- American Abolitionism: Its Direct Political Impact from Colonial Times into Reconstruction by Stanley Harrold
There is no shortage of books about abolitionism. But we are short on short books about abolitionism. Stanley Harrold's latest book, American Abolitionism: Its Direct Political Impact from Colonial Times into Reconstruction, appears to be a more concise option than some of the other recent works covering antislavery and abolitionism during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. (I'm glancing warily at Manisha Sinha's masterful, but near 800-page behemoth, The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition [New Haven, CT, 2016], on my shelf.) Despite its lofty title, though, American Abolitionism is not a comprehensive overview of "American Abolitionism." Instead, the book's subtitle provides a far more accurate description of its contents. Indeed, Harrold focuses almost exclusively on how private citizens attempted to promote various antislavery initiatives through petitioning, lobbying, and correspondence with interested statesmen. Obviously, historians have long known that some abolitionists engaged directly in politics. However, historical studies have tended to concentrate on those who employed moral suasion, [End Page 600] publishing, and oratory more than, say, petitioning. Harrold's book is therefore a welcome addition to the scholarship of antislavery.
Perhaps the most impressive attribute of American Abolitionism is its range. To wit, it seems as though Harrold managed to chronicle every interaction that abolitionists had with their representatives between the colonial period and Reconstruction. Scholars of the field will already be familiar with a few of those interactions, such as when the Pennsylvania Abolition Society famously presented a petition signed by Benjamin Franklin to Congress in 1790. That said, the book mostly details more obscure attempts that abolitionists made to sway legislative or executive action. In his chapters on the early national period, Harrold meticulously documents how abolitionists in the North effectively steered their elected representatives to take antislavery positions. Such work was pivotal in some cases. In particular, Harrold shows that "in Illinois, abolitionists played an important role in defeating a proslavery effort that, if successful, could have changed the sectional balance of power" (51). The book then moves on to the antebellum period. Throughout that section, Harrold stresses that the Civil War (along with the abolition of slavery) would never have happened if abolitionists had not participated directly in politics.
To be sure, this book provides a lot of information, not to mention ample food for thought. Through repetition alone, Harrold makes it clear that only a handful of politicians were ever truly receptive to the abolitionist agenda. That handful includes a few recognizable names, such as John Quincy Adams, Joshua Giddings, and Abraham Lincoln. Yet Harrold wisely focuses on second-tier politicians who might be new to readers, such as Charles Miner, William Hiester, William Slade, and Thomas Morris. Similarly, he spotlights the work of those abolitionists who sought to pull the strings of government. Such abolitionists—John Whittier, Joshua Leavitt, and David Lee Child among them—usually receive much less attention from historians than the likes of William Lloyd Garrison, Angelina Grimké, and Frederick Douglass, who often voiced their misgivings about working through political channels. As a result, American Abolitionism could serve as a very helpful resource for those who would like to know how abolitionists influenced (or sought to influence) politicians during sectional crises. Just be advised that Harrold rarely strays from his topic. He therefore centers his narrative on politicians and those who felt at liberty to correspond and interact with politicians on a relatively equal footing (meaning white men). Put another way, [End Page 601] Harrold rarely addresses abolitionist actions outside the realm of electoral politics.
This book is not without its problems, though. I would not characterize it as a page-turner, for instance. Most scholars of the period will be quite familiar with the various sectional disputes, after all. In addition, Harrold seems so eager to get to the next controversy in his long chronology that he fails to incorporate enough anecdotes, context, and source material to adequately color his...