The Abolition of Slavery, a Template for Contemporary Radical Social Movements in the United States


The Abolition of Slavery, a Template for Contemporary Radical Social Movements in the United States
An Interview with Manisha Sinha, by Nicolas Martin-Breteau

Manisha Sinha is professor and the James L. and Shirley A. Draper Chair in American History at the University of Connecticut. In 2016, she published The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition1, a synthesis both comprehensive and original about the abolition movement in the United States. This essential episode in the history of American democracy is analyzed in light of the central role African Americans played in their own liberation. Rather than “abolitionism” referring to an ideology, Manisha Sinha prefers the broader term “abolition,” which she defines as a set of discourses and practices that have structured a vast social movement from the late 18th century until the end of the Civil War. A major reference on the subject, the book has received many prestigious awards such as the Avery O. Craven Award from the Organization of American Historians (OHA). In the following interview, Manisha Sinha describes abolition as a radical social movement whose political legacy is still alive.

The abolition of slavery as a topic of historical research

Nicolas Martin-Breteau: What has your research focused on as a historian until today?

Manisha Sinha: I am a historian of slavery and abolition and the history and legacy of the Civil War [1861-65] and Reconstruction [1865-77], that is, 19th-century US history. My first book was on pro-slavery ideology, on states’ rights theory, and secession among Southern slaveholders2. My second book, The Slave’s Cause, looks at the opposite side of that ideological divide. It is a comprehensive history of the abolition movement. I decided I actually wanted to write a book about people I liked. It was a long journey but I really enjoyed researching it.

You have decided to work on abolitionists and abolitionism because you had already worked on their opponents, right?

That’s right. I think that it gives you a better sense of what they were up against after having studied slaveholders’ political power in the early American republic and slaveholding ideology. I could also see the conversation and exchange between the two sides. And both of them represented the vanguard of their respective sections. Abolitionists were the most radical when it came to opposing slavery in the North. Similarly, when I studied South Carolina slaveholders they were the most extreme in terms of formulating pro-slavery ideology and states rights theory and leading the secession movement. I also taught in Massachusetts for over twenty years, and it made sense because all my sources were there. It’s a big thing if you are a historian!

I would like to understand how you have explored these issues from your specific social position. How did your personal background influence your view as a historian of abolitionism?

I grew up in India, in independent India but where we all learned the history of the fight against European imperialism. And the question of race, citizenship, and democracy—India was experimenting its own form of democracy—became important for me. I took American history courses—I read Martin Luther King, Jr., I read activists in India. King got his ideas on affirmative action from the Indian Constitution, what we call reservations for the lower castes. I think an anti-colonial perspective really informed my work on abolition.
I decided to come to the U.S. for graduate school, because in India American Studies was mainly about American literature not American history. I moved to the U.S. to get my Ph.D. and I met my husband there. We got married, I stayed in the U.S. and I taught there.
This question of race and citizenship really brought me back to the history of slavery because I realized that you really can’t understand its 20th-century manifestations unless you go back to the whole history of slavery. My first book was about the politics of slavery because I am more of a political historian actually than a social historian. I was very interested in how people had constructed these elaborate ideologies of racial exclusion and secession, states rights constitutional theories and the pro-slavery argument seemed to be a good place to start. And then from there I came to abolition.
It’s interesting: America is a little different than let’s say Germany or France, where there is a very particular national history and a tradition of writing within it. Maybe in America that’s also true but because it is technically a country of immigrants I didn't find any barriers to studying American history and, more importantly, teaching American history to Americans. I got my first job in the U.S. and I stayed on. My husband migrated from Germany to the U.S. and found his job in the U.S. as well. We did not feel particularly out of place there. At one point I realized that I had lived longer in America than I had lived in my country of birth, India, and I decided to take American citizenship. It became the classic immigrant story in which I became, I guess, an Indian-American. The biggest reason I became a citizen was because I wanted to vote. Now I teach and know more about American history than I do about Indian history!

In The Slave’s Cause, two main points frame your argument. You center the history of abolitionism on African American activism and you reject the distinction between slaves’ resistance and abolitionists’ activism. Can you elaborate on these two points?

Many historians of abolition have looked at black activists before me. But they tended to be mainly free blacks in the North and they were subsumed under a kind of broader conventional reading of abolition as a middle-class, bourgeois movement that was relatively conservative when it came to economic matters. I found that the motivating force in abolition is not really bourgeois reformers but that it was in fact slave resistance. I see this right from the start in the first wave of abolition [ca. 1780-1830] as well as the second wave [ca. 1830-65], when slave rebellions have an enormous impact on the growth and development of the abolition movement—especially an event like the Haitian Revolution [1791-1804] that I think maybe the French are more aware of.

