What You Don't Know About Abolitionism: An Interview with Manisha Sinha on Her Groundbreaking StudyHistorians/History
tags: abolitionism, Manisha Sinha, interview, The Slaves Cause
Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based writer and attorney. He is features editor for the History News Network (hnn.us), and his work also has appeared in Writer’s Chronicle, Crosscut, Documentary, NW Lawyer, Real Change, Huffington Post, Bill Moyers.com, Salon.com, and more. He has a special interest in the history of human rights and conflict. He can be reached by email: email@example.com.
Abolition was a radical, interracial movement, one which
addressed the entrenched problems of exploitation and
disenfranchisement in a liberal democracy and anticipated
debates over race, labor, and empire.
Professor Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause
Historian Manisha Sinha presents a wide-ranging and fresh perspective on the history of American abolitionism in her groundbreaking book The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (Yale University Press).
Her lively book offers an original interracial, transnational view of the movement to abolish slavery from the colonial period to the Civil War, while providing a corrective to popular conceptions of abolitionists as mostly white, armchair reformers or rabid fanatics. She relates a much more complex and nuanced history by bringing to life the black activists, slave and free, at the center of the movement as well as the interracial mix of men and women who fought to end the cruel scourge of slavery.
The book illuminates the acts of resistance to slavery and the lives of individual abolitionists as it masterfully weaves in the influence of international radical thought and activism on the American movement. By 1860, this inhuman bondage enriched a white Southern slaveholding oligarchy and the American economy as a whole while commodifying and brutalizing more than four million men, women and children of African descent.
Professor Sinha’s book is an almost encyclopedic study of American abolition based on her extensive research, including the study of many forgotten diaries, letters, slave narratives, newspapers, and other documents.
The Slave’s Cause has been widely praised by scholars and lay readers alike for its research, original approach, expansive history, and accessibility. The book has received numerous awards, including—among others--the Frederick Douglass Book Prize from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, Yale University; the Avery O. Craven Award for Best Book on the Civil War Era from the Organization of American Historians; the Best Book Prize, Society of Historians of the Early American Republic, and the best book prize on the sectional crisis and secession published in the last two years by the Southern Historical Association.
Professor Sinha is the James L. and Shirley A. Draper Chair in American History at the University of Connecticut. She taught for more than twenty years at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she was awarded the Chancellor’s Medal, the university’s highest honor. Her first book was The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina. She is also co-editor of the “Race and the Atlantic World, 1700-1900,” series of the University of Georgia Press, and is on the editorial board of the Journal of the Civil War Era and Slavery and Abolition. Professor Sinha also has written for numerous popular publications, including The New York Times, The New York Daily News, Time Magazine, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, among others. And she was an adviser and on-screen expert for the Emmy nominated PBS documentary, The Abolitionists (2013). She is currently writing a book on the Reconstruction era.
Professor Sinha graciously discussed her book and her work as a historian by telephone from her home in Massachusetts.
Robin Lindley: Congratulations Professor Sinha on your prize-winning history of abolitionism, The Slave’s Cause. What sparked this immense study? Were you interested in slavery and abolition in college and graduate school?
Professor Manisha Sinha: Yes. I trained as a nineteenth-century historian including the history of slavery, abolition, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. My first book [The Counterrevolution of Slavery] was on the politics of slavery—looking at the politics of slavery, ideology, and states’ rights theory in South Carolina from nullification to secession. I then wanted to look at the opposite ideological spectrum of the people who were on the cutting edge of pro-slavery ideas. So I decided to write a book on abolitionists. I live in Massachusetts so most of my sources were close to me here, in the Northeast.
I thought I might write on black abolitionists. There’s a book by Benjamin Quarles on black abolitionists, but I thought the time had come for a book that built on his insights and but also broadened the subject.
So it began as a small book looking just at African Americans in the abolition movement in the three decades before the Civil War, but I ended up realizing that to truly understand the significance and influence of African Americans on abolition, I would have to write a history of the movement.
It ended up going back to the Revolutionary era and the first black abolitionists, looking at the abolition movement from the Revolution to the Civil War. It took me ten years to research and write it, but I’m glad I did that because, to capture the true significance of the movement, you have to look at it in the long duration.
Robin Lindley: You describe a first and a second wave of abolitionism in the United States from colonial times to the Civil War, and you also explored transnational trends. Are these original formulations with your book?
