Note: The thread on abolitionists developed from an earlier discussion on the connection between the Myth of the West and the Fireside Poets. The first message is included for clarity of context.
-H-Net Webstaff.

Author: "Peter Rollins, H-PCAACA" <>

Date: Wed, 26 Jun 1996 08:49:36 -0500 (CDT)

The connection between the Myth of the West and the Fireside Poets relates to the increasing irrelevance of New England as a commercial, political, and moral force in the nation.

The nation was growing West and the congressional seats and hero building 'all had something to do with the Western (and Southern) expansion. Slaves were held in the South and not in New England, setting up a moral cause which could tap regional jealousies and anxieties about status loss.

John Brown was a burning and shining light for Thoreau and Emerson because he put moral issues over the commercial compromises of union. Whittier's "Ichabod," a poem which denounces Daniel Webster for his involvement in the Compromise of 1850 (and the traumatic Fugitive Slave Law), is a representative poem of the moral stance of the New Englanders with respect to expansion in the WEst and with the attending issue of slavery. Thoreau had gone to jail (for a night) over this issue during the Mexican American War. The "Biglow Papers" of James Russell Lowell had used the diction of the "Down East" Maine type ( a sort of Yankee Will Rogers) to excoriate the expansionists.

Here is where the "Fireside Poets" come in. Whether involved in the anti-slavery movement or not, they represented a passion that could not be fully honest with itself. The moralists like Whittier and Lowell could not fully divulge their sectional motivation-and therefore their moral broadsides lack a transcendent force that would carry over into our own time. Others-such as Holmes-were strong on the negative attack on Calvinism, but could offer no alternative faith, so were wanting in a long-term, positive statement in their poetry. "The One Hoss Shay" is a funny attack on the theological efforts of Jonathan Edwards, but does not arouse us because of the regional touch is just that-designed for a group bound by space and time. Finally, there is something horrid about the celebration of John Brown. Slavery was an evil, but Brown was an evil, violent man who shot people with good conscience and with righteousness. Anybody who makes an hero out of such a vigilante has a problem.

And that was the common problem of the New England Brahmins. The world has left them behind-probably since the election of 1800, but certainly after the Hartford Convention of 1815. They were high and dry. The Erie Canal made New York the great entropot of the United States and New England was no longer a force. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr (father of the famous Justice Holmes) may have been famous for calling Boston "the hub of the cultural universe" of America, but Mark Twain was probably closer to the truth about the backwater status of the region in Twain's infamous "Whittier Dinner Address."

When you are out of the mainstream, it is often possible to be irrelevant in many ways-through abstraction and vagueness, through anger and bitterness, through provincial myopia of priorities and issues. That was the fate of New England and that was the underlying problem of "the Fireside Poets."

----The above is an experimental and spontaneous response. Please come back with a discussion of the issues rather than a pick at the details. Is there an Henry Adams out there who can speak for New England?

Peter Rollins

Date: Sat, 29 Jun 1996 06:51:03 -0700 (PDT)

From: Austin Meredith <>

Peter Rollins, H-PCAACA <> has pericoped the connection between the Myth of the West and the Fireside Poets, conflating "Thoreau and Emerson," as the _ressentiment_ of the New England Brahmins whom the world had rendered irrelevant and left behind.

I might mention that the usual phrase of the conflaters has been "Emerson and Thoreau" rather than "Thoreau and Emerson." It is nice to see that my guy's status has been thus ever so gradually improving.:-)

> Is there an Henry Adams out there who can speak for New England?

I am not a Henry Adams able to speak for New England, but an Austin Meredith intending to say a few words on behalf of the memory of Henry Thoreau.

I fully concur with the evaluation, that the New England anti-slavery abolitionists were just chockfull of regional self-righteousness and of contempt for evil others elsewhere. I might add to the facts listed in this analysis the facts that 1.) for at least a generation of New England historians after Thoreau's death, it was just impossible to look at the source documents such as wills in which the ownership of human beings had been passed from hand to hand-the vigorously demanded consensus was that slavery had never existed in the state of righteousness, Massachusetts, and that 2.) virtually all the white northern abolitionists were, with to my mind the single exception being Thoreau himself, quite as opposed to the presence in America of persons of color as they were to the peculiar institution of human chattel bondage.

As a corrective, we can now look at those wills and codicils-and we can peruse Thoreau's little lecture on Slavery in Massachusetts.

