Thursday, March 11, 2010

Abolitionism's Two Formulations

Donald A. Yerxa

Last night Andrew Delbanco gave the Alexis de Tocqueville Lecture on American Politics at Harvard’s Center for American Politics. His “Abolition and American Culture” was a provocative interdisciplinary assessment of antebellum abolitionists (‘the originals”) that also explored abolition as an enduring American cultural dynamic. Without detracting from the originals’ accomplishments, Delbanco believes that more measured approbation acknowledging the “limits of the abolitionist imagination” is needed. Their sacred rage, uncompromising fervor, and furious certitude, he noted, indeed broadened the horizons of the possible in American society—no small thing! But this needs to be considered in the light of the fact that it took the pragmatic Lincoln and a very bloody Civil War to end slavery.

One of the four scholars Harvard invited to respond to Delbanco was THS board member Wilfred McClay. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that not only is Bill McClay a dear friend, in my opinion he is one of the finest historical essayists of his generation. And this was an ideal venue for his formidable skills. McClay observed that the Puritan-abolitionist style seems prone to a “strange combination of moral grandeur and nannying coerciveness.” In the main agreeing with Delbanco, McClay stressed the importance of the abolitionists’ millenarian religious fervor: “No religion. No abolitionism; it’s that simple.” And like Delbanco, McClay appreciates that abolitionism is amenable to two formulations. The prophetic moral clarity that single-mindedly has named evil as just that also exhibits overbearing and coercive tendencies that seemingly blind it to “the limits of human intentionality and the abyss of unknowable consequences.”

It was not hard to imagine Reinhold Niebuhr looking down on the proceedings last night at Harvard with a smile. And I was also reminded of David Brion Davis’s claim that history is a kind of moral philosophy, teaching by example. Single-minded devotion to noble ends stirs the moral imagination, but it also breeds a moral certitude that flirts with godlike mastery, which in some religious traditions is humanity’s besetting—even "original"?—sin. Much to ponder not only as we reflect on the 19th-century American experience, but also as we consider our present state of affairs.

1 comment:

Lisa Clark Diller said...

My students and I just finished reading _King Leopold's Ghost_ in my World Civ class. This is another analysis of those abolotionist-style reformers, this time working to ameliorate the horrors of the colonial policies in the Congo. We also concluded that it takes a certain kind of (perhaps unbalanced?) person to be able to work so single-mindedly against such odds to change the status quo. We were thankful for those people, but at the same time that some of us decided that they would find them unpleasant to be friends with.

At the risk of treading on territory where I am not an expert, it seems hard on the abolitionists to imply that their tactics could/would never have ended slavery. Obviously we never got a chance to see how the alternative might have played out in the U.S. Surely abolutionist activities were a large contributing factor to growing tensions that caused the war.

This is what is challening for me as a teacher. I want my students to be able to see the contributing causes for something like the Civil War or the Civil Rights movement or the "triumph" of the liberal democractic ideals without them thinking this was the only way things could have played out or that these events were inevitable. Could slavery in the U.S. only have been ended by killing hundreds of thousands of people in the Civil War? I think it is important to take the idea of alternatives to violenice seriously. Many of the (Quaker) abolitionists seem to have done so.

I want to expand the imagination of my students to see the full range of difficulties, possibilities and finally the choices of the people they are studying. This means understanding the debt we owe to those whose vision never actually triumphed, but whose actions/ideas were part of the story, causal or otherwise.

My students want heroes so badly that they have a hard time embracing the idea that the reformers who worked against slavery in the Belgian Congo often did so by ignoring brutality in other places, were liars and cheats and sexual pedators, or were racist and religious bigots. I hate to say it, but sometimes we end up closing our books and just being glad that "turned out all right in the end."