The Antislavery Vanguard: New Essays on the Abolitionists
edited by Martin Duberman

Essays by 17 historians. Most of them are pretty good. Only one is bad.

David Brion Davis:

"Plato's suggested slave laws... were more severe than any American slave code" (7)

"Future apologists for slavery were no doubt indebted to Plato for linking the authority of masters to the cosmic principle of order." (8)

The idea that some men are born to be slaves is about as fair as imagining sin as an inherited but deserved defect that one cannot escape by his own volition. St. Augustine argued that all slaves deserve to be slaves. In 362, the Council of Gangrae laid anathema on "anyone who under the pretence of godliness should teach a slave to despise his master, or to withdraw himself from his service."

Fawn M. Brodie: The abolitionists have been criticized by historians for using emotional language in opposing slavery, yet these same historians downplay the fanatic defenders of slavery who not only used inflammatory words but passed laws ordering the death penalty for abolitionists in the South and burned abolitionist meeting halls in the North. (58)

Professor David Donald's book on Charles Sumner "leads one to believe that Sumner's championing of the unpopular cause of antislavery was only an expression of his neurotic craving for persecution." (66)

Donald G. Mathews:

"[Orange] Scott explained his own conversion as having been induced simply by the logic of abolitionist arguments." (73)

"immediatism ... was natural to an evangelist who was accustomed to demanding an immediate and willful repentance from sin." (75)

"Scott's schism was one of the events which helped to frighten Northern clerics into a position that Southerners could not tolerate." (100)

"In his warfare with power and institutions Scott was willing not only to revolutionize American society by freeing the Negroes, and to revolutionize the Church by seizing power from the bishops, but also to revolutionize American political institutions by dissolving the Union. Orange Scott was the epitome of the "Methodist evangelist as a revolutionary." (101)

The Methodist church in the US split into North and South in 1844 over the issue of slavery. The split lasted until 1939. (97)

Irving H. Bartlett: "Phillips' first personal encounter with the antislavery movement came in October 1835, when he stood on a Boston street and watched a jeering mob drag Garrison through the street at the end of a rope." (103)

"For at least a quarter of a century, from 1850 to 1875, Wendell Phillips was the commanding figure on the American lecture platform. ... each of his major addresses became a national event widely reported by the Boston and New York press and copied in papers throughout the northern and western states." (107)

"Slavery was evil and this evil was supported by a Federal government which protected slave states from insurrection, undertook to return their fugitives and gave them special representation in Congress. Therefore anything voluntarily done in support of this government, i.e. taking an oath to support the Constitution or voting for a candidate who would be required to take such an oath), supported slavery also and was evil." (112) He called Lincoln a "slave hound" because as a Congressman Lincoln had supported a bill which would have enforced the return of fugitive slaves escaping into the District of Columbia. (118)

After the Civil War, Phillips' good positions receded and his bad positions on unlimited issuance of Greenbacks, income tax, etc. came out.

Benjamin Quarles: Frederick Douglass pointed out that under the Fugitive Slave Law "the colored man's rights are less than those of a jackass," since the latter could not be seized and taken away without submitting the matter to twelve men. He said, "The only way to make the Fugitive Slave Law a dead letter is to make half a dozen or more dead kidnappers. The man who takes the office of a bloodhound ought to be treated as a bloodhound." (124)

Douglass became a professional reformer by coming to the attention of the Massachusetts abolitionists headed by Garrison. (126)

"But if Douglass tended to overreact, it was due to the failure of the great majority to react at all." (126)

"those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want rain without thunder and lightning. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will." (127)

"Douglass was a challenge to the widespread belief that the Negro was innately inferior in character, intelligence, and ability. To those who held that the rightness or wrongness of slavery pivoted on the capacity of the colored man, Douglass was a figure who could not be overlooked." (130)

Leon F. Litwack: "Our white friends," commented a Negro newspaper, "are deceived when they imagine they are free from prejudice against color, and yet are content with a lower standard of attainments for colored youth, and inferior exhibitions of talent on the part of colored men." (141)

Douglass believed that to abstain from voting was to ignore "a legitimate and powerful means for abolishing slavery" (146)

"The Garrisonians, Douglass charged, had abandoned the original purposes of the antislavery movement. "It started to free the slave," he contended. "It ends by leaving the slave to free himself. It started with the purpose to imbue the heart of the nation with sentiments favorable to the abolition of slavery, and ends by seeking to free the North from all responsibility of slavery." (147)

Douglass opposed injection of utopian socialism into antislavery meetings, for it imposed "an additional burden of unpopularity on our cause" (148)

"Every slavehunter who meets a bloody death in his infernal business," Douglass wrote, "is an argument in favor of the manhood of our race." (152)

James M. McPherson: Moses married an Ethiopian. (158)

Theodore Tilton wrote: "In all those intellectual activities which take their strange quickening from the moral faculties—processes which we call instincts, or intuitions—the negro is superior to the white man—equal to the white woman. The negro is the feminine race of the world." (166)

Robin W. Winks: Between 1787 and 1800 fugitive slaves from Canada fled south into New England and the Northwest Territory, reversing the popularly recognized direction of flow. (302)

"Ultimately an incredible variety of sensitivities, distractions, foolish quarrels, prideful hurts, and personal ambitions held the antislavery groups back [in Canada] far more than in the United States, where manifestations of the same petty spirit were overridden by men and forces of much greater power." (329)