What I am saying is that it is quite inaccurate to bulk Thoreau in with that contemptible Emerson/Lowell crowd. My man did just his level best throughout his life, precisely to pin the tail on this donkey. His abolitionist lectures were ever rather poorly received by his New England audiences-in fact in at least one instance I know of he was not permitted to finish-because it was unpleasantly the righteous attitudes of those in his New England audiences, not pleasantly the unrighteous attitudes of absent Southern slavemasters, which my guy was seeking to approach and to reproach.

> They represented a passion that could not be fully honest with itself.

> The moralists ... could not fully divulge their sectional motivation....

Yes, and that is why Thoreau's audiences were so small, his lyceum invites so few and far between. He focused upon the wrongness of this sectional motivation. He attacked these moralists and their passion that could not be fully honest with itself. Just as you do, precisely like you.

> Finally, there is something horrid about the celebration of John Brown. Slavery was an evil, but Brown was an evil, violent man who shot people with good conscience and with righteousness. Anybody who makes an hero out of such a vigilante has a problem.

Granted. But look at this-Thoreau never suggested the sparing of Brown's life.

The highest and best position for such a personage, in Thoreau's frank estimation, was on that public platform in that stubble-field with that noose about his neck-so that in addition to offering up the lives of others in sacrifice as he had admittedly done, he might offer up his own. Thoreau granted to this desperado at the last moment of his existence on earth a full opportunity to transmigrate a noble concern for the plight of the black slave, which had led that violent man into the utmost acts of viciousness (he hadn't "shot" his victims, he hacked them to pieces with a broadsword, and some of his victims had been little more than children; the cruelty had been such that one of Brown's own sons had gone quite insane in being forced to witness it), into what we may humorously term "the direct approach" to evil: let this planet roll out from under your feet, give your _own_ life to end it.

May such pity be extended to us all.

\s\ Austin Meredith <>, "Stack of the Artist of Kouroo" Project

Date: Wed, 3 Jul 1996 09:08:26 -0500

Austin Meredith writes:

>virtually all the white northern abolitionists were, with to my mind the single exception being Thoreau himself, quite as opposed to the presence in America of persons of color as they were to the peculiar institution of human chattel bondage.

On the face of it, a number of exceptions to this rather arresting statement quickly come to mind:

Theodore Parker

Theodore Dwight Weld

Sarah and Angelina Grimke

Wendell Phillips

William Lloyd Garrison

Charles Sumner

Perhaps others might add to the list. In _Holy Warriors_, James Stewart makes the worthwhile argument that even though the most thoroughgoing abolitionist might espouse sentiments of Anglo-Saxon superiority over other races and cultures, abolitionists in general and radical abolitionists in particular "nevertheless explored the furthest boundaries of egalitarianism allowed by their age." Black abolitionists found the condescending attitude of many white abolitionists to be discouraging; but they also remained close allies in the fight against slavery.

Peter Knupfer

Kansas State University

Date: Wed, 3 Jul 1996 15:26:47 -0400 (EDT)

From: Paul Finkelman <>

I think Peter Knupfer is right on the mark and we could add many other names to his list, starting with Gerrit Smith and Thad Stevens (if we use the term abolitionists in the broadest way).

I think by and large that the argument of white racism within the antislavery movement needs a good deal of serious analysis. It is true that most 19th century Americans (especially white American) had views about race in general that do not comport to modern views; but many abolitionists and a whole wing of the Republican Party worked hard for black equality before 1861; consider the women abolitionists in Mass. who petitioned to end bans on interracial marriage in the 1830s. Similarly, Republicans in the 1850s in Conn., NY, Iowa, and Wisconsin pushed for equal suffrage in their states. Salmon Chase risked his election to the US Senate (and was willing to give up the prize) in order to get a repeal of Ohio's Black Laws; he ended up winning the Senate seat and getting the repeal. These are hardly the acts of racists. As I have argued elsewhere, if northerners had truly been hostile to blacks they would not have freed slaves brought into their jurisdiction, rescued fugitive slaves, passed personal liberty laws making it difficult to return slaves; or as in the cases of Ohio, NY, and Pa. (to name three that come to mind) have spent state money to bring kidnapped blacks back to their states.

Finally, most northern states spent a good deal of money on black education; some provided integrated education, and this again suggests a more complex world than Meredith sees.

The whole issue of northern attitudes towards blacks needs to be reconsidered; I suggested some of this in a chapter I wrote for Moss and Anderson, eds., THE FACTS OF RECONSTRUCTION; but more work is needed.

