The Atlantic's James Fallows on how the fight over SCOTUS highlights the media's struggles to cover this political moment.
Guest Host: Katherine Lanpher
In 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This freed most of the country’s 4 million slaves. Three years later, Congress ratified the Thirteenth Amendment, finally ending the practice of slavery in the United States. These are defining and celebrated moments in American history. But some argue the people who made those moments possible have been left out of the story. A new book traces the history of the abolition movement. It brings together stories of the men and women, blacks and whites who fought America’s “peculiar institution” – and whose legacy can be seen in later social reform movements like women’s suffrage and Black Lives Matter
- Manisha Sinha Professor of Afro-American Studies, University of Massachusetts, Amherst; author of "The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition"
MS. KATHERINE LANPHERThanks for joining us. I'm Katherine Lanpher sitting in for Diane Rehm. If you ask most Americans what they know about the abolition movement, the answer is likely very little. A few might mention William Lloyd Garrison who distributed stories of escaped slaves throughout the north. Many more might talk about Frederick Douglass or the Underground Railroad. But that's just scratching the surface, says historian Manisha Sinha.
MS. KATHERINE LANPHERIn her new book, "The Slave's Cause," Sinha traces the roots of the abolition movement back to Africa and early Europe. She describes the central role that blacks played in winning their own freedom and says the movement created a blueprint that has inspired everything from feminism to Black Lives Matter. Manisha Sinha joins me in the studio. Welcome.
MS. MANISHA SINHAThank you.
LANPHERYou have said that you wrote this book to set the record straight about abolition. So what have we been getting wrong?
SINHAWell, I think most people, when they think about the abolition movement, as you said, think of outstanding individuals. They don't think of it as a radical social movement composed of hundreds and thousands of ordinary men and women and activists who really brought the question of not just slavery, but also the question of racial equality and black citizenship to the fore. And that's what motivated me to write this book.
LANPHERHow was this book a way of challenging the cynics?
SINHAYou know, the history of abolition has always been written by historians who are somewhat unsympathetic to it. We had historians who wrote about the Civil War as a kind of a needless war between brothers. This was at the turn of the century, the turn of the 20th century, so it's a long time ago. But that unsympathetic view of abolitionists has remained rather entrenched in U.S. history, except for a brief moment during the civil rights movement when activists then rediscovered them as freedom fighters.
SINHAAnd then, after that, we have had historians write about abolitionists as a relatively conservative movement, that the whites in it were racially paternalistic and tended to be conservative on a lot of questions. And they sort of ignored the role of African-Americans in it. So you had black historians writing about black abolitionists, but it was somehow never integrated into the story of abolition the way in which I have argued is central to understanding the movement.
LANPHERAmong the correctives you offer, you look at abolition in an international context. What prompted you to look further?
SINHAWell, you know, just the words of the abolitionist themselves from the archives, their newspapers, their pamphlets, they're writing about the Haitian revolution. They're writing about abolition in the Latin American nations after the wars of independence, the 1848 European revolutions. They really see their movement as part of this kind of worldwide struggle for human rights. And I found that fascinating. I had set out to write a history of the movement in the United States, but then, I realized that this transnational story situation abolition in the international context was extremely important.
LANPHERIn fact, you go on to describe abolition as being in two waves. What are those waves?
SINHAThe first wave really was during the revolutionary era, the 18th century when you had early black writers and activists and individual Quakers taking on the cause of abolition, founding the first societies. And it resulted in gradual emancipation and abolition in the northern states and the end of the African slave trade to the United States. So it did have some victories. And my argument in this book is that there is a lot more continuity between this first wave and the second wave in the 19th century.
SINHAMany of the tactics and ideas of the second wave we can trace back to the Quakers and to the early black struggle for citizenship in this country and rejection of plans to re-patriot them back to Africa.
LANPHERTalk for a minute about the goals of the abolitionists in that they wanted to end slavery, but you write that they also produced "the first full-blown analysis of American racism."
SINHAYes, that's a great question. When we think about the abolition movement, we think of it as a movement directed against southern slavery. But they were also fighting against forms of racial discrimination in the north. African-Americans were free in the north, but many times did not enjoy the full rights of citizenship, including the right to vote. So a lot of their campaigns were against Jim Crow and segregation in the north, in schools, in public transportation and I think many people do not understand that the abolition movement was devoted not just to ending slavery, but really their greater object was black political and social equality, black citizenship.
