Review: The Crooked Path to Abolition

The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution, James Oakes. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2021.

Summary: A historical account of how Abraham Lincoln, although not a traditional abolitionist, strongly supported and implemented the antislavery portions of the Constitution to pursue the end of slavery.

Abraham Lincoln was not an abolitionist in the traditional sense. He did not advocate immediate emancipation in the slave states. He did not advocate active resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act, but only for due process rights. He did not rail in his rhetoric against the vile evils of slavery. But Abraham Lincoln hated slavery and believed there were resources within the Constitution properly leveraged that would lead to its eventual end. How could this be so when the Constitution protected slavery in the states? Only states could abolish slavery, not the Federal government. Both Constitution and legislation allowed slave owners or their proxes to capture and return runaway slaves even where slavery was not legal. And there was that language of slaves being three-fifths of a person.

Actually those who believe in an antislavery Constitution might start there. Slaves are written of as “persons,” undermining the contention of slaves as being property. Beyond this, those who developed the idea of an antislavery Constitution drew on both the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble affirming the equality of persons. They focused on the due process rights protected under the Fifth Amendment to make it as hard as possible for slave owners to retrieve runaways, while not breaking the fugitive slave laws. They used the Federal power to regulate the territories to make these free rather than slave. The Constitution said Congress had no authority “to give legal existence to slavery in any territory of the United States.” They antislavery people were committed to no more compromises that would admit new slave states into the country.

Lincoln believed that slavery would eventually wither away of its own. Some proposed that slaves brought into free territory could sue for their freedom. The dynamic economy of the north would outstrip the south, particularly because it could not expand its economy, fenced about by free territories becoming states. Eventually Southern states would abolish slavery on their own, which only they could do, Lincoln believed, since the Constitution did not give this power to the Federal government.

James Oakes traces the development of this antislavery doctrine, particularly within the Republican party. With enough votes in the growing North, Lincoln was elected. While he assured the South that slavery would be upheld, the implementation of other aspects of the antislavery doctrine triggered secession. Oakes shows how this offered new avenues to antislavery effort: ending slavery in the District of Columbia, ending the slave trade and blocking slave shipping to southern ports, and most significantly, voiding Fugitive Slave laws for slave owners in rebel states, since they no longer were under the laws of the Union. Slaves who fled into Union lines would be considered “contraband” and emancipated. While this was not so for border states who remained in the Union, the Army was directed not to assist in the retrieval of any fugitive slaves, since they did not have the legal powers to properly adjudicate such matters. The owners were on their own, further contributing to abolition.

Oakes doesn’t portray Lincoln as an antiracist. He favored colonization of Blacks, believing Blacks and Whites could not live together. But he hated slavery with a singular focus. One senses a Lincoln both shrewd and resolute in availing himself of all the resources available in the Constitution to move the needle toward abolition and emancipation, even maneuvering conquered states to constitute themselves as free and to join in ratifying the Thirteenth Amendment.

What I continue to wonder about is whether Lincoln realized his approach would send the South over the edge, precipitating the Civil War? Or did the South adequately take on board Lincoln’s resolve to preserve the Union once attacked? I wonder, given the case Oakes make, whether there is an argument to suggest that the South played into Lincoln’s hand, accelerating the demise of slavery that may otherwise have taken another fifty to one hundred years. Did Lincoln fully understand the cards he was holding and play them to full advantage?

I’ve often commented about the writing of slavery into our Constitution. I don’t think we can dodge that terrible compromise. But Oakes offers another perspective, showing the side of the Constitution that assumes freedom and equality the norm and slavery an exception. He also shows the lawyerly genius of Lincoln to recognize and exploit that side to its full extreme. The great sadness of all this was the lives it cost, including in the end, Lincoln’s own.

Review: We Will Not Cancel Us

We Will Not Cancel Us, adrienne maree brown (Afterword by Malkia Devich Cyril). Chico, CA: AK Press, 2020.

Summary: A plea to those within the modern abolitionist movement to not use “cancelling” or “call outs” against one another.