Paul Finkelman

Univ. of Miami, Coral Gables

Date: Wed, 03 Jul 1996 22:23:26 -0400

[Two combined messages from Paul Heymont (PBK):]


From: Paul Heymont <>

Paul Finkelman makes important points in his letter, pointing out anti-racist or non-racist acts and attitudes among many northern abolitionists and northerners in general-but I think the case becomes even clearer if looked at over time. We're really talking about a sizable expanse of time-let's say from the 1820s to the 1850s at least-during which attitudes changed a great deal. The anti-abolitionist riots of the 1820s and 1830s which led to the deaths of Elijah Lovejoy and others and a near-miss for W.L. Garrison make a ready contrast to the agitation and public action-sometimes armed-against the Fugitive Slave Acts in the 1850s.



May we add to Peter Knupfer's list another noteworthy name-John Brown!


Paul Heymont Automotive HS, Brooklyn NY Social Studies/English

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Date: Thu, 4 Jul 1996 10:00:26 -0400 (EDT)

From: James Banner <>

To those who have replied to inquiries about racism among anti-slavery advocates, I would urge the importance of prior, i.e., existing, attitudes that affected northern abolitionist approaches to the slave issue. While it is not necessary to revert to the fertile crescent, a consideration of all colonial and early national views would be essential for context-setting. As Paul Finkelman and I have discussed before, and as he, while modestly and reasonably criticizing me for earlier work, has joined me in arguing, those old fogies, the Federalists, were somehow implicated in the origins of northern antislavery, and not entirely for reasons having to do with their detestation of slavery per se. Much had to do with regional jealousy, some with politics, some with religion, much with commerce and capital. In any event, a look at the anti-slavery lineage reaching at least back into the eighteenth-century would be essential. Why are so many of the sons and daughters of the old-time Federalists found among the abolitionists? Wendell Phillips's father, for instance, was a pillar of Massachusetts Federalism (as well as arguably one of the first fund-raisers in American political history).

Jim Banner

Date: Thu, 4 Jul 1996 23:32:12 -0400 (EDT)

[Two notes from Paul Finkelman (PBK)]:


From: Paul Finkelman <>

I hesitate to add more to this, but I just want to second Heymont's observations about time; if we look at things like access to public education (segregated and integrated) access to wealth (including buying houses), concern for political rights, and most important of all, I think, the protection of the liberty of free blacks and fugitive slaves, we see that black do fairly well under the early national regimes, particularly where Federalists are in power; the Jacksonians (starting, perhaps even before Jackson is on the scene-in 1821 NY Constit. Convention) do their best to harm blacks wherever possible, but even in th 1820s and 1830s there are counter-trends;

Chief Justice Hornblower's attack on Fug. Slave law in 1837;

Commonwealth v. Aves; and similarly case in other states; NY's repeal of its nine-month sojourner law; the many personal liberty laws; PA's prosecution of Priggs from 1837 to 1842; the repeal of most of Ohio's black laws in 1849, etc. We also see an ever growing black population in the North, made up mostly of southern slaves coming north; and growing literacy rates and access to schools; it might even be worth some comparisons, say between the number of school aged FREE blacks in school in the South, versus the number in the North. In 1860, for example, fewer than 3,000 free blacks attended school in the South (about 1,950 of these were in Md., Del., Mo., and Ky.) In va. with 22,000 free blacks in the school age population, only 41 were in school in 1860; in the North, with its smaller free black population, over 29,000 attended school. Blacks do not attend school at the same rates as whites in the North; but in a number of northern states blacks attended at very high rates. In 1859 a black woman won a suit against an Ohio street car conductor who threw her off a car because of her race.

Paul Finkelman


From: Paul Finkelman <>

Just to add to Jim Banner's point; many federalists were involved in antislavery; John Jay leading the pack; as Gary Nash and Jean Soderlund pointed out, there were almost no Jeffersonians involved in the Pa. Abolition Society; but lots of federalists.

Paul Finkelman

Date: Fri, 5 Jul 1996 07:57:24 -0700 (PDT)

From: Austin Meredith <>

I have been musing on the candidate lists which have been appearing here, offering a litany of the well-known names such as the Reverend Theodore Parker, Theodore Dwight Weld, Sarah and Angelina Grimke, Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, Senator Charles Sumner, Gerrit Smith, Representative Thaddeus Stevens, Salmon P. Chase, and John Brown.

I suppose I should have anticipated this sort of response.

The issue of implicit motivation is simply not to be approached by the construction of long lists of various white abolitionists of whom we have heard tell. We have of course all of us been made aware during our elementary educations of any number of white Americans in the antebellum context who had expressed themselves in favor of the abolition of slavery. There is no doubt they expressed themselves that way and there is no doubt they were sincere when they expressed themselves that way. I have myself, however, found the question of _motivation_ to be most perplexing and distressing.

