The Great Debate
Against slavery, as it happened.
Jun 3, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 36 • By KEN MASUGI
Replete with stunning horror stories, as one would expect, this remarkable collection of antislavery writing astonishes nonetheless. For example: “Our first black President was a man of such distinguished talents, that none chose to risk their own reputation for discernment by not acknowledging it”—which is from an anonymous short story, not contemporary media fawning, published in William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator on April 2, 1831.
Liberated slaves—‘contrabands of war’—at Cumberland Landing, Virginia (1862)
Edited by James Basker, the illustrious president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and on a chronological path marked by 216 selections and 158 authors, this is an essential collection for understanding the passionate debate over slavery that exploded into the Civil War.
Starting with the first antislavery protest of 1688, readers eventually arrive at Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address and the Thirteenth Amendment. Many of the most notable writers of the nineteenth century appear—from Emerson and Longfellow to Whitman and Melville—and we rediscover familiar names as authors of antislavery literature, such as Louisa May Alcott and her short story “The Hour,” about a successful slave rebellion. Most of the excerpts are a few pages long—in some instances, they are page-long poems. Given the most pages, just under 50 pages each, are Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, and William Wells Brown, who, in the editor’s judgment, was “probably the most accomplished African American man of letters of the nineteenth century.”
Providing brief but rich introductions, James Basker wisely brings us obscure writings rather than better-known and readily available ones. But there are risks in this approach: Omission of the most significant sources of antislavery thought (such as Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration of Independence and the Northwest Ordinance) and the editor’s regard for literary and first-hand resources pushes out legal and political documents.
The injustice of slavery to the slave, the master, and the national character rubs us raw. We all know generally about these evils from reading Frederick Douglass, but this collection distills the horror in excruciating detail: from the kidnapping of Africans, to their journey through the Middle Passage, to the brutalities of slave life—including sexual exploitation—to their auctioning, and, for some, their escape to freedom, for others, subsequent return to their owners (or at least those who asserted ownership). We feel the depth and breadth of antislavery passions and arguments rooted in both Christian faith and natural law.
With two millennia of biblical knowledge and natural-right philosophy as a backdrop, Americans always knew that their slavery was a unique form of tyranny, and its earliest critics recognized its peculiar evil and its deadliness to the hopes of the New World. The early question, in the 1688 Resolutions of the Mennonites of Germantown, Pennsylvania, still abides: “[H]ave these negers [sic] not as much right to fight for their freedom, as you have to keep them slaves?” Just over a hundred years after the Mennonites, a survivor of the Middle Passage writes, “Hath not the African as good a right, / Deriv’d from nature to enslave the white?” Theodore Dwight, in a poem written for the New-Haven Gazette in 1788, has an African mother yell at a slave ship: “Christians! Who’s the GOD you worship?”
The accumulation of brutality and calculation required to seize, transport, sell, buy, and manage slaves harried the founding generation. This habituation to evil eroded republican morals and industry, as Noah Webster noted in 1793. In Benjamin Rush’s “The Paradise of Negro-Slaves—a dream” (1787), the departed describe the violence of their deaths. The black architect Benjamin Banneker may have authored a magazine article, under the signature of “Othello,” arguing that slavery “should be abolished, particularly in this country, because it is inconsistent with the declared principles of the American Revolution.” This logic Banneker later threw in the face of Thomas Jefferson, who could only politely respond by offering his best wishes. George Washington was well aware of the need for emancipation, writing to Robert Morris in 1786: “There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of” slavery.