Professor Manisha Sinha: I think there were historians who looked at connections between the American and British abolitionist movements. David Brion Davis in his trilogy on the problem of slavery looked at slavery through a cross-national lens and through a long period.
What is different about my book is the [focus on] the slaves themselves—their motivations and actions in the movement. Also, the second thing was to look at how abolitionism overlapped with contemporary revolutionary and progressive movements. The abolitionists were trying to harness international progressive forces against slavery.
In the first wave [colonial times to 1830], we had understudied the influence of the Haitian Revolution [1791-1804] both on black abolitionists and the abolitionist movement as a whole.
The usual picture for the Haitian Revolution was a negative one—that slaveholders became extremely paranoid and clamped down on any sign of opposition. That is true, but the Haitian Revolution also occupied an important place in the abolitionist imagination, including the American abolitionist imagination, for invoking violence in self-defense on behalf of the slaves. This is true not only of black abolitionists but also of white abolitionists who were pacifists and believed in nonviolence. For me, that story was fascinating.
On the international level again, there was the Anglo-American movement for the abolition of the African slave trade and, by the antebellum period, the democratic revolutions in Europe in the 1830s and 1848. And there was an overlap between abolition and radical international movements such as feminism, utopian socialism, pacifism, anti-imperialism.
I think previous historians are too quick to dismiss abolitionism as some sort of bourgeois reform movement that held up the status quo in a market society. Instead, I found that abolitionists were critical not just of slavery but also of other injustices and inequalities in their world. I think that is a fairly new perspective because most historians had argued the opposite.
Robin Lindley: And you set the American story in the context of international movements for social justice and reform.
Professor Manisha Sinha: Interesting for me, as a person of Indian descent and writing about American abolition, was that I found all this material in the abolitionist press that was referring to international issues and the 1848 revolts [in Europe], so the notion that abolitionists were furthering the European imperialist project by arguing against slavery in the rest of the world was not entirely correct. In fact, I found many British and American abolitionists to be staunch anti-imperialists and I recognized some names of early Indian nationalists in the abolitionist press that wouldn’t have made any sense to an American historian reading the same material.
Robin Lindley: During the first wave of abolition, up to 1830, what stands out to you about black resistance during this period?
Professor Manisha Sinha: In the first wave, I thought the most consequential was the way in which African Americans petitioned and sued for their freedom. My students in Massachusetts were fascinated by the story that the reason the Commonwealth of Massachusetts abolished slavery was not because of some legislation from on high, but because two slaves sued for their freedom. Their cases went up to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The Chief Justice declared slavery to be inconsistent with the new Massachusetts State Constitution. There was a tradition within New England’s Puritan jurisprudence that allowed that and they built on it. There were instances of enslaved people, especially women, who sued for their freedom back to the seventeenth century. Even in Vermont, a new state that abolished slavery in its Constitution, it took enslaved people suing for their freedom, to enforce that abolition of slavery.
Some think of black people as passive recipients of the gift of freedom, but they were actually very active in moving along the process of emancipation. I must say this position is sometime caricatured as they freed themselves or this was the start of emancipation—and there were individual instances of self-emancipation—but we must also be aware of ways in which the legal system, norms of English common law, and Puritan jurisprudence all facilitated black resistance. So this notion that this was an all-black effort with no whites involved is kind of racialist in simplistically glorifying black action and not understanding its political significance by not looking at the antislavery lawyers or politicians who were part of this process.
I really wanted to rewrite the history of abolitionism as a radical, interracial social movement that included blacks and whites and men and women, but that was not to include the simplistic notion that had black people fighting for freedom virtually by themselves, which is not just ahistorical but is also condescending racially because that’s not the world they operated in. I wanted to write a very different history of the abolition movement.
Robin Lindley: During this first wave, were enslaved people aware of the Haitian Revolution while the slaveholding Southern oligarchy prohibited literacy of slaves and attempted to block or censor antislavery information?
Professor Manisha Sinha: The traditional understanding of the literacy [of slaves] has been about five percent and 90 percent of blacks were enslaved before the Civil War. Now historians are challenging that and say there were higher rates of literacy among enslaved people.
