The Abolitionist Imagination

The Abolitionist Imagination

Andrew Delbanco
John Stauffer
Manisha Sinha
Darryl Pinckney
Wilfred M. McClay
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Harvard University Press
Pages: 224
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2jbv9c
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  • Book Info
    The Abolitionist Imagination
    Book Description:

    Abolitionists have been painted in extremes—vilified as reckless zealots who provoked the bloodletting of the Civil War, or praised as daring reformers who hastened the end of slavery. Delbanco sees them as the embodiment of a driving force in American history: the recurrent impulse of an adamant minority to rid the world of outrageous evil.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-06490-4
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. FOREWORD
    (pp. vii-xiv)
    Daniel Carpenter

    American abolitionism has emerged yet again as a topic of interest in popular and academic culture, with influential studies of its individuals and its organizations. We have seen prizewinning biographies of William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, the Grimké sisters, Gerrit Smith, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. We have been newly introduced to the networks of black abolitionists and women abolitionists, sometimes locally centered (Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Rochester, Rhode Island), sometimes spanning state and national boundaries. And we have been reintroduced to the personal, political, and legal fruition of abolitionism with The Fiery Trial, Eric Foner’s 2010 study of President Lincoln’s...

  4. 1 THE ABOLITIONIST IMAGINATION
    (pp. 1-56)
    Andrew Delbanco

    Who were the abolitionists? In revisiting that well-worn question, my aim is not to join the long line of commentators who have drawn and redrawn the boundary between abolition proper and the broader anti-slavery sentiment of which it was a part. I want, instead, to consider the abolition movement as an instance of a recurrent American phenomenon: a determined minority sets out, in the face of long odds, to rid the world of what it regards as a patent and entrenched evil. If we construe abolition in this wider sense—in its particular manifestation in the struggle against slavery but...

  5. 2 FIGHTING THE DEVIL WITH HIS OWN FIRE
    (pp. 57-80)
    John Stauffer

    In his elegant essay, Andrew Delbanco emphasizes the relevance of the abolitionists for us today. Abolitionism is not only a historical subject, he argues; it is a “category of human will and sentiment—of what we might even dare to call human nature.” Within this broader conceptualization, “every millenarian dreamer who has ever longed for the fire in which sin and sinners are consumed is an abolitionist—and sometimes the purification will include his own self-immolation.” For Delbanco, an abolitionist is always an immediatist, “someone who identifies a heinous evil and wants to eradicate it—not tomorrow, not next year,...

  6. 3 DID THE ABOLITIONISTS CAUSE THE CIVIL WAR?
    (pp. 81-108)
    Manisha Sinha

    Andrew Delbanco’s reevaluation of abolitionism in Chapter 1 is a restrained but nonetheless pointed critique of what one might call the abolitionist mentalité. Drawing on the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, he questions the value of abolitionist contributions to the struggle against slavery, which resulted in a long, destructive war. In doing so, he grants abolitionists and their opponents, much to the former’s disadvantage, the benefits of historical hindsight. The major problem confronting antebellum Americans was racial slavery and not the movement against it. Abolitionists addressed the cancer at the heart of the slaveholding American republic; they did...

  7. 4 THE INVISIBILITY OF BLACK ABOLITIONISTS
    (pp. 109-134)
    Darryl Pinckney

    When I was growing up in the 1960s, abolitionists were generally thought of as white. We didn’t call black freedom fighters “abolitionists.” Because the inferior status of black people had been the great issue, and blacks were the dark mass of enslaved people in need of help, white people tended to think of them as some vast chorus in the American drama. White people who actively opposed slavery were the soloists and the black people who joined them on stage were illustrations of their point about the humanity of black people: that being human they deserved freedom. Whites spoke for...

  8. 5 ABOLITION AS MASTER CONCEPT
    (pp. 135-152)
    Wilfred M. McClay

    Among its many other excellences, Andrew Delbanco’s “The Abolitionist Imagination” possesses qualities reminiscent of the very best features of the American studies movement in its mid-twentieth-century heyday.¹ Admittedly, there are some Americanists who would not take that characterization as a compliment. But I certainly mean it as one. Delbanco’s essay avoids the pitfalls of that movement’s sometimes overly unitary and monochromatic understanding of American culture—indeed, the essay itself contains a cogent critique of those very pitfalls—while recapturing what was so exciting and suggestive in the movement’s earlier phases. What he has done here is to take a single...

  9. 6 THE PRESENCE OF THE PAST
    (pp. 153-164)
    Andrew Delbanco

    I find myself in the peculiar position of agreeing substantially with my critics while not always recognizing what I wrote in their critiques.

    Let me begin with Professors Sinha and Stauffer, who, evidently provoked by their sense that I have attacked abolitionism, offer eloquent briefs in its defense. I appreciate both their candor and their civility, but my aim was neither to denigrate nor celebrate. It was to suggest that what seems in retrospect to have been a simple moral situation in antebellum America had, at least for some people of good will, its inhibiting complexities. In particular, I tried...

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 165-194)
  11. ABOUT THE AUTHORS
    (pp. 195-196)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 197-205)