All too often a desire to abolish slavery on closer analysis turns out to have been, among the leaders, combined with a desire to be right and righteous at the expense of other white people with whom an invidious contrast might be made (William Lloyd Garrison), and to be free of "our burden" of racial problems if necessary by such means as restricting immigration from undesirable countries (Wendell Phillips) and by inducing those persons of other colors who were already here to just go away or to separate themselves off in such manner as to leave "us" alone (Gerrit Smith).

All too often, upon close examination the attitudes become similar to the attitudes of such fair people as our Quaker president, Richard Nixon, the one who cynically funded Head Start programs despite a personal conviction expressed on the Watergate tapes that the tax money he was spending on attempts to educate black children was money wasted on a venture which _could not_ bear fruit-because black people were, to "their" and to "our" great misfortune, notably inferior to white people (an attitude he in fact shared with such antislavery luminaries as Waldo Emerson).

All too often, among white workers, the finer of these sentiments of racial equality were all too absent, and what was present, present to an overwhelming degree, was resentment not only of their reduced circumstances, but also of the black worker-in particular of the free black worker-who kept white wages down by being available to labor for an even lesser reward.

Having been disappointed so many times, as I have learned more about this or the other of these historic personages and the wellsprings of their spirits, I have become quite cautious, and now tend to refrain from equating any express desire for the elimination of slavery with an implicit acceptance of racial parity. All too often a desire to be free of slavery turns out to have been, most ambiguously, in those times also a desire to be free of the slave.

The fact remains, as I commented before on this list, that the only white American from this period whom I have never had cause to doubt in this vexing manner has been Henry David Thoreau. My reason for having no cause to doubt in this particular instance is that my sense of his soul is, that if some one or another of the 19th-Century scientists who abounded in his environment near Harvard College (such as the racist anti-Darwinian Professor Louis Agassiz), had managed by the hardest of hard 19th-Century science to persuade him that black Americans were in fact inferior to white Americans-his fine spirit would have protected him from drawing any political conclusions whatever from such a finding.

In fact I have come to doubt even the motivation of John Brown, supposing that he had been in fact almost as eager to find an issue which could function as an excuse to slaughter with holy righteousness as he had been to make his life of benefit to his fellows. Yes, he was induced to give his life for his beliefs-but only after he had been willing to give the lives of others for his beliefs.

\s\ Austin Meredith <>, "Stack of the Artist of Kouroo" Project

Date: Fri, 5 Jul 1996 14:53:43 -0400 (EDT)


I am glad that Austin Meredith has reminded us of the traps involved in measuring the racial beliefs and practices of white abolitionists. While I, too, am wary of attempts to remove any and all stains of racism, whatever their degree, from the pantheon of white abolitionists, neither am I enthusiastic, however, with the desire to dismiss Garrison, et al., as having been "just some more white racists." It seems to me that, when it comes to determining racial beliefs and understanding interracial relationships, particularly among political reformers and activists, it would be as difficult to perform on today's figures as it would be on yesterday's. There are (and were) a myriad of contradictory and complicated pieces of evidence to consider.

This fact may be best illustrated by the experiences of perhaps the most renowned African-American abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, who saw many of the aforementioned white reformers in very complex terms.

On the one hand, he cringed at the subtle (at times, not-so-subtle) suggestion by some abolitionists, like Phillips, that blacks were not the social and intellectual equals of whites. On the other hand, he more than a few times concurred with the former's claim that Africa was in great need of being anglicized and christianized.

(To be fair, it must be noted that FD also believed that

Anglo-American society could benefit equally from a little

"Africanization.") While he often made stinging remarks about some of Phillips' ideas, particularly after FD's break with the Garrisonians, he also made a big deal out of the fact that Phillips was one of only a few white reformers whom he considered true comrades in arms. Douglass clearly valued white counterparts who interacted with him socially, as well as politically, and who willingly endured the same conditions as Douglass was forced to do on his tours of the segregated North. Phillips was one of the few whites who CONSISTENTLY did this.

Garrison was another white reformer whose motives and actions Douglass implicitly trusted. Even after the horrific treatment of Douglass at the hands of the Boston Clique in the early 1850's, Douglass never attributed Garrison's personal role in the affair to racism. He would have rejected such an explanation (and actually did, on more than one occasion.) Some have suggested that FD was blinded to Garrison's true nature by a type of "father worship" but I find this explanation a little unsatisfactory and more than a little demeaning.

