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Reviewed by:
  • Polemical Pain: Slavery, Cruelty, and the Rise of Humanitarianism
  • Colleen A. Vasconcellos
Polemical Pain: Slavery, Cruelty, and the Rise of Humanitarianism. By Margaret Abruzzo. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011. 344 pp. $55.00 (cloth).

In this revised publication of her 2005 doctoral dissertation, Margaret Abruzzo's Polemical Pain: Slavery, Cruelty, and the Rise of Humanitarianism deviates from the more traditional economic debates surrounding abolitionism to focus instead on the humanitarian side of the movement. Yet, Abruzzo delves deeper into the simple interactions between pro- and antislavery advocates in order to show that the struggle over slavery was a turbulent battle that transformed American moral ideals. By questioning why the debates over slavery's cruelty mattered so much to pro- and antislavery advocates, Abruzzo's book is less a study of the abolitionist movement, and more a study of the development of American humanitarianism.

Each chapter examines a different plateau in the debates regarding humaneness and slavery's cruelty by following a rough chronology. While the first two chapters broadly focus on the eighteenth century as a whole, those that follow are more time specific, with each—perhaps unintentionally—focusing on a particular literary event. Chapter 1 naturally begins with the Quakers and their contribution to the precarious beginnings of humanitarianism in eighteenth-century America. Chapter 2 follows with a larger investigation of the debates regarding humanity and human nature as they related to America's burgeoning antislavery movement. In these two chapters, Abruzzo shows how Quaker spirituality guided the movement during this early period. Although she avoids any direct discussion of the pro-slavery Quakers or, more interestingly, the Germantown Petition of 1688, Abruzzo effectively shows the problems surrounding their attacks against slavery as they focused on the distant cruelty of the transatlantic slave trade and West Indian slavery, but avoided local problems such as the place of freedmen in American society. Yet, they caught the attention of other Christian groups in America, and the reader sees this movement gaining some ground, albeit misdirected in focus, by the end of chapter 2. Eighteenth-century Christian humanitarians continued to talk around the issues, focusing instead on generalized debates concerning human nature, the nature of God, and the nature of moral action rather than discuss the pain and suffering of those in need of their help. According to Abruzzo, such an approach nearly destroyed the movement before it started.

Chapters 3 and 4 focus on the early nineteenth century, as humanitarianism began to thrive as a movement. In chapter 3, perhaps the [End Page 429] most interesting chapter of the book, Abruzzo discusses the movement's introduction of various alternatives to slavery, such as colonization, amelioration, and gradual emancipation. Yet, humanitarians are still skirting the tougher issues first avoided by the Quakers in chapter 1, as these alternatives cause further divisions within the movement and allow for ambivalence and weakness. Chapter 4 introduces William Lloyd Garrison and his radical brand of antagonistic abolitionism to the debates, and Abruzzo characterizes the transformation that followed as an almost deliberate vagueness regarding the definition of humanitarianism. Consequently, she shows the development of a fiercely contested moral directive using the evidence of cruelty on southern estates as proof of immorality and barbarianism in the South. Planters went on the defensive, which created even more tension between North and South that Abruzzo explains in further detail in the next two chapters.

Within this explanation, chapters 5 and 6 also discuss the publication of two important works and their impact on the growing tension between pro- and antislavery advocates. In chapter 5, Theodore Dwight Weld's American Slavery as It Is (1839) is set against the growing political divisions that formed over slavery and westward expansion, while chapter 6 focuses on the maelstrom created by Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). Although Abruzzo skirts the harder political debates regarding westward expansion, popular sovereignty, and the case of Texas, she shows that these publications had an immense impact on the growing debate surrounding the humaneness of slavery, which is more in line with her overall goal. Plantation owners not only saw their own behavior and culture put on trial, but their very own...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-8050
Print ISSN
1045-6007
Pages
pp. 429-431
Launched on MUSE
2012-08-09
Open Access
No
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