I picked up this book online, intrigued by the title. On reading the book, I discovered that I was overhearing a conversation among an “us” of which I am not a part. I say this at the outset to explain my approach in this review. It is simply to listen and, hopefully, learn, and reflect in my description of this book an accurate rendering of its message. adrienne maree brown is a leader of the modern abolitionist movement. One description of this movement states, in part:

Modern abolitionists see it as our mission to provide the models of community safety, security, mutual aid, and harm reduction that are needed, and to do the political education, relationship-building, and movement work to bring others into demanding transformative economic and social change for abolition.

The author self-identifies as “a Black biracial queer fat survivor, witch, movement facilitator and mediator.” I am a white, cisgender male, straight, Christian, and (hopefully) recovering racist. It is a certainty that I don’t understand everything in this small book. I am learning that often, I don’t even know what I don’t know. So, unlike some reviews, I do not want to engage or critique but try to listen and reflect what I am hearing. Too often, we have critiqued and judge what we don’t even begin to understand.

The book is an enlargement on a blog post titled “Unthinkable Thoughts: Call-Out Culture in the Age of Covid-19.” The first part of the book describes the response, both positive and critical to the blog post and what the author learned. She learned she needed to make distinctions between harm and abuse, in general more clearly define terms and ideas, and offer appropriate content and trigger warnings. She goes on to offer definitions of terms: abuse, conflict, harm, contradiction, misunderstanding, and mistakes.

The central chapter, a revision of the blog post, speaks from our current time, amid the pandemic and a pervasive sense of fear, both of the pandemic, and the wider pandemic of white supremacy. It speaks out of the observation of cancelling or “call outs” being used in conflict situations within the abolitionist movement. She warns of the danger of “no one left to call out, or call we, or call us.” She does not disavow the use of call outs in the wider culture with those whose status, power, and unresponsiveness warrant the use of this technique (often by widespread social media campaigns focused on a statement or act causing harm). She notes the personal impacts of a cancel–job loss, status loss, harm to family and emotional distress. She expresses concern that within movement, other, prior steps need to be taken to pursue harm reduction, including, where possible, personal conversation. She also notes that the use of call outs may become cathartic and make the use of this tool more tempting.

In a follow-up essay, she speaks about the aim of movement being transformative justice. Yet she questions the ways some people have been eviscerated because small, as well as larger transgressions. In turn, she proposes three questions to open up conversations leading to transformative justice:

  1. Why? Listen with “Why?” as a framework.
  2. Ask yourself/selves: What can I/we learn from this?
  3. How can my real-time actions contribute to transforming this situation (versus making it worse)?

One concern the author expresses is that her honest processing in this book of her “unthinkable thoughts” will be weaponized by those outside the abolitionist movement. The truth is, any of us who have been involved in any movement have experienced the same phenomenon. We are often each other’s harshest critics and if we are not careful, we can self-destruct. I would hope that no one would use this review as a weapon, but rather recognize the authenticity, aspirations, and growth as a movement leader it reflects.

Review: Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass.jpg

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of FreedomDavid W. Blight. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018.

Summary: Perhaps the definitive biography of this escaped slave who became one of the most distinguished orators and writers in nineteenth century America as he for abolition and Reconstruction and civil rights for Blacks.

There is no simple way to summarize this magnificent biography of Frederick Douglass. Douglass lived an amazingly full life captured admirably in these 764 pages from his birth, likely conceived by a white plantation owner, to the attempts to break him on Covey’s plantation, his quest to learn to read, and discovery of the power of words, his escape, and rise as an orator and writer, advocating first for abolition using the narrative of his own slavery, and later for full rights of blacks, even after the failed promise of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow. He traveled relentlessly on speaking tours throughout his life, and was walking out the door of his home to speak when he collapsed and died of a heart attack. He wrote prodigiously, editing two newspapers and authoring his autobiography in three successive versions.

