- The War against Slavery, Reconsidered and Reframed
Scholars have long been interested in abolitionists and the history of the movement to end slavery. Historians have been particularly enamored with the radical immediatism of William Lloyd Garrison and his followers. Most discussions of these topics begin with the 1969 publication of Aileen S. Kraditor’s Means and Ends in American Abolition: Garrison and His Critics on Strategy and Tactics, 1834–1850. In this important work, Kraditor explored the efficacy of the strategies employed by Garrison as well as the nature of the internal divisions over tactics that plagued the movement. She represented Garrison and his fellow abolitionists as polemical but rejected the notion that they were radical fanatics who pursued an unattainable moral and societal perfectionism. Subsequent scholars—James Brewer Stewart, Ronald G. Walters, Henry Meyer, and Robert H. Azbug, to name a few—have expanded upon her conclusions by exploring the origins of the abolitionist mentality and the role abolitionism played in the eventual triumph of emancipation. More recently, historians have shifted their attention to the roles black radicalism and the issues of race played in the movement to end slavery. Historians as varied as Benjamin Quarles, Merton Dillon, James Huston, Paul Goodman, John Stauffer, and Richard S. Newman have demonstrated convincingly that Northern free black activism and slave resistance radicalized white opponents of slavery, which led abolitionists to collaborate with black leaders as they abandoned the gradualist position predominant in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and embraced an immediatist approach to ending slavery after 1830.
Despite the scope and quality of this scholarship, however, historians continue to debate a wide variety of questions about abolitionism. What role did abolitionists play in the coming of the American Civil War? Was the [End Page 60] Garrisonian movement a fanatical product of a distinctly American reform impulse? How influential (and effective) was this embattled minority? Who among the warriors against slavery can be legitimately called an abolitionist and who deserves the more conservative label of antislavery activist? How inclusive was the movement to end slavery and what was the nature of the abolitionist commitment to racial equality? Andrew Delbanco and W. Caleb McDaniel offer the latest contributions to this scholarly conversation and engage several, though not all, of these questions.
In his latest book, The Abolitionist Imagination (2012), Andrew Delbanco seeks to illuminate the abolitionist temperament and, in doing so, asks scholars to reconsider their celebration of a small group of radical idealists whose efforts to eradicate slavery resulted in the most violent and deadly war in American history. He argues that “the sacred rage of abolitionism—its moral urgency and uncompromising fervor, its vision of the world purified and perfected—has been at work in many holy wars since the war against slavery” (pp. 47–48). For him, the abolitionist temperament is “an ahistorical category of human will and sentiment” and nineteenth-century abolitionists were merely the first group among many to identify “a heinous evil” and demand “to eradicate it—not tomorrow, not next year, but now” (p. 23). By understanding abolitionism in this way, argues Delbanco, scholars might reassess their celebration of nineteenth-century radical abolitionists and expand their investigations to include antislavery moderates who questioned the cost of abolition, fearing that the price of enacting it would be too great (p. 54). Today’s scholars, cautions Delbanco, might soberly acknowledge the sacrifice that brought freedom, eagerly celebrate abolitionists for provoking that change, and, in hindsight, say that it was worth the price paid; but they do so at the risk of neglecting the broader story of the war against slavery and the lessons nineteenth-century abolitionism has to offer to all subsequent radical reform efforts.
As Delbanco recounts, abolitionists, though small in number, were divided over strategy and often inconsistent and inconstant in their actions. They attracted...