Southern whites were vicious, and could not be trusted to guarantee black rights. As he put it,. Anti-slavery and radical men demand that the freedmen of the South shall have the right of suffrage and complete equality before the laws, and maintain that the President has the constitutional power to guarantee these rights to the loyal coloured people of the States lately in insurrection.
Like most abolitionists, Ross rejected the politics of racial and sectional reconciliation that emerged after the fall of Reconstruction. Black and white abolitionist memoirs of the underground railroad remain an indispensable source for historians today, who have only recently revived its study after decades of abdicating the subject to lay writers.
Another popular sub-genre of abolitionist memoirs, often not counted as such, were slave narratives written and published in the aftermath of the Civil War. Around fifty-five such narratives saw the light of day only after the war, but they failed to replicate the success of their antebellum predecessors. Not only had antislavery fires cooled in the North, but abolitionists and African Americans also found the racist consensus that marked the post-war nation particularly unresponsive to their experiences. Even the most important of these—the third iteration of Frederick Douglass' iconic autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass , published in —failed to garner the attention and acclaim that had greeted the first two versions.
But, as in the earlier versions of Douglass' narrative, his exceptional talents, life, and career, from slave to statesman, were summoned as an argument for the race.
Black political leader and lawyer George Ruffin wrote in his introduction, "we bring forward Douglass, he cannot be matched. More than any other abolitionist memoir, Douglass' autobiography dwelled at considerable length on the plight of the freed people and the betrayals of Reconstruction. The freedman, he noted, was "turned loose, naked, hungry, and destitute to the open sky" facing the "bitterness and wrath" of his old master. He foresaw the problem of abandoning freed people to the tender mercies of their erstwhile masters:.
Until it shall be safe to leave the lamb in the hold of the lion, the laborer in the power of the capitalist, the poor in the hands of the rich, it will not be safe to leave a newly emancipated people completely in the power of their former masters, especially when such masters have ceased to be such not from enlightened moral convictions but by irresistible force. Black citizenship was the crowning achievement of the abolitionist project, and its overthrow produced precisely what Douglass feared: a nation that turned over the "colored" man, "naked," to their "enemies. This was not a self-satisfied, conservative Douglass writing in his old age as a mere Republican functionary, as claimed by some scholars, but an activist who invoked the bygone lessons of abolitionism.
As he acknowledged, "Forty years of my life have been given to the cause of my people, and if I had forty years more they should all be sacredly given to the same great cause. If I have done something for that cause, I am, after all, more a debtor to it than it is debtor to me.
Despite his personal reconciliation with his master's family and his post-war career as an office holder, Douglass remained an antislavery activist to the very end.
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While he had not supported the Kansas exodus, he wrote and spoke on behalf of Ida B. Wells' anti-lynching campaign on the very eve of his death. Indeed, the dual purpose of redeeming abolitionist "honor" and contemporary activism marked all his last speeches and writings, brilliant eulogies on Garrison, Brown, Sumner, and Lincoln. In fact, post-war black leaders played a pivotal role in the construction of abolitionist memory.
Perhaps the most important of them was Archibald Grimke, who bore the name of his famous abolitionist aunts, and who would write the first biographies of Garrison and Sumner. His eulogy on Wendell Phillips in so enraptured surviving abolitionists such as Theodore Weld, Elizur Wright, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and Samuel Sewell that they insisted on having it published.
In his introduction, Ruffin noted that while most did not appreciate Phillips, "colored people" did. He remembered Garrison and Phillips' "words of wisdom and hope" in one of the last banquets held for them by black Bostonians. Grimke used his eulogy to provide a mini-history of abolition, without which, he contended, "our freedom would never have been born. According to Grimke, the last period of abolition began in and "is not yet finished.
Just as they had pioneered in marking British emancipation in their August First celebrations before the war, African Americans used antislavery funeral rites to commemorate lost allies and rekindle the flagging struggle for racial justice. They insisted on ritualistically commemorating the death of abolitionists such as Garrison, Phillips, and Sumner. Long after abolitionist reunions vanished from the scene, black activists continued to visit the grave of John Brown.