We could explore his oratorical greatness. Blight liberally quotes excerpts of his most famous speeches giving us a sense of the power of his rhetoric. We could trace the growing fault line between William Lloyd Garrison and Douglass, who differed on whether abolition would come through moral suasion or violence. We could explore his efforts to launch his own newspaper, struggling along for many years until closure. Blight uncovered editions of previously lost copies that enabled him to render a fuller account of the paper than previous biographers.

His later career reflected the tensions of trying to support Republican efforts at Reconstruction, only to condemn the eventual compromises and erosion of protections under the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments that exposed Blacks to lynching, suppression of voting rights. It exposed him to criticism from younger activists. At one point late in his life, he serves as an honorary representative of Haiti, a country in which Africans had thrown off the yoke of their white French oppressors.

Blight also traces the familial struggles Douglass faced. Wanting a family when he had been stripped of one in childhood, he married Anna, a free woman, who did not share his love of words and the public limelight. She made a household in Rochester that sheltered fugitive slaves, radicals like John Brown, and eventually, her children’s families, as well as Frederick’s sophisticated white women friends Julia Griffiths Crofts, and later Ottilie Assing, who may have been something more to than that to Douglass. Assing even stayed for months at a time. Awkward? Perhaps, but we hear nothing of it from Anna, Awkward and distressing as well were the failures of their children, including his daughter’s husband. Part of the reason for Frederick Douglass’s unremitting lecture tours was the necessity to support this growing brood unable to be self supporting. This was an irony for one who prided himself on his self-sufficiency.

Frederick Douglass was a fighter, from the plantation to the Baltimore docks to the lecture and convention circuit. No one fought more passionately for Black civil rights. He fought until the day he died. The fact that the fight has had to be picked up by Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. Dubois, Howard Thurman, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Barack Obama, and still endures makes the case that it is not for lack of fighting and arduous effort that we still seek King’s dream. Rather we need to pay attention to a larger American story of a country that has continued to struggle and fail to live up to its ideal of “liberty and justice for all.” To read this biography of Douglass is both to marvel at the vision and drive and relentless fight for freedom of this man, and to grieve for the generations of compromises and lost opportunities that are the story of this country. It suggests that progress can only occur when Black prophets of freedom like Douglass are joined, generation after generation, by Whites who advocate for the nation’s ideals with the relentlessness of Douglass. Douglass never gave up on the possibility of liberty and justice for all, including his own people. And neither should we.

Review: The Insurrectionist

the-insurrectionist

The InsurrectionistHerb Karl. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, forthcoming, February 2017.

Summary: A fictionalized biography of the last three and a half years of John Brown’s life from the Pottawotamie massacre in “Bloody Kansas” to his raid of the Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, ending in his execution in 1859.

John Brown, along with Harriet Beecher Stowe, were two northern abolitionists who probably did as much as any, one by the sword, the other by the pen to precipitate the Civil War. Yet Brown remains something of an enigma, considered by many to be a fanatic. He chose violent, vigilante methods when it was necessary to resist the slaveholder element in Kansas and believed that his fight against slavery was God-ordained. Yet he was motivated, according to the pages of this novel, by a Golden Rule ethic of doing to others as you would have them do to you and particularly a concern for the oppressed in bondage.

This new novel tells the story of Brown’s last three and a half years. It begins with the caning of Senator Charles Sumner by Preston Brooks on the floor of the Senate, which moved Brown to action. He had heard from his sons in Kansas of the efforts of slaveholders from Missouri to resist Kansas from entering the Union as a free state. After attacks upon “free” settlers, Brown responded with an attack on the Pottawatomie Creek settlement where he killed five pro-slavery men, leading to the bloodiest period of raids and counter raids that left 29 dead in what became known as “Bleeding Kansas.”

The novel then traces Brown’s movements back and forth between Kansas, his farm in North Elba, New York, and trips into Canada to fugitive slave settlements, to his sons and pro-abolitionists in Ohio, where Brown lived for part of his youth (in present day Hudson, Ohio). It recounts various meetings and solicitations with wealthy East Coast abolitionists, and his relationship with Frederick Douglass. It also describes his efforts to gather an “army” to fight slavery, setting up training camps in Iowa, his North Elba farm, and eventually in Maryland, five miles from Harpers Ferry.