Not so much…

Not so much? It’s too bad. American historians’ way of seeing the Haitian revolution has changed in the last few years of course, and African American intellectuals like C.L.R. James have always talked about its importance. But the significance of slave resistance for abolition goes beyond episodic slave rebellions, and even a big revolution like the Haitian Revolution.
In the U.S., the connection between slave resistance and abolition is very proximate and it is continuous mainly because you had so many enslaved people running away from slavery. This was seen as a kind of individual form of resistance, not quite significant because historians have considered that the numbers are not that great. In fact, these runaways or fugitive slaves had an enormous impact on the abolition movement, especially those who started leading the movement. And what I found was that most of these enslaved people who ran away became abolitionists.
Former slaves actually composed the best responses to pro-slavery ideology. At this time, the pro-slavery argument had already grown in theoretical sophistication and in breadth. Slaveholders were justifying slavery, by using the Bible, by critiquing free societies and wage labor. They had developed this whole broad religious, economic argument to defend slavery. The only people who could give the best riposte to that were fugitive slaves who had actually experienced slavery. They were able to talk about it through their first-hand experiences in a way that other abolitionists could not. Many pro-slavery ideologues would respond to abolitionists saying they know nothing about slavery, they're just sitting in their armchairs in the North and talking about it. So the fugitive slaves and their narratives in particular constitute what I call the “movement literature of abolition.”
These fugitives are also very interesting in terms of the ways in which they radicalized the abolition movement. For a long time, historians had dismissed the Underground Railroad3, or what I call the “Abolitionist Underground” as the stuff of myth and memory. But this kind of grassroots tactics that was being employed by abolitionists in order to defend these fugitive slaves had an impact on law and politics, and ultimately on international law and diplomacy. When you had slave rebellions aboard ships coming from Cuba, you had to deal with the Spanish authorities4, or when slave rebels went to British-occupied areas, you had a diplomatic incident between Britain and the U.S. It was also true of fugitive slaves running to Canada and Mexico.
So it plays out at different levels, from grassroots activism to national politics to creating this conflict between Southern laws of slavery and Northern laws of freedom at least in the antebellum period, then going on to these sort of international incidents. I was able to tease that out throughout the book to show that slave resistance is so important to understanding abolition.

Abolition and the black radical tradition

It’s a good transition toward one of my interests in your work, that is, the black radical tradition. In The Slave’s Cause, you show that black abolitionists were the “founding critics of the country,” that they democratized the “white man’s democracy”—what you call ironically the “black man’s burden.” What was the role of African Americans in the history of US democracy, particularly in the antebellum period?

I wrote the chapter entitled “The Black Man’s Burden” tongue in cheek: European imperialism was seen as “the white man’s burden.”5 What I found was that there was a sense, among some historians, not all, that while African Americans were the grassroots activists, whites were doing the thinking and writing and composing the ideology of the movement. I found that not to be true. I found that division to be so inaccurate.
I really paid a lot of attention to early black writing—petitions, as well as court cases—that tried to push at the boundaries of American democracy. And you can see this right from the start when African Americans challenge the founding myths of American republicanism. I'm not just talking about the inconsistency of having slavery in a Republic devoted to human equality: They are also well aware of the ways in which racism is being constructed to read them out of the body politic. They developed a consistent critique of this which translated into practical political programs like opposing segregation and Jim Crow, demanding citizenship rights, opposing seemingly anti-slavery plans that were actually quite racist like the colonization plan of getting rid of free blacks and creating a lily-white Republic, you know, sending them all back to Africa. Most black abolitionists completely rejected colonization and they had a vision of an interracial democracy that I think the U.S. still aspires to be today. It’s still a contested thing. In that sense they were thinkers and founding critics of the slaveholding republic, which literally has to be remade after the Civil War to include black citizenship. And even when that is overthrown, you have the long history of black radicalism and the Civil Rights movement. It’s kind of a back and forth in American history over this issue.
But I really think it’s important to look at some of these black abolitionists who are not only making political interventions at this time, even though they don’t have formal political rights, but who are also engaging intellectually the emergence of race and scientific racism because that of course affects them. And I found that African American abolitionists were the first to develop critiques of scientific racism in the U.S.
So in various ways you get to appreciate the breadth of the black radical tradition and its roots in the 19th century, which tends to be ignored. We tend to be more focused on the 20th century or even the late 19th century. But I do think that you can look at some of these early black abolitionists and their prominence in many of these abolitionist societies in creating what I call the “black counter-public,” a counter public sphere that critiques the ways in which slaveholders, Northern racists, and conservatives imagine and implement a racially exclusive polity and society.

So black abolitionists were the pioneers of the black radical tradition in the U.S. How would you define the black radical tradition?

