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 other. “The language of humaneness,” Abruzzo writes, “. . . intensified the bitterness of sectionalism” because each side believed the other was using that language—the concepts of humanitarianism—wrongly and in bad faith (170). This argument seems right. A desire lingers, however, for a deeper sense of [End Page 551] contemporaries’ responses to their adversaries’ language. Abruzzo does quote the angry reactions of Americans to each other’s rhetoric and ideas. Yet often her subjects are either general groups of abolitionists or proslavery writers or are individuals who make fleeting appearances in the book. We do not get to know people well enough to feel their emotions—animosity and indignation, in this case—as we do with some other recent studies of humanitarian and sympathetic sensibilities.
Besides exploring the divisions between antislavery and proslavery Americans, Abruzzo discusses reservations about tactics and other tensions within each camp. Again, we get a sense of general groups of activists or ideologues on each side. Specialists in particular will be curious about who—elites, middle-class, men, women, blacks, whites—in the antislavery movement, and likewise who in the proslavery camp, espoused or rejected certain language. Readers will also want to know more about African Americans’ participation in the struggle to define humanitarianism. Black abolitionists make appearances in Abruzzo’s book. They should, however, have received greater attention since they were at the forefront of the abolition movement.
Nonetheless, the burgeoning group of scholars of humanitarian identities and the closely linked topic of sensibility will want to read Abruzzo’s book. Recent studies of sensibility have examined the trans-Atlantic contexts of Americans’ creation of their emotional selves and of their moral identities. Abruzzo takes a short but fascinating look at how Americans’ battle over philanthropy extended to Irish famine relief and other causes unrelated to slavery. Humanitarianism, she and other historians are showing, at the same time undermined moral unity among some members of the Anglo–American community—here among northern and southern white Americans—while fostering it among others—such as among radical ante-bellum abolitionists and their British and Irish counterparts. By illuminating the changing and contested concept of cruelty during a critical period in the construction of humanitarianism, Polemical Pain makes an important contribution to our understanding of this larger story. [End Page 552]
Amanda B. Moniz received a PhD from the University of Michigan and was a Cassius Marcellus Clay Fellow at Yale. She has taught at Catholic University and American University. Her manuscript, Philanthropy and Reconciliation in the Age of Revolution, examines trans-Atlantic humanitarian collaboration in the late eighteenth century.