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Reviews in American History 32.1 (2004) 33-40

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Hearts of Blackness:
Reconsidering the Abolitionists—Again

Michael Vorenberg

John Stauffer. The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race . Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001. 367 pp. Illustrations, notes, and index. $29.95 (cloth); $18.95 (paper).

In an episode from Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, retold by John Stauffer in The Black Hearts of Men, Ishmael regards disapprovingly the racism he detects among fellow white travelers on a schooner from New Bedford to Nantucket. The onlookers are puzzled by the comradeship between Ishmael, a white Christian, and Queequeg, a black "cannibal." Who would think that "a white man were anything more dignified than a whitewashed negro," Ishmael wonders (p. 219).

In the same year that Moby-Dick was published, 1851, the white abolitionist Gerrit Smith penned "A Story: The Ruinous Visit to Monkeyville," which also tells of a white man who imagined himself as black. It was an odd tale, never published, about a nine-year-old white boy named John Brown, who could hear but not speak. After much prayer by his family, John miraculously begins to talk. No sooner has he acquired the skill than his speech—and soul—are corrupted by "a set of rude, ignorant, low-bred boys" from "Monkeyville" who speak with "a dialect or language peculiar to themselves." Under their influence, Brown becomes a liar, a thief, and a murderer. The story ends with his execution, followed by Smith's words of caution: "Remember, Reader, is it not better never to have a voice, than to misuse it, as John Brown did" (pp. 268-9)? Stauffer convincingly argues that Smith envisioned the "Monkeyville" boys as black and that he modeled his protagonist on the John Brown who later gained fame at Pottawatomie and Harpers Ferry. When Smith wrote the story, Brown was living in the biracial community of North Elba, New York, which Smith helped to create, and he had begun to confess to Smith some of his violent schemes. Although Smith lived for another twenty-three years after writing the story, Stauffer waits until the end of Smith's life and the end of the book to mention the tale. It comes as a kind of deathbed confession by Smith, as well as an admission by Stauffer that, for all of Smith's desire to follow Brown's example and adopt a black [End Page 33] heart, he always harbored the crucial doubt: maybe a white man was something different from, even better than, Ishmael's "whitewashed negro."

Smith is the central and most interesting character in Stauffer's study of four radical abolitionists, two of them white, Smith and Brown, and two of them black, James McCune Smith and Frederick Douglass. Stauffer's objective is to recover the story of the remarkable interracial alliance among these four, but he aims even higher, attempting the most ambitious assessment to date of the antebellum antislavery movement. He hits his marks. The book is both an excellent collective biography and a path-breaking reconsideration of radical abolitionism. Of all the radicals' ideas, Stauffer regards as most significant and sophisticated their notion that all Americans had to become black, not by changing their physical features but by transforming their souls. The goal, quite simply, was to have a black heart.

What was a black heart, and how did you get one? First, it helped to be what Stauffer calls a "passionate outsider." His radicals were "passionate in their desire to reform America, and . . . outsiders with regard to both their alienated status in society and the source of their values" (pp. 15-6). Here Stauffer echoes a chord first sounded by David Herbert Donald almost fifty years ago: that, for the most part, abolitionists were newly marginalized figures attempting to launch themselves back into prominence from the platform of antislavery. 1 Gerrit Smith and John Brown fit the mold particularly well. Both turned more passionately toward reform after financial setbacks in the Panic of 1837. But revisionists have long doubted that abolitionists were those left...


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