You know, many of the early black writers and thinkers were dismissed even by African American writers and historians as being too bourgeois, too integrationist, too wrapped up in the Western discourse of Christianity and civilization that were very racialist, etc. I think that’s uncharitable reading of many of these early black writers.
The poetry of Phyllis Wheatley [1753-84] was dismissed for a long time for being imitative, etc. Ironically, this dismissal actually first came from slaveholders like Thomas Jefferson who, confronted by evidence of Phyllis’ genius said that she was not worthy of respect. I think that if you read carefully, you see that these men and women are participating in a broader Western discourse at that time but yet they were engaging with it critically. It’s the case of Wheatley and other early black writers, particularly Frederick Douglass [1818-95]6, whose speeches and writings have become so important for us now in terms of trying to understand how to build a multiracial society and democracy.
I think it’s probably not very nuanced to dismiss these people as mere imitators of a broader Western tradition. Instead, we should see them as engaging and criticizing, opposing, sometimes using, appropriating, and even creating broader Western discourses whether they be natural rights and human rights, republicanism, democracy, citizenship. We must think of how Western democracy is being made or constructed at this time not just by some of the more prominent thinkers and statesmen that we are aware of, but also by these people on the ground.

In the book you say that black abolitionists’ activism was oppositional. What do you mean by this adjective?

Well, I mean that they are opposing the political and economic order of the day. It's not as if they were just opposing racial oppression that had nothing to do with broader political and economic structures. In fact, racial slavery lies at the very heart of the American antebellum political economy. And historians have talked about the important role slavery and slave-grown products have played in the American economy. I think that what African Americans realized is that their oppression was linked to these larger questions, whether it was economic justice or whether it is recreating the American republic and re-imagining American democracy because it was a white man's democracy before the Civil War.
Ironically as American democracy developped, as the franchise is extended to all adult white men—America had broader suffrage compared to that of Europe at that time, even England7—racial exclusion also grew because at the same time they were taking away the right to vote from black men. And I think that African Americans realized that if they were fighting for their own liberation, there were some larger issues at stake.
W. E. B. Du Bois [1868-1963] put it best when he talked about Reconstruction after the Civil War. He emphasized the role black folks have played in reconstructing American democracy8. In a way I carried that central insight he had about black activism that this was not something that was small and narrow, interested in just self-liberation: Trying to get rid of racial slavery, trying to get rid of racial discrimination made those black thinkers and activists think about broader issues in the society, economy, and politics. And in that sense I think abolition plays a role in what I see as the origins of American democracy.

Would you say that the struggles waged by black abolitionists in the United States did reconstruct world democracy and not only US democracy?

It’s a good question because I think that if we look at black abolitionists we are really looking at a tradition being formed in the West, pushing at many concepts of Western democracy, critiquing it and then not just trying to expand those concepts, but thinking how we can rethink some of those concepts.
I think it does become relevant for the rest of the word because immediately after the abolition of slavery you have European imperialism at its heyday. And these are the kinds of questions that many people in the so-called third world have become interested in: What is the relationship between race, citizenship, and democracy? Who gets to define who’s in and who’s out, and who’s civilized and who’s not? These are the issues of our global moment today. I think that it's an ongoing legacy.

Abolition as a mass social movement

In The Slave’s Cause, you say that second-wave abolitionism which emerged in the early 1830s was a “mass movement.” Can you explain why?

Abolitionists have always been seen as individual religious reformers, and this framework of social movements that we use for 20th-century social movements like the Civil Rights movement or contemporary movements in the U.S. is not something that historians applied to the abolition movement.
Nonetheless, I think that we do need to do that because abolitionists had organizations, means of communication—newspapers, lecture agents, a movement literature—and concepts that sound relatively modern to us, like human rights, equality before the law, etc. If we employ a social movement lens we don’t talk about abolitionists just as individuals or just as another reform movement like any other 19th-century benevolent religious reform movement including African Americans and women as an afterthought: “Yes, they were part of it but they were not that important.” I think that a social movement perspective really allowed me to re-imagine the abolition movement as an interracial radical movement.
In terms of its mass appeal the other conventional understanding is that abolitionists were just a radical minority who achieved nothing. They agitated against slavery and then you have the Civil War and suddenly slavery ended because of a military situation. That is so ahistorical. I have read certain books on the Civil War and the Confederacy, that described emancipation as simply a wartime measure: “There was a war and slaves flocked to the Union lines and Lincoln decided to end slavery.” It is a very simplistic reading of the long roots of emancipation.
In terms of the numbers, I found that if you just look at the conventional numbers given for abolitionists belonging to the different antislavery societies, the usual number is 250,000 [by the late 1830s], but some abolitionist petitions have been signed by many more, close to a million. You have a lot of fellow travelers who signed on for particular causes whether it is against the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia or against the annexation of Texas. Then if you look at subscription lists of abolitionist newspapers you get a different number. By the eve of the Civil War, what you really have to look at is the Northern antislavery majority that voted for Abraham Lincoln, nearly two million. These people were not necessarily abolitionists but they voted for a candidate who was against the extension of slavery, not for abolition. There was no way that you could have had that scenario without abolitionists plowing the ground through decades of agitation, and then agitation making its way into Congress soliciting the help and sympathy of antislavery politicians beginning with John Quincy Adams down to Lincoln. There was a radical wing on the Republican party that was closely identified with the abolitionist movement, the Radical Republicans.
So when you look at abolition as a broad social movement, you have to look at grassroots political activism but you also have to look at the ways in which it impacted mainstream political structures. There is a debate among abolitionists on all this, which sounds very modern to us, because some (like the supporters of William Lloyd Garrison [1805-79]9) believe that the state is so corrupt, so pro-slavery that they don't want to engage with it; but there are political abolitionists whom Douglass eventually joins who feel that political engagement is the way to go, that the only way to effect political change in the republic is actually to convert people, to create an antislavery majority to challenge slavery. In a way that’s exactly what happens during the Civil War, and you see how the Republican Party and Lincoln himself move from the non-extension of slavery to abolition and eventually to black rights.
I argue in my book that we need to think of emancipation as not just a wartime emergency. It was an option which was exercised because it had been agitated for so long and continued to be agitated during the Civil War. You know, my book stops in 1860, because it would have become too big if I got into the Civil War, but I really want to make the case that abolition was a precursor to emancipation, that we can see how a radical movement can shift the pendulum of politics to the left in some respects by looking at the emergence of antislavery political parties from abolitionist agitation.

