Top positive review
like the work of contemporary revisionist historian Steven Hahn
Reviewed in the United States on February 7, 2018
A Spellbinding Odyssey For Our Troubled Times
A half-century ago, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote of the necessity for international understanding and cooperation. Using the metaphor of "The World House," in his Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, Dr. King observed: "In one sense the civil rights movement in the United States is a special American phenomenon which must be understood in the light of American history and dealt with in terms of the American situation."
Historian and University of Connecticut professor Manisha Sinha has taken up Dr. King's challenge. She significantly expands our multidimensional awareness of the centuries long struggle with the practices of enslavement. In contrast to Dr. King's "world house," Dr. Sinha's magisterial accomplishment, The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition (2016), suggests a mansion, every room of which exhibits facets of abolitionism, both American and foreign. In short, The Slave's Cause is an act of recovery, rescuing from obscurity a host of characters. It illuminates a variety of approaches to social activism, rebellions, resistance, rivalries, triumphs, debacles and myths, emphasizing the centrality, creativity and perseverance of African American agency in liberation efforts.
By way of introduction, in the foyer of Dr. Manisha's mansion she begins to dispel some of the myths of African American abolitionism and American slavery. That the agitation was a white, mostly male, middle-class phenomenon; that immediate emancipation was an objective from the very beginning. "The sectional divisions over slavery belies generalizations of either an antislavery revolutionary generation or the equally flattering notion of a proslavery consensus among the founders," she writes. "Antislavery sentiment among the founding fathers may have been widespread, but committed abolitionists were few and far between." On the other hand, abolitionists were hardly a monolithic entity; instead, unity coexisted with factionalism, vigorous dissent and, occasionally, startling successes.
The Slave's Cause delineates the roots of abolitionist fervor in the eighteenth century. We witness the pioneering works of Roger Williams, Thomas Paine, the Puritan reverends Samuel Sewall and John Eliot, "as religious revival spurred revolutionary abolition." Professor Sinha cogently identifies the foundational role of Quakers: commencing with the Philadelphia schoolteacher Anthony Benezet, "the hunchbacked, vegetarian, Quaker dwarf Benjamin Lay," the peripatetic journeyman John Woolman, the reformer Elias Hicks, the black Massachusetts sea captain Paul Cuffee and newspaper publisher Benjamin Lundy, among others.
Professor Sinha lucidly demonstrates the seismic shock waves which reverberated throughout nineteenth-century America due to the Haitian Revolution, pinpointing its effects on transnational abolition efforts and countermeasures by proslavery advocates. Here she enlarges the consequential dimensions of the Haitian insurgency in the footsteps of former diplomat and author Gordon S. Brown's Toussaint's Clause: The Founding Fathers and the Haitian Revolution (2005). She explores the implications of Brown's contention that " . . . the Haitians transformed a colonial revolt into a thoroughgoing social revolution," with far-reaching aftershocks on the American body politic and in socio-economic realms.
Poignant and frequently engrossing anecdotes enliven this compelling mixture of narrative and analytic passages. One of the mansion's rooms could be devoted to capsule portraits of a captivating range of historical figures, for instance: the cross-dressing slave elopers William and Ellen Craft, George Washington's change of heart kindled by the gentle criticism of poet Phillis Wheatley, the chaotic rescue of fugitive slave Shadrach Minkins and the ill-fated rescue of Anthony Burns, the strident jeremiads of pamphleteer David Walker, and the militant naturalist Henry David Thoreau. Furthermore, there's the indefatigable Cape Cod seaman Austin Bearse transporting runaways in his dory, the Moby Dick, the thoroughly anti-abolitionist Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the lexicographer Noah Webster who would argue, "'oppression is the mother of all crimes' and that "slavery had similar effects on slaves of all nations." Here, too, are the Hutchinson Family Singers, regaling and educating their nineteenth-century audiences with abolitionist hymns, stories, slogans and social commentary, forerunners of the 1960's folk trio, Peter, Paul and Mary.
Forerunners of the modern twentieth-century civil rights movement abound in this comprehensive volume. An intrepid archaeologist of abolitionist ingenuity and diversity, Manisha Sinha reveals how "desegregation was most successful in Massachusetts, where the story of civil rights [was] born in the age of abolition." Among a cavalcade of vigilance committees, demonstrations, protest marches, petitions, abolition fairs and conventions, fundraisers, impassioned editorials and runaway slave narratives, the opponents of enslavement confronted and often confounded the lords of the loom, the lords of the lash and slavery's apologists. In our tour guide's estimation: "African Americans . . . remained instrumental in developing movement strategy and ideology, taking on the burden of redefining the white man's democracy." Particularly fascinating is her explication of the roots of a "transnational network of radical protest," extending far beyond an American Underground Railroad to Europe, the Caribbean, South America, Africa and Asia.
Ms. Sinha's bold reinterpretation of the abolitionist odyssey, like the work of contemporary revisionist historian Steven Hahn, is singularly effective in showcasing the revolutionary impact of women in abolition, especially their formidable capacity to go beyond the boundaries of social convention and political practice. Thus, central to the crusade against enslavement is the crucial role of largely forgotten females such as the schoolteacher and choir mistress Susan Paul, the travel writer Mary Prince, orators Lydia Maria Child, Maria Stewart and the feisty firebrand Abby Kelley, as well as poet Sarah Wentworth Apthorp Morton - aroused feminine sensibilities which would prove essential to the success of the abolitionist enterprise. Even Frederick Douglass, in the professor's retelling, was moved to praise "the brilliant talents and excellent dispositions" of the women and "gave a full-throated endorsement of female quality," this seventy-two years before women were accorded the right to vote in the United States. In a sense, therefore, the current #MeToo movement adds further credence to William Faulkner's observation that "The past is never dead. It is not even past."
One of the most significant insights to be gained by reading this absorbing chronicle is the flowering of social reform movements inspired by and impacted upon by abolitionism, to wit: Indian removals, women's rights, marriage, temperance and prison reform. Once more, a ripple effect becomes evident in campaigns against pseudoscientific theories of race, race inequality and racial discrimination, in emigration and colonization debates, Pan-Africanism, the quests for citizenship and educational access, the popularity of fugitive slave narratives and African American autobiographies. As a crosscurrent (or rip tide) to these social activism efforts, abolitionism sparked critiques of war, capitalism and imperialism, solidifying bonds of solidarity and discourse with the European revolutionaries of 1848, Irish peasants, British workers, communitarians, utopians, socialists and American Transcendentalists.
Rigorously documented, epic in range yet finely attuned to local developments and nuances of character and motivation, The Slave's Cause is notably arresting in tracing the protracted political contest between property rights and human rights. Recent news stories about the Ivy League's complicity in "The Trade" corroborate Ms. Sinha's dissection of various unsettling antebellum American business practices still relevant to current debates on "free trade" and globalization.
An indispensable, indeed vital, work for history enthusiasts, academics, educators and anyone curious about the roots of our contemporary political dysfunction, resurgent racism, populist nativism and general incivility will be richly rewarded by this work of analytical scope and depth. In contemplating the residual effects of America's "Original Sin," Manisha Sinha's scholarship invites the reader to reconsider Shakespeare's view of history: "Whereof what's past is prologue."
Kevin J. Aylmer
Roxbury Community College
7 February 2018