The story culminates in the raid of Harpers Ferry with a mere eighteen men. Frederick Douglass had strongly cautioned Brown against this, saying he could get in but that the town was surrounded by hills on all sides, a kind of “steel trap.” On October 16, 1859, he moved into action and seized the three buildings of the arsenal, took hostages and freed slaves and waited, hoping others would join them. He waited too long and word got out to local militia and Federal forces under Colonel Robert E. Lee, who first attacked and succeeded in killing or wounding all but a handful of Brown’s men, including the two sons who had joined him. Eventually Marines assaulted the arsenal, killing or capturing the remainder and freeing the hostages.

The book concludes with Brown’s trial, the guilty verdict, his final visit with his wife, and his execution. It also concludes with the growing realization by Brown that the power of the press to turn him into a martyr and catalyst for the abolitionist cause was even more significant than anything he could do of a para-military nature and his last month was devoted to interviews and letter writing.

Karl gives us a fast-moving account based on the actual history. Brown’s utterances seem consistent his written and recorded utterances. Karl also explores the mind and motivations and influence of Brown–his strong sense of the injustice of slavery, his belief in his call by God to fight slaveholders and to take this fight into the south, coupled by the deep loyalties he engendered in his sons, three of whom died in his efforts, as well as the support he enjoyed from abolitionists who helped by the weapons with which he fought. There was also his disturbing consciousness that words would not be enough to overcome the slaveholder. Only conflict and bloodshed could do this, and to conviction, he joined action. On the morning of his execution, December 2, 1859, he wrote:

“I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.”

Beyond simple civil disobedience, Brown’s life, and this account of it raises the question of can violent resistance to unjust authority ever be warranted? Karl doesn’t answer this, but it is a question that arises with other figures including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who joined a plot to kill Hitler. It is particularly troubling when God is invoked, which Brown did from what seemed the purest of motives.

As I noted in the beginning, Brown’s act contributed to inflaming abolitionist efforts in the North, and stirred slaveholders’ fears in the South. The South formed militias. The North elected Lincoln. And less than two years later, the “very much bloodshed” Brown hesitated to prophesy came. By war’s end, approximately 620,000 combatants died, the costliest war in terms of human life in our history.

Brown seemed a “fringe element” that never attracted very many dedicated followers. But he connected into establishment business men, and with the leaders of abolitionism. We might ask what this means for the present, and our present discords as well. What potential exists for those on the fringes (of left and right) to draw support from and to inflame and embroil others? And what could this mean for us if we do not learn from the lessons of the past and instances from other parts of the world when civil order deteriorates into civil war? This narrative left me pondering all these possibilities.

______________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via a pre-publication e-galley through Edelweiss. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: Ecstatic Nation

Ecstatic NationEcstatic Nation, Brenda Wineapple. New York: Harper Collins, 2013.

Summary: Ecstatic Nation explores the period of 1848-1877, and the heightened feelings and frenzy of a country contending over slavery, going to war with itself, and then engaging in the conflicts of westward expansion and Reconstruction.

Ecstatic Nation opens with the death of John Quincy Adams in the chambers of the House of Representatives. Adams was the last tie with the founding generation, and the compact that was forged by intelligent, thoughtful men who created a nation. His passing marked a passage into a tumultuous period of national life as a growing nation wrestled with future of slavery and how the rights of men (and women) would be determined in this growing republic.

Wineapple gives us a narrative as expansive as the spirit of the people of this time, encompassing both the colorless James Buchanan and Rutherford B Hayes, and the colorful Nathan Bedford Forrest and P.T. Barnum and George Armstrong Custer. We have the revivalist Charles Finney and the advocates for women, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

The book is organized into three parts. The first covers the years of 1848-1861 and the attempts to seek alternately compromises that balanced slave and free state representation as the nation pushed westward and territories became states and changed the political fabric of the country. We have the abolitionists including Frederick Douglass and the nullifiers like John Calhoun. We learn of the dashed hopes of women, who must wait another half century for the right to vote because a nation couldn’t focus on both abolition and women’s rights. And there are all those in between trying to preserve the fabric of the nation. Most striking, and tragic, was Stephen Douglas, dying months after his failed attempt to garner enough Southern support to win the presidency, and save the Union.

