Civil War History 47.1 (2001) 73-74
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Rhetoric, Identity, and the Radical Imagination
In the last few years, the number of outstanding works about antebellum abolitionist women has been quite remarkable--and inspiring. Julie Jeffreys, Jean Fagan Yellin, Carolyn Karcher, and others have demonstrated just how white women of the middle and upper classes contributed substantially to the cause of human freedom. Stephen Browne's study belongs in this exciting cohort.
Gerda Lerner's biography of the Grimké sisters retains its pertinence after thirty odd years, but Browne's investigation belongs to a very different genre, the discipline of rhetoric. At first, historians may find distracting Browne's sometimes overblown mannerisms as well as the unfamiliar terms of rhetorical disquisition. Persistence in the reading, however, will be rewarded. [End Page 73]
As he points out, Angelina, reared in a wealthy South Carolinian plantation family, reached her convictions about freedom for the oppressed against all the pressures that a slaveholding society, slaveholding parents, siblings, and kinfolk could bring to bear. We learn little of the psychological complexities that may have played a part in her extraordinary break with her upbringing, but clearly a strong religious sensibility and a towering, independent intelligence were major factors. In the late 1820s, she and her sister Sarah became devout Quakers while residents of Philadelphia. From that antinomian source grew their interest in the plight of the slave, particularly after witnessing how the tiny band of abolitionists endured the ordeals of prejudice and street riot in the mid-1830s. From there the even less well-traveled road to feminism was relatively short, though obviously it was a very radical path to follow even within the antislavery movement. Angelina proved more active than the abolitionist leader Theodore D. Weld, who became her suitor and husband, originally approved. Yet, along with sister Sarah, Angelina undertook a famous tour of New England to speak for both causes in 1838, an oratorical experience that Browne closely critiques.
Indeed, with considerable skill, Browne dissects the rhetorical style of Angelina's most significant work, particularly her tract, An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South, which displayed her talent as a logical, concise, and eloquent polemicist. She argued first that history and Holy Scripture did not condone slavery but instead supported the concept of universal human freedom; second, that Christian women in the South had the power and duty to bring an end to African enslavement; and finally that the Northern antislavery movement had revealed honest methods, pure motives, and responsible leadership. The reader will appreciate Browne's exploration of audience, complexity of argument, and relationship to other "Appeals," of which there were several major ones in the abolitionist cause, including that of David Walker, the eloquent freedman of Boston, who urged slave insurgency in 1829. Browne's most impressive chapter concerns her reply to the educational leader Catherine Beecher, whose tepid antislaveryism was typical of Northern moderates who objected to the unsettling stridency of the Garrisonian message, with which Angelina gladly was associated. Through Browne's careful analysis, we see just how unbelievably "modern" Angelina's brand of feminism was. Not "one man in 500" really could understand "what kind of attention is alone acceptable to" women of intellect and moral integrity, she insisted (120). Unfortunately her remark still bears much truth even if the ratio she proposed might now be lower. She believed women had too long been denied their rights to speak and act independently of men, and her rhetoric concentrated on the issue of rights and moral duty. All in all, this is a brief but trenchant work that scholars will acclaim as a considerable contribution to American reform history.
University of Florida