I must politely disagree with the assertion that Brown was motivated less by a commitment to African-American freedom than by some sort of messianic complex or delusions of grandeur. For someone whose heart and soul wasn't in the fight for Black freedom and equality, he certainly went to great lengths to convince people otherwise. Of all the white reformers with whom Douglass was intimate, he reserved his greatest praise for Brown, and not just because of the raid on Harpers Ferry. He believed Brown to have been truly color-blind (a notion with which, I admit, I have a little trouble.) Douglass tried to prove his point by arguing that no other white man he knew interacted with Black men and women so intimately, so naturally, and with so little cultural "baggage" than did Brown. Though Garrison and Phillips had boarded with Douglass on the road, Brown LIVED with Douglass in the latter's home and was completely at ease there (as Douglass later claimed he had been in Brown's home when he first visited there.)

While none of these arguments provides a knock-out blow to the claim that Garrison, Phillips, and Brown were racist, I did not intend them to do so. I merely point them out to suggest two things. First, that racism seems to me to be an entity without clear, oppositional poles. Because of this, there are thousands, perhaps millions, of ways to define and measure it. Second, rather than concentrating upon the dynamic of racism, per se, within the abolitionist movement, I am far more interested in exploring what Albert Murray and others have called "racialism": the idea that there are (and always have been) many gradients of color in American society; that there are many varieties of response when these gradients rub up against each other; and that "white" and "black" people are both capable of cultural chauvinism.

While it is extremely worthwhile to examine the cultural chauvinism of antislavery activists, it is equally valuable to examine their cultural interactions, as well. I do not believe that one necessarily cancels out the other.

Jim Cook

Frederick Douglass Papers

West Virginia University

Date: Fri, 5 Jul 1996 13:27:52 -0700 (PDT)

From: Jamie Lara Bronstein <disraeli@leland.Stanford.EDU>

I just throught I'd throw in my two cents here on the similarity between white reformers' attitudes on race in the United States and paternalistic reformers' attitudes on class in Britain. The fact that both groups of reformers could seek "improvement" for another group of people and yet feel themselves to be wholly distinct and even better than that group is hardly surprising in the British context-social rules strictly dictated as much, and America, as its "refinement" shows, was less far removed from Britain culturally than we like to think.

Because race had a similar social function for the United States, to that which class had in Britain, while it may have been theoretically appropriate to seek political equality, or at least freedom, for blacks, social equality/coexistence was out of the question. To expect what we might teleologically call "modern" sensibilities on race from Northern abolitionists is unfair and anachronistic, considering both the weight of history and the requirements of their own culture. They wanted an end to slavery-not to provoke a class war in the North, which white working-class feeling seemed to promise.

I've seen various historians comment on the greater social interaction between blacks and whites in the South than in the North; as long as no political equality was even contemplated there was no danger of social transgression. Similarly, the gentry and laborers in England could safely interact as long as a certain amount of deference was present, but the working and middling people of towns and cities maintained stricter barriers, especially once workers began to agitate for political inclusion. The comparison drawn between the chattel slave and the factory slave was more than just rhetoric-reformers' benevolence did not usually extend to contemplating a permanent connection with the objects of their reformist attentions.

++ Jamie Bronstein++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

++ History Department "Vote yourself a farm."+

++ New Mexico State University -George Henry Evans++


Date: Fri, 05 Jul 1996 17:22:21 -0400

From: Paul Heymont <>

Not wishing to take on the whole matter, especially as I suspect from the tone of the portion that I do reply to that we are in the realm of emotion and prejudice, I nonetheless wish to take exception to Austin Meredith's comment on John Brown.

Meredith wrote:

>In fact I have come to doubt even the motivation of John Brown, supposing that he had been in fact almost as eager to find an issue which could function as an excuse to slaughter with holy righteousness as he had been to make his life of benefit to his fellows. Yes, he was induced to give his life for his beliefs-but only after he had been willing to give the lives of others for his beliefs.

1. The portrait of John Brown as a madman is a fiction of a time later than Brown's. Jim Loewen, in his excellent _Lies My Teacher Told Me_ traces its origin, and its purpose as a weapon against the gains made by blacks-and poor whites-during Reconstruction.

2. Contemporary accounts of Brown by both blacks and whites noted him as unusual for having cordial social ties on a plane of equality with black; his "company" contained many of both.

3. Brown's life, and that of friends and family who shared his beliefs, were on the line for quite a long time before Harpers Ferry-in Kansas, and in many other activities of the Underground Railroad. That Brown committed bloody acts, some of them extroardinarily violent for a violent age, is admitted; but saying that he did so because he gloried in blood-letting gravely misreads the conditions under which he sacrificed for his beliefs.