One of the main reasons this movement was a mass social movement is the fact that it was an integrated, interracial movement. To what extent was US and more broadly Atlantic abolitionism an interracial movement, very modern for the time?

I certainly think that the Anglo-American abolition movement takes on the characteristics of mass movements. Even in Britain you have pioneering Afro-British abolitionists like Olaudah Equiano [1745-97], Ottobah Cugoano [ca. 1757-?], a whole bunch of them. Then in the antebellum period you had all these black abolitionists who are touring Britain and are celebrities in Britain. Some buy their freedom—fugitive slave abolitionists like Douglass—by raising money in Britain. So I would certainly say that for the Anglo-American world it's an interracial movement because these are two places where it becomes a mass movement.
But increasingly, work on antislavery in Spanish Cuba and Brazil—you have places where slavery lasted well into the 19th century—is uncovering the role of people of African descent in abolition whether it is suffrage, manumission, petitions for rights, etc. More and more work now is being done where we can see that people of African descent were not removed from the agitation against slavery, that they had an impact and played an important role in abolition. The point is, you need to know where to look as an historian.
In France for instance, there were certain cases that involved people of color who also pushed the freedom principle. So the first abolition movement during the French Revolution begins with agitation for citizenship rights for colored people and eventually ends in Haiti as a slave rebellion for abolition and black rights. Now of course, revolutionary republicanism in France is eventually overthrown but I think that the story of French abolition is incomplete unless you look at Haiti. Even after the Revolution, you have outstanding French abolitionists like Abbé Henri Grégoire [1750-1831] who is a big champion of the Haitian republic. I think that people don't talk about that enough or tease out those connections. I think it's a little bit more difficult to see the second abolition in 1848 with Victor Schœlcher [1804-93] as a mass interracial movement, even though recent work on slave unrest in Martinique and Guadalupe at that time has been quite interesting. What I see in France is that abolition is really linked to the politics of republicanism: When it triumphs, abolition triumphs.
I didn’t study the French case because my French knowledge is a little limited, but I think there is a lot there to write new histories. I saw American abolitionists in Britain would go to the continent too and live in Paris and meet with other radicals and reformers. We are increasingly coming across cases of individual French revolutionaries who are sympathetic to American abolitionism. But I think that in France abolition is so connected to the politics of republicanism that it doesn’t really become a mass movement the way it does in Britain and the U.S.

In no small part, abolitionism was a mass movement because abolitionists were not “single-issue agitators,” as you put it. You show that they were among the early critics of capitalism, imperialism, and sexism. How did they connect these issues together?

Besides the centrality of slave resistance in the history of abolition, I think that the other important intervention that the book makes is to look at the ways in which abolitionists have tried to create a transnational network of protest and overlapped with other causes of their times. The conventional picture is that abolitionists just focused on racial slavery and forgot about everything else especially when it came to the plight of the working poor in free societies. I found that not to be the case.
The Garrisonians in particular cultivated connections with the Chartist movement in Britain. Garrison himself is so critical of the rise of industrial and financial capitalism. There’s a quote that I have of him critiquing Wall Street, and every time I read it, people think that I am quoting Bernie Sanders, but this is Garrison in 1840! Conventionally historians have stressed the relationships between abolitionists and the moral reform causes of the time, like the Temperance movement. In fact, while they believed in temperance, abolitionists had contested relationships with the Temperance movement because they knew that this movement was conservative and racially exclusive. So they were critical of it and some other religious and moral reform causes that were willing to include slaveholders but not blacks.
Abolitionists overlapped far more with contemporary radical movements like utopian socialism, communitarian societies, land reform, the early labor movement, and the women's rights movement, which literally emerges from abolitionism—there’s no doubt, in my mind, that the abolitionist feminists are the ones who concertedly linked human rights and women’s rights and I make that point in the book. The first international peace movement is something that abolitionists also were very involved with.
The other thing that finally struck me—and escaped most American historians because those links are probably not familiar to them—is the fact that the abolitionist literature referred to early Indian nationalists by name. There's a British India Society composed of British abolitionists and Indian nationalists in which American abolitionists, mainly Garrisonians, become involved and really staunch critics of British imperialism.
I read many articles in The Liberator critiquing British rule in India, and when in 1857 a revolt takes place in India, Garrison saw it through the lens of slave rebellion. He says that the British acted like slaveholders in suppressing the rebellion cruelly, with mass torture and death. It was interesting that slavery informed the way he looked at how the British were dealing with Indian opposition.
Many of their descendants actually became involved in the Indian National Congress. Alfred Webb, the son of Richard Webb [1805-72], the Irish abolitionist, was elected honorary president of a meeting of the Indian National Congress and Garrison’s son joined the Anti-Imperialist League. All this struck me as fascinating and relatively unknown in the history of abolition. British abolitionists were sending locks of hair of the Indian nationalist and social reformer, Raja Rammohun Roy [ca. 1772-1833], to the Boston antislavery bazaar to sell—the way they sent locks of hair from William Wilberforce [1759-1833] and Thomas Clarkson [1760-1846].10
So there was an intimate connection. But there was also this sort of sympathy with other causes with the slave's cause, which I found very interesting. I wanted to make that point in the book because it so goes against the ways in which American historians have understood abolitionists.

