Abolitionists' Words Framed Our History

American Antislavery Writings Edited By Jim Basker

By: - Jan 30, 2013

PBS closed out its outstanding illustrated series on the Abolitionists early last week [link to pbs article] on a strong note for Black History month. And the three-part documentary certainly had its dramatic as well as informative moments—not least the violence unleashed upon non-violent Abolitionists like Newburyport’s William Lloyd Garrison and vulnerable slaves from Maryland to Charleston, South Carolina.

While images throughout shocked, the words for once did the heavy lifting. Wonderful dialogues like aristocratic Angelina Grimke upbraiding her indifferent Southern mother or the exchange between Frederick Douglass and John Brown with Brown’s fiery assertion that slaveholders’ violence must be met with antislavery force vividly portrayed the starkly intellectual and fundamental philosophical conflict.

Fortunate for us just post-Emancipation Proclamation, slaveholders as well as Abolitionists were writers not just orators or actors, and fulsome and articulate ones at that. Fortunate as well that in these years of the Civil War’s 150th anniversary—and in the shadow of Spielberg and Day-Lewis’ monumental film “Lincoln"—those memorable words are now available in an accurate and appealing format.

At a mid-December 2012 lecture in New York City and thanks to a Boston-educated history and literature scholar, the Library of America expanded its remarkable range of offerings (from John Smith to James Baldwin, with Grant, DuBois, and Hurston along the way) by introducing a massive anthology of diverse antislavery writings. These begin with “Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation” and conclude appropriately enough with the “Thirteenth Amendment.” This was the amendment that constitutionally abolished slavery just after Lincoln’s assassination.


James Basker, the editor and now a Barnard professor and modern-day antislavery activist, was as eloquent in his NYC presentation of American Antislavery Writings as the literary, political, and historic figures whose works he searched out and included. These greats included Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, Stowe, John Quincy Adams, John Brown, Phillis Wheatley, Emily Dickinson, Ben Franklin and Frederick Douglass.

“This is the first time these writings, many hitherto unavailable, have been brought together,“ Basker reminded the packed Harvard Club audience. “It’s 966 pages, 158 authors (35 of them black) and the 216 selections tell one of the most important stories not only in American but world history. It chronicles the loss and the triumph of human freedom. It’s a struggle that began in ancient and biblical times, a struggle that continues today and not just human slavery but sexual trafficking and the exploitation of the weak everywhere.”

Anticipating the ways in which the PBS series would make vivid opposition to those advocating emancipation, Basker asked, “What could account for the violence visited against not only black slaves but their white Northern and Southern advocates?” Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a huge best seller from the day of its 1851 publication, was rabidly repudiated throughout the South.

“Those in possession of it,” Basker said, “could be sent to prison, bounties were offered for any antislavery writers, presses were smashed, a printer like Lovejoy was murdered…the Philadelphia hall where Grimke spoke was burned to the ground.”

Why had Southern society responded that way to Garrison’s “Liberator” newspaper or Douglass’ words, to antislavery books as well as to songs even poetry? “The vehemence directed towards antislavery writing,” Basker suggested, was an ironic testament to the special power of words. “And to their truth,” Basker emphasized. “What these documents and thousands like them I could not include demonstrate is how fierce and determined the voices, how diverse the authorship, and how varied the forms of this antislavery struggle.” 

So alongside the expected tracts and sermons are many surprises, said Basker. You have black as well as white writers, some urban but a few rural, some are formally educated, sophisticated and known. Yet other writers were self-taught, naïve, and obscure. Basker included 13 by anonymous. Of the 35 black selections “there are 23 slave narratives, including Douglass’,” said Basker, adding,“but hundreds more exist, many published in their time but no longer in print.”

A single poem by Dickinson, “Color, Caste, Denomination,” strangely anticipates Lincoln’s almost biblical “Second Inaugural,” ringing changes on so many of the "Liberator’s" editorials. “But remember,” said Basker, "Garrison published from 1831, so there are 1800 of them at least. The literature building up to the Civil War was simply immense.”

Unlike the PBS series which focused its narrative on intertwined stories of a distinct representative five—Grimke, Garrison, Douglass, Stowe and Brown, Basker’s twenty-years-in-the-making American Antislavery Writings could be more wide ranging and, intentionally, "democratically inclusive," in his words. 