SINHAThey really imagined the interracial democracy that we are trying to live in today.
LANPHERAlso, when we talk about slavery and the long history of it in this country, it was not just Africans. We had Native Americans and I was surprised to read in your book, we also had Scotch (sic) the Irish.
SINHARight. You had indentured servants, what we would call term slaves, for a number of years and, of course, a lot of Native Americans were enslaved and sometimes lumped with African Americans when it came to the rise of colonial slavery because slavery, as an institution, was foreign to English common law. You have servitude, but not permanent lifetime slavery. But that increasingly in the colony was being directed towards Native Americans, African Americans, all those who identified as racial outsiders.
SINHAAnd interestingly enough, the first abolition society that was formed by Quakers in 1775 was formed to help and Afro-Indian woman escape unlawful slavery and help her and her four children.
LANPHERI want to go back to -- a minute to the fact that there was this entrenched view of what abolition was. How exactly were African Americans written out of that history when we have so many testaments, so many examples of their writing that are still here?
SINHAThat's another great question. You know, southern slaveholders, when they confronted the abolition movement, did not want to acknowledge the fact that African Americans, especially former slaves and fugitive slaves, were part of the movement. They wanted to portray the abolition movement as northern white interference in southern domestic institutions. And...
LANPHERIn fact, in the southern economy.
SINHAAbsolutely. In the southern economy, because slavery's central to it, they wanted to see northerners as these kind of armchair philosophers who knew nothing about slavery, but who were writing about it, like Harriet Beecher Stowe and others. But, of course, we know that fugitive slaves were extremely important to the movement and people like Frederick Douglass, et cetera, lent an authenticity to the movement.
SINHAHistorians writing about this, especially those who were sympathetic to the so-called lost cause of the south, you know, revisionist historians of the Civil War who said, oh, the war was not about slavery. It was all about northern economic imperialism over the south. And they came up with all kinds of explanations that wrote out African Americans and the issue of racial slavery itself from American history and the history of the Civil War.
LANPHERFor those who are not familiar with William Lloyd Garrison, a very quick summation of who he was. His Match.com profile.
SINHAOkay. Well, Garrison is very interesting. He was born in a very, very poor family. His father abandoned the family and he, himself, was put out as an indentured servant to work before he became a journeyman apprentice, a printer, and then started publishing his own newspaper. And I argue in the book that his experiences as someone working in circumstances that were not ideal, and his experiences with extreme poverty, I think, helped him to really empathize and understand the situation of African Americans.
SINHAThe other thing that is important about Garrison to recognize is that he was so influenced by black abolitionist who were writing against slavery. He adopted their program of rejecting colonization, which was this program of anti-slavery moderates to end slavery by simply getting rid of black people, sending them back to Africa. He adopted that program from black abolitionists. He adopted their rhetoric, which was militant and angry at the failure of abolition in a republic that claimed to be devoted to the idea of human rights and natural equality.
SINHAAnd I think that's what made Garrison unique. He began this sort of interracial movement where he really listened very closely to what African Americans had to say. So when he went to England in 1833 and he was introduced to a British parliamentarian who was an anti-slavery man, Lord Buxton, and he looked at Garrison and he said, I'm really surprised to see you. I thought you were black. And Garrison said, I will take that as the highest compliment of my work.
LANPHERWe are talking to Manisha Sinha, professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts. Her new book, "The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition." You can join this conversation at 1-800-433-8850. You can email us at email@example.com. We look forward to having you be part of this conversation. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."
LANPHERWelcome back. I'm Katherine Lanpher sitting in for Diane Rehm. We're continuing our conversation with Manisha Sinha. Her new book, "The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition," has been called an encyclopedic history of abolition. It's also one that restores the role of Africans and African-Americans into the history of abolition. We would love to have you join this conversation. 1-800-433-8850. We're also talking about how abolition created the blueprint for movements such as feminism and also Black Lives Matter. You can join us with an email, firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can join us as well on Facebook or Twitter.
LANPHERProfessor Sinha, I want to give you a quote from the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Hardly any doors but those of our state prisons were open to our colored brethren. How often did you read something that seemed to resonate with the issues of today?
SINHAA lot of times. In fact, I was amazed at how pressioned abolitionists were in looking at the problems that race had created in American society. Now, when you look at a time, in the mid-19th century, when over 90 percent of the black population is enslaved and a lot of them are under the purview of the Fugitive Slave Law, that requires any person, actually, after 1850, to render escaped slaves back to Southern slave holders. These are federal laws that are enforced, especially in the crisis decade before the Civil War.