4. The idea that Brown was a bloodthirsty man looking for a cause to justify killing seems very bizarre to me. Perhaps Meredith can produce some evidence of such a motivation? Where can we read of his search? What other "causes" does Meredith think Brown tried out and discarded?



Paul Heymont Automotive HS, Brooklyn NY Social Studies/English

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Date: Sun, 7 Jul 1996 16:04:46 -0400 (EDT)

[Ed. note (PBK): these notes are posted in chronological order. It is

worth bearing in mind that correspondents discuss material posted as of the

date they send mail to us.]


From: Paul Finkelman <>

I think Mr. Meredith misunderstands the motivation of my sincere abolitionists, which was their religious beliefs. Weld, Phillips, and a host of others talk about the position as being essentially a religious one, motivated I suppose, by a sincere reading of the Sermon on the Mount. I find it hard to imagine how a comparison of Wendell Phillips or Garrison to Richard Nixon will gain us any useful insights into the nature of antebellum abolitionism.

If the issue is simply that most 19th century Americans were uncertain about race; sure they were, blacks as well as whites; the question of motivation for abolition might not indeed have much to do with race; obviously people who were in favor of ending slavery (and not colonizing blacks) had overcome whatever deep seated views on race they may have had; similarly, people who went to jail helping slaves escape (the white Virginian, for example, who put Henry "Box" Brown in the box [see Smith v. Commonwealth, 6 Gratt Va) 712 (1849)] later went to jail for helping another slave try to escape; Daniel Drayton of Phil., Calvin Fairbank, Jonathan Walker, William Chaplin, and Thomas Brown (all are discussed in SLAVERY IN THE COURTROOM) all went to jail or were otherwise punished for helping slaves escape.

Now, what was their motivation? Certainly not to attack Irish immigrants, or economically exploit blacks, or keep blacks out of the territories, or any of the other notions that Meredith suggests. Similarly, people like Castner Hanway, Sherman Booth, the Jerry Rescuers who were tried and some of whom did time for helping fugitives slaves; these people did not stop to analyze their race or the economic value of helping them. As for Brown, I fail to see the point that he died only after others had died first? I suppose he could have made sure he died first (a new style of leadership?) and that would have ended it all right there. He may have been foolish, misguided, or even crazy, but I am not sure what that says about his views on race.

The point is, I think, that many many whites put their lives, liberty, fortunes (consider the abolitionists in South Bend who in the end lost much of their property rescuing fugitive slaves) and, to use Jefferson's term, "sacred honor" on the line to help blacks escape slavery or remain free. Moreover, they did this in a climate that was often quite hostile to their actions. On the other hand, Thoreau, as far as I know, never did much of anything to help anyone. That is no great sin, but I am sure the 20+ slaves John Brown led out of Missouri, across Illinois and eventually into Canada would have preferred one John Brown (who fortunately had not yet allowed himself to be killed) to a hundred Thoreaus. The fugitives saved by the Oberlin-Wellington Rescuers doubtless were happier to have actions taken on their behalf, even by people whose "souls" were not perfect, than to have poems written on their behalf by people whose souls were perfect.

Paul Finkelman


From: Austin Meredith <>

Paul Heymont writes:

> Not wishing to take on the whole matter, especially as I suspect from the tone of the portion that I do reply to that we are in the realm of emotion and prejudice, I nonetheless wish to take exception to Austin Meredith's comment on John Brown. ... The portrait of John Brown as a madman is a fiction of a time later than Brown's.

Perhaps this sort of comment is inspired by relying upon derivative, preprocessed extrapolations rather than dealing with primary historical records. (Heymont frankly acknowledges that his information is coming to him via Jim Loewen's _Lies My Teacher Told Me_, a source which he characterizes as "excellent.") I do not myself as suggested paint John Brown as having been at all mentally deranged, but the depiction of him as mentally deranged to which Heymont here refers is demonstrably a fiction which dates to Brown's own time, and which is amply attested in the primary records.

Heymont continues:

> The idea that Brown was a bloodthirsty man looking for a cause to justify killing seems very bizarre to me. Perhaps Meredith can produce some evidence of such a motivation? Where can we read of his search?