It is fascinating because we tend to think that transnational social movements are very recent. Abolitionism was one of the first—maybe the first—transnational social movement of that scope.

Absolutely. They were talking about disfranchised sections of the nation long before us. In the 19th century, with the rise of liberal nationalism in Europe and the 1848 revolutions, which has its liberal side but also its more radical internationalist side, one can trace the transnational connections between American abolitionists and European revolutionaries. Abolitionists belong to the radical international side.
You have instances where Karl Marx is writing for an antislavery newspaper in the U.S. and the ways in which all these radical movements start overlapping and pick up in the 1860s and 1870s. It’s something that fascinated me and challenged the notion of abolitionists as these bourgeois liberal reformers. They were quite radical: They’re talking about redistribution of property, they’re talking about the rights of Native Americans because they draw parallels between the oppression of African slaves and the ways European settlers trampled the rights of Natives, the treatment of labor and the environment. And I think that is actually quite far-sighted for that time period.

Abolition as a matrix of radical social movements

In The Slave’s Cause, you say that the abolition movement remains the “template of a social movement” and a source of political inspiration. Can you comment on this?

When I was writing the Epilogue of my book—“The Abolitionist Origins of American Democracy”— I was thinking of the legacy of the abolition movement. When we look at some of the later labor movements or the emergence of the populist movement11, and later on of the Civil Rights movement, they referred to abolition as an ideal radical social movement.
This was something I did not have to make up because the later activists refer to abolitionists in their works. Civil rights activists call themselves the “New Abolitionists.” They call their attempt to acquire civil and political rights for African Americans the Second Reconstruction of American democracy. The founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [NAACP] in 1909, particularly Du Bois, referred to the abolitionist heritage. He called it “abolition democracy” in terms of implementing the vision of the abolitionists in the U.S. In the late 19th century, the populist movement adopted the abolitionist lecturing agency system. Because abolitionists were successful, they became a model for later radicals who adopted some of their tactics and ideas in order to implement political change.
Of course, that's just in terms of legacy, because the 19th century was a very different world from the 20th century and certainly the 21st century. But some of the basic ideas that the abolitionists had, particularly in terms of the criminalization of blackness or their opposition to capital punishment—this is particularly true of the Garrisonians—are issues we are still contending with in the U.S. You know Garrison once said that all institutions in America are shut to black people except prisons. That's still true today, not completely true, but mass incarceration is a huge problem today. Black nationalists named their papers The Liberator, opponents of mass incarceration call their paper Abolition, Angela Davis used “abolition democracy” for her book12. So I started thinking about that when I was writing the Epilogue. I was thinking: “Wait a minute, a lot of these ideas, a lot of these tactics started with the abolitionists.”
It may not be exactly the same thing in terms of replicating the movement, because you can't do that in different historical contexts, but some of those ideas, those tactics, those legacies have lived on, particularly about racial inequality that still plagues American democracy and global society. In that sense I find that abolition was a template for subsequent radical movements in the United States. The fact that abolitionists were successful—not many radical movements in American history have been that successful, at least for a few years they were able to implement their vision for democracy—is why they continue to inspire subsequent generations of American radicals.

In retrospect, abolitionists appear to be very radical, even today. How would you define radicalism?