SINHASo abolitionists detected what they call -- what we would call the criminalization of blackness. Every black man was suspect as a fugitive slave, as a runaway slave. And they remarked on this. They remarked on the fact that African-Americans, when they encountered law enforcement authorities, they seemed to have absolutely no rights, even free blacks. They weren't given due process of law. They could be kidnapped into slavery, as the famous Solomon Northup story that now people know about because of the movie.
LANPHERThe movie, "12 Years...
SINHA"12 Years a Slave." And so they remarked on this and they talked about the ways in which discrimination was entrenched in the policing systems in the North, in the ways in which African-Americans confronted the legal systems in court. They remarked, as Garrison does, the higher incarceration rates of people of African descent, even though they're a relatively small population in the North. They even launched campaigns against capital punishment. And Garrison noted how it had been differentially applied in Massachusetts, where, if you were a black man, you were judged guilty before -- you did not have the benefit of the doubt.
SINHASo in that sense, yes. I think if you look at movements like Black Lives Matter or what we call movements today to abolish prison systems or mass incarceration, you can see roots of that in the Abolition Movement.
LANPHERBecause it was illegal to let a slave escape, even into the North, there were some amazing moments when people would defy that federal law.
SINHAAbsolutely. And this is what I think is so interesting about the Abolition Movement. It unfolds in sort of -- in the law courts and petitions, but also in direction action on the ground. You had black abolitionists forming vigilance committees. You know, you had the so-called Underground Railroad, which I call the Abolitionist Underground. A lot of historians had dismissed that idea as the stuff of myth and memory. But increasingly, historians now are seeing this as an extremely important part of the Abolition Movement and the defiance against federal Fugitive Slave Laws as extremely important.
SINHAIn fact, the draconian 1850 laws passed precisely because free blacks and abolitionists are defying the old federal Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 with greater and greater success in the 1840s.
LANPHERTo read some of these, I'm going to say, rollicking accounts...
LANPHER...you perhaps might think of abolitionists as ladies in petticoats and with caps on being, you know, in a Quaker meeting.
LANPHERBut this was true, as you said, action.
SINHAAbsolutely. And, you know, we all know about the stories of Harriet Tubman. But there were many like her who actually even dared go down South and run off slaves. One of them was Laura Haviland. And if you look at her picture, she does look like a very proper Quaker lady in her petticoats. But here she is running off to Kentucky, helping enslaved people escape and confronting slave catchers and dogs. It's actually quite interesting how radical they were under what we might see as the 19th century garb of respectability.
LANPHERThis is a tweet from Rachel. The first Abolition Movement in the Americas starts with Haitian Revolution, the victory over colonizers in 1804. You cannot talk about the early abolitionists without talking about Haiti. And, indeed, you do talk about Haiti.
SINHAI do. And that's another thing that American historians have -- oh, American historians of abolition, I should say, had tended to ignore, which is the central role of Haiti in the Abolition Movement. And the Haitians themselves knew that. They knew that the British abolitionist, Thomas Clarkson, had defended their revolution as early as 1792. They knew that William Wilberforce was an ally. They named Man of War after him.
SINHAAnd I found, in my research, that black and white abolitionists were very inspired by Haiti. It was the only case of immediate abolition and, if you think about it, the only case in world history of a successful slave rebellion. And they recognized the part that the enslaved, themselves, had played in moving forward the agenda of the Abolition Movement.
LANPHERWe have another tweet from a man who teaches high school Civil War history. And he says that his students consistently ask if a Second Reconstruction is needed, especially in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement?
SINHAWhat an interesting question and idea. We could say that the Second Reconstruction took place during the Civil Rights Movement. In fact, a lot of the civil rights activists call themselves the new abolitionists and the voting rights and Civil Rights Laws as the Second Reconstruction of American democracy. I think we are in need of a Third Reconstruction today, which would really take head-on restrictions on voting rights that are increasingly being put into place, that would really again try and expand the boundaries of American democracy, the ways in which the Abolition and the Civil Rights Movement have done.
LANPHERDo we need a Third Reconstruction? We'd like to have you join this conversation, 1-800-433-8850. You can also email us at email@example.com. And of course there's Facebook or Twitter. I want to go back to some of the history. And that is the importance of free black communities in the North to the cause of abolition.