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Through these commemorations, African Americans deployed abolitionist memory in their own struggles against racial inequality. Many of those who sought to remember abolitionists and commemorate their legacy were descendants of abolitionists themselves. It is not surprising, then, to see the children of abolitionists play a significant role in compiling the archives of abolition and antislavery. These books were more than just exercises in filiopiety; they often combined painstaking historical research with collective memories of the movement.
The most important of these was the multi-volume set on the life and times of Garrison put together by his sons, the committee of friends and family who wrote May's memoir, and the biography of James Birney written by his son William Birney, who dedicated his book to students of American history. Radical Republican George Julian not only wrote his own recollections but also a biography of his father-in-law, the pioneering political abolitionist Joshua Giddings.
Edward Pierce compiled the memoir and letters of his mentor Charles Sumner as a tribute after the latter's death. These books marked the transition from the proliferation of abolitionist memoirs to full-fledged efforts to write the history of slavery, abolition, and the war by the participants themselves. In , when abolitionist Austin Willey published a history of antislavery in the nation and his home state of Maine, he still sought to use abolitionist memory as a way to jumpstart the waning struggle for racial equality.
Is our account settled? These works of abolitionist and antislavery history nonetheless incorporated memory and first-hand experiences that had marked the early abolitionist memoirs. In one of the first published works of abolitionist history, John F. Hume made a self-conscious effort to move from the terrain of memory to history in his The Abolitionists Written in response to Theodore Roosevelt's denigration of the abolition movement, Hume, who professed to have been an abolitionist since "boyhood," sought to insert "here and there a little history woven in among strands of memory like a woof in the warp.
Making no pretense of writing objective history, these antislavery histories nevertheless mark the origins of abolitionist historiography. Remarkably free from the triumphal tone of early nationalist historians, they were also less egregious in their biases than the generation of Southern historians and literary scholars who perpetuated the simplistic stereotype of the hypocritical, abolitionist fanatic and the pseudo-science of racial inferiority in the American academy at the turn of the century.
Long viewed as unreliable, vapid, apolitical, and self-congratulatory, works of abolitionist memory and history must be reconsidered as pointed critiques of the nation's dismal failure to live up to the promise of emancipation after the fall of Reconstruction. These "foolish" and radical abolitionist memories serve as an effective historical riposte to the nightmarish reality of racial injustice in post-Reconstruction America. Like Tourgee's novel on the tragic fall of Reconstruction, abolitionist memoirs of the time constructed an alternative history and memory of the past.
As we mark the sesquicentennial of emancipation and the Civil War, abolitionists deserve to occupy a much larger place in our national memory and public commemorations. Some modern activists, like the abolitionists, sought to create an alternative memory of the fight against slavery to justify their struggles. For example, the Populists adopted the abolitionists' lecturing agency system and the American Socialist Eugene Debs invoked their memory as radical dissenters.
A black nationalist magazine in the s adopted the name The Liberator. In truth, these two meanings of the war had been competing from the very beginning. When the New York Independent celebrated John Brown, a man many claimed was partly responsible for this unnecessary fratricide, it crystallized Northern fears about the purpose, course and possible duration of the war.
There were early indications that the war might encompass such aims, even if Lincoln and his administration maintained the opposite message for more than a year.
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Men like Benjamin Butler, most notably, tried to steer the military effort in a potentially abolitionist direction by making Fort Monroe in Virginia a haven for runaway slaves, while Maj. John C. Explore multimedia from the series and navigate through past posts, as well as photos and articles from the Times archive.
Was the war going to be fought for freedom or to preserve the Union? But six months after Fort Sumter, these issues were so hotly contested that the Union effort seemed threatened not merely by the surprisingly capable Confederate forces, but by the battle over abolition and its place in the Union fight. Black soldiers knew therefore that they had to fight to the last inch, because they could not expect to be treated on a basis of equality with their fellows if they were taken captive. Everyone will understand in some way, perhaps imperfectly, what it meant for the slaves.