"Dislike for the United States as a whole often found its most effective expression in denunciations of slavery and of the Federal government, and even Northern travelers in the Canadas were referred to by otherwise intelligent Canadians as slaveholders. ...around Simcoe .. American maps were not allowed in class rooms." (330—331)

"British North Americans proved to be anti-Northern, opposed to a war fought to preserve the Union, rather inclined to the Southern position once they saw that Lincoln was not fighting to end slavery. The outcome of the Civil War did not please the Canadian abolitionists, for they shared the general Canadian postwar fear that the Federal triumph had intensified the dangers of annexation by an avaricious Republic bent on continentalism." (338)

Howard R. Temperley: The hostile attitude of American historians toward abolitionists is not shared by British historians. (344)

In Britain the abolitionists had an easier task because there was no strong opposition to abolition, there was no domestic concern over what to do with the freed Negroes, and there was no doubt that Parliament had the power to do what the abolitionists wanted. (353)

After 1838, when slavery was virtually abolished in the British empire, "British abolitionists, in fact, were in very much the same position with respect to what happened to slavery in Brazil or Tunis as American abolitionists were with respect to what happened to it in Mississippi or South Carolina." (359)

"Thus, after 1838, the British movement was exposed to many of the same frustrations which had already characterized the American movement. It is highly significant, therefore, that at this time it should also have experienced similar internal stresses and conflicts and even developed an antipolitical Garrisonian wing." (360)

Robert F. Durden: The Republican Party members were opposed to extension of slavery into new territories, but they had little sympathy for negroes. In fact, they didn't want the North to be flooded with negroes, which could have happened if the slave states were allowed to secede from the Union. Some Republicans advocated preserves for negroes where they could be hemmed in and out of the way. (373)

The fear of Negro Equality was a factor in preventing emancipation. (383)

"Human Rights do not depend on the equality of Man or Races, but are wholly independent of them." (390)

"Republicans favored policies that gave Federal tariff protection to manufacturers, public lands to railway companies, and national banks to businessmen and financiers. Yet liberty and laissez faire were, for a considerable period, the magic words for any problem of racial adjustment that the South might face." (391)

Martin Duberman:

"Moreover, any intermediary stage before full freedom would require the spelling out of precise "plans," and these would give the enemies of emancipation an opportunity to pick away at the impracticality of this or that detail. They would have an excuse for disavowing the broader policy under the guise of disagreeing with the specific means for achieving it." (405)

"If the abolitionists spelled out a program for emancipation, their enemies would have a chance to pick at details; if they did not spell out a program, they could then be accused of vagueness and impracticality. Hostility can always find its own justification." (406)

"A strong assumption underlies this analysis which has never been made explicit—namely, that strong protest by an individual against social injustice is ipso facto proof of his disturbance. Injustice itself, in this view, is apparently never sufficient to arouse unusual ire in "normal" men, for normal men, so goes the canon, are always cautious, discreet, circumspect. Those who hold to this model of human behavior seem rarely to suspect that it may tell us more about their hierarchy of values than about the reform impulse it pretends to describe." (407)

"In all the long years before the abolitionists began their campaign, the North had managed to remain indifferent to the institution, and the South had done almost nothing, even in the most gradual way, toward ameliorating it. Had the abolitionists not aroused public debate on slavery, there is no guarantee that anyone else would have; and without such debate it seems unlikely that measures against the institution would have been taken. The fact that the debate became heated, moreover, cannot wholly be explained by the terms in which the abolitionists raised it; what must also be taken into account is the fact that the South, with some possible exceptions in the border area, reacted intransigently to any criticism of the institution, however mild the tone or gradual the suggestions." (412)

Howard Zinn: The arguments against radical agitation include:

  1. It provokes retaliation.
  2. It alienates possible allies.
  3. It arouses emotions to a pitch that precludes rational consideration.
  4. It makes compromise impossible.
"it is easy and comfortable—especially for intellectuals who do not share the piercing problems of the hungry or helplessly diseased of the world (who, in other words, face no extreme problems)—to presume always that the "moderate" solution is the best." (424)

"The historian too often moves back a hundred years into a moral framework barbarian by modern standards and thinks inside it, while the radical shakes the rafters of this framework at the risk of his life." (432)

"Beveridge saw Lincoln as a man who "almost perfectly reflected public opinion" in his stands. Lincoln opposed repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law, was silent on the violence in Kansas and the beating of Sumner, and followed the tactic of saying nothing except on issues most people agreed on—like stopping the extension of slavery." (440—441)

"Agitators have the power to heighten feelings and tensions, but they are outside the decision-making machinery which produces war. ... War became inevitable only with the simultaneous emergence of two factors: the determination of leading Southerners, holding state power, to create a separate nation; and the insistence of the Republicans, in possession of the national government, that no such separate nation must be permitted to exist. It was this issue which brought war, because only this, the issue of national sovereignty, constituted a direct attack on the group which ran the country and had the power to make war." (444)

"They could have waged war without such a moral issue [slavery], for politicians have shown the ability to create moral issues on the flimsiest of bases—witness Woodrow Wilson in 1917—but it was helpful to have one at hand." (445)

Year Read: 1998

Back to Libertarian Essays by Roy Halliday
Back to Nonfiction Book Notes
Back to Fiction Book Notes
Back to Book Notes by Author

This page was last updated on September 26, 2011.
This site is maintained by Roy Halliday. If you have any comments or suggestions, please send them to