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  • Polemical Pain: Slavery, Cruelty, and the Rise of Humanitarianism by Margaret Abruzzo
  • Karen Halttunen (bio)
Polemical Pain: Slavery, Cruelty, and the Rise of Humanitarianism. By Margaret Abruzzo. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011. Pp. 344. Cloth $55.00.)

For the past thirty years, historians have been exploring the origins of humanitarianism and its role in generating a proliferation of reforms opposing the unnecessary infliction of pain. In Polemical Pain: Slavery, Cruelty, and the Rise of Humanitarianism, Margaret Abruzzo enters this conversation with a provocatively simple question: Given the cultural power of humanitarianism by the early nineteenth century, how could the opponents of reform have been willing to defend practices newly redefined as cruel? To address this problem, she traces the changing meanings and practices of humaneness from the early eighteenth century through the American Civil War. Polemical Pain finds that increasingly shared assumptions about the moral unacceptability of cruelty generated widely diverging judgments about their appropriate social applications. In the debate over slavery, proslavery apologists did not openly defend slave suffering. Instead, they deployed the “novel moral language” of humanitarianism to advocate the humaneness of slavery and the cruelty of emancipation (2). Humanitarianism, Abruzzo argues, lacked a stable intellectual core; and early intellectual tensions within its moral language eventually hardened, after 1830, into vehemently opposing political positions.

The two major sources of humanitarianism in the eighteenth century established its flexibility from the outset. While the Quakers’ opposition to slavery formed around an ascetic critique of luxury goods and the importance of martyrdom to their own religious identity, moral philosophers objected to slavery as a violation of civilized refinement, focusing on the immoral effects produced in observers by the “‘spectacle of woe’” (73). Both groups, however, emphasized the perils of black suffering for white souls. By the early nineteenth century, humanitarianism flourished, but its proponents located themselves at different points along a spectrum of practical alternatives to slavery’s status quo, ranging from amelioration through colonization to emancipation. Colonization in particular thrived on the malleability of humanitarianism, focusing on the distant and past cruelties of the international slave trade rather than the immediate problem of [End Page 576] slavery, and substituting the project of black removal for any direct discussion of human rights.

But after 1830, humanitarianism split into two opposing positions: the cruelty of slavery versus the cruelty of emancipation. The opponents of slavery produced increasingly gruesome depictions of its physical cruelty. Proslavery apologists countered by accusing abolitionists of shedding false tears over imagined scenes of distant suffering; slaveholders, they claimed, actively fulfilled the moral obligations of sympathy by benevolently caring for their slaves rather than surrendering them to the poverty and neglect of emancipation. By the 1840s, slavery’s supporters were using scientific racism to claim that God had designed blacks to find happiness in slavery, while their opponents were gathering fugitive slave narratives to prove slave suffering. In the 1850s, the “contradictions of benevolence” created rifts within each opposing camp (190). Slavery’s defenders divided over a new defense of the international slave trade as benevolent; abolitionists tried to assess the relative damage done by slavery to suffering bodies versus suffering hearts and minds.

Polemical Pain is a well-researched work of scholarship, informed by both a close reading of printed reform literature—moral philosophy textbooks, sermons, children’s books, pro- and antislavery polemics—and far-flung archival materials—diaries and letters, overseers’ notes and hiring-out contracts. The latter sources enable Abruzzo to look beyond public rhetoric to “explore the battle within individual self-understandings” (8), as when a Virginia slaveholder instructed his new manager to treat his slaves in ways that would “contribute to their happiness” (81). The book is well and persuasively (if sometimes repetitiously) written. Its most important contribution lies in its treatment of humanitarianism, not as a single, coherent idea that steadily suffused Anglo-American culture with a consistent program for reform, but as a malleable moral language that could be adapted to multiple causes. The ideal of humaneness could be enlisted by slaveholders or by abolitionists, employed to protect the bodies of slaves or the moral standing of slavery’s white witnesses. But it was seldom invoked as a call...


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