Whatever the case, I don’t think we can reduce political sophistication and political actions to literacy. Historian Julius Scott wrote about how news traveled amongst the enslaved by modeling that on how anthropologists have studied peasant communities. I was familiar with that literature from India on the role of political rumor and how that spread amongst people and how that leads to a particular understanding of their world. You can see this among the enslaved as many black seamen who were traveling to Haiti, traveling to Boston, and the South, and they spread political news in slave communities. That’s why slaveholders were so paranoid.
My first book was on South Carolina and we know that Denmark Vesey, one of the conspirators who led the attempted slave insurrection in 1822, had actually visited Haiti as a free black sailor. I found plans by enslaved people about wanting to visit Haiti, including Vesey who wanted to go to Haiti if his rebellion had been successful. The Vesey conspirators even knew about the debate over slavery during the Missouri Crisis in Congress!
You can find evidence of this informal grapevine and the spread of news that Scott talks about. The biggest evidence I found—from my first book—was that most Southern state governments knew about that, and that is why they were so paranoid about abolitionist literature being read to or disseminated among slaves. But they were also paranoid about black seamen who were visiting their ports, whether from British or American vessels.
Starting with South Carolina, with the Negro Seamen’s Act, states jailed all free black seamen who came to their ports on the theory that they would spread news of rebellion and revolution among enslaved people. Many states copied this Negro Seaman’s Act even though it went against the U.S. Constitution and treaties signed between the U. S. government and Britain and other powers. So the southern states were proactive in preventing news from being spread to their enslaved populations.
When you read slave narratives, you can also see how the enslaved got information. For example, Frederick Douglass wrote in his narrative that he figured the abolitionists were allies of his because his master cursed them. He said that every time he heard about abolitionists being talked about, his ears perked up.
That’s the political knowledge slaves had when the Civil War broke out. They would seek out Union Army lines or even see Lincoln as their liberator before he saw himself in that role. That’s the political knowledge that is important to reckon with. You can see this happening within the abolitionist network in the ways that fugitive slaves escaped or tried to get other people out of slavery.
Harriet Tubman was illiterate and Frederick Douglass was self-taught, but that didn’t prevent them from acting politically or possessing political knowledge. Again, by studying peasant societies earlier and seeing the way political information gets disseminated and resistance movements are born among people who are oppressed, I developed an understanding of that.
Robin Lindley: You also discuss the black press before the Civil War, and provide extensive information on black writing and publications.
Professor Manisha Sinha: Some historians have looked at the black press and black writing, but I still thought they had not done it complete justice. I think most historians tended to ignore early black writing even though some literary scholars had looked at it, and I wanted to show the influence of those writings on abolitionists because they would constantly evoke them.
I went back to reading people like Olaudah Equiano, Phillis Wheatley, and some of the lesser known writers. I found that there was a rich tradition of early black writing that most historians of abolition had ignored, and I realized that it was central to the movement.
So I started looking at that and also looked at the early black press. Historians would cite Freedom’s Journal, which was the black abolitionist newspaper published in the United States, and to other newspapers like The Colored American, but they rarely engaged in the words and ideas of these people to the extent I believed they be needed to be. I found a rich source of abolitionist writing and thinking challenging the pseudoscience of race that became extremely popular, but also just carrying forth the abolitionist project in various ways.
The other thing I wanted to emphasize also was black action on the ground and how slave resistance influenced the growth of the movement and its radicalization and its tactics, so I looked the impact of slave rebellions. And I looked at the impact of runaways, the people who created the movement literature of abolition: the slave narratives.
The narratives were published by the abolitionist press, but they were written or dictated by African American men and women who were extraordinary. When I looked at that, I thought historians of abolition had missed an opportunity by dismissing these narratives as mere propaganda or ghost writing by whites. That did not do justice to these narratives as a response to pro-slavery ideas, which I had studied in depth earlier, that treated slavery as a benevolent and patriarchal institution. So the testimony of former slaves was the best response to the picture presented by proslavery writers.
Robin Lindley: Weren’t there pockets of slavery in the North almost to the time of the Civil War?
Professor Manisha Sinha: There wasn’t slavery as such, but there were instances of indentured servitude and life-time indentured servitude. There was a long fight in the Northwest, for instance, to completely get rid of slavery in states like Illinois and Indiana. Illinois came close to overturning the Northwest Ordinance [which prohibited slavery].
