Commentary Magazine


The Abolitionists, by Louis Ruchames

Freedom Now

The Abolitionists.
by Louis Ruchames.
Putnam. 259 pp. $5.00.

This Anthology of the early writings and exhortations of the abolitionists, principally from 1830 to 1848, inevitably takes on special significance in 1963. Throughout this centennial year of the Emancipation Proclamation we have been reminded almost daily of how percipient Wendell Phillips was when he observed, “That proclamation frees the slaves but ignores the negro.” Nevertheless, in and of itself the Emancipation Proclamation represented the successful culmination of some three decades of abolitionist agitation, and so it is only natural that civil rights partisans of today should be tempted to draw parallels between that era and ours.

Although Mr. Ruchames scrupulously refrains from diagramming these parallels, they continually leap to the eye in his introduction, outlining the development of abolitionism, as well as in his annotated selections. For example, Mr. Ruchames writes as follows of the cul-de-sac in which abolitionism found itself in 1829: “The greatest need was a reexamination of its basic strategy which had been based upon ‘moderation’ and ‘temperance’ in describing the nature of slavery and the responsibility of the slaveholder; the espousal of ‘gradualism’ and colonization of former slaves to areas outside the United States as the most feasible methods of hastening the end of slavery; and an emphasis upon convincing the slaveholder that it was to his economic interest to liberate the slave and utilize free labor instead.” Then, after listing some five reasons why “moderation” failed, Mr. Ruchames brings William Lloyd Garrison onto the stage, “with a revolutionary philosophy that challenged every basic assumption of the existing anti-slavery societies.” And the contemporary reader is irresistibly reminded of the radical shift in the new Negro’s drive for civil rights, from the social welfare work of the Urban League and the courtroom tests of the NAAGP to the direct action approach taken by SCLC, GORE, and SNCC

The strategic insufficiency of gradualism for our own revolutionary times has been recognized not only by the new generation demanding Freedom Now, but also by those who have themselves been in the forefront of the prolonged legal contests. Thus, Judge Thurgood Marshall was recently quoted in the New York Times: “‘I’m a gradualist,’ he said, with reference to the long struggle to enforce the 14th and 15th amendments dealing with Negro rights, ‘but one hundred years is gradual enough.’”

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The rhetoric of the newly militant anti-slavery groups of the pre-Civil War period was built on much the same assault upon the traditional arguments of legalism, custom, and moderation. In 1833, John Greenleaf Whittier noted specifically that “the term immediate is used in contrast with that of gradual,” when he pleaded for “immediate abolition of slavery; an immediate acknowledgment of the great truth, that man cannot hold property in man; an immediate surrender of baneful prejudice to Christian love; an immediate practical obedience to the command of Jesus Christ: ‘Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so to them.’” Fifteen years later, Theodore Parker, addressing the 1848 convention of the New England Anti-Slavery Society, was willing to concede that “Something can be done by the gradual elevation of men, by schools and churches, by the press.” “But that is slow work,” he hastened to add, “this waiting for a general morality to do a special act. It is going without dinner till the wheat is grown for your bread. So we want direct and immediate action upon the people themselves.”

So, with the arrival of Garrison (at least as Mr. Ruchames arranges the scene for us), came the conquering spirit of revolutionary immediacy and absolute opposition to compromise or opportunism, and the result was inevitable—as are some further comparisons. Thus the Rev. Amos Phelps, in his 1834 Address to Clergymen, explained that “Ministers are, in an eminent degree the HINGES of public sentiment in respect to all prevailing sins. Once get the public sentiment of the ministry right, and then inspire them with courage to speak that sentiment out, and you revolutionize the public sentiment of the community in a trice.” The 1960′s, too, have felt the force of an inspired Negro clergy, with the Kings, Abernathys, Shuttleworths, and Taylors striking to the hearts not only of the Negroes but of the white clergy as well, and—when their sentiment soars high enough—of many who stand outside the boundaries of organized Christianity.

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When Martin Luther King intoned at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, “I have a dream,” the incantation mesmerized the hundreds of thousands of us gathered there, and many of the millions watching and listening across the country. And we are tempted to establish a close connection between the rhetoric of the abolitionists, clergymen, and lay orators alike, and the freeing of the slaves; and in consequence to look to that rhetoric for inspiration in the final freeing of their descendants.

At its best, we can sec that rhetoric as ennobling and inspiriting, and startlingly contemporary in its applicability. The fact remains, however, that it can also grow shrill and tiresome in its self-righteousness, and the historical evidence for its being a paramount element in the freeing of the slaves is, to say the least, far from decisive. It is useful to have a corrective to the traditional academic portrait of Garrison as a simple nut and of the Garrisonians as ineffectual do-gooders; but still this book groans under the load of the preaching of so many humorless zealots, and its editor—a Hillel director at Smith, Amherst, and the University of Massachusetts—gives no indication of his awareness of that weight. On the contrary, his absolute hero, with only passing reference to the critical estimations of him by other abolitionists, and none at all to those of later historians, is the compulsive Garrison. The reader is left to presume, as he gropes through Mr. Ruchames’s fragmented and confusing account of the period, that simply because Garrison cut to the moral heart of the matter, and because he knew, rather than patronized, the Negro, he had hold of the truth as no one else did. Moreover, the reader is invited to conclude that a single revolutionary truth will in all likelihood prove as efficacious today as it seems to have in Garrison’s.

But surely we have no more warrant for reading this into an earlier era than we do for believing it about our own time. The fact that Negroes are now chaining themselves to dump trucks or producing orators of a kind not heard in the land since William Jennings Bryan does not mean that they can afford, for example, to dispense with court battles. And the ultimate triumph of the abolitionists’ call for absolute emancipation with no nonsense about compensation or colonization does not in itself prove Garrison was right in renouncing politics, in burning the Constitution, in calling for Northern secession.

Indeed, the narrowness of Mr. Ruchames’s view, while it does bring into focus certain historical parallels, forecloses the possibility of investigating certain other ones, which might have proved even more fruitful. What of the question, for example, of non-violence as strategy or as tactic? Wendell Phillips said, in a statement not reproduced in this anthology, “I confess I am not a non-resistant. The reason why I advise the slave to be guided by a policy of peace is because he has no chance.” Or what of the Negro’s quest for reliable allies? Here too the observer who sees the Negro freedom movement passing over willy-nilly into the economic realm, and forced to make contact with white trade unionists and with the unemployed—both already being swamped, like the Negro, in the tide of automation—ought to consider the relevance of Richard Hofstadter’s closing remarks in his essay on Wendell Phillips:

. . . the abolitionists themselves learned much from participation in politics, not the least of which was the lesson that a strategy dictated by absolute moral intransigence, however defensible in logic, was not so effective in reality as a strategy qualified by opportunism. They learned that the abolition of slavery must be linked with other, more material issues to reach its full political strength. Political abolitionism, as it became more and more dilute in principle, somehow became stronger and stronger as an actual menace to slavery . . .

One need not necessarily agree with such conclusions to deplore the fact that Mr. Ruchames displays no evidence in this anthology of having confronted Hofstadter—if only to quarrel with him—or any other of the historians who have been rethinking our past in terms more complex than those of contempt for the abolitionists or pietistic approval of them. It is a pity, because a rereading today of the abolitionists’ travails and triumphs is not only timely but urgently needed.

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