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Response to Review of The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition

I would like to thank Beverly Tomek for her review of my book, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition, and the editors of Reviews in History for inviting me to respond to it. Let me take care of a few quibbles at the outset and address her more substantial criticism at greater length. This book is not a synthesis per se as it is based on extensive primary research and challenges much of the conventional historical wisdom on the abolition movement. It is written in a manner that ought to be accessible to a broader audience outside academia but it is very much a work of historical scholarship. I doubt that a reading lay public would not have at least heard of William Lloyd Garrison, the pre-eminent American abolitionist. Although, as Tomek briefly points out, Garrison is often caricatured as an unreasonable fanatic in historiography and popular culture.

Tomek complains that I claim originality in inserting African Americans back into the history of abolition even though my footnotes clearly indicate that I am more than familiar with much of the work on black abolitionism. This body of work however is not as she asserts recent. As I argue in my ‘Coming of age: the historiography of black abolitionism’ in John Stauffer and Timothy Patrick McCarthy’s Prophets of Protest (1), also cited in my book, black abolitionists themselves wrote about their roles in the abolition movement and one of the founding fathers of African American history, Benjamin Quarles wrote the classic work on black abolition in 1969! Tomek misreads my critique of recent historians of black activism, who I cite very specifically without bogging down the narrative with historiographical debates. Many of them have produced admirable local studies of African-American community activism, which they do not see as a part of the abolition movement. In fact, most black activists self-identified as abolitionists and would probably be mortified to be read out of the movement. I am afraid the ‘straw men’ she accuses me of constructing are visible only to her. Finally, Tomek misses my attempt to cast African-American abolitionists as not just grassroots activists but as ideologues and tacticians of the movement, who produced sophisticated theoretical rebuttals to scientific racism and the pro-slavery argument.

Most disappointing is Tomek’s failure to fully engage with the larger second half of the book. The two central arguments of the book, that slave resistance lay at the heart of the abolition movement and that abolition was defined by its radical internationalism, are fully developed there. Slave rebellions, I argue were not just episodic in the history of abolition but shaped its discourse and trajectory. For British audiences in particular, the book’s argument that abolitionists were more often critics of early capitalism and western imperialism rather than stalking horses of both might be of some interest.

I would beg to disagree with Tomek’s conclusion that I ‘claim originality’ while relying on secondary literature. A careful and complete reading of the book should reveal that I do neither. I would refer your readers to more balanced reviews of the book by distinguished scholars of slavery and abolition on both sides of the Atlantic such as James Walvin in BBC History, Adam Rothman in The Atlantic, Steven Hahn in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Fergus Bordewich in The Wall Street Journal, Ira Berlin in The New York Times, David Roediger in the Journal of American History, Corey Brooks in Civil War Book Review, and Olivette Otele in Times Higher Education.

Notes

  1. Manisha Sinha, ‘Coming of age: the historiography of black abolitionism’, in Prophets of Protest: Reconsidering the History of American Abolitionism, ed. John Stauffer and Timothy Patrick McCarthy (New York, NY, 2006).Back to (1)

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My talk at UCL is on October 13 and at the British Library on October 14. I will be at Oxford, Edinburgh, Nottingham and Cambridge the following week.