Very few Americans, I think, understand what that war meant for the non-slaveholding white people of the South, who were, after all, a majority there.
The people who did not create the world of slavery, who did not largely benefit from it except in that it left them in peace, but whose world was thoroughly blasted by the Civil War. The men were taken away to fight in the army, leaving behind families who were unable to take care of the farms without the labor of the men. They didn't have slaves, most of them, so they depended on their own labor.
When the men were gone there was no one to do the heavy work of the farm. They paid a heavy price. They tended also to live in areas where they were in the path of both armies, where they were raided by both armies, where they were subjected to impressment of their produce by both armies, and after the war was over, what had they to show? Not freedom, because they hadn't been slaves, but not the world as they wanted it to be on the day that the country had a new birth of freedom either.
People speak loosely of the Civil War as a great tragedy, a tragedy. For the slave owners it was a disaster, not a tragedy. For the slaves it was liberation, it was a triumph, not a tragedy. But for the non-slaveholding white people I think perhaps it was a tragedy. Room tone. End of room tone. Two beeps for tails. What did Wendell Phillips say? He said, I recognize South Carolina's right, and when they can show me a Constitution that has been accepted by three hundred thousand white men and four hundred thousand black men then I will recognize it.
Why did that war happen? It happened, as Lincoln recognized, because half slave and half free would not work any longer, and that was a truth that was finally recognized, I think. But it's also a story about so many others, about, about William Utley, a Wisconsin soldier who decided that he was not in the army to return fugitive slaves to their owners. The war was the story of men like that and women who seized a chance to gain freedom for themselves when finally history allowed them their moment.
She wrote to Lincoln and said, listen, if they do this, you have to retaliate against their prisoners of war, and she said, I wish i could quote you her whole letter, but I do remember this line. She said, sometimes a just man must do hard things that show him to be a great man.
Is there a singular moment? Is there a single event which you would like to have witnessed during the Civil War? If you could be the fly on the wall, what moment would you like to have seen? Where would you like to be? I have favorites who are my favorites because they expressed in a sarcastic comment a truth that needed to be expressed.
Daniel Allman, a general who, in talking about the inevitability of emancipation, said the first shots fired at Fort Sumter sound the death knell of slavery. They who who fired it, they who fired the shots were the best practical abolitionists this country has produced. I loved that one because Edmund Ruffin, an arch-secessionist, claimed for him, for himself the symbolic right to fire the first shot at Fort Sumter, and how he would've hated the idea that he should have been the one to sound the death knell of slavery.
I have favorites like that. I have a favorite named John Boston, who was a slave in Maryland, and John Boston escaped from his owner, ran away to the lines of a regiment from New York state, and then could not resist the opportunity of broadcasting to his owner exactly where he was in the form of a letter to his wife. And John Boston, who was uneducated but not ignorant, said to his wife, this day I can address you, thank God, as a free man.
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I had a little trouble in getting away, but as the lord God led the children of Israel, so he led me to a land where freedom will reign in spite of earth and Hell. And then darn if he didn't say exactly where he was so that his owner could find out, as his owner did find out, and John Boston in effect told his wife, I am free, but he was also saying to his owner, I am free, do something about it. I seem to occasionally catch you looking toward the camera. Would you please burst that myth for us? Tell us about slaves forced emancipation. FIELDS: Let me start by mentioning a black soldier whose name I will never know and neither will you, because all we know of him is a scrap of paper that someone picked up on the street in New Orleans.
And that black soldier said, white people tell us what this war's about, and he derisively summarized the way they saw the issues of the war, the Union and free navigation of the Mississippi River, and that black soldier said, well, let the white fight for what they want, and let we negros fight for what we want. Liberty is what we want and nothing shorter. Liberty must take the day.
The slaves understood that that war was about slavery because, before it was a war, and it was because they understood it that they willed it to be so, and they willed it to be so by what they did. Some of them willed it to be so by fleeing to the lines of the army as soon as there was an army close enough to flee to. What did they accomplish when they did this? They made a nuisance for the army and they also made an issue that the army had to deal with, and if the army had to deal with it the War Department had to deal with it.