The second part is the Civil War itself and the paroxysm of feelings both on and off of the battlefields matched by the almost mystical sense Lincoln had of the war as some form of expiation for the sins of slavery, even while he sought for the military leadership that he found in Grant and Sherman to bring an end to the terrible conflict. We glimpse the anticipated the work of reconstruction that would give the black man what the Union had fought so hard to achieve, while pursuing the reconciliation that would heal the wounds of the war.

The third part tells the story of the dashed hopes of Reconstruction, beginning with the death of Lincoln in the midst of the glow of victory and renewed hope. We see amendments passed and rights bestowed to land and the vote, only to be seized away to be replaced with the law of Jim Crow. And there is the westward expansion, hungry for land and gold and the war on the Indian led by Sherman and Sheridan, punctuated by the tragic folly of George Armstrong Custer. The period ends with the election of the colorless Rutherford B Hayes, and the compromises he makes with southern states to obtain that presidency.

“Ecstatic” is indeed an apt description of the period. At the same time, it seemed to me that Wineapple was content to narrate the ecstasy of the period without attempting to tease out the underlying causes of the kind of messy, destructive tumult we went through as a nation. Yet one cannot read a narrative like this without wondering whether it would have been possible to avert the paroxysms of conflict and brutal expansion, or whether this was simply the inevitable outgrowth of social and political structures unable to contain the expanding and changing nation.

Nor is this merely idle historical speculation. I wonder about our own day and the seeming breakdown of political discourse, continued racial discord, gun violence and various social fault lines. We have our own bloviating pundits and politicians whose incendiary rhetoric seems to overwhelm the voices of reason trying to appeal to our highest ideals. It leaves me wondering who will prevail, and with what consequence?

Wineapple’s book neither asks nor answers those questions. It simply shows what a mess we can make of things, and how slow real social progress often can be. And perhaps that can be good to give us pause before we enter ecstatically into “crusades” that turn citizens with whom we differ into enemies who we must fight, defeat, and maybe even kill.

Review: Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction

Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction
Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction by Kathryn Gin Lum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The idea of hell has been contested territory for a long time. From Dante’s Inferno to Rob Bell’s Love Wins, the reality of hell and who is consigned to it continues to be “hotly” debated.

Damned Nation looks at a critical slice of American history from the formation of our country up through the Civil War and the contested ground of the preaching of hell during this period. On the one hand, this book considers the prevalence of the preaching of hell when this was already waning in Europe, and seems to suggest that many public figures were supportive of this preaching as a form of social control in a forming country. On the other, it explores the alternative ideas about judgment that were already present even prior to the civil war. This is encapsulated in the illuminating profiles of two preachers with the same name, “Salvation” and “Damnation” Murray and the distinctive styles and theological convictions of their preaching.

Lum traces this preaching in the Second Great Awakening of the 1820s and 30s as well as the growing concerns about the impact of such preaching on some troubled individuals. In her second section, “Adaptation and Dissent”, she particularly explores not only the tempering of such preaching but also alternative visions of heaven and hell in Joseph Smith and the Latter Day Saints, Swedenborgians, and in Native American religion.

It is fascinating to see how the concept of damnation is part of the discussions of slavery and abolition and is handled during the Civil War. Most often, it was very tempting to consign the opposition (whether slaveholding or abolitionist) to hell, and then there were African-American voices who consigned their oppressors to hell. Hell and the state of one’s soul was also a concern of chaplains preparing soldiers going into battle. However, the message was different for the families of those who died in battle, where death in battle or prison camps itself was treated as having an atoning effect that assured the deceased of heaven’s glories. Lum, as have others, notes the distinctive note Lincoln sounded in his second inaugural of seeing the war as a judgment of God on north and south alike.

