Give the Abolitionists a Break
Written by: Ethan J. Kytle
150 Years since the 13th Amendment
Ethan J. Kytle, the author of Romantic Reformers and the Antislavery Struggle in the Civil War Era, reflects on how the abolitionist movement and the end of US slavery is represented—and remembered—today.
One hundred and fifty years ago last month, on January 31, 1865, the United States House of Representatives voted in favor of the 13th Amendment—an amendment that, after ratification by three-fourths of the states, would abolish slavery in the country once and for all. Unfortunately, over the last few years this momentous event has become an unlikely vehicle by which to diminish the contributions of some of slavery’s most vigorous critics: the abolitionists.
Take Steven Spielberg’s popular and award-winning 2012 movie, Lincoln, which dramatizes the political machinations over and legislative debates about the amendment in the weeks leading up to its passage. Although a fine film on many fronts—not least of which is Daniel Day-Lewis’s brilliant portrayal of Abraham Lincoln—it also reifies the popular myth of the president as the “Great Emancipator” by casting more radical opponents of slavery in an unflattering light. Spielberg, for instance, juxtaposes Day-Lewis’s firm and politically astute Lincoln with David Costabile’s pusillanimous James Ashley and Tommy Lee Jones’s naively idealistic Thaddeus Stevens. Indeed, as one critic of the film has written, Stevens’s “one…shining heroic moment” in the film is “when he keeps silent about what he really believes.”
What’s more, by focusing on such a narrow window of time (the final few weeks of a decades long struggle against slavery), Spielberg gives short shrift to the vast majority of individuals who contributed to emancipation—from abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, Lydia Maria Child, and Frederick Douglass, who had fought slavery since the 1830s, to the hundreds of thousands of slaves who liberated themselves over the course of the war. To use a football-inspired analogy, if the campaign against slavery was a ninety-nine-yard touchdown drive, then Spielberg picks up his narrative at first and goal from the one. While rookie quarterback Abraham Lincoln should be lauded for successfully pushing the ball into the end zone (or at least for not throwing a goal-line interception like Russell Wilson did during the recent Super Bowl), we must not forget that his antislavery teammates did just as much, if not far more, to move the ball down the field.
Historian Jon Grinspan goes one step further than Spielberg in an essay published late last month on the New York Times’s excellent “Disunion” blog to mark the anniversary of the passage of the 13th Amendment. Grinspan, unlike Spielberg, does not ignore the abolitionists’ antebellum crusade against slavery. Instead, he provocatively argues that it was “a flop.” The responsibility for abolition, insists Grinspan, lies at the feet of southern fire-eaters, who alienated northern allies and started the war, and northern moderates, such as Lincoln, who “became convinced that ‘we must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued.’”
One flaw in Grinspan’s argument is that he too neatly divides the antislavery movement of the 1830s-1850s from the secession crisis and the war years. It was, after all, abolitionists’ words and actions—including the American Anti-Slavery Society’s mail campaign and petition drives, the resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law mounted by northern vigilance committees, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 blockbuster novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry—that stoked the outrage of fire-eaters and heightened sectional tensions in the first place.
Grinspan also makes the mistake of approaching abolition as a zero-sum game. “Those upright, moral, prewar abolitionists did not succeed,” he concludes. “It was the flexibility of the Northern moderates, those flip-floppers who voted against abolition before they voted for it,” that “really ended 250 years of slavery.” Yet the process by which slavery was destroyed—like most historical topics worthy of study—was hardly so simple or clear-cut. In the end, both the abolitionists and northern moderates (and many others, including the enslaved themselves) had a hand in defeating slavery.
The following excerpt from my book, Romantic Reformers and the Antislavery Struggle in the Civil War, offers an alternative reading of the role that the abolitionists played in the eradication of slavery. Focusing on Emancipation Day, 1863, this selection explores how the Union’s new policies on emancipation and black recruitment were indebted to the ideas and influence of a second generation of antislavery activists—Douglass, Stowe, Theodore Parker, Martin Robison Delany, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson (a group I call the New Romantics).
Download an excerpt from Romantic Reformers and the Antislavery Struggle in the Civil War here.