One has to read this all as a part of what the abolitionist movement was doing. The notion that abolitionists were armchair philosophers who were criticizing slavery in the South and not aware of what was happening in the North was not accurate because they were making sure that laws of emancipation in the North were implemented.
Even though it was a long and gradual process and you did have involuntary servitude in New Jersey until late in the antebellum period, the fact remains that North became Free Soil, and part of that was because of abolitionist activism.
They also spent a lot of time challenging laws in the North that instituted racial segregation and disenfranchised black voters. You can see the abolitionist project in much larger terms that involve abolishing slavery but also establishing black citizenship, and that’s why they’re so active in the North as well. Most people know this, but they tend to go from one extreme to another, saying the North was without problems to the other saying the North was just as bad as the South. Not true.
There was a real difference between Free Soil and slavery, not the least of which was that abolitionists were able to operate in the North and to implement emancipation laws and fight for black rights.
Robin Lindley: You stress the enormous contributions of antislavery black and white women—and many of these activists are probably little known to non-experts.
Professor Manisha Sinha: There’s a whole field of abolitionist feminists. We know some of the iconic ones, but we don’t know enough about them, so I spent a lot of time writing about these women such as Maria Stewart, Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Lucy Stone, Lydia Maria Child, Abby Kelley Foster, Angelina Grimke, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. We know these names, but we don’t know that much about their ideas, their views, their lives, so I spent a lot of time writing about relatively unknown women of the abolitionist movement.
One really important woman was the British Quaker and abolitionist Elizabeth Heyrick. She was the first person to call for the immediate abolition of slavery, even before Garrison and black abolitionists. She was an abolitionist in the 1820s, and I looked for her source of inspiration, and it was the slave rebellions in the colonies that inspired her radical passion against slavery.
Another person who is not well known beyond scholars is a black woman abolitionist, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. She was an accomplished writer and orator and spoke for abolition, women’s rights, and other social movements.
There are so many and I spent a lot of time writing about them. I tried to make sure I had ample illustrations so these people would come alive for readers.
Robin Lindley: I thought of the recent Senate election in Georgia where black voters, and women in particular, turned out to vote for Democratic candidate Doug Jones.
Professor Manisha Sinha: I recently wrote a piece on this for the New York Daily News where I wrote that African American voters have always been the backbone of the concept of an interracial democracy. I looked back at the history of Alabama to the Civil War and Reconstruction, the last time that black voters in Alabama made a huge difference. I am now writing a book on Reconstruction and what happened to the abolitionist project after the Civil War.
Robin Lindley: I appreciate your story of the evolution of the abolitionist movement. You must have come across other surprising findings in the course of your research.
Professor Manisha Sinha: The more I researched the book, the more I realized that African Americans had a much bigger role in the movement than in simply converting white abolitionists to rejecting colonization—a project to colonize free blacks back to Africa. They espoused a more militant version of abolition and black citizenship and helped shape the ideas and tactics behind the movement.
The one thing that surprised me the most, perhaps, was that [William Lloyd] Garrison’s condemnation of the U. S. Constitution as an “agreement from Hell and a covenant with death,” which comes from the Bible, was not original to him. He got that from black abolitionist clergyman J.W.C. Pennington who had used that biblical condemnation for the fugitive slave clause of the Constitution. Garrison took that condemnation and expanded it to the U. S. Constitution as a whole.
You must have read in countless American history textbooks that Garrison condemned the U.S. Constitution in such a way, but he got this from a speech by this black clergyman, Reverend Pennington, who was not a Garrisonian abolitionist but an evangelical-political abolitionist, a different branch of the abolitionist movement, and who had used this condemnation for that clause of the Constitution. And it makes sense because Garrison was not particularly religious and he was not particularly biblical but a black clergyman who was fairly devout would first use that phrase.
That surprised me. It was one of my aha moments. It symbolized that fact that black activists had a far larger impact on the movement in an ongoing way right up to the Civil War, including fugitive slaves who were running to free states and radicalizing the movement. I found that was a precursor to emancipation during the Civil War when slaves fleeing to the Union Army initiated the emancipation process.
The argument is that emancipation has a long pre-history, and abolition then cannot be seen as just a wartime measure. That ground had been laid and prepared by both black and white abolitionists for a long time. That’s another argument the book makes.
Robin Lindley: Are there other generally overlooked abolitionist figures that you’d like people to know more about?