I found Lum fair and meticulous in the handling of primary source material, mostly consisting of sermons and other printed tracts. Perhaps space did not permit this but I found myself wondering if more might have been done to situate particular preachers’ preaching of hell and damnation in the wider body of their work. It is common, for example to focus on the images of being dangled over the flames in Edward’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, which is admittedly drastic language, but many treatments of this sermon neglect its larger theological context, which emphasizes the mercies of God in giving the opportunity to turn and respond to Christ’s saving work.

While some find any mention of hell or judgment offensive, others (and Lum does note this) would find equally offensive the idea of a God who fails to judge evil. In the concluding sections of her book, Lum extends this conversation to the present, chronicling the continued belief in hell for a number or even majority of Americans and that this belief continues to be contested ground.

This review is based on an advanced e-galley copy of this book provided by the publisher through Netgalley. No compensation was received for this review and the opinions in this review are that of the reviewer alone.

View all my reviews

Review: Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life

Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life
Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life by Nancy Koester
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Harriet Beecher Stowe is forever known in American cultural history in the words Lincoln reportedly spoke to her when she met him in 1862: “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” What Nancy Koester’s “spiritual life” of Stowe gives us is a narrative of the spiritual journey of Stowe throughout her life. We see her spiritual development from the stern New School New England Calvinism of her father, Lyman Beecher, to a much broader Anglo-Catholic Christianity centered around the life and love of Christ.

488px-Harriet_Beecher_Stowe_by_Francis_Holl

Author: Francis Holl (1815–1884) after George Richmond (28 March 1809 – 19 March 1896)

Koester’s chronicle begins with her youthful struggles to meet the conversion criteria of New England Calvinists even as she awakens to a love for Christ. We follow her family west to Cincinnati and the struggles of her father as President of Lane Theological Seminary–a microcosm of the struggles within the Presbyterian church over versions of Calvinism, Old and New, her partnership with Catherine in a female academy, and her first exposures to slavery, and growing involvement with abolition and the Underground Railroad. This exposure provided the basis for the writing of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which had such a profound impact both upon the nation, and her own life.

While in Cincinnati, she married Calvin Stowe and moved back to New England so that he can pursue his academic career and Andover Seminary. During this decisive period, Koester chronicles her struggles with parenting including a six month hiatus at a water-cure spa, resulting from exhaustion and her struggle to write the book and the critical encouragement she received from brother Henry, her husband, and her publisher. Its publication, first in serial form and then as a book thrusts her into the competing factions of the abolitionist movement and attacks upon both the literary and factual character of the book. Koester explores these criticisms, which continue to the present, including the portrayal of Tom, the mawkish character of some passages, and the literary power of the book. She shows the grittiness of Harriet, who charts her own course and defends her work with a follow up work, A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin that documented the work and showed that the reality of slavery was actually worse than she portrayed.

Perhaps lesser known and of great interest is her later life and her journey away from Calvinism. It seems that the decisive event was the death of her son Henry in 1857, due to a drowning accident. It was not clear that he was “converted” at the time and Stowe struggled with the question of the eternal fate of her son. She dabbled in spiritualism and moved to a position closer to universalism in envisioning a “wideness to God’s mercy.” She embraced a form of Anglo-Catholicism centered around liturgy, the sacraments, the church year that emphasized a growth into belief rather predestination and the struggle of her youth to experience conversion.

Koester chronicles her later literary career–she contributed the bulk of the family’s income. We see her contact with and differences with the women’s movement. We conclude with her and Calvin’s ministry in Florida, where they establish a church and promote Florida’s citrus agriculture. Koester helps us see the continuing center of Stowe’s faith in the person and work of Christ, however one may assess her later spiritual journey.

We have here a whole-life, multi-faceted portrait of Stowe against which we see the spiritual and national struggles of her age and her own role in those struggles. I would highly recommend it to understand the life of the woman who wrote the most published 19th century work after the Bible.

View all my reviews