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The Abolitionist Imagination.

The Abolitionist Imagination, by Andrew Delbanco. The Alexis de Tocqueville Lectures on American Politics. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 2012. xi, 205 pp. $24.95 US (cloth).

What does it mean to be an abolitionist? Andrew Delbanco and four respondents consider that question in The Abolitionist Imagination, the product of Harvard University's 2010 Alexis De Tocqueville Lectures. The authors present compelling ideas about the meaning and implications of abolitionism, which Delbanco defines broadly as any social movement aimed at eliminating a particular evil from the world. At once an intellectual history of the antebellum period and a meditation on radical politics, The Abolitionist Imagination is a stimulating debate about protest movements and American historical memory.

Andrew Delbanco examines American culture and politics as a whole through the concept of abolitionism. He describes fervent, single-minded reform as a foundational quality of American people across history. And he works to complicate our understandings of antislavery advocates as well as their critics. Abolitionists, Delbanco argues, imagine a world free from a specific problem, but they do not outline a path to removing it or consider the potential consequences of that removal. People like William Lloyd Garrison did not consider and could not know that the war to free the slaves might kill three-quarters of a million people. In light of that reality, Delbanco wants readers to be uncomfortable with both unrestrained praise for the abolitionists and brusque dismissal of those who did not join that cause. He seeks to rescue the antebellum centrists, presenting Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville as figures who were conflicted about slavery but worried, presciently, about the carnage that might accompany its destruction. Delbanco problematizes fervour itself and pushes for a more considered analysis of radical politics.

Historians John Stauffer and Manisha Sinha each take issue with what they read as Delbanco's celebration of centrist politics. Stauffer notes that context is critical to understanding any protest movement. The fervour of antebellum abolitionists, he argues, was a response to the fanaticism of proslavery Southerners. He also invokes some of Delbanco's literary voices, reading Melville's Captain Ahab as a warning about the dangers of the South's uncompromising stance. Sinha suggests that rather than political fervour, racial inequality has been the unifying thread of American culture, and that abolitionists are distinguished for their dedication to black equality. Her essay is the most traditionally historical in the book. Sinha traces the ideas and actions that defined antebellum abolitionism and argues for the transformative potential of that work in its context.

Delbanco's two other respondents are less directly concerned with evaluating the abolitionists. Daryl Pinckney takes on the question of historical memory through his own discovery of black abolitionists, considering the relative absence of black people from stories about antislavery. And Wilfred McClay embraces Delbanco's effort to paint a nuanced portrait of abolitionists. Ultimately, McClay sees the abolitionist imagination as important because it expanded American intellectual possibilities.

At Delbanco's encouragement, we are at times compelled to "imagine ourselves living in the America of the 1850s" (p. 43) in order to understand individuals' choices regarding slavery. But as a whole, the book is "a history of the abolitionists' reputation" (p. 35). That history raises important questions about identities and the scholar's work of defining social movements. What does it mean to view abolitionists through the lens of their proslavery opponents or through that of hopeful centrists like Nathaniel Hawthorne? Should we take William Lloyd Garrison, John Brown, or Frederick Douglass as representative of antebellum antislavery? The Abolitionist Imagination brings to the fore the complexity and fluidity of antislavery politics. Delbanco's opening question--"who were the abolitionists?" (p. 3)--cannot and should not have a simple answer.

The most provocative parts of the book challenge intellectual inflexibilities regarding morally charged historical subjects. Delbanco calls for a critical examination of our memory of American antislavery. Stauffer and Sinha root that reverence in the abolitionists' idealistic pursuit of human equality, a project that could improve their world. Those scholars disagree because they see one another as promoting a particular value judgment of historical figures. Readers are left to ponder critical questions about "the presence of the past," to take the title of Delbanco's final response. How ought scholars write about a cause that we might all agree is righteous, but which represented a radical fringe in its own time? How do our moral certitudes shape scholarship and memory? Perhaps more importantly, why are people so dedicated to assessing the lives and choices of historical figures, to declaring some right and others wrong? History has been and will continue to be fodder for our politics. It seems, though, that scholarship is best aimed at providing a thorough, critical understanding of its subject--a historically grounded answer to questions like "who were the abolitionists?"-- in order to shape the uses, and, hopefully, limit the abuses of the past. Readers will appreciate the opportunity this book presents to think again about the nature of American antislavery, the problems of memory, and the philosophy of history.

Christopher James Bonner

Yale University
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Author:Bonner, Christopher James
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2014
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