The various primary records when accumulated and made searchable are quite voluminous, and will therefore be issued as a CD-ROM. We should be able to begin distribution of this source later on this year. One interesting fact which we will all be able to note in this new accumulation of records is that the roles played in the later conspiracy, during the 1850s, by Frederick Douglass and Waldo Emerson are far, far more central than any secondary treatment has as yet indicated. In fact the records we have collected, such as from primary newspaper accounts, catch generations of historians in the act of attempting to erase the factual linkage between Douglass and Emerson in Concord, according to which Douglass was intended to function as a redeeming leader in the slavish United States of America more or less as Toussaint-Louverture had functioned as a redeeming leader for slavish Haiti in the 1796-1802 time frame. Another interesting thing which we will be able to note in this new accumulation of records is that Henry David Thoreau was during the 1840s far, far more deeply enmeshed in this than has hitherto been recognized in any secondary treatment. To Thoreau's credit and to Douglass's credit, both men-one earlier, one at the very last moment-drew back from such a bloody course.

Paul Finkelman writes:

> In 1859 a black woman won a suit against an Ohio street car conductor who threw her off a car because of her race.

I am not myself familiar with this particular early Ohio case. In what city in Ohio did this occur in 1859 and who was the person involved? The earliest similar incident of which this project has as yet collected evidence was the culmination of Sojourner Truth's personal campaign in March-September 1865 to implement Senator Charles Sumner's new law about black citizens being allowed to ride on the public horsecars in the streets of Washington DC. Despite the law, in order to board the cars it was frequently necessary for boarders to stand directly in front of the horses, in order to give the conductor no alternative but to stop, and in one incident Truth was injured.

Incidentally, while I was in Northampton MA this last spring, Truth's earlier home where she had gotten to know Frederick Douglass before either of them got to know Henry Thoreau, an incident occurred which has told me a very great deal about what has been going down for lo these many years. Nobody has ever seemed to have any idea where it was that Sojourner Truth's home had been located in nearby Florence, while she was the laundress in the basement of the silk factory-whether for instance it had been in a segregated settlement or had been centrally located on a street in the main part of the town contiguous to the homes of white workers-and so a local retired public school teacher walked over to the real estate records room in the courthouse and, in not more than 15 minutes of research, produced _all_ the records involved, transaction book by transaction book.-In all these years, very plainly, while we had all been busily reprocessing each other's stuff and bouncing off one another's attitudes, _nobody had ever bothered to look for primary materials_.

The moral, I suppose, is that this new electronic technology, with its enormous freebie memory powers, is granting to us the opportunity to take a fresh look at a whole bunch of stuff we have all supposed to have become cut and dried-and make important new discoveries.

\s\ Austin Meredith <>, "Stack of the Artist of Kouroo" Project


From: Paul Finkelman <>

On Brown's madness, such as it was, see Robert McGlone's essay in HIS SOUL

GOES MARCHING ON: RESPONSES TO JOHN BROWN AND THE HARPERS FERRY RAID (Paul Finkelman ed., Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995).

I am curious why Mr. Meredith would think someone must be crazy to give his life to try to end slavery?

Paul Finkelman

Date: Mon, 8 Jul 96 10:01 PDT


I think it also worthwhile to distinguish between what was said for political reasons, and what abolitionists might have actually believed. Both Berwanger's _The Frontier Against Slavery_ and much more strongly, Foner's _Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men_ contain reminders that Republicans often took "white superiority" positions in response to the Democratic Party's continual allegations that Republicans sought to elevate blacks above whites. It is very easy to quote Lincoln about black social inequality and give the impression that these were his heart-felt beliefs. Perhaps they were, but it is difficult to determine this when such statements were made as part of an effort to get elected in a society where the electorate clearly regarded white supremacy as fundamental.

Clayton Cramer

Date: Tue, 9 Jul 1996 19:37:37 -0500 (CDT)


From: Paul Finkelman <>

Cramer makes an excellent point; even more important, his point underscores that those whites who openly supported black equality and black rights did so at some cost. This is especially true of abolitionist politicians like Chase, Sumner, John Andrews, Joshua Giddings, and Gerrit Smith (served one term in COngress, does that make him a politician?) Lincoln of course was hardly an abolitionist; but compared to Douglas he is a racial progressive in 1858; more importantly, he grows and changes over time.

Paul Finkelman


From: Timothy Scherman <>

On Thoreau v. Brown: I'm surprised neither discussant here has mentioned Thoreau's own oration on John Brown in 1859. There he considers his own actions nought in comparison, referring to himself as one of the hypocrite "we" in his audience, and Brown as the superior example of a man who has put principle into action.

As for Thoreau's home as a stop on the Underground RR, well, we have his sisters to thank there.