The term radicalism can be seen also as a pejorative—like someone who is too extreme, fanatical, and radical. And many opponents of abolitionists thought that. But the abolitionists adopted the term. They would name their parties, Radical Political Abolitionists or Radical Republicans. They adopted it for themselves because they saw in it something to be proud of or something that they could lay claim to.
I think that they meant a radical re-imagining of what existed. Because if you look at what existed before the Civil War, the American state is dominated by slaveholders at every level. The 1850s in that regard are particularly bad because it's virtually a one-party rule of the Democratic party which is very Southern leaning at that time. For abolitionists, opposing federal laws, like the Fugitive Slave law [1850], was a radical act. Then Radical Reconstruction [1865-72] tried to implement this abolitionist democracy.
In that sense, I used the term radical because abolitionists used it themselves. But I also used it in terms of radical social movements from the left. Radical has a certain ideological tendency—some equate the radical right and the radical left. But I'm careful about the terms I use: There is a difference between reactionary movements and radical movements whose ideologies are more progressive. So I use it in that way: a radical social movement as self-description but also looking at the context of the ideology of the movement as a radical movement that tries to re-imagine democracy and re-imagine society from the way it exists.

Would you say that in a way you are a historian of US radicalism?

I teach a course on the radical tradition in American history, modeled a little bit after the way Eric Foner taught it at Columbia University13. So I have always been interested in this notion of radical social movements in the U.S. and in how that contradicts the picture that we have of the U.S. as a liberal democratic nation, were there was no conflict in the development of democracy, which has always been liberal, middle-class—what we used to call “consensus history.”14 Sometimes it is also known as American exceptionalism. And if you look at the history of the Civil War and the conflict over slavery, or if you study African American history in general, you realize that this picture is not accurate.

The abolition movement raises the issue of the “allies” of a social movement. There’s much discussion about the “white allies” of the Black Lives Matter movement today. Does it make sense to use this term for 19th-century abolitionism?

I do think that black people have white allies at various levels, like antislavery politicians and lawyers who represent them. They are certainly allies. But I see white abolitionists as more than just allied with the slaves’ cause because they are also part of the movement. So even though African Americans and their concerns occupy a central place in the book, I think the role of the white abolitionists may go beyond that of allies. They are part of this movement. It is an interracial movement. And sometimes the influence is going both ways. I think it is racialist in a way, to say that black people were at the forefront of everything and that they were the real activists, and that whites just came along. I think it's not accurate when you talk about the abolitionist movement.
Maybe you can talk about white allies during the Civil Rights movement, because this was first and foremost a grassroots, black, Southern mass movement. With abolition, especially in the North where black people represent two percent of the population, it is an interracial movement. It has more white members simply because of population statistics. So I see them as much more than allies, they call themselves co-agitators of the cause, meaning they are co-advocates of this cause.
Speaking of interracialism in the abolition movement, historian John Stauffer looked at four or five outstanding figures15, and in particular James McCune Smith [1813-65]. Smith was a black abolitionist who argued that if whites joined the abolitionist movement, they needed to have “black hearts.” It’s a 19th-century way of talking about race as a social construct, which complicates our notions of race. There is actually a debate among black abolitionists on whether they should accept Western constructions of race because they are fighting against scientific racism. So there is this abstract debate: “Should we even accept categories of race when we are fighting against it? Shouldn’t we just talk about human rights and the human race?” That’s a very modern idea: We keep talking about the construction of racial ideologies and race as a construct in order to implement certain rights and to exclude certain people. I think they went pretty far in trying to contest both gender and race. In her essay entitled “Man versus Men, Woman versus Women,” Margaret Fuller [1810-50] did that for gender16. She tries to deconstruct gender in a similar manner.
That interested me and I was much less prone to see racial divisions within the abolitionist movement the way historians had done earlier, when arguing that there was so much racism within the abolition movement that black abolitionists were really ineffective, they were a failure. I think that is a wrong way of understanding interracial relationships within abolition. Yes, there are instances of racial paternalism and black abolitionists immediately called white abolitionists out on it. Abolition has created this alternative interracial space where these debates can take place, where people can talk about racism and paternalistic attitudes. For instance, black abolitionist John Rock [1825-66] accuses another abolitionist Theodore Parker [1810-60] of being a romantic racialist, and he said, “Wait a minute, you can't talk like that about Anglo-Saxons and Africans as if they had some innate traits.” The fact that these debates were possible was important for me to look at.
So I complicated a little bit the simple racial binaries used to describe abolition. In that sense, I find that the abolitionist movement is a little different from the Civil Rights movement just because abolition was so interracial in the North, while the Civil Rights movement was really a grassroots black movement with white allies coming and joining from the North and maybe a handful in the South. There, the question of white allies may be more appropriate. But for the abolition movement, the allies are really the antislavery politicians and lawyers like Lincoln. The movement itself was composed of ordinary blacks and whites, men and women had found some common ground to agitate these causes.
And yes in all human relationships there is cooperation and conflict. But most of the time conflicts did not occur along simple racial lines. For example, during the famous feud between Douglass and Garrison, some blacks went with Garrison and some whites went with Douglass. To portray that as simply a racial feud, I think, is misunderstanding it.

Thinking social movements today

What can our colleagues who work on social movements but who are not specialists of 19th-century U.S. history learn from the abolition movement?

