- Polemical Pain: Slavery, Cruelty, and the Rise of Humanitarianism
Slavery, Abolition, Humanitarianism, Benevolence, Sectionalism
Margaret Abruzzo’s thought-provoking study of the moral language of humanitarianism in mid-eighteenth- to mid-nineteenth-century America began with her wondering how anyone could have opposed humaneness. The answer, it turned out, was that by the mid nineteenth century just about no one did. While there was a broad commitment to benevolence, Americans were deeply divided about the nature and obligations of philanthropy, that is, love of mankind.
Did observed cruelty provoke humane responses or desensitize viewers? Was pain caused by action or inaction? Did benevolence properly rest on disinterestedness or self-interest? Americans debated these questions as they argued over slavery. In the eighteenth century, slave suffering “had little moral bearing on the slavery question” (5). By the mid nineteenth century, it mattered greatly, with both proponents and opponents of antislavery invoking their compassion and charging the other side with callousness. Ranging widely through sources from Quaker epistles and moral philosophers’ essays to the correspondence, organizational records, and publications of slaveholders and slavery haters, Abruzzo traces this dynamic contest between antislavery and proslavery conceptions of pain through their rhetorical strategies. Ultimately the antislavery side triumphed and, she explains, the “victors defined humanitarianism” (7).
The book begins with discussions of the distinct contributions made by Quakers and by Scottish moral philosophers and their followers to understandings of humanitarianism. Much about these chapters is familiar. By contrasting the self-denying basis of Friends’ philanthropy with the self-loving roots of mainstream Anglo–American ideas about benevolence, however, Abruzzo offers readers important insight on the shared intellectual heritage of anti- and proslavery types alike. Turning to the first phase of white Americans’ search for solutions to the problem of slavery, Abruzzo details activists’ shift away from abstract arguments against brutality to the graphic particulars of slavery. Pain became central to the understanding of cruelty. Earlier, the infliction of pain—the [End Page 550] aggressor’s behavior—had been morally troubling. Now suffering itself— the victim’s experience—was morally significant. That development did not lead to a groundswell of support for the emancipation of slaves or to sectional division in the early nineteenth century. Rather, many white Americans understood slavery to be cruel but also believed that so too was emancipation for those pitiable victims not suited for full membership in a republic. To people thinking this way, colonization, gradualist approaches, and the amelioration of slavery were all humane options for succoring slaves. The new emphasis on pain, therefore, initially underplayed the latent conflict between anti- and proslavery conceptions of humaneness and cruelty.
By 1832, when William Lloyd Garrison reviled the colonization movement as cruel, white Americans’ common understanding of humanity began diverging. Increasingly, white Americans no longer agreed that both slavery and emancipation were injurious. Instead, they now argued that one or the other was exclusively inhumane, with defenders of slavery eventually going farther and arguing not only that bondage was not malevolent but that perpetual servitude was indeed benevolent. Chapters 4 through 6 explore this ever fiercer controversy between pro- and antislavery ideas about cruelty and are the heart of the book. Here the early strands come together, as Abruzzo shows how both sides used their common intellectual background to assail the opposition. Abolitionists and defenders of slavery for instance, fought over the relation between human agency and pain. Was pain typically the result of action (as with whipping slaves) or of inaction (such as the neglect of northern factory workers)? Abruzzo began her study from an interest in the defenders of slavery, the putative opponents of humanitarianism. Defenders of slavery, her work shows, were participating not only in a contemporary, sectional dispute about slavery, but in a long-running Anglo–American debate about the nature of sympathy.
Abruzzo emphasizes the breakdown of a shared understanding between northern and southern white Americans. From a common starting point, anti-and proslavery polemicists came, she shows, to use the vocabulary of philanthropy against each...