Abolition, Slavery, Antislavery, Massachusetts, David Ruggles
This latest monograph from an established historian of abolition examines five abolitionists from Northampton, Massachusetts. African American abolitionist David Ruggles is the best known of the five, although Laurie posits that the Free Soil and Republican Party politician Erastus Hopkins was the most significant of them. Taken together, these profiles illustrate the greatly varied nature of abolitionism even within one locality. The individual biographical sketches are illuminating, but the reader has to do almost all the work of discerning the larger significance of this collective picture. [End Page 181]
Although Laurie apologetically included no women and only one African American in his five subjects, this group features a real socioeconomic assortment, from the wealthy businessman John Payton Williston through the political editor Henry S. Gere to the displaced free black man Ruggles. They also occupied a wide range along the spectrum of antislavery belief and action, disagreeing on questions such as whether to actively aid the Underground Railroad or to support John Brown. They also differed—as was abolitionists’ wont—on the efficacy of political action. In short, what Laurie says of Williston might well be said of his other subjects: He was “a contradictory figure who might give pause to modern-day readers in need of an iconic abolitionist” (84).
Laurie’s narrative also highlights the complex context within which antislavery politics operated in antebellum Northampton, interacting with a wide range of other political, moral, and economic issues. His actors took diverse stances on those other questions and assigned them differing levels of priority. Their divergent positions at times rose to the level of conflict. For instance, while Sylvester Judd saw his staunch support for the Working-Men’s movement and his antislavery as “opposite sides of the same antiestablishment coin,” the industrialist Williston fought against child labor reform (23). Laurie’s “fine-grained treatment of the local scene” thus shows that “how antislavery politics played out on the ground” was rarely neat and tidy (3).
Laurie is committed to making comparisons and contrasts among his five individuals, and to placing their individual stories within the appropriate contexts of sectional, state, and local politics. But he seems uninterested in explicitly developing the significance of his characters beyond the local. “None of” his figures besides Ruggles, he admits, “has ever figured in a popular or academic account of the abolitionist movement,” and this book never makes it clear why they should (1). Laurie is enough of an academic historian and makes enough historiographical forays that it would be unfair to dismiss this book as an exercise in local antiquarianism. But his historiographical passages are very few and dwell on micro points, rather than developing an argument or intervention in the literature for the book as a whole. The Acknowledgements section makes it clear that Laurie’s editors at University of Massachusetts Press were not inclined to stretch him beyond this posture, when he quotes them as saying that “we like” Northampton abolitionists “and have special affection for locals” (ix).
While both producing parties thus seem to have settled for a rather [End Page 182] modest goal, it remains true that they reached it. For this book does provide readers “with a deeper and richer understanding of the meaning of political abolitionism in a particular place and time”—if they are willing to do a fair amount of the heavy intellectual lifting themselves (8).
Matthew Mason is an associate professor of history at Brigham Young University. He is the author of various books and articles on slavery and politics, including Apostle of Union: A Political Biography of Edward Everett (Chapel Hill, NC, 2016).