Professor Manisha Sinha: Yes. One figure, as I mentioned, is J.W.C. Pennington. There are biographies of him, but he’s still relatively unknown. He fascinated me because he wrote so much and he was the first African American to get an honorary doctorate from the University of Heidelberg. It illustrated this cross-national network of radical protest in the nineteenth century. Pennington attended international peace conferences where he met a professor and abolitionist, Friedrich Wilhelm Carove from Heidelberg, and presented him with all of his works. At Carove’s behest, Heidelberg awarded Pennington with an honorary doctorate in 1849. That was fascinating to me.
And the University of Heidelberg, on its 625th anniversary in 2011, endowed a fellowship in Pennington’s name and asked me to give the inaugural lecture for it, and I was thrilled to do that. President Obama also sent a message in which he said he identified with Pennington because Pennington was a freed slave, self-taught, and ended up getting that doctorate. Obama said that was a lot like him, coming out of nowhere and becoming the President of the United States.
So Pennington is one of the abolitionists we should know more about, and I think most people don’t know him beyond those who study abolitionism.
American historians now know about David Walker’s radical pamphlet against slavery, but they haven’t looked at another black abolitionist who was writing at the same time in England. That was Robert Wedderburn who was writing radical pamphlets not just against slavery and racism, but against economic inequality and advocating the redistribution of land as early as the 1820s.
Robin Lindley: I also wanted get your sense about some more well-known historical figures. How do you see President Lincoln? There’s a view now that he hated slavery but also embraced some racist views.
Professor Manisha Sinha: My view of Lincoln is a bit more complicated between the extremes that he was the Great Emancipator who was born knowing he would write the Emancipation Proclamation and that he was a complete racist and not worthy of our admiration.
Lincoln wrote over the years that he sincerely detested slavery, but he was a colonizationist, unlike abolitionists. He came from the state of Illinois that had black laws that did not allow black people the right to vote. His position was that black people should not be enslaved and they should have their natural right to freedom. During the debates with [Stephen] Douglas, he stated that states could make black people citizens, but he did not support that. But during the war, he developed a commitment to black citizenship based on his experience with black soldiers in the Union Army and on meeting very accomplished African American men and women.
Eric Foner in his book about Lincoln sets out all of his views on slavery. I would argue that Lincoln was not a hardcore racist. I wrote an article for an anthology Our Lincoln that looked at Lincoln’s relationships with African Americans and abolitionists, and I found that—unlike Jefferson, for example—he had no rigid notion of black inferiority in his mind. I came across this snippet, that he had written. He had a sort of reductio ad absurdum argument showing racism is an illogical position. It’s like A meets B and says to B, “I will enslave you because your skin is darker than mine.” Beware the first person with lighter skin than you because that person has the right to enslave you. Then he says, “It’s not a matter of skin color. It’s a matter of intelligence.” So the first person who is smarter than you can enslave you. He literally takes the [racist] argument for slavery to reductio ad absurdum, to the end, saying this is not a logical position.
That’s why I say Lincoln, who did not support black citizenship before the war, was never a hardcore racist, and that is what allowed him to evolve on race. Otherwise he could be like Andrew Johnson who, after the Civil War, was completely unreconstructed because he was a hardcore racist who believed in black inferiority. Lincoln is different than that.
I think Lincoln held competing loyalties to the Union, the Constitution, and antislavery. Before the Civil War, the Union won out, but during the war when slaveholders broke the Union, he was able to act on his antislavery beliefs. Maybe he was not committed to black equality the way abolitionists were, but I would have a more nuanced position on his views on race.
He eventually saw the usefulness of emancipation and, at the end of his life, he wanted citizenship for black Union troops and those who were educated. You can trace his evolution during the war from the non-extension of slavery to abolition, from colonization to black citizenship. Who knows what would have happened if he had lived longer.
Robin Lindley: And a couple of icons of the abolitionist movement, Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, worked as allies for years, but eventually parted ways. What did you learn about their relationship?
Professor Manisha Sinha: I think Garrison has gotten a raw deal in American historiography with a caricature as a radical, crazy, fanatical abolitionist. And more recently, he [is portrayed] as a racist guy who cut out Frederick Douglass.