If the War Department had to deal with it, Congress had to deal with it. That means that every fugitive slave who made a nuisance of himself to the local commander eventually made a figure of himself to the Congress of the United States. In the summer of , that is after, only a few months after secession, the House of Representatives declared in a resolution, it is no part of the duty of United States soldiers to return, return runaway slaves.
FIELDS: They made it impossible to pretend that the war could be about the union and free navigation of the Mississippi River, because they understood what you might regard as contradictory, and let me go again to that anonymous soldier in New Orleans. That was something that it took the politicians somewhat longer to recognize. The generals, interestingly enough, many of them beat the politicians to that realization.
Tell me about the Beast of New Orleans. And part of the fondness is exactly that he was a son of a bitch, an opportunist, a showoff, a man, you would think, of rather small ideas. And that, in a way, makes him the perfect example of how a situation that demands higher stature will sometimes call it forth from people that you do not expect to expand to that stature.
So here, here's a fellow who arrives in Maryland, offering, perhaps sarcastically, to put down any insurrection among the slaves as his way of placating people who don't want troops to be there in the first place. He's the same man who later on, after disputing with General John Phelps about using black soldiers is part of the Union Army, then later does it, takes credit for the idea with a flourish, but then very courageously defends his men when they are later attacked on a racist basis. He's the one who, one of the very few generals honorable enough to follow to the letter the policy that the Union government announced, but did not really adhere to, of retaliating against the Confederate Army when they fail to treat black soldiers as prisoners of war the same way they treated white soldiers.
FIELDS: Yes, he was called the a Beast of New Orleans, and I suppose he will live in infamy in New Orleans because of an order he issued that women of New Orleans would be regarded as women of the street if they continue to abuse Union soldiers, and that was considered an outrageous thing to do. The Union Army obviously won the war in the sense that they were the army left standing and holding their weapons when it was all over. Also the soldiers who fought in the Union Army, the generals who directed it, the President who led the country during it, won the war.
If we're not talking just about the series of battles that finished up with the surrender at Appomattox but talking instead about the struggle to make something higher and better out of the country, then the question gets more complicated. The slaves won the war and they lost the war, because they won freedom, that is, the removal of slavery, but they did not win freedom as they understood freedom.
The non-slaveholding white people of the South, to the extent they were part of the Confederacy, they lost the war, but then they lost the war in another sense in that the world that they had lived in, the world that they regarded as decent and just, which did not include, for most of them, owning slaves but that depended very much on the fact that other people did, that world was blasted by the end of the war.
So they lost the war, in a sense. What about the working people of the North who helped to win the war but in a way, within a few years, they were saying to themselves, to their leaders, what happened? We heard about liberty, we heard about equality, but what about an eight-hour day, what about justice for the working man?
Is it enough to be not a slave? Steven Oates said that it was John Brown raid. You may be doing it because you feel that a threat to your country. You may do it because you feel a threat to your state. You may do it because you feel that it is expected of you. The reasons why people, farm boys in the midwest, joined the army, though, tended to change and meaning in intensity as the war went on.
Let's take that farm boy in , during the fall. The farm boy who joins the army then may actually fear that the Confederates will be in Michigan, will be in Wisconsin, will be in Illinois and Iowa, if somebody doesn't do something about it. One of those farm boys, named William Utley, wrote to a friend that he, he didn't trust the slave holders of Kentucky who were said to be loyal, and feared that they would allow the Confederate army to pass right through and come and threaten the Midwest.
He said, he called them a bunch of hyenas, and resented the fact that he had to throw down his farm tools, as he put it, and go to defend Kentucky against the threat of invasion. When he and others like him did that, they thought they were defending their homes in a, in a very strict and concrete sense. They feared invasion, and I might add that in doing so, they sometimes turned out to be a strongly anti-slavery, not because they were abolitionist in background, not even because they were high-minded.
You hear the combination. They are against slavery and the slave holders because they've been taught what it meant, but they're still capable of using the word that is synonymous with slavery, and later would become synonymous with racism. Nothing teaches us better than that the, the odd truth that good things come of evil, evil things come of good, and it's almost impossible to separate the two other than after the fact.
