- TO PLEAD OUR OWN CAUSE: African Americans in Massachusetts and the Making of the Antislavery Movement by Christopher Cameron
To Plead Our Own Cause is a synthetic work that urges us to look closely at the efforts of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century African Americans in the development of the abolition movement. Christopher Cameron argues that scholars have underrated the significance of those efforts by focusing only on the work of a few figures in the early antebellum period. Differentiating his book from studies by David Brion Davis, Benjamin Quarles, and Richard Newman, Cameron insists that blacks were important actors in the growth of abolitionism from the mid-1700s on, that they were far more radical than has been previously thought, and that that radicalism was most potent in Massachusetts rather than Pennsylvania (or any other locale). For Cameron, the reason that geography was so important has a great deal to do with the development of African American religious and community organizations and the long reach of Puritanism as an intellectual force. [End Page 176]
As one might expect given his argument, Cameron’s book employs a chronological structure. In his first chapter, he examines the antislavery views of early Puritan divines like Cotton Mather and Samuel Sewell and sets the stage for later chapters in which Calvinist thought (and the jeremiad form) prove particularly important. Those chapters highlight the efforts of revolutionary-era stalwarts like Phillis Wheatly and Prince Hall along with the work done by well-known figures like Paul Cuffee and Maria Stewart. In most of his chapters, Cameron draws on a wide range of published texts and secondary works to highlight the myriad religious, intellectual, cultural, and political energies that fueled eighteenth- and nineteenth-century antislavery movements in the Bay State. Cameron’s chronological/linear argument works fairly well, though he struggles to fit the colonization movements of the 1810s and 1820s under the banner of radical or immediate abolitionism. It is true that, as Cameron explains, colonization/emigration efforts helped to “keep antislavery activism alive” in the early nineteenth century, but those efforts seem to be a detour rather than a point along the road to David Walker, William Lloyd Garrison, and Frederick Douglass (113).
As he maps the longue durée of antislavery activity in Massachusetts, Cameron unearths a few sources that add to our knowledge of that activity. For example, alongside his discussion of well-known figures like James Gronniosaw, Phillis Wheatley, and Lemuel Haynes, Cameron highlights an essay published by Cesar Sarter in 1774 in which the author uses the jeremiad to develop a “particularly Calvinist critique” of slavery and ties abolition to the revolutionary spirit of his age (43). This single publication by an (heretofore) unknown man hints at a broader African American participation in antislavery activities in eighteenth-century Massachusetts. In later chapters, Cameron uses freedom suits along with church, convention, and organization records to highlight the wide reach of antislavery engagement among African Americans. His descriptions of the African Baptist Church, African School in Boston, and African Society of Boston (among other groups) highlight the growth of an African American community in Massachusetts. In addition to fostering community, Cameron argues, political, religious, and educational associations helped to “keep alive the memory of slavery and the slave trade for Boston’s black residents and encouraged them to remain active in the cause of those still enslaved” (99). Cameron is at his best when he explores the efforts of lesser known groups and figures; those explorations help us glimpse the extent and the significance of early antislavery activity by African Americans in Massachusetts.
Unfortunately, though, it is only a glimpse. Cameron’s book is based on his dissertation, and it shows some of the limitations typical of such books: He insists that his book should fill a critical niche, and he does not move beyond the limits of that niche; moreover, Cameron relies mostly (though not exclusively) on previously published and secondary texts rather than archival sources. As such, To Plead Our...