- Romantic Reformers and the Antislavery Struggle in the Civil War Era by Ethan J. Kytle
For the lay student of American history, abolitionism begins with the tepid gradualism of the founding generation, is followed by the emigrationism of the American Colonization Society, and culminates in either the radical, though effectively pacifist immediatism of William Lloyd Garrison or the violence of John Brown. Ethan J. Kytle lends nuance to this narrative with his exploration of the ideological background and moral impetus of the generation of abolitionists who came of age in the 1840s and 1850s and drew on romantic ideals. Inspired by the cultural biographies written by David Brion Davis, Daniel Walker Howe, Leslie Butler, and Frederick J. Blue, Kytle illuminates the ideological framework of Theodore Parker, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Martin Robison Delany, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson and explores their perfectionism, moral certitude, and faith in the power of “self-culture” and liberal democracy (p. 22). In this regard, Kytle adds significantly to our understanding of American abolitionism on the eve of the Civil War.
But what made these New Romantics new? According to Kytle, New Romantic abolitionists appealed to immediatism and perfectionism in the shadow of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which threatened to make Garrison’s uncompromising statements like “I will not retreat a single inch” ring hollow. For abolitionists like Parker, the Fugitive Slave Law made “ethical preaching” [End Page 678] at best a half measure: “Slavery must be put down politically, or else militarily” (p. 55). Here, Kytle captures some of the ambivalence of the New Romantics. Douglass was committed simultaneously to “political abolitionism” and “anti-slavery violence” (p. 111). Stowe balanced a “trenchant critique of southern slavery with a sensitive portrayal of the burdens faced by slaveholders” (p. 157). At various points during the 1850s Delany advocated integration and emigration. Higginson defended John Brown and toyed with the North’s secession from the slave states but denounced political violence in the name of liberty as surrendering the “‘ground between ourselves and the guillotine’” (p. 239). Kytle characterizes this ambivalence as “a defining feature of the antislavery movement in the 1850s” and sees its cause in the contradictory appeals of “moral suasion, political agitation, and armed struggle against slavery” (p. 25).
Occasionally, Kytle’s exploration of this ambivalence threatens to undermine his claim of the ideological consistency of these reformers. For example, while Kytle claims his subjects’ “disparate backgrounds … underscore the degree to which romantic reform penetrated all walks of American life,” of his representative romantics all but Delany passed through the abolitionist crucible of New England (p. 19). Parker was born, lived, and worked in Massachusetts for much of his life; Douglass was an acolyte of Garrison and lived in Massachusetts for a time; Stowe grew up in Litchfield, Connecticut; and Higginson was born in Massachusetts and spent much of his career there. These quibbles, however, do not undermine Kytle’s important work on the debt to romanticism owed by this last generation of abolitionists before the Civil War.