A New History of Abolition
By Cameron Grieves
Manisha Sinha, the Draper chair in American History at the University of Connecticut, gave a talk on her book, “The Slave’s Cause,” in the Ecumenical Center on Nov. 20 as part of FSU’s Arts and Ideas series.
Sinha received her Ph.D. from Columbia University and taught at UMass Amherst for over 20 years. Her research focuses mainly on United States history, particularly transnational histories of slavery and abolition, as well as Civil War and Reconstruction history.
“The Slave’s Cause” is Sinha’s most recent book – a thorough critical analysis of the history of abolition in the United States and other countries, which seeks to highlight the political significance of slave resistance to what Sinha refers to as a “radical social movement.”
The Abolitionist Movement began in the United States with early Quakers who tied it in to a broader critique of warfare, wealth-making and commerce, Sinha said.
However, according to Sinha, much of our modern day understanding of the Abolitionist Movement relies on the accounts of white middle class abolitionists whose “radical” views were burdened by racism and economic conservatism. Black abolitionists are either largely ignored in mainstream academic circles or their roles are diminished, according to Sinha.
This paints a picture of a rather conservative and mostly white movement, made up of those concerned with the issue of slavery for their own moral and religious reasons. This is simply not accurate, according to Sinha – black abolitionists and slave resistance movements played a critical and defining role in the development of the Abolitionist Movement and the eventual eradication of slavery in the United States and elsewhere in the world.
The actions of black slaves and abolitionists alike in the New World also preceded and influenced the radical revolutions of American democracy as well as revolutionary thought in Europe and elsewhere, according to Sinha.
“Slave resistance, rather than middle class liberalism, lay at the heart of the Abolitionist Movement. To leave slaves out of the [narrative of the] Abolitionist Movement is to miss out on the central role black people played in the radical formation of American democracy,” Sinha said.
Early Middle Passage slave narratives like that of Olaudah Equiano were central in defining this movement in radical terms – going beyond a simple appeal to American republicanism, according to Sinha.
“The actions and ideas of slave rebels, runaways, black writers and activists did not lie outside of abolition but shaped it,” she said.
The Haitian Revolution is one major way in which black efforts to gain freedom spurred abolitionist movements in the North. Indeed, both black and white abolitionists often invoked the Revolution in their speeches and writings, according to Sinha.
In this way, as Sinha demonstrates in her book, abolition was far more than a moral exercise for white northerners who felt guilt-tripped by their own religious beliefs, but a comprehensively radical political insurgency with real national liberation as its end result.
Even large scale slave rebellions like Nat Turner’s Rebellion in the United States had immediate political ramifications, despite overwhelming opposition by the white ruling class. The state of Virginia officially held debates on the validity of abolition as a result of his insurgency, Sinha said.
These radical uprisings aren’t isolated incidents that did nothing for or hindered the cause of abolition. Rather, they were integral components in evolving the movement as a whole and even in thrusting the plight of black slaves into the national and global spotlights, Sinha said.
In fact, one of the most enduring impacts on the narrative of the Abolitionist Movement in the United States is the struggle and work of fugitive slaves and fugitive slave abolitionists, whose memoirs helped shape political thought in white America and drew attention to the true plight of slaves in the South, according to Sinha.
Black abolitionists such as Absalom Jones and Richard Allen actively petitioned against fugitive slave laws, wrote slave narratives and refuted the idea of benign enslavement – a prevalent ideology in white America in the 19th century which argued that black people were better off as slaves than free, she said.
The transfer of black slaves to the free North was facilitated not only by active political resistance to fugitive slave laws but also by the expansion of the Underground Railroad, which Sinha says historians too often dismiss as myth despite archaeological evidence to the contrary.
In fact, even in the case of white abolitionist literary works, true slave narratives gathered from fugitive slaves were always the underlying source of content, as was the case with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
The plight of black slaves inspired other radical political movements in the United States and Europe as slavery remained the benchmark for oppression. The Abolitionist Movement developed a transnational appeal which inspired critiques of early market societies and European imperialism, according to Sinha.
These fugitive slave narratives gave rise to such expressions as the “slave wages” of Lowell mills – drawing a connection between the sufferings of Southern slaves and Northern mill workers, Sinha said.
Across the Atlantic Ocean, black abolitionist movements in the Americas inspired radical political revolutions in Europe in 1848 and Indian nationalist revolts in 1857. All of this radical political thought can be traced back to the work of black abolitionists, as well as the radical slave rebellions of blacks in the United States, Haiti and elsewhere in the New World, Sinha said.
In order to remain true to history, it is important that the political work of these black revolutionaries and abolitionists does not remain underrepresented in our national and global narratives, according to Sinha.
Sophomore Molly Roach said, “The history of abolition is important because there is still so much that isn’t being taught at school. This topic has been whitewashed – so much so, this was the first time I had heard of most of these black abolitionists. and they were the backbone of the movement.”