In a wide-ranging interview Manisha Sinha discusses abolitionism, Bernie Sanders and socialismHistorians in the News
Is there a connection between the history of slavery and the birth of American democracy? Manisha Sinha’s remarkable study of abolition in the US from the 17th century to the end of the 19th could help to answer that question. Across more than 600 pages, with reference to a vast literature including an impressive range of primary sources such as letters and diaries, The Slave’s Cause traces themes of interracial collaborations, women’s role in the struggle, and the black agency that led to the dismantling of an institution built on the subjugation of other human beings. The result is an outstanding reference book that highlights the links between American, Haitian, British and French abolitionist movements, and black and white Americans’ political and intellectual journey towards gender, social and racial equality.
In the UK, historians of abolition were criticised, often justly, for considering only those who brought the system to an end in mainland Britain, obscuring the struggles of slaves, the free black men and women who challenged slavery, and the British subjects who questioned their country’s involvement in the slave trade. One of the first major 20th-century works on the history of slavery and abolition was a 1923 biography of William Wilberforce by Sir Reginald Coupland, a staunch advocate of empire. It remained a key source until Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery in 1944, which ignited a controversy about the links between Britain’s Industrial Revolution and the financial legacies of slavery. But in the US, unlike in the UK, slaves had not been confined to far-off West Indies islands, shielded from Americans’ daily lives. The constant reminder of the contradictions inherent in the system made slavery and the struggle for abolition part of America’s social fabric.
In the book’s first half, Sinha focuses on “first wave” abolitionism. The case for abolition was being made as early as 1652 in Rhode Island by Roger Williams, who argued for limits to the number of years that Africans and Native Americans could be held in bondage. Over the next 50 years, key roles were played by Quakers, inspired by Anthony Benezet. He was instrumental in internationalising a movement that eventually reached British shores in the second half of the 18th century. Those pioneers were part of complex networks that drew support from ordinary people as well as from wealthy and dedicated political and religious groups. Sinha also examines black pioneers including the scholars Juan Latino in 16th-century Spain and Anton Wilhelm Amo in 18th-century Saxony, and anglophone writers such as Lucy Terry Prince, Phillis Wheatley and James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, an African who ended up free but destitute in 18th-century England.
First wave abolitionists also included “revolutionary” anti-slavery groups, who fought for emancipation in the “slaveholding Republic” until the 1820s. Among their supporters was Thomas Paine, who questioned colonists’ claims to be fighting for humanity, liberty and self-determination while simultaneously supporting slavery, and black intellectuals such as Lemuel Haynes, a clergyman who ministered to a white congregation in Vermont. Although many revolutionary abolitionists fought for what they saw as the promise of a free and strong republic, others took up arms alongside the British during the American War of Independence and ended up in Canada and Australia, on the streets of London, and in Sierra Leone. Although these black loyalists immigrated to these places as free men and women, many ended up in dire circumstances; while for those remaining in the new republic, a century of struggle for emancipation still lay ahead.
One of the most significant themes in the book’s first half is the impact of the Haitian revolution of 1791-1804. In considering the intellectual, cultural and political connections between Haitians and African American abolitionists, Sinha argues that Haitian revolutionary ideas and exchanges helped to shape black activism in the US, redefining strategies and reviving interest in emigration to Africa and Haiti. They also cemented the fight for immediate (as opposed to gradual) emancipation and informed the “free labour” argument made by black businessman James Forten and others that workers would be more productive when not enslaved. Petitioning, debating and preventing the kidnapping of free blacks were the hallmarks of “political antislavery”, which advocated working with or putting pressure on Congress when constitutionally possible.
The book’s second half is equally powerful, as Sinha examines transnational and interracial abolitionism involving North Americans and Europeans, including collaboration between black and white women. It is here that her welcome focus on black agency comes through most strongly, particularly in the deconstruction of racist ideologies. Thomas Jefferson’s ambiguous position on slavery and emancipation exemplified pervasive racism: although he condemned the slave trade in the 1770s, by 1785 his views on the inability of blacks to fully integrate into the republic were well known. Sinha also emphasises that black agency preceded white abolitionism, showing that white abolitionists often responded to black demands and analyses of key events by incorporating the main points into their literature. The critique of imperialism by white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, for example, echoed the refusal by African Americans such as Robert Purvis to support the dubious African Civilization Society, set up by whites in favour of abolition but against the granting of US citizenship to free blacks, arguing that they would be better off in Africa.
As Sinha highlights, there were marked contrasts between European abolitionists, who favoured colonisation and empire-building, and American abolitionists, whose long-term plans included women’s rights, the fight for the rights of the working class and anti-imperialism in Ireland and India. The second wave of abolitionists, which included groups such as the New England Anti-Slavery Society founded in 1831, was dynamic and multilayered. But pro-slavery advocates, including planter and senator James Henry Hammond, were well organised and politically powerful, as evidenced by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. It granted slaveholders the right to send slave catchers across the border into Canada, where slavery was illegal. This law precipitated defiant direct action, including an increase in maritime, plantation and urban slave rebellions throughout the 1830s and 1840s. In a tense environment in which the lives of free blacks were also in jeopardy, a number of African American abolitionists evinced support for emigration. Robert and Thomas Hamilton promoted these views into the late 1850s via their Weekly Anglo-African newspaper, which enthusiastically covered the journey to Liberia by black journalist Martin Delany.
In the 1860s, fractious relations between Northern and Southern states took a dramatic turn. As Sinha puts it, “The Civil War…was an ‘abolition war’. It proved to be the midwife of emancipation”. President Abraham Lincoln’s desire to preserve the union at all costs was challenged by radical pro-slavery states, and abolitionists’ acceptance of the inevitability of war forced him to reconsider his position. Sinha argues that as Lincoln’s reputation as the “Great Emancipator” was being forged, the long history of black activism and direct action was being obscured. She concludes by positing that not only the civil rights movement in the 20th century, but also the election in 2007 of Deval Patrick, the first African American governor of Massachusetts, the appointment in 2015 of Loretta Lynch as the first female African American attorney general, and even Barack Obama’s presidency, are all legacies of the long fight for emancipation and social justice initiated by African Americans.
This well-written and accessible book has many strengths, but Sinha’s able deployment of so many sources makes it outstanding. Looking past the image of a kneeling slave that British readers are still used to seeing in works on this subject, Sinha brilliantly shows how African Americans themselves worked tirelessly to make freedom a reality. ...
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