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Tim Stafford

Abolition's Hidden History

How black argument led to white commitment.

It is a continuing puzzle to me that Americans know so little about abolition. This great social movement began with barely a handful of men and women, faced fierce and violent opposition, convinced half the country to view slavery as morally wrong, and ultimately created the moral crisis of the Civil War. This is the sort of tale you want to tell schoolchildren. However, nobody tells this story to schoolchildren, or to anybody else. Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War are endlessly masticated as though they suddenly popped into history full grown, their brooding ambiguities already formed. This is like studying World War II without mentioning Nazism, or Jesus without Israel.

Perhaps we forget the abolitionists because even today they make us face the unresolved guilty ambiguities of race. The abolitionists were first to recognize race as fundamentally a moral issue—not political or economic or biological. Even more, they stuck racial immorality in the face of their fellow citizens until America had to deal with it. We, like the abolitionists' contemporaries, would rather read American history as economics, politics, or war, all done and gone and having little claim on our lives.

Recently at Princeton Seminary I saw a plaque dedicated to Princeton graduate Elijah Lovejoy, an abolitionist who, according to the plaque, gave his life fighting for the freedom of the press. I had to laugh at that. What an extremely odd way to summarize the life and death of an abolitionist editor who was murdered while he tried to keep a mob from dumping yet another of his printing presses into the Mississippi River. Lovejoy believed in the freedom of the press, certainly, but that was not what he died for. No abstract constitutional principle could have so captured his life; it is purely a twentieth-century fantasy to put it so. He died for the slaves, because he believed Christ had commanded him to share in their struggle.

Such a twisting of history would never have been done by Paul Goodman, the University of California at Davis historian who died just before completing Of One Blood. Goodman spent most of his career studying the social and economic transformations of early nineteenth-century America. Only near the end of his illustrious career did he come to this great and enigmatic movement. Yet Goodman seems to understand the mind of abolitionists better than any historian I have read, and he is able to place them in their social setting in a thoroughly convincing way. In doing so, he explodes several myths that have grown up among historians of the period.

One is that abolitionism began as an uneasy alliance of Finneyite evangelicals and free-thinking Transcendentalist Bostonians, and therefore never had any internal consistency of thought. This is an easy mistake to make, if you read the history backward. The abolitionists ended up greatly divided, speaking quite different languages of reform. One could easily imagine that they were a patched-together coalition from the be ginning. This, however, is to misread history in a fundamental way, failing to understand that inherent in the reforming evangelicalism of the Second Great Awakening were several possible directions.

Abolitionists were those willing to follow the conclusions of Christian faith rigorously, however much it might force them to oppose the society they lived in. As time went on, however, they split over how the gospel spoke to society. For William Lloyd Garrison and his followers in Boston, the gospel demanded that every aspect of society be torn down and re built, including family, government, and church. Their slogan was "no human government," and they flirted with a kind of utopian anarchy. The more moderate New York faction of abolitionists wanted to focus on slavery as the key American evil. Apart from slavery, they thought that family, government, and church had enough redeeming elements to work with. These two possibilities—revolution and reform, if you will—have always been potential in activist Christian faith, and still are.

Goodman, in noting the common points of view among abolitionists, particularly stresses the evangelical belief in racial equality—that "God hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on the face of the earth" (Acts 17:26). One of the earliest and most common slogans of abolition was a kneeling slave, pleading, "Am I not your brother?" To which most white Americans would have answered, "Certainly not." Racist ideas were dominant in nineteenth-century America. Abolitionists, however, thought no Christian could fail to see the claims of brotherhood transcending race. All the families of the earth were created by God, and all were called to inclusion in one Christian family. This conviction led abolitionists to an initial sympathy with the plight of blacks, who were despised and oppressed in both North and South. As Goodman stresses, the first abolitionists did not merely believe theoretically in racial equality, their convictions led them to listen to black voices.

It was their openness to black argument and feeling that led white abolitionists to come out strongly against the American Colonization Society, which until the 1830s was the only substantial organization claiming to heal the wound of slavery. Colonization, which aimed to send free blacks back to Africa, seemed to many well-meaning whites the only hope. The vociferous opposition of free blacks caused those who would become abolitionists to take a second look, and ultimately to see colonization as a racist assault on free blacks and a convenient dodge for slaveholders. This was the be ginning of abolitionist radicalism, and it did not come from a vacuum but from an active, sympathetic dialogue with blacks.

Goodman also offers valuable in sights into the motives of female abolitionists, whose contributions were so crucial to the movement, and whose consciousness of women's rights grew in the process of fighting for African Americans.

As abolitionists succeeded in drawing others into their crusade against slavery, the movement sometimes lost the strength of its initial commitment to racial equality. It was psychologically and socially difficult to pursue racial brotherhood while your neighbors and friends looked on blacks as subhuman and corrupted. So not all abolitionists lived up to a perfect ideal of racial equality, a fact that some historians have emphasized. Goodman puts the emphasis where it belongs, on the unprecedented pursuit of racial brotherhood as the reason for abolishing slavery.

Why did only a minority of evangelicals think this way? Why didn't all Christians see the logic of the abolitionist crusade? This question is finally unanswerable—why do children raised in good families sometimes turn out bad?—but Goodman puts it into the context of the "market revolution" of the early nineteenth century. America, particularly Yankee America, was changing rapidly from a bucolic, parochial society to an industrial one. New classes of entrepreneurs and "business-men" were replacing traditional authorities. Acquisition and luxury were idealized as success. (Before, wisdom and moderation were revered.) Abolitionists tended to come from those who were most deeply disturbed by this revolution, feeling that America was creating a demoralized, careless, aristocratic, material, and greedy society. (These were the very qualities they also perceived in southern slaveholders.) As they searched for a new moral order to replace the obviously tottering old one, Christian ideals of brotherhood and racial equality stood out more clearly. It was a small leap to find in abolition the commitment to ideals worth living for.

Tim Stafford is senior writer for CHRISTIANITY TODAY. His novel on the abolitionist movement, The Stamp of Glory, is forthcoming in January 2000 from Thomas Nelson.

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