SINHAThey are extremely important. In fact, after the first wave of abolitionists sort of dying down, the only people who are holding aloft the banner of abolition are free blacks in the North. And they're able to do so because they have their own independent community institutions like churches, et cetera. And they are also fighting for equal rights in the North. And I really think free blacks in the North -- the first emancipation generation, right -- they are many times either former slaves or children of Northern slaves. You know, you look at someone like Sojourner Truth, she was a former slave in New York.
SINHAThey are the ones who are really fighting the -- for black rights. And they are the ones who make black citizenship an essential part of the Abolitionist Movement.
LANPHERAnd how fair is it to say that they were usually ahead of their white counterparts in this struggle?
SINHAThey tended to anticipate, I would say, many of the tactics and goals of their white counterparts. You know, sometimes historians have looked at the first wave of Quaker-dominated Abolition Movement and have seen them as relatively conservative. But they, too, in their own fashion, had fought for black citizenship. They did not think freedom was enough. They thought education, et cetera, was important for the newly freed. But it is really the free blacks who continually push at the boundaries of racism.
SINHAAnd what I found, in one respect, they were not only ahead, but they were the only ones really talking about this. They were the ones who started developing a systematic response to the rise of the pseudoscience of race in Western culture. And, you know, you see racist ideas and theories being employed in order to justify the enslavement of black people. And it is really African-American writers, thinkers, abolitionists, who start taking this head on very early.
LANPHERWhat about the efforts of the slaves themselves?
SINHAAgain, very, very good question. I -- we often write the enslaved out of the Abolition Movement. And I wanted to argue that it is really slave resistance, beginning with the Haitian Revolution, but also colonial slave revolts, slaves running away, voting with their feet, that are extremely important for the Abolition Movement. For instance, we would not have had a fugitive slave crisis between the North and South if there weren't fugitive slaves running for their freedom, or the Abolition Movement would not have adopted increasingly direct-actioned, radical, revolutionary methods if there weren't fugitive slaves to assist. So I really do see the slave resistance as kind of the motor force of the Abolition Movement.
LANPHERLet's talk for a moment about the complicated history of feminism and abolition.
SINHAThat's -- that is a complicated history. When we look at the first Women's Rights Movement, you could really trace its origins from the Abolition Movement, because women, as Garrison said, were the best foot soldiers of abolition. You know, they are the ones who out-sign men in abolitionist petitions virtually two to one. And this is when they do not have the right to vote. This is one way in which they can express their political opinions. You see women involved as lecturing agents -- black and white women. You see them attempting to run for office in anti-slavery societies.
SINHAAnd this is when you have relatively conservative abolitionists saying, why hitch on another unpopular cause, which is women's rights, to what we have to confront, which is, you know, black rights and fighting against slavery? But Garrison rejected that. He felt that the Abolition Movement was a movement for human rights. And so did Frederick Douglass, you know. He said that truth has no color, rights has no sex. And they made Women's Rights and important part of the abolitionist agenda. But it did lead to a schism in the movement. It divided the movement.
LANPHERAnd how was that? Because I feel, during the -- when both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were running for the presidential nomination for the Democratic Party. I'm wondering if you saw something that looked very familiar?
SINHAI did. What was interesting in that fight was that it evoked the history of abolition and women's rights for a little later period. After the Civil War, when abolitionists and their radical Republican allies started arguing for, you know the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments that introduced the word male in the U.S. Constitution, many feminists like Stanton and Anthony felt betrayed and joined their, you know, started their own movement. But I argue that some things were gained and some things were lost there.
LANPHERYou are listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And we're continuing our conversation with Manisha Sinha, a professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, and the author of a new book, "The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition," an encyclopedic effort that you can also use to help trace the roots of abolition to feminism, to Black Lives Matter. We'd like to have you join this conversation. 1-800-433-8850 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Or join us on Facebook or Twitter.
LANPHERWe have many tweets here with questions for you. Well, here is one. And I suspect that you have this -- you've heard this question before. Really? White people had little to do with stopping slavery? How many people died in the Civil War?
SINHAWell, you know, I never argue that the Abolition Movement was an entirely black movement. It was an interracial radical movement. It included whites and blacks. And that is why I wrote a book not just about black abolitionists. In terms of the Civil War, yes, over 700,000 died in the Civil War. Ironically, the same number of Africans -- or people of African descent were enslaved in the American Republic at the start of the Revolution. So it is interesting that those numbers are the same.