After I immersed myself in the sources, I found the story to be much more complicated. I read the best biography of Garrison, which is by an independent scholar—not a historian—who has done justice to the Garrison sources. That is Henry Mayer’s book, All on Fire.
I also decided to read every issue of [Garrison’s newspaper] The Liberator from 1831 to 1865. I got a very different picture of his relationship with Frederick Douglass and also his breakup with Douglass.
Garrison was a mentor to Douglass, but clearly Douglass became his own man and outgrew that mentorship. Douglass became a leader of the abolitionist movement on a par with Garrison. I saw a broad shift in the whole movement not just around Douglass, but around a range of fugitive slaves. I have a whole chapter on fugitive slave abolitionism looking at fugitive slaves as well as white abolitionists who were inspired by fugitive slaves to join in the movement.
The split between Garrison and Douglass is often portrayed as Garrison being jealous of Douglass because he became a bigger figure or that it was a racial split because Garrison could not accept a black man in leadership. I found this completely inaccurate, especially because so many African Americans sided with Garrison on the split and many whites sided with Douglass. I found it was not a simple racial split unlike historians obsessed with race and white paternalism.
What I found was instead that Garrison and Douglass had a serious falling out over ideology and tactics. The split became very personal, like a family feud. It began with Douglass moving to political abolitionism and rejecting the Garrisonian view of the state and church as inherently proslavery. The split was ideological and programmatic but then became very personal because they started hitting each other below the belt—something you do in family disputes like a divorce because you’ve been so close personally.
I spent a lot of time looking at the Garrison and Douglass split as an ideological one and then as a personal one, and less of a racial one. Certainly, there may have been some racial paternalism there because Garrison was white and Douglass was black but I don’t think that was the primary reason for the split.
And then, I wanted to see what happened to them. By the time of the Civil War, these ideological differences ceased to matter. They got closer again during the Civil War, and after the war, they split again over the fate of the American Anti-Slavery Society when Garrison’s followers went over to Douglass and Wendell Phillips. Garrison left the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1865 but was still writing during Reconstruction until he died. What’s interesting is that Douglass gave one of the best eulogies for Garrison.
It’s a long story I traced to the end, and one had to do that to understand them.
I see abolitionism less as a collective biography than a social movement, and that people for abolition were all part of that movement. In the end, what’s important to me about Douglass and Garrison is that their essential identity was that of being abolitionists.
Robin Lindley: Another iconic abolitionist is Harriet Tubman who is known for her courageous work with the Underground Railroad.
Professor Manisha Sinha: Harriet Tubman wasn’t the only one, but was the most successful abolitionist in not just assisting slaves who arrived in the North, but to actually go into the South and “run off slaves.” That was a very radical thing to do, especially for Harriet Tubman who was a former slave who risked her own freedom every time she went down South to rescue and free her family and others.
A whole group of black and white abolitionists did the same thing as Tubman who are less famous and whose stories I recount. But Tubman is certainly an iconic figure for her activism not just in “running off slaves” but in also in storming courthouses and rescuing fugitive slaves being remanded back to the South from the North. She was a true activist and she was embraced by the abolition movement.
I am glad people know about Tubman but I wish they knew more about some of these forgotten abolitionists who did the same thing as her and were sometimes not that lucky and got caught and went to prison. Some died in jail in bad conditions. Through them, I was able to tell this extraordinary story of the abolition movement.
Robin Lindley: Most readers know of Harriet Beecher Stowe and her anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. What did you learn about Stowe?
Professor Manisha Sinha: Uncle Tom’s Cabin was such an important event in the history of anti-slavery, not just in the United States, but in the world because it was a phenomenon. I could write a book on its global impact on the abolition movement. It was an international bestseller and translated into so many different languages.
I studied the Beecher family quite a bit because Lyman Beecher was a colonizationist who opposed abolitionists like Theodore Weld. His daughter, Catherine Beecher, opposed abolition and women’s rights because the whole family was colonizationist.
In the 1850s, Harriet Beecher Stowe and her brothers Henry Ward Beecher and Charles Beecher, became more radicalized with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, like many other anti-slavery moderates. They found it deplorable that white Northerners were being asked to be slave patrollers to implement slave [capture]. Her brothers became more radical and became fellow travelers with the abolitionist movement. When she wrote the novel, she was a colonizationist because her novel ends with a character wanting to go to Liberia. But I think the impact of her novel radicalized her because Southerners reacted to is so badly and saw it as an abolitionist novel.
