John Stauffer. The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2002. 360 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-00645-4.
Reviewed by Emma Jones Lapsansky (Department of History, Haverford College)
Published on H-SHEAR (June, 2003)
Almost four decades ago, when I was about to enter an interracial marriage, a German comrade in the civil rights movement encouraged me. "Unless some people live as if the future is already here," she prophesied, "the future we need will never come." John Stauffer's new volume The Black Hearts of Men introduces us to four nineteenth-century civil rights activists who attempted to live as if the future they needed had already come. And hence Stauffer's study reminds us that the future of cross-racial and cross-cultural alliances may depend upon remembering that such alliances have had an honorable past, one that allowed individuals to transcend such political constructs as race, gender, class, age, or the other boundaries created by societies.
Stauffer's study, an intertwined biography of four men--two white, two black--recounts, in its basic story line, the events and experiences that led them to found a political party based upon their Christian beliefs concerning the necessity of bringing about a new future for American slavery, race relations, and democracy. Convening a small conference in Syracuse, New York, in the summer of 1855, Gerrit Smith, James McCune Smith, Frederick Douglass, and John Brown founded the Radical Abolition Party, which lasted five years, and polled a few thousand votes in its various political campaigns between 1855 and 1860. (Among its several campaigns, the party ran Gerrit Smith for president, and Frederick Douglass for secretary of the state of New York, making Douglass the first black man to be placed on an American ballot.) Distinguishing themselves from the left-leaning Free Soil Party, that opposed the extension of slavery, and from the even farther left-wing Garrisonians who sought to use "moral suasion" to convince all Americans that slavery was a sin and should be immediately eradicated everywhere, the Radical Abolitionists insisted that removing slavery from every inch of American soil was a God-driven mission, and that it must be pursued by whatever means necessary--even violence and murder. Unlike the Garrisonians, who held that morality and spirituality should be aloof from politics, the Radical Abolitionists argued that politics should be the foundation and the outlet for true spirituality, and that the Constitution should be seen as a sacred text on a par with the Bible.
Stauffer argues, however, that the most important contribution of the Radical Abolition Party is not in its politics, but in its leadership, a leadership comprised of four men who broke through the mistrust inherent in a racist system to become friends as well as abolitionist colleagues. Using these men whose cross-racial friendship previewed the future, Stauffer suggests that the empathy, admiration, and trust that cemented their friendship is the key to a democratic future for America, even while he notes the tragedy of that relationship. The tragedy, Stauffer tells us, is that the friendship between these men was built upon a mutual commitment to violence--God-inspired violence, but violence nonetheless. It is here that Stauffer moves from neutral historian to biased commentator, for he frequently reminds his readers of his own conviction that nothing enduringly positive can come from violence. (I agree with this conviction, but Stauffer's repetition of it is sometimes annoyingly didactic.) He focuses heavily on Gerrit Smith's "guilt about his sanction of violence" (p. 267), and leaves no room for the possibility that it was John Brown's commitment to violence that paved the way for the positive change wrought by the Civil War.
Black Hearts won the Avery O. Craven prize, awarded by the Organization of American Historians for "the most original book on the coming of the Civil War--with the exception of works of purely military history." The work certainly fits that guideline, for it explores an aspect of American history aptly named by Reconstruction historian C. Vann Woodward as a "forgotten alternative," namely, that antebellum American history contains several examples of cross-racial alliances and cooperation, which, for many reasons, the late-nineteenth-century era of Jim Crow has erased from our collective memory.
Stauffer tells us that Gerrit Smith's correspondence with Douglass and McCune Smith "represents the largest biracial correspondence in antebellum America" (p. 3), and, therefore, it offers a window onto a crucial aspect of nineteenth-century race history. I have recently come upon a similarly rich cache of correspondence between Philadelphia white Quaker Benjamin Coates and more than a dozen African Americans, including Frederick Douglass, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, and Joseph Jenkins Roberts, the Virginian who relocated to Liberia and eventually became its president. Like Gerrit Smith, Coates was generous in his economic support of black causes (although nowhere near the magnitude of Smith) and tireless in his correspondence with them. But Coates differed from Gerrrit Smith in that, although he sometimes entertained Roberts in his home, and often addressed his black correspondents in intimate terms, he did not embrace them as equals, seldom incorporated their ideas into his own thinking, and never developed an intimate interracial community. So in exploring the friendship between the two Smiths, Frederick Douglass, and John Brown, Stauffer has, indeed, created an "original" work, introducing the importance of friendship, mutuality, and what he calls "diverse aspects of identity and personal behavior" (p. 4) into our understanding of nineteenth-century politics. Stauffer spends considerable time on the important diverse aspects of religious identity in nineteenth-century America, and by and large the book is the stronger for it. Like many scholars, however, he falls into the trap of describing "the Quakers" without distinguishing the continuum of Quaker radicalism over race that extends from Lucretia Mott, who included black people in her social circle, to colonizationists like Coates, who felt that African Americans would be better off in Africa, to those who insisted that all society would be better off if African Americans were to return to Africa. In these ways, Stauffer's work invites a deeper search for correspondence between nineteenth-century black Americans and their white benefactors.
Stauffer's work has a tantalizingly contemporary tone, without falling into the sin of "presentism." In seeking to make himself a "colored man" (p. 15), Gerrit Smith, Stauffer tells us, embraced the modern notion expressed by James Baldwin, whom Stauffer quotes, that "the only way [white Americans] can be released from the Negro's tyrannical power over him is to consent, in effect, to become black himself" (p. 1). Using more than a dozen illustrations, quotes from nineteenth-century thinkers as well as late twentieth-century writers, and his own lyrical prose, Stauffer takes us into the lives, minds, and "hearts" of his four heroes, arguing that they were right: unless white and black Americans allow their hearts to embrace the world of each other, salvation is unlikely for either. Readers will be grateful to Stauffer for showing us four nineteenth-century leaders who lived as if the future of cross-racial comradeship were already here.
. These materials are soon to be published by Penn State University Press.
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Emma Jones Lapsansky. Review of Stauffer, John, The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race.
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