SINHAYes, of course, whites dies in the Civil War. But some of them died defending slavery. Let's not forget that. There was a winning and a losing side. The Confederacy was fighting in order to expand and have racial slavery as a permanent part of their society. On the Union side, you did not just have whites. You had black Union soldiers too. So on the Union side, yes, there was an interracial force that fought against slavery increasingly as the war progressed. So we tend to think in simple ways, you know, white versus black, North versus South. I think you need to be -- one needs to be careful in being very specific historically about which moment in history we are talking and who we are talking about.
LANPHERTo what do you ascribe what seems an American trait to want to forget this? To want to forget this particular history, this particular racial wound?
SINHAI think it's a more comforting story when we have a story of American freedom that is very progressive and linear. Oh, yes, there was slavery. But we got rid of it and that's the end of it. People forget that, in the Civil War, many people died to defend this institution. That opposition to black rights and opposition to ending slavery was very vast and entrenched. And that even after the war was concluded, you had people trying to overturn the results, the emancipatory results of the war. And, in fact, they succeeded in doing that in much of the south. And it took a new Civil Rights Movement to actually implement even some of the laws that were passed immediately after the Civil War, during reconstruction.
SINHASo we forget that the fight for freedom is not so linear and progressive and that we can just simply forget what happened in the past, but that its legacies continue to bedevil us today.
LANPHERWe're talking to Manish Sinha, a professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts. We're talking about her book, "The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition." It is a more inclusive and encyclopedic view of abolition. And we would love to have you join this conversation. 1-800-433-8850. Your calls and questions are coming up. We'll be right back.
LANPHERWelcome back to the Diane Rehm Show. I'm Katherine Lanpher, sitting in for Diane Rehm. We're continuing our discussion with Manisha Sinha, a professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts and the author of "The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition." We have a website comment that I'd like to share with you. The slaves and all their descendants were the property of the slave owner, often his major capital asset. Attacks on slavery were equated to attacks on private property. Did the majority of abolitionists favor citizenship for freed slaves? I believe many favored sending them to Africa.
SINHAWell, they were not abolitionists. They were what we call colonizationalists. They actually had this program of getting rid of slavery by forcing emancipated slaves to leave, well not forcing so much but requiring that they leave the country and go back to Africa. Some anti-slavery moderates thought this was the best plan. So you even had statesmen, starting from Jefferson right down to Lincoln, who thought this was the best way to solve, quote, the race problem in the country.
LANPHERAbolitionists, in fact, rejected that. That is precisely how the movement started, to reject the plan of the American Colonization Society, which was founded in 1816. African-Americans were the first to reject that plan, saying we will stay in this country that we have watered with our blood, sweat and tears and that we have been here for generations. And white abolitionists like Garrison, et cetera, listened to them. So one of the first things abolitionists is to attack the colonization program as a racist program that was trying to ensure that all the black people who remained in this country were enslaved, and all who were free were white because free blacks were required to leave the country and go back to Africa.
LANPHERSpeaking of William Lloyd Garrison, we have an email from Nat in Louisville. Please speak to the issue of reparations. Did Garrison write about the need for reparations during that time?
SINHAWhat a great question. Yes indeed he did. There were a lot of emancipation plans, especially after British abolition, which actually compensated slaveholders for their loss of, quote, slave property. And Garrison was outraged by that. He said if anyone is owed compensation, it is the enslaved for generations of unpaid labor. So you could say that the abolitionists were already thinking about reparations, and there were some abolitionists who advocated breaking up the lands of slaveholders and giving it to the people who actually cultivated it, and that was the slaves.
SINHASo yes, the thought of reparations, they may not have called it reparations, which is a modern term that we use, they called it more compensation.
LANPHERLet's go to a caller from Alito, Texas, Kay. Kay, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
KAYHello, how are you doing today?
LANPHERWe're doing great. What's your question?
KAYWell, going to reparations, you know when the slaves were freed, they were given 40 acres, a mule and I believe it was a rifle, if I remember my master's thesis correctly.
LANPHERKay, I'll let her respond to that, but I believe you also had another question, about Black Lives Matter.