What was interesting for me was that I got many of my ideas on social movements not from historians but from historical sociologists like Doug McAdam and Aldon Morris, who have written on social movements17. I found their ideas really helpful in thinking about abolition. And because I deal a lot with constitutional change and the ways in which abolitionists debate the U.S. Constitution, I think that the book might be of interest for historians of law and the Constitution and political scientists and theorists. You know, history is one of the subjects that lies at the cusp of the humanities and the social sciences and when I wrote this book I realized how much I have been influenced by scholars of literature and philosophy, but also by social scientists, like political scientists and sociologists, who formally look at social movements and political change. And that helped me.
I still write as a historian but I wrote The Slave’s Cause so that not only academics but even activists can read it and find something there that might speak to them. People told me: “You wrote this book because you knew current radical movements such as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter would become big.” I wish I was that prescient, that I could see into the future. But I started writing the book ten years ago when I had no idea that Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street would emerge as radical social movements. I know though that activists within those movements have become interested in my book, which for me was quite heartening because I thought it was having an impact outside academia too in terms of activism today.

What was your methodology to address abolitionism as a social movement? Did you have a specific method?

The method that I used—and it is evident in the chapter entitled “Abolition Emergent”—is one that Lawrence Goodwyn developed when he wrote about the populist movement in the Democratic Promise[fn]Lawrence Goodwyn, The Democratic Promise: The Populist Movement in America, New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.. Goodwyn delineated four stages of how a social movement develops18. He is a historian though not as formal as some of the historical sociologists I mentioned, but he looks at the formation, the emergence of the movement, and the moment the movement takes off. And when I look at the stages that he had laid out in his book I could actually track that within the abolition movement. For me, it was really a useful method to look at how the movement forms, comes into being with ideas that people coalesce around, in organizations.
How does the movement emerge with independent organizations and means of communication, with the vast abolitionist print culture? How does it get disseminated with the lecturing system? When can a movement be identified as a specific movement in itself, not just as a part of other institutions or something else in society? So I found Goodwyn’s typology—those four stages—very useful and I used it implicitly because I wrote the book as a narrative so that it can be accessible to someone interested in the scholarship—there are more than 100 pages of footnotes!—as well as a lay person who may not be familiar with social movement theory.

Did you design a specific methodology for your primary sources? The mass of primary sources you have read is impressive. Did you tell yourself: “OK, let’s read them all”?

My former adviser Eric Foner says that might be my biggest fault: I research too much. And it is: I tried to read everything. I love my topic. In a way, I thought I needed to do that if I was to overturn what was the conventional historical wisdom. I had to prove my point; I could not simply state it. And much of what I said emerged from my sources.
When I started the book, I looked at sources that historians have ignored like early black writing—only people in literature looked at that, historians did not. I took that seriously. I also looked at some of the big collections that other abolition historians have looked at, like the antislavery collection in the Boston Public Library, Samuel May’s big collection, and Gerrit Smith’s papers that have been microfilmed and digitized. The digitization of my sources helped me a lot.
One of the main sources for 19th-century American history are newspapers. You can learn so much. I realized that with my first book. I actually read every abolitionist newspaper, including The Liberator, all thirty-four years of it, page by page. I got a sense of how the movement developed. If I had not done that I would not have been able to write this book because I really got to look at all the public literature that abolitionists had published (the pamphlets, the slave narratives which lately have all been digitized). You know, I had all these sources because of digitization at my fingertips sometimes.
I also tended to pay a lot more attention at the manuscript sources. They’re not that much, they're not as extensive as for prominent politicians, whose papers are printed in multi volumes. But there was substantial private correspondence and manuscripts, especially from prominent abolitionists, that I could get and that I could read. It was important for me to look at black abolitionist papers which I read first as books in print, then on microfilm, and then they were digitized. In my footnotes I have the black abolitionist papers cited in all three forms because as I was writing the book those papers were being digitized. You know, obscure African American newspapers have now been digitized and they now are available. All that gives you a sense of black abolitionism. Now the proceedings of the black national and state conventions have also been digitized, but when I was writing the book they hadn’t been. I read all the volumes and all the proceedings and now I own some copies!
So yes, I cast my net very wide and I was able also to look at some British abolition material because Gale has digitized everything related to slavery and antislavery19. It is a difficult collection to use because it is not very well cataloged, but if you persist you can find everything. I did not have to go to Britain to look at all those digitized material and it really helped me in terms of primary research.

Grassroots radical movements tend to stimulate the emergence of new ideas and concepts. For instance, the concept of “institutional racism” emerged during the Black Power movement. According to you, why do these movements inspire new ideas?

