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Linda Hirshman Offers a Lively Dissection of the Competing Strains of American Abolitionism


The Color of Abolition: How Printer, a Prophet, and a Contessa Moved a Nation

By Linda Hirshman

A feminist activist and labor lawyer, Linda Hirshman has tried cases before the Supreme Court; she has served as a distinguished professor of philosophy and women’s studies; she has written best-selling works about contemporary movements for progressive social change: “the 50-year epic battle against sexual abuse and harassment”; “the triumphant gay revolution”; “a manifesto for women of the world” — to quote the celebratory subtitles of three of her books. With “The Color of Abolition: How a Printer, a Prophet, and a Contessa Moved a Nation,” Hirshman turns her attention to a 19th-century social movement that she deems “a crucial landmark of moral progress”: the campaign to abolish slavery. Inspired by her one-time teacher, the great historian David Brion Davis, to regard it as “an astonishing historical achievement,” she seeks new meaning and inspiration for our own time from a moment when individuals not only came together to do the right thing but also ultimately succeeded in bringing about slavery’s demise.

Originally, Hirshman intended to title her book “Black and White: How William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass Defeated the Slave Empire.” This would be a triumphal story that combined an examination of the “mechanics of activism” — the how — with narrative emphasis on the who, the two extraordinary men who could draw the general reader into the broader and often complex history of abolitionism. At a time when we “in the here and now” are considering the potential and challenges of interracial activism, the past might provide a new perspective. During her research, however, the “history gods” surprised her with a third character to add to her tale, Maria Weston Chapman, antislavery organizer and editor, who Hirshman believes to have been heretofore “substantially overlooked.” Her book evolved into a depiction of the ties among “a threesome,” and the “creation, duration, and impact of their alliance to abolish slavery.”

Initially regarding her discovery as “feminist research gold,” Hirshman was soon disillusioned by “shocking” letters in which Chapman revealed the “casual racism of the privileged class” as she sought to manage Frederick Douglass’s role within the Garrisonian wing of the abolition movement. Chapman’s imperiousness, her efforts to control Douglass — what he pointedly referred to as her “overseership” — and her willingness to regard Douglass as a tool rather than a full human being are vividly portrayed. But Hirshman casts these distressing realities as more than simply a challenge to Chapman’s bona fides as an inspirational agent of “moral progress.” Their effect, Hirshman argues, was to drive Douglass out of the Garrisonian wing of abolition, with its dedication to the exclusive power of moral suasion, into the arms of the New York antislavery activists led by Gerrit Smith, who saw political action as the path to freedom. Ironically, Chapman’s behavior results in Douglass’s embracing alliances and views that prove far more effective in the antislavery cause. Chapman’s offensive words and deeds work ultimately for Douglass’s — and abolition’s — own good.

Read entire article at Washington Post