Robert Fanuzzi. Abolition's Public Sphere.
Dr. Chancellor Williams, author and historian, used a story about the Black people of Sumer to show that a people die when they forget their history. In his book Abolition's Public Sphere, Robert Fanuzzi safeguards our historical memory as he examines the roles played by three leaders of the abolitionist movement in the struggle to create an antislavery reading public. Fanuzzi focuses primarily on the leadership of William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Henry David Thoreau within the abolitionist movement, as well as the symbolic role of Faneuil Hall in helping to facilitate public discussions of slavery. Fanuzzi weaves in other historical figures and their influence on these abolitionists to show that while they are trying to change society, society is forcing them to change as well. In chapters two through six, Fanuzzi discusses the abolitionists' respective visions of what the people of the United States could become. But his concentration on their pursuit of the society they imagined does at times lose sight of the economic benefits and psychological wages paid to the primarily White audience they were attempting to reach. As he sees it, the justification for abolition linked their struggle to historical events, civil rights, and philosophy.
According to Fanuzzi, William Lloyd Garrison reasoned that slavery should be abolished because its abolition would be a continuation of the American Revolution, which sought to promote civil rights and liberty. Garrison distanced the abolitionist movement, however, from the violent methods of the American Revolution; he proposed the use of rhetoric in speeches, protests, and articles in the Liberator to end slavery by peaceful means. Garrison's commitment to nonresistance as a strategy prevented him from capitalizing on the murder of abolitionist editor Elijah Lovejoy, killed while defending his printing office to benefit the abolition cause.
Garrison's opinions and actions were curtailed by the court decisions that found him liable of seditious libel and the federal government's enactment of the Pinckney Gag Law, which protected the private interests of slaveholders. This law defined abolitionist petitions as agents of sedition and violent insurrection. At the same time, it afforded Garrison an opportunity to capitalize on suffering caused by slavery as a victim of slavery. Fanuzzi suggests that Garrison deliberately sought to shape the abolition movement on his own and to make abolitionists be perceived not merely as outcasts from "the domain of citizenship, but criminals of the state." As a victim of slavery himself, Garrison had the platform to argue that "slaveholding despotism" alienated the "political rights of every American."
Garrison described himself as merely a "poor, self-educated mechanic." As Fanuzzi points out, he was a hindrance to the abolitionists' cause. Garrison desired to have--and he practiced--absolute authority on the issue of abolition and prevented others from expressing their views. Even when he was absent, however, his influence was still a major factor in the decision-making of abolitionists. Garrison also used the cause of abolition for his own financial benefit by applying abolitionist funds to his personal expenses. His most important contribution to the abolitionist movement may not have been any actual deed, but rather his self-designation as its personal embodiment.
As he proceeds, Fanuzzi explains how Frederick Douglass embodied the abolitionists' case on behalf of the victims of slavery, although Douglass himself was not representative of these victims. As a former slave, he could never be identified as merely "another enfranchised citizen; his superior eloquence made him a representative of the law, an object of emulation for others to follow...." Fanuzzi recounts how Douglass survived enslavement, the horror of seeing others experience the same fate, and with no formal education of his own, only to be judged by White audiences more on his ability to obey the rules of proper enunciation, sound oratorical style, and good grammar than on the content of his speeches. Despite his efforts to work with others to accomplish abolition, Douglass repeatedly faced audiences who refused to believe that a former slave could rise from the background that he claimed, to become the skillful orator that he plainly was.
Douglass sought to save African American former slaves from judgment by fraternity standards for manhood as they were reclassified as citizens. Instead, he wanted the standard of African American manhood to be such intellectual activities as reading and critical thinking. Douglass yearned to have African Americans participate in literary clubs, and he even boasted that the North Star had a readership that was three-quarters African American. He wanted his newspaper to represent African Americans' intellectual potential as well as their readiness for military service.
Fanuzzi argues that in spite of its focus on manhood, the abolitionist cause relied heavily on White women and free African Americans, both of whom White men saw as less than themselves. In fact, White women were suppressed by the same forces that suppressed African Americans. Nevertheless, Douglass and Garrison both sought to make the public literate discussion encompass more than the mere bodies of abolitionists. (Douglass's body symbolized the hopes and aspirations of African Americans.) Yet Fanuzzi suggests that Douglass, unlike Garrison, believed that physical violence would be necessary to challenge racism on the way to obtaining the society they envisioned. Unfortunately, Fanuzzi never provides an explanation as to how Douglass came to this conclusion. Douglass refused to use violence himself to realize his vision of society, but instead appeared to follow Garrison's example by relying on rhetoric to achieve his end.
Henry David Thoreau, like other abolitionists, saw society and his role in the abolitionist cause differently than did Douglass or Garrison. In Walden Thoreau imagined a city that would be a "contemporary venue for civil relations," one that promoted the exercise of the imagination, which he thought endangered by the urbanization process. Thoreau focused on the formation of a city that appealed to the same intellectual activities that Douglass thought the measure of manhood. Thoreau used his imagination as a form of resistance to slavery. In doing so, he sought to portray the experience of an abolitionist as an outsider. Fanuzzi, though, makes the same critique of Thoreau's work that others have used against Jean-Paul Sartre's analysis of colonialism; in effect, he states that because a White person has not endured the same life experience as a Black person has, then he cannot fully understand or appreciate the experience of a victim of the social order except through "minority discourse."
Faneuil Hall in Boston was the site of many historical events associated with the American Revolution, and later was perceived as an inclusive and democratizing public space. For here, Crispus Attucks's sacrificing his life in the American Revolution was just as important as those killed in the Boston Massacre. In this place comparable to the mythical Mount Olympus, a person's voice could to be heard and remembered, and here in the end reason prevailed. Faneuil Hall was not simply another venue, but a monument to those rights that the United States supposedly stands for and protects.
The name of the hall alone added credibility to the abolitionist movement. The physical move of the abolitionists from the confines of the segregated African American community into Faneuil Hall not only transformed the abolitionist movement, but Faneuil Hall itself was transformed into a symbol of the abolitionist movement. The abolitionists wanted less to occupy the material Fanueil Hall than to use the cloak of its symbolic meaning for the benefit of their movement. Garrison and the other abolitionists within the Massachusetts AntiSlavery Society later abandoned Fanueil Hall, thus enacting actual and symbolic abandonment as they moved away from conventional civil rights activities. However, Garrison still appeared to invoke the symbolic meaning of Fanueil Hall, as justification for the right of abolitionists to be heard.
Fanuzzi shows how the abolitionist movement used images to improve the social condition of the oppressed. The focus of this book prevents it from discussing the economic factors that actually dismantled slavery or the nation's virtually total economic dependence on slavery. However, the book is a compelling portrayal of the historical roles played by Garrison, Douglass, and Thoreau in their struggle to transform a proslavery society into a society that would discuss slavery before ultimately ending it. Perhaps the most impressive quality of this book is that readers may come away with not only with a better understanding of antebellum history, but also with a better understanding of the drive and the shortcomings of these major leaders of the abolitionist movement.
Aaron Ogletree, Esq.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2004|
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