I think that grassroots radical movements expand the radical imagination and the political vocabulary. If you look at the abolitionist movement, I would make the case that the systematic use of human rights is something that the abolitionists do first. It was there before and it emerged well before the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights in the 20th century. Abolitionists had a journal that they called Human Rights. They refer to human rights, women's rights—or woman rights—and it is not just a liberal rights-based language. I think it has much in common with the universalist notion of natural rights: By looking at its exclusions, they come up with different ideas like human rights and women's rights. They go beyond the revolutionary consensus of natural rights.
In that sense, they are a movement that is somewhat in the middle of that earlier 18th-century revolutionary world of which the modern West is born, and the 20th-century issues and movements that we talk about: economic rights, social justice, etc. You know, that language has evolved but it does not evolve just because Western democracies are so great, but because these radicals have pushed in developing these ideas.
I think of abolitionists as a kind of a hybrid movement that has a bit of the older 18th-century moralism with ideas about moral sentiments and natural rights in it and that is also looking forward to the 20th century with concepts of economic rights, human rights, women's rights, and issues of entrenched racial inequality. For instance, they would not use “institutional racism” but the way in which they were talking about it points toward this evolution. So this is the way I think they really did make a difference in developing a discourse of democratic radicalism that we are still building on.

As a conclusion, can you tell us what your current research is about?

I’m going back to high politics—very different from the grassroots look at social movements. I am writing a book on Reconstruction. I am looking at what happened to the abolition project but also the enormous changes in state formation, the Constitution and the law during Reconstruction. I think the center of gravity during the Civil War and Reconstruction does move from grassroots politics to government, to the federal government and the state governments in the South.
I’m really interested in looking at what happened during Reconstruction and why it was overthrown, and the idea that abolition was triumphant while in fact it was all undone very quickly by the end of the century. This book is more about high politics looking at how the Constitution is remade, looking at the ways in which even that is nullified. Now we live in an era where it seems particularly apt, when we did not think that things could go backwards so fast—exactly what happened with the fall of Reconstruction. I’m thinking about those things while I’m writing this book but I really wanted to look at what the possibilities and limits of implementing change were, even at so high a political level.

Interview conducted at the Bibliothèque nationale de France on January 10, 2018.
Transcript, editing, and footnotes by Nicolas Martin-Breteau,
historian of the United States, University of Lille,
member of the editorial board of Critique internationale.

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  • 1. Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016. See, among others, the review of the book by Ira Berlin, New York Times, February 26, 2016).
  • 2. Manisha Sinha, The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
  • 3. The Underground Railroad is a 19th-century metaphor for the many networks, clandestine or not, that helped fugitive slaves seek refuge in the North or abroad.
  • 4. Like in 1839, after the famous slave revolt aboard La Amistad.
  • 5. “The White Man’s Burden” (1899) is Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem describing the colonial and civilizing mission of the United States in the Philippines.
  • 6. Born a slave, Frederick Douglass was the most prominent black abolitionist in the United States. He notably published Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845).
  • 7. Around 1830, about 435,000 people could vote in England and Wales for a population of about 14 million. At the same time, in the United States, there were about 1.1 million voters for a population of about 12.9 million.
  • 8. W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880, New York: The Free Press, 1998 [1935]. The Reconstruction period began with the abolition of slavery in 1865. Reconstruction policies were aimed at “rebuilding” the country, including the vanquished South, by guaranteeing the existence of a multiracial democracy in the United States. Reconstruction was overthrown by a violent racist counter-revolution that lasted until the end of the 19th century.
  • 9. William Lloyd Garrison, founder of the newspaper The Liberator (1831) and the American Anti-Slavery Society (1832), was the most prominent white abolitionist in the United States.
  • 10. Exchanging locks of hair as souvenirs between relatives or friends, for example by mail, was a common practice at the time. On abolitionist markets, alongside books, newspapers, postcards, clothes, and various handicrafts, one could buy locks of hair that had belonged to leading abolitionist figures and, by doing so, support the cause financially.
  • 11. In the 1890s, the populist movement structured a vast and powerful mobilization of farmers around a new political party, the People’s Party, which demanded profound economic and social changes in the United States.
  • 12. Angela Y. Davis, Abolition Democracy: Beyond Prison, Torture and Empire, New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005.
  • 13. Eric Foner (born 1943) is an American historian, specializing in the Civil War and the Reconstruction era. Several of his books are essential references on these topics.
  • 14. “Consensus history” refers to a set of historiographical works of the 1950s and 1960s which explore the history of American democracy while minimizing the role played by social conflicts.
  • 15. John Stauffer, The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001, p. 1-7 and passim.
  • 16. Margaret Fuller, “The Great Lawsuit: Man versus Men, Woman versus Women,” The Dial, IV, July 1843. This document is considered as the founding text of feminism in the United States.
  • 17. See in particular, Douglas McAdam, Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999 (2nd ed.); Aldon Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change, New York: The Free Press, 1984.
  • 18. Goodwyn distinguishes four stages in the establishment of a mass social movement: 1) the formation of an autonomous organization developing heterodox political analyzes; 2) the creation of tactical means to recruit members and supporters; 3) the dissemination to the public of an apparatus of coherent social criticism; 4) the politicization of what has become a movement through institutional means.
  • 19. Gale Digital Archives, « Slavery and Anti-Slavery: A Transnational Archive »,
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