Was Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” any less influential than Thoreau’s defense of John Brown? Louisa Mae Alcott’s haunting short story of interracial love any less disquieting than her Little Women?

“The antislavery story is more nuanced and more difficult than some historians today would allow,” Basker said. Garrison insisted that on slavery he would neither equivocate nor retreat, “but those in political office or under different social constraints often had to do both,” said Basker.

“Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson were both 18th century slaveholders, yet each strongly advocated human freedom and each, in their times, pushed the boundaries, challenged—not unwittingly—the old justifications.”

For all the seemingly contradictory praise for “Lincoln” and President Lincoln (see Eric Foner’s NY Times Op Edit, “The Emancipation of Abe Lincoln”) “there is an important but misunderstood little known back story,” said Basker, “and this collection chronicles and gives voice to that story; innumerable stories, in fact, and we’ve not been able to read them until now.”

“As a practical politician, Lincoln was less compromised than his counterpart Jeff Davis,” Basker said. "Lincoln was pushed, he was pulled, but he also had his own convictions, long held, which grew clearer and stronger.” And what about Lincoln’s political genius?


“The Abolitionist literature powerfully envisioned another, alternate future,” said Basker. “Bringing that future into being, not merely laws but actual practices, required considerable courage and also considerable insight, tact, timing, and the steady but not rash balancing of powerful and often contradictory interests and forces.”

According to Basker, the South was not only losing a war of territory, raw materials and men. “Thanks to these antislavery writings, over time, we can see how Southern slavery was losing the battle of ideas.”


When a Union soldier wrote home after Emancipation Proclamation January 1, 1863, "Now I know what we’re fighting for," Basker said those ideas were having their effect in the North as well as South. “Slavery, increasingly, did not have a case,” said Basker. “Whether argued on a religious or an economic basis, slavery’s evils were so abominable, any arguments for its current support or continuation were absolutely unpersuasive.”

Earlier, slavery was “on very shaky ground,” said Basker. “Recall Jefferson in his Declaration wanted to blame the British for the slave trade. It was taken out. During Jefferson’s presidency, Congress abolished transatlantic slave trading. Jefferson signed it. But his own personal conduct was more mixed, less reasonable."

"Perhaps for Jefferson slavery was more and more a financial necessity, and then Sally Hemings must surely have given the lie to what Jefferson thought he believed about so-called black inferiority.”

Basker noted the influence of Enlightenment ideas—“which in Samuel Johnson’s case meant antislavery ideas, though, even earlier, probably Junior High, I was taken with Huck Finn. I wrestled with the novel, I couldn’t read Jim’s dialect, missed so much but I sensed the enormity of the issues of black and white relations, of freedom and slavery, beneath and behind Jim’s words.”

That sense of muffled or hidden conflict pressed Basker while he was working on his PhD. “Boswell was pro-slavery, Boswell found suppressed Johnson’s antislavery critique and my mentors at Harvard, Walter Jackson Bate and Alan Heimert, encouraged me to somehow,
 someway, let the truth be told.”


Basker was concerned that the received history could make slavery appear a just a debate to young people. “While the pro-slavery authors had published as though it was one side against another, putting the full range of antislavery and Abolitionist writings into print would demonstrate an essential and irrefutable truth,” said Basker. “There was no other side. The record will show the proslavery literature always had to finally assume the defensive, their arguments so pathetic." 

As we see in the PBS series, Abolitionist writers were offered violence instead of reasoned, logical opposition. American Antislavery Writings shows the American South losing the battle of ideas, they had no case here in America, no case in the court of world opinion either.”

The importance of reclaiming—and in the case of the PBS Abolitionist series dramatizing—this history must be the work of each generation of teachers and their students."

“To forget history,” argues Basker, “is to annihilate selfhood. You cease to be a person without memory, and these words cannot be forgotten.” Novelist Milan Kundera’s famous lines about the assertion of memory against forgetting come to mind.

As do their enactment in films like "Lincoln” and other forms of popular culture, as well as making available to students primary source documents. Not coincidentally, just what Basker has been doing not only for college students at Barnard but for American high school students and teachers through the Gilder Lehrman Institute for American History, of which Basker is an editor as well as the president.

“Imagine someone ten years old today,” says Basker. “They will grow up with a black President, a model black family in the White House. Imagine what that says to them.”