A thoughtful work of history restores African-Americans to a central place in the abolitionist movement.
Black thinkers and activists, writes Stauffer (History/Harvard Univ.), led the way in fighting for the emancipation of their fellows. Of them, only Frederick Douglass is well known today, a process of forgetting that began even as the Civil War was being waged; at a reunion of abolitionists held in 1874 in Chicago, few blacks (and few women) figured, which allowed participants to “characterize the abolition movement as a white man’s movement.” Stauffer examines the small group of friends and colleagues who gave the abolitionist movement its focus and voice, including the African-American physician James McCune Smith, whom a contemporary called “the most learned Negro of his day,” and the white philanthropist Gerrit Smith, as well as the better-known Douglass and the revolutionist John Brown, “all of whom embraced an ethic of a black heart”—which is to say, all learned how to view the world as if they themselves were in chains. Stauffer charts their collective efforts to convert their compatriots to the abolitionist cause, which led, he writes, to both successes and failures; the effort to emancipate slaves led eventually to war, he observes, but also in a “century of horrible racism and racial oppression following the war [that] stemmed in part from the savage violence that brought slavery to an end.” He also explores the troubled relations among the abolitionists, complicated by Gerrit Smith’s abandonment of the cause after John Brown’s assault on federal troops at Harpers Ferry and his eventual estrangement from blacks in general, and shows that the movement, like any other involving powerful personalities, was far from unified at most points in its history.
A welcome addition to the historical literature.