Manisha Sinha. The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition.
In this densely researched work, Manisha Sinha offers not only a synthesis of American antislavery but a compelling interpretation of a "hundred-year drama in law, politics, literature, and on-the-ground activism" (2). Building her argument in part on the rich body of abolitionist print culture, The Slave's Clause refutes characterization of the abolitionists as white bourgeois romantics confined to antebellum America.
Sinha instead traces two waves of a transnational, interracial, dynamic movement that intersected with other societal movements of the time, from women's rights to emerging critiques of capitalism. Wave one began prior to the Revolution and continued through the 1820s. Early abolitionists, she argues, were the nation's original critical thinkers: Phyllis Wheatley, she points out, was no "lone genius" but was "representative of an emerging African American antislavery critique of revolutionary republicanism" (31). First wave abolitionists introduced tactics and ideas that appeared again in the second antebellum wave. "The history of abolition," Sinha compellingly argues, "is marked as much by continuity as by disjuncture" (191).
She recasts the emergence of immediate abolitionism as an "interracial immediatism" arising from black protest from David Walker to Freedom's Journal. Nat Turner's rebellion inspired black and white abolitionists alike; as they would with John Brown decades later, many abolitionists admired Turner (if not always his violent means). In response to the vehement antebellum proslavery backlash, black abolitionists created a "concerted intellectual response to American racism," and white and black abolitionists together forged what Sinha terms "the modern concept of human rights" (311,249). Black abolitionists at times considered emigration, and Sinha offers detailed accounts of their efforts and ideas. In both waves, too, international happenings influenced abolitionists; Sinha lingers especially on the 1848 moment. The author also highlights the work of both black and white women, abolition's "most effective" if not always welcome "foot soldiers" (266).
Sinha makes the case that slave resistance sat at the center of abolitionism-perhaps her most radical argument. She states this explicitly, but it is also implicit within the narrative structure of the work. Case in point: Sinha opens her section on pre-1830s abolition not with the story of white Quakers but with the 1721 story of an unnamed African woman who roused men to rebellion onboard a slave ship (to tragic end). And in the antebellum era she traces how "fugitive slaves fostered abolitionist organization and antislavery sentiment and laws," producing abolitionist activists whom she dubs "John Brown's forerunners" (393). Only after chapters on slave resistance and fugitive slave abolitionism does Sinha turn to abolitionist politics and Civil War. Sinha also highlights black agency. In wave one, she recounts how Mumbet, the enslaved Massachusetts woman who sued for her freedom after hearing Revolutionary rhetoric, initiated "the first emancipation in the Atlantic world." (65). In wave two, she details how black abolitionists fought to desegregate Boston schools in the 1840s and the work of "fugitive slave abolitionists," both preceding and during the Civil War (460). This is a brilliant scholarly reframing of the abolitionist narrative to counter those in which slaves are "forgotten as the architects of their own liberation" (585).
In this area especially, The Slave's Cause is essential to teachers. Sinha provides countless examples that can be used to counter problematic approaches to the story of emancipation such as the historical narrative in the novel and film The Help. Additionally, her longue duree of antislavery challenges teachers to incorporate the story of not just slavery but of antislavery activism (black as well as white) prior to the antebellum era. Finally, this work provides essential information about the transnational nature of abolitionism and offers a rich compendium of antislavery print culture.
Though her work is full of accounts of their bravery, Sinha does not generally over-idealize her abolitionists. Early on, she admits that "only the enslaved showed a consistent devotion to the antislavery principle," and she chronicles the various divisions, schisms, and paternalism present in the movement (70). The extent to which harmony and division, racist and egalitarian belief, co-existed will continue to be debated by historians, but she argues compellingly that the abolitionist movement itself created a space for interracial conversations to take place and for new understandings to emerge. That these conversations did not end in complete triumph but in Jim Crowera repression of black rights is a sad conclusion to Sinha's narrative.
Eastern Illinois University
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|Publication:||Teaching History: A Journal of Methods|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2016|
|Previous Article:||Bethany Jay and Cynthia Lynn Lyerly, eds. Understanding and Teaching American Slavery.|
|Next Article:||Bridget Ford. Bonds of Union: Religion, Race, and Politics in a Civil War Borderland.|