KAYYeah, you were talking about Black Lives Matter, and I don't see the relevance of it. I mean, the problem is with slavery, they were physically beaten, they were -- had all their rights removed. They were not allowed to be educated. You know, you had all these horrible, and by the way wrong, things that were going on, but in today's world, a black person, a white person, a Hispanic person, any person in the United States can make their own choices. They can decide, you know, I want to go to college, I want to have a job, I want to have children. They have the right to vote. They have -- you know, every person has every right. So trying to equate that to slavery is kind of a misnomer, really.
SINHASo there were two things. Your first allusion to 40 acres and a mule, in fact all freed people were not given 40 acres and a mule. That came from Sherman, General Sherman's Field Order Number 15, in which he met with local black leaders in Savannah, Georgia, and said, what should I do with all these enslaved people following my army, and they said, well, they want land. They want to be settled. And he issued an order giving them 40 acres and a mule from the Union Army.
SINHAAnd these were abandoned lands because as the Union Army advanced in the South, slaveholders fled, and slaves fled to the Union Army. These grants that were given by Sherman were in fact revoked by President Andrew Johnson, who was a white Southern unionist from Tennessee and extremely unsympathetic to black rights. He had a strange notion that if you give black people rights, you would somehow take rights away from whites.
SINHASo in fact the dream of land redistribution amongst former slaves did not actually occur. Instead you had sharecropping arrangements, debt peonage and sometimes even convict labor. Your second question, which I think is astute, you know, clearly there is absolutely no comparison between slavery, you know, legal slavery and the condition of black people today in the United States. I mean, for God's sake, we have an African-American president. In fact, somebody asked Garrison, can you ever imagine voting for a black man as president, and he said yes of course. If a qualified person came along, I would do so.
SINHASo they did imagine this attempt that we have today to form this interracial democracy. So I am not arguing that there is a similarity between slavery and today. I mean, that would be not only anachronistic but a silly thing for a historian to argue or any person with common sense. What I'm arguing instead is that when activists take on certain tactics and programs and ideas, like the Black Lives Matter movement, they are building on a tradition of American democratic radicalism and activism, which abolitionists first began.
SINHAAnd they are testing the boundaries of American democracy the way the abolitionists did. So the analogy is not literal. It's much more, you know, much more in terms of what is the legacy of the abolition movement.
LANPHERWe have an email from Natalia in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The novel, "The Known World," which was Edward P Jones, along with others follow the story of black slave owners in the South. How prevalent was this in reality? What role did they play in abolitionism?
SINHAAgain a very good question. You in fact had African-Americans, you know, not only in Virginia, as said in the novel, but also especially in South Carolina and Louisiana, who were -- who were black slave owners. But these were exceptions to the rule. The system of Southern slavery was a system of racial slavery in which an overwhelming majority of those enslaved were black, and an overwhelming majority of those who were free and slaveholders were whites.
SINHANow there were instances of African-Americans who in order to get around these anti-manumission laws passed by Southern states, would actually hold their own wives and children and relatives in slavery because the laws required that if a person was freed, they would have to leave the state. These were laws to prevent even individual slaveholders of conscious to free their own slaves. So the state was supporting the system of slavery. And so you did have those instances.
SINHAAnd you had some fairly small instances in Louisiana, some in South Carolina, where you had people of African descent, usually children of slave owners and their common-law enslaved wives, who inherited their father's property and inherited their slaves, too. They tended to be more of mixed race, and it was, as I said, an exception to the rule. The rule was a system that not only codified slavery but also race so that free blacks tended to be lumped with slaves in the South when it came to political rights or legal privileges.
LANPHERIt appears that one of the things that your book does is it restores a spotlight to many people who have been forgotten in the history of abolition. Could you help us revisit one or two of these people who have been lost before?
SINHAThat's a great question, too. I am thinking of a number of black abolitions, who we do not hear about at all. For instance we all know that William Lloyd Garrison burned a copy of the Fugitive Slave Law and the U.S. Constitution to the shock and horror of everyone in the country, including some of his abolitionist allies, where he condemned the U.S. Constitution as a covenant with death and an agreement with hell because of the Fugitive Slave Clause.
SINHAAnd I found in my research that actually there was a black abolitionist by the name of James W.C. Pennington who had preceded Garrison in calling the Constitution, or at least the Fugitive Slave Clause of the Constitution, as a covenant with death and an agreement with hell. Those were biblical words. Garrison was not particularly religious. This minister was.
LANPHERSpeaking of minister, talk to us for a moment about Richard Allen. He was of course the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
SINHAYes, Richard Allen was a former slave who had bought his own freedom and became a Methodist minister.
