from gradualism to immediatism after living and working with African Americans in Baltimore. Stowe observes the controversy surrounding abolitionism in the border city of Cincinnati. The murder of abolitionist editor Elijah Lovejoy kindles Brown's Calvinist fire. This part is not without its frustrations: The filmmakers and historians ignore Quakers who, even with their limitations, were the only whites to consistently oppose slavery before the 1820s. Instead, the historians associate the abolitionist strategy of moral suasion with evangelical Christianity, ignoring these abolitionists' various and evolving religious perspectives. In Baltimore, for example, Garrison worked for Quaker newspaper editor Benjamin Lundy. After Grimké moved to Philadelphia, the Society of Friends became her spiritual home. The filmmakers, whose work is produced for American Experience/WGBH, also miss opportunities to discuss the geographic diversity of the antislavery movement (in Philadelphia, Cincinnati, or Rochester) for a Boston-centric interpretation. Part 1 concludes with Grimké's marriage to fellow abolitionist Theodore Weld and the ideological differences that split the AASS in 1840.

In parts 2 and 3, the individual biographies are overwhelmed by a more national history. As is fitting, Douglass emerges as the main character, beginning with his escape from slavery and his alliance and subsequent break with Garrison. Here, Garrison appears as a strategic foil for Douglass and Brown, with no attempt made to grasp his continuing commitment to nonviolence. The documentary also shifts to the familiar national drama: the War with Mexico, the Compromise of 1850, including the Fugitive Slave Act, and the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Stowe's grief after her son's death from cholera and her shared emotional pain with slave mothers separated from their children inspired a great antislavery novel, but she is out of place in a documentary about abolitionists. The film rightfully credits her novel with convincing many Americans that slavery was wrong, but it fails to mention that Uncle Tom's Cabin advocated colonization rather than abolition. Further, the filmmakers do not connect Stowe's novel to the painstaking research and revelations in Angelina and Theodore Weld's American Slavery As It Is, which the filmmakers mention in part 1. In the third part, the violent conflict over slavery builds, with the caning of Charles Sumner, Bleeding Kansas, John Brown's attack on Harpers Ferry, the Civil War, and, finally, emancipation. With comments from experts such as David W. Blight, R. Blakeslee Gilpin, Tony Horwitz, and John Stauffer, this episode illuminates the dynamic relationship between Douglass and Brown. Instead of Lincoln the emancipator, the documentary reveals Douglass's and Garrison's frustration with Lincoln's slow and agonized decision to end slavery.

The Abolitionists concludes by returning to the waning lives of the five abolitionists, including Douglass's moving eulogy...



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