Is this — why should we care about this? The United States was obviously a nation when it adopted a constitution, but it adopted a constitution that required a war to be sorted out, and therefore required a war to make a real nation out of what was a theoretical nation, as, as it was designed at the Constitutional Convention.
Remember that the United States also became a nation, that is a nation-state in the way that we understand it today in this era, a states with the right to command an army in its defense, the right to levy taxes, the right to establish its own sovereignty over all of its citizens and define citizenship itself. So in that sense the United States became a nation-state, in our modern understanding of the word, out of that war.
Did the war have to be fought? Can you find something good, when you look at those pictures of the dead lying in the trenches at Petersburg or Antietam? FIELDS: The war certainly had to be fought, and what makes the war exciting for some of us to study is exactly that it could have been a very ugly, filthy war with no redeeming characteristics at all, and it was the battle for emancipation and the people who pushed it forward, the slaves, the free black people, the abolitionists, and a lot of ordinary citizens, it was they who ennobled what otherwise would have been meaningless carnage into something higher.
When a black soldier in New Orleans said, liberty must take the day, nothing shorter, he said, in effect, that when we count up those who have died, when we survey the carnage, it must be for something higher than Union and free navigation of the Mississippi River. When a group of free black people in New York state said, all right, you've been messing around with these people long enough, and your remedies have not worked. It is time now that more effective remedies were tried in the shape of warm lead and cold steel duly administered by one hundred thousand black doctors, they were saying, obviously, that you will not win this war without the contribution of black people, but they were also saying, this war will not be worth winning if you do not recognize the contributions and the necessity of black people's contri-, participation.
FIELDS: During the summer of , a group of free black, a convention of free black people demanded the right for black people to take part, for black men to take part in the struggle as soldiers, and their key resolution said, it is time now for more effective remedies to be thoroughly tried in the shape of warm lead and cold steel, duly administered by one hundred thousand black doctors.
Barbara, is Abraham Lincoln excusable for choosing Union over emancipation? I have something i'd like to share with you about Abraham Lincoln, if I may. FIELDS: I think there's some things that history cannot say and therefore literature has to, and I want to share with you two comments by two great figures of that era, by one of my favorite novelists, Leon Forrest. Rocked like a sweeping pendulum, who in stovepipe hat, shawl and beard resembled some runaway mulatto castoff — our American cousin?
And if we understand that Lincoln was a great man because of the greatness of his time and because of the greatness of the people who would not let him be less, because of people like Hannah Johnson, who told him what it meant to be a man, though he may never have read her letter, who said sometimes a just man must do hard things that show him to be a great man, and what Hannah Johnson meant to do was stiffen his backbone in the face of the Confederacy's threat to treat captured black soldiers as though they were runaway slaves or slave insurrectionists instead of treating them like any other prisoners of war.
FIELDS: Well, you could say that the Emancipation Proclamation flushed out a number of elements, because those who had hoped to keep the war pure, and some people thought that pure meant keeping free, the taint of freedom away from it, those people were mortally offended by the Emancipation Proclamation. The people most affected by the Emancipation Proclamation obviously did not receive it as news, because they knew before Lincoln knew that the war was about emancipation, and moreover, they knew as perhaps Lincoln did without fully realizing it, and certainly is many people today did not realize, that the Emancipation Proclamation did nothing to get them their freedom.
It said that they have a right to go and put their bodies on the line if they had the nerve to believe in it, and many of them had the nerve to believe in it, and many suffered for that. They were his stepchildren. That's part of the reason for that part of the draft riot that we remember, the one that involved brutalizing the local black population.
Tell me about Frederick Douglass. He seems so extraordinary to me, what do you think about him? FIELDS: That was the other, that's something also that i think literature can speak about better than history, and i want to share with you…. Here is what Leon Forrest says about Frederick Douglass. Frederick Douglass, to , the North Star, whose shadow, perhaps, the great President was worthy to walk in, but only his shadow. May I go on talking about Frederick Douglass?