Timothy Scherman

Northeastern Illinois University

Date: Fri, 12 Jul 1996 08:55:25 -0500 (CDT)

From: Timothy Scherman <>

I cannot agree with Austin Meredith's earlier criticism of those white abolitionists who did much for the cause of abolition but did so, or so the argument runs, with tainted motivations or intentions.

First, I would be interested in sources. Granted, I've only read 50 or 100 letters of Gerrit Smith and Wendell Phillips, but there (in "private" correspondence, where one might expect some to let their guard down) I've found no evidence of either man's taking on abolition for self-serving purposes. Then again, this is only so many personal letters-have I missed something huge?

Second, I cannot agree with the presentism of this critique. Ideas and ideological dispositions have histories, just as abolition had a history. At the point in time Phillips and Smith et al. were working, the goal was to make slavery illegal; to judge them by today's standards of sensitivity seems irrelevant to that work.

The case of Married Women's Property Acts is instructive: the first laws enabling married women to own property in the US were not passed in MA or NY, but Mississippi, in 1839, and those wealthy planters had themselves and their fortunes, and not their daughters (necessarily) in mind. Still, those early Acts would be cited when similar laws were passed in states like NY and MA *with* women's rights in mind.

Of course, one might argue (returning to the white abolitionists) that making slavery illegal did very little for blacks in the US as long as those racist attitudes went unchecked, and thus, that Phillips, Smith, et al CAN be judged for their lingering racism. But if we are to judge (if we must) acts in history, it would seem sensible not to start out by displacing the dominant ideological trend (a lingering racism counter-balanced by guilt, fear, and some good will) with an emergent attitude (Quakerism, Thoreau)--and judging white abolitionists on that as if it were the standard or dominant, or dare we say it on a history list-transcendental norm? Thoreau's attitude is still "emergent" is it not?

Timothy Scherman

Northeastern Illinois University

Date: Sat, 13 Jul 1996 05:59:34 +0200 (MET-DST)


I applaud Timothy Scherman's attempt to disrupt unthinking application of present terms and concepts to an evaluation of mid-19th century thinking. Let's recall that the term 'racism' comes to us from the 1930s only, in short, from the Hitler era when it became a matter of choice whether or not one ascribed to such a position or not. Similar factors applied to the use of the next earlier word in this complex, 'racialism', which surfaced early in this century. The notions raised in these terms did not apply in the middle of the 19th century when race difference and a concomitant ranking of races was accepted as common knowledge ratified by the science of the time (think of Louis Agassiz). The Abolitionists did not think of race in 20th century terms and properly speaking racism was not available to them as an option. They were concerned with the institution of slavery. To ask more is to ask them to be part of our century rather than theirs.

John G. Blair, Prof. of American Literature & Civilization

University of Geneva, Switzerland

Date: Sat, 13 Jul 1996 15:16:58 -0400 (EDT)


From: Paul Finkelman <>

Professor Blair rasies an important point, and I endorse it and Mr. Scherman's about presentism; but, it is worth noting that there was a strong movement in the U.S. and Europe to classify people by race and to classify races by ability; starting with Thmas Jefferson some Americans began to categorize by race and develop concepts of race and what we would identify as racism; Jefferson, for example, believed that blacks did not "love" each other like other (ie: white) people did and that they carried an unpleasant odor (they "smelled funny" in modern racist terms); later southern physicians, scientists, jurists, etc. all bought into this and proclaimed it to be true.

Paul Finkelman


From: "J. Douglas Deal" <deal@Oswego.OSWEGO.EDU>

[Noting Prof. Blair's post]:

Race difference and ranking may have been "common knowledge" accepted by most whites, but doesn't this argument omit other (non-white) residents of antebellum America? I doubt that blacks or Native Americans, for example, accepted without question the racial views ("scientific" or other) of white Americans. If we balk at using a term like racism to describe those views, why not borrow the term used regularly by antebellum black abolitionists as they tried to change the minds and hearts of their white comrades in the cause? "Prejudice."

When Jefferson presented his argument for the racial inferiority of blacks in NOTES ON THE STATE OF VIRGINIA, it was not universally accepted, even by whites (St. George Tucker, I think, wrote a stinging critique). And even though most whites in 19th-century America probably looked on (and treated) blacks as racially inferior, there were plenty of blacks and (if the writings of the blacks are correct on this) at least a handful of whites who believed (and acted) differently. To wish now that more had done so is NOT to impose a 20th-century standard but merely to affirm the views and hopes of an enlightened 19th-century minority. For a sampling of 19th-century black commentaries on white prejudice, see C. Peter Ripley, ed., WITNESS FOR FREEDOM (1993).

Doug Deal