A review of American Antislavery Writings: Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation (Library of America), edited by James G. Basker
Harriet Beecher Stowe's best-selling novel Uncle Tom's Cabin fired a nation's troubled conscience about slavery, shaping public sentiment in ways few political treatises or works of philosophy could. Indeed, Stowe family tradition has it that Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of the fight for the Union's life, greeted the author and abolitionist at the White House as "the little woman who made this great war." James Basker notes in the introduction to American Antislavery Writings that even if apocryphal, Lincoln's remark is a powerful tribute to the role of antislavery literature in American history.
Although Uncle Tom's Cabin, published in 1852, was tremendously influential in the years preceding the Civil War, Basker warns against treating it as singular: "Stowe's…novel was only the most celebrated manifestation of a complex and diverse tradition of American antislavery writing that stretched back more than one hundred and fifty years." Basker, the president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and a professor of literary history at Columbia University, has assembled an encompassing anthology of antislavery writings, from the colonial era to the ratification of the 13th Amendment. The 158 authors comprise men and women, from the North and South, lawyers and statesmen, novelists and poets, polemicists and preachers—and, of course, slaves and former slaves.
Beyond fervent opposition to chattel slavery, what unites these diverse selections is a persistent religious element. Early opposition to slavery was grounded in appeals to Scripture and Christian morality. Even later sources that appear only nominally religious remained indebted to Anglo-American evangelical Christianity. Basker suggests that after the American Revolution "antislavery writing became more secular, more literary, and, as one would expect in a new country, more overtly nationalistic." Perhaps, but it is impossible to find any clean break between the transcendent and the temporal in these later writings. If anything, the evolution is from appeals to the sacred to ones grounded in a civil religion, as opposed to a movement from religion in general to secularism.
The influential slave narrative of Frederick Douglass, for example, wove together Christian themes with the language of natural law and historical progress. Consider, as well, the famous stanza from Julia Ward Howe's "Battle Hymn of the American Republic," written in 1862, which cast the Civil War as a redemptive crusade to end slavery in America: "As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free." In the same vein, Stowe's poem "Caste and Christ", published alongside Uncle Tom's Cabin, concluded:
Hear the word!—who fight for freedom!
Shout it in the battle's van!
Hope! for bleeding human nature!
Christ the God, is Christ the man!"
Even Abraham Lincoln offered a decidedly religious interpretation of the conflict that would ultimately claim some 600,000 lives, or nearly one out of every 50 Americans recorded in the 1860 census. (A comparable war today would see 6 million American deaths.) "The Almighty has His own purposes," he said in his Second Inaugural, which quoted the gospel of Matthew and the Book of Psalms.
[I]f God wills that [the war] continue until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
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The antislavery movement was divided over politics and political morality, and the abolitionist vanguard (estimated by some historians to comprise no more than 1% of the general population in 1860) was despised throughout—but not only in—the South. In the C.S. Lewis novel That Hideous Strength (1945), one character is presented as a man "who liked to be liked"—who, that is, had "a good deal of the spaniel in him." There was very little spaniel in the most committed abolitionists, some of whom paid for their politics with their lives. One "marker of the significance" of abolitionist writing and activism, Basker reminds us, "is the reactions it provoked from slavery's defenders, which often went far beyond words." In an especially infamous 1837 episode, angry opponents of abolitionism killed the antislavery activist Elijah Lovejoy while attacking the warehouse in Alton, Illinois where his publications and printing press were located. (Lovejoy, a Presbyterian minister, did not practice nonviolent resistance: he was shot during a gunfight that also took the life of one member of the pro-slavery mob.) Nineteen years later, South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner unconscious with a cane, in retaliation for an antislavery speech Sumner had delivered on the floor of the Senate two days earlier.
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Censorship of antislavery writings, and violence against their authors and publishers, paid the perverse compliment of affirming that words and ideas matter. Although it is difficult to establish precise causal relationships between antislavery literature and the major events of American political history—including the Civil War and emancipation—they are undoubtedly bound up together. Basker's Library of America volume is a worthy addition to existing anthologies of antislavery writings, augmenting the narrative political histories that continue to pour out about this period. At nearly a thousand pages, Antislavery Writings is broad and comprehensive. A 15-page overview of the American antislavery movement and editorial headnotes for each individual selection help make such a large volume accessible to students and non-specialists. For scholars, the book also includes a chronology of antislavery events, from the 1400s to 1865, and a detailed list of references for its 216 selections. The writings are of far more than antiquarian interest, however. The Reconstruction Amendments, as well as the broader international antislavery and human rights movements of the 20th and 21st centuries, are enduring tributes to the legacy of the American antislavery tradition.