- Dismantling Slavery: Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and Formation of the Abolitionist Discourse, 1841–1851 by Nilgün Anadolu-Okur
Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison worked closely together to pursue the immediate end of slavery in the antebellum United States. In Dismantling Slavery: Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and Formation of the Abolitionist Discourse, 1841–1851, Nilgün Anadolu-Okur explores the relationship between these two men and considers how their union shaped antislavery politics. Anadolu-Okur argues that Douglass and Garrison were "the two masterminds of the Northern antislavery movement" and that scholars have overlooked the importance of their ideological bond in discussing their friendship (p. 8). The book frames Douglass and Garrison as generators of an abolitionist discourse that was not limited to fighting slavery but also included a language and set of ideas that fueled an array of radicalisms in the antebellum period.
In a way, Garrison and Douglass both emerged as antislavery actors in the 1830s. Anadolu-Okur makes the interesting point that their dramatically different backgrounds provided the foundation for their mutually beneficial [End Page 152] relationship. The book shows that Garrison had sought connections with free African Americans in Boston and had worked alongside them in his New England Anti-Slavery Society in the early 1830s. When Douglass delivered his first public antislavery speech in Nantucket, Massachusetts, in 1841, Garrison watched from the audience and found it particularly affecting. In Frederick Douglass, Garrison found a black person who could testify to the horrors of slavery that Garrison had so often described but could never have experienced. Douglass, in turn, had a profound sense of the importance of the written and spoken word, and he understood that Garrison could help him access audiences and experience a kind of liberation by using his personal history to fight slavery.
Anadolu-Okur is chiefly interested in sketching the contours of an abolitionist discourse, a language and set of ideas that held the potential for radical change in the United States. Dismantling Slavery thus considers a wide range of antebellum writers and activists, including David Walker, Henry David Thoreau, Lydia Maria Child, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Harriet Ann Jacobs. The book examines various topics of discussion among antislavery advocates, including the nature of the U.S. Constitution, restrictions on black people's freedom in the North, the rise of political abolitionism, and the developing women's rights movement. Garrison and Douglass appear regularly in Anadolu-Okur's explorations of antebellum protest, as they worked with, commented on, and shared ideas with these different activists. But it is unclear whether Douglass and Garrison had a formative influence on such a diverse collection of writers and thinkers. By pointing to the many individuals who found a place under the abolitionist umbrella, the book in some ways challenges Anadolu-Okur's central claim that the bond between Douglass and Garrison was the prime mover of this activist world. The question of how the two men might have understood and used the particular power of their relationship is compelling. But the argument that Douglass and Garrison "became the agents of change" requires a clearer sense of how an abolitionist discourse developed and spread and how its advocates changed over time (p. 21).
Some readers will appreciate Dismantling Slavery for conveying a sense of the wide-ranging and interconnected concerns of the people who worked to abolish slavery in the nineteenth century. Others will be less than satisfied with the book's limited treatment of lines of influence and processes of change in antislavery politics.