LANPHERIt's quite all right. Just go ahead, take a little bit more water.
SINHAYes, I'm afraid I'm losing my voice.
LANPHERIt is live radio after all, and we don't want you to lose your voice.
SINHAAbsolutely. I guess I get excited talking about this stuff.
LANPHERYes, that's good. That's a good sign.
SINHAIt is a good sign. Richard Allen and Absalom Jones were the two people who founded the African Methodist Episcopal denomination. It is the first independent black denomination. You had churches, but this was a nationwide denomination, and of course the AME Church has been in the news because of what happened in Charleston last year. It took place in the historic AME Church in Charleston.
SINHAWhat amazed me about these black abolitionist ministers was that they were writing against slavery and condemning the existence of slavery in no uncertain terms as early as the 1790s and early 1800s. So it is extremely important for us to recover their histories. And when the massacre took place at the Charleston church, it took me immediately because I had just finished writing this book, and I realized how important their legacy was, too, for us today.
LANPHERWe're going to get back to that AME church in just a moment. You're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. And we're continuing our conversation with Dr. Manisha Sinha, professor of Afro-American studies at the University of Massachusetts. Her new book, an encyclopedic effort to restore lost history to the history of abolition, it's called "The Slave's Cause." If you'd like to join us, it is 1-800-433-8850, email@example.com.
LANPHERThere was another moment concerning the history of the AME Church where you were struck by the legacy, a very powerful moment with professor -- excuse me, with President Barack Obama.
SINHAYes, I think President Obama bookends my book. You know, I begin with him, and I sort of ended with him, and it was not what I planned to do, but as I was writing the epilogue of this book, I heard President Obama sing "Amazing Grace" in Charleston after the massacre. And I was so struck by the fact that here is our first black president singing a hymn written by a repentant British slaveholder, a slave trader rather, who was part of that movement to abolish the African slave trade in the 18th century in, you know, a church or about a church that was founded by black abolitionists.
LANPHERLet's listen to just a little bit of President Obama singing "Amazing Grace."
LANPHERAll right, I want to know where you were when you heard this.
SINHAI knew that he would be on television, and I had -- I think it was MSNBC on. And I saw this in my home, as I have watched all his speeches while I was writing the book. And oddly enough I had written this book throughout his presidency, and there have been so many moments like this for me when I have been writing this book, and I have been struck by his speeches and his actions.
LANPHERAlthough we did have someone who wrote in on Twitter and said, you know, to gently remind you that he did not come -- his heritage is not that of a slave.
SINHAAbsolutely, he isn't, you know, he is, you know, certainly a black man, but, you know, descended from a white Kansan mother and an African father. But his wife and his children are descendants of American slaves, and there is something tremendously not just symbolic, but I think there's something incredibly moving to see that family in the White House, which enslaved people helped build.
LANPHERBefore we wrap this conversation up, we should mention the role of Canada.
SINHACanada was free space for fugitive slaves. If you wanted to really escape your master, which many fugitive slaves did want to do, especially after the enactment of the Second Fugitive Slave Law, you made your way all the way to Canada because the North was not safe. You could still be caught and sent back to slavery. And there were amazing fugitives who made their way to Canada, founded black settlements there.
SINHAThere was this slave by the name of Henry Bibb who actually published a newspaper from Canada called The Voice of the Fugitive.
LANPHERBecause we have to wrap up, what is the one thing that you want people to walk away with in the wake of this conversation?
SINHAI really want people to know that there have been men and women in American history who have fought for an interracial democracy in this country and that this has been an ongoing fight since the demise of slavery and that if we as American citizens really want to know how to be active citizens, we can learn a wonderful lesson from the abolition movement, a movement that was directed to destroy an extremely powerful institution but also that encompassed so many other causes in its wake, you know, women's rights, pacifism, working men's rights, rights of immigrants, actions against nativism.
SINHAThere's -- it's a multi-faceted movement, rights of Native Americans. They included all that in the slaves' cause.
LANPHERSo it sounds like we should draw hope from this history?
SINHAYes, I think, you know, in the worst of circumstances we should realize that democracy and freedom are not concepts that just exist out there, that these are contested notions and that if we want to really make these things real in our life, we have to be activists.
LANPHERThank you so much for your time today.
SINHAThank you, Katherine.
LANPHERWe have been talking to Manisha Sinha. She is the author of "The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition." I'm thanking her. I'm also thanking you. I'm Katherine Lanpher, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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