She was forced to write a defense of her novel and said that its portrait of slavery was quite accurate. To do that, she published a key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which is an abolitionist tract. She quoted all of the slave narratives that influenced her in writing the novel. Her novel was based on abolitionist literature written by fugitive slaves. We don’t look at this key, but we need to read it because it’s a compilation of abolitionist material.
Stowe became radicalized and, by the end of the 1850s, she wrote Dred, the story of a slave rebellion, and that’s an abolitionist novel, while Uncle Tom’s Cabin is more of a colonization story. She also evolved in her views, but after the Civil War and during Reconstruction, she became much more conservative like her brother Henry Ward Beecher who identified with the abolitionist movement in the 1850s but in Reconstruction took a conservative position on black rights, unlike most abolitionists who continued to support black citizenship to the end.
That’s why I call them fellow travelers of the movement. I looked at the ways that abolitionists responded to Uncle Tom’s Cabin because they realized what an important book it was, but some of them had reservations about it. Certainly, in the 1850s, the crisis decade, Harriet Beecher Stowe became quite radicalized and published Dred, a novel about a black rebellion based on Nat Turner’s rebellion.
There’s never an easy yes or no with a literary figure such as Stowe, who I find interesting. I was asked to advise on a PBS documentary on abolition, and they chose five representative abolitionist figures, Garrison, Douglass, Angelina Grimke, and John Brown, and also Harriet Beecher Stowe. I opposed that decision. I said she was in and out of the movement and wasn’t really an abolitionist. I said they should choose Harriet Tubman—at least one black woman who was a part of the movement and who you could say was an abolitionist through and through and whose activism had an important impact. But I was overruled and they chose Harriet Beecher Stowe, and I said you should have at least one black woman, and they didn’t listen to me, and I must say I was a little miffed about that.
Robin Lindley: Some younger historians are calling themselves “activist historians” and they work in the hope that history can be a guide for a better world, and your book certainly holds lessons for today. You stress how the abolitionist movement was an important precursor to the modern civil rights and human rights movements as well as the women’s movement and labor movement.
Professor Manisha Sinha: I wanted to make that point. Abolition became a template for other American radical movements and I wanted to show how much American radicals look back to the abolitionist movement to see how they can influence the progress of American democracy.
What I did not anticipate was that activists loved the book and took to it and adopted it and adopted me. People thought I had purposely written this book at a time when you had Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, etc. I told them I worked on this book for over ten years and wish I could claim to be that far sighted! I was lucky that many modern-day activists have looked at the book and adopted it.
I must say that I researched the book intensely but I wrote the book in a way that was accessible to the lay reader. I did not compromise on the research but I wanted to make sure that any American citizen interested in this history would be able to read it. Unlike my first book, which is a straight-out academic monograph, I really did try to reach a broader audience. I was warned by people that it was just too big, but I’m glad I proved them wrong.
Robin Lindley: Now we have a powerful resistance movement growing as the incumbent president encourages division, intolerance, racism, and hate. What lessons from the abolitionist movement can people today employ effectively in campaigning for social justice, economic equality, gender equality, and related issues of justice and tolerance?
Professor Manisha Sinha: There are many important lessons from the abolition movement on how to build broad coalitions and find common ground around different issues, resist unjust laws and actions, how to create a truly inclusive interracial democracy. The most important I think is that democracy progresses when ordinary citizens, men and women, black and white, protest and pressure people in power to do the right thing.
There is a pessimistic lesson too, the way what Du Bois called “abolition democracy” unraveled after the fall of Reconstruction. That is very similar to what we are experiencing today, a tremendous backlash. But like some former abolitionists who lived long enough to see that, we should not give up on resisting injustice.
Robin Lindley: Is there anything you’d like to add for readers about your book or your role now as a historian and a public intellectual who shares insights with a lay audience?
Professor Manisha Sinha: I think it is very important for historians to engage a broader public and many historians are doing that now. As the cliché goes, those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. But really if we don’t, then you end up with people like Bill O’Reilly who is always killing someone and massacring history.
I would encourage people to read the book of course even though it is big. But I heard it is not too badly written!
Robin Lindley: Thank you so much for your comments and insights Professor Sinha, and congratulations on your groundbreaking history of abolitionism.
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