Sunday, October 16, 2016

A review of PBS's “The Abolitionists”



The future abolitionist Frederick Douglass was a young slave boy when he first heard the word "abolitionist." He said it was some time before he found out what the word meant, even though "it was always used in such connections as to make it an interesting word to [him] ... If a slave ran away and succeeded in getting clear, or if a slave killed his master, set fire to a barn, or did any thing very wrong in the mind of a slaveholder, it was spoken of as the fruit of abolition." He did not dare to ask any one about its meaning, he said, because he was "satisfied that it was something that they wanted [him] to know very little about"; and the dictionary afforded him little or no help, because it said only that it was "the act of abolishing," without mentioning what it was that was to be "abolished." (He was entirely correct that his masters didn't want him to know about it, and would have punished him severely if he had made any inquiries to them about its meaning.)


Frederick Douglass

Thus, it was not until later that he finally discovered the mysterious secret of the word's meaning: "I got one of our city papers," Douglass said later, "containing an account of the number of petitions from the north, praying for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, and of the slave trade between the States." (He was a literate man, it should be noted; in an age when slaves who knew how to read could be punished severely for the "offense" of literacy; and he was thus one of a number of slaves who risked their lives just for the knowledge of learning how to read.) "From this time," he said, "I understood the words abolition and abolitionist, and always drew near when that word was spoken, expecting to hear something of importance to myself and [my] fellow-slaves." This early encounter with the abolitionist movement for Frederick Douglass, although brief, would have an enormous effect on his life; giving him the courage to escape from slavery once and for all (even after a first escape attempt had resulted in severe punishment), and to join the abolitionist movement as one of its most distinguished supporters - contributing much to the cause of black freedom, before and after the Civil War.




Benjamin Franklin, an early abolitionist

PBS made a fine documentary about the abolitionist movement for its "American Experience" series, which spent three hours detailing the later parts of the movement's dramatic history. The movement actually goes back much farther than the point that PBS begins its narrative at, since antislavery movements in the North actually succeeded in abolishing all slavery there shortly after the American Revolution - with such distinguished people as Benjamin Franklin joining their ranks and campaigning for the cause in the North. But slavery in the South had continued long after the abolitionist victories in the North had been accomplished, and there were a number of constitutional barriers to the abolition of slavery that made progress very difficult in this tumultuous period - among them, the Fugitive Slave Clause, which was the part of the Constitution that drew the fire of abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison the most. (He called the Constitution "a covenant with death and an agreement with hell" for this reason - strong language that was indicative of the high moral outrage of the abolitionist leaders.)


William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the antislavery newspaper "The Liberator"


Angelina Grimké, an influential (but unsung) abolitionist

This series focuses on the lives of a small number of people - five of them, to be specific, among them Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison (two of the movement's leaders). The others are John Brown, Angelina Grimké, and Harriet Beecher Stowe - whose bestselling book "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was one of the most influential books of the mid-nineteenth century, and succeeded in making slavery look like the horrible institution that it actually was, at a time when many white people were inclined to view it as a "benevolent" thing - a misconception which was a far cry from the degrading truth of the matter, and which has long been hard for modern people to understand. Much of the content of the series is biographical, as the series depicts influential moments in the lives of its five central figures, in the years when slavery still had a grip on the land. (Events in their lives after slavery was abolished are mentioned almost as an afterthought - as an epilogue to their main story about the years of their opposition to slavery, in the time when it still existed in full force.)


Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin"

I will not attempt to cover the lives of these five people in a review of this length, since this would be beyond the scope of a blog post for me. Thus, I will instead focus on some of the events that most affected the movement (all covered in this documentary), in the dark days immediately prior to the Civil War. As the nation expanded west, the balance between North and South was threatened by the question of whether the new states added in the frontier would be free states or slave states; and an uncomfortable agreement between the two sides tried to keep this power balanced as each new state was added over a period of several decades. This became especially important in the years following the war with Mexico in the 1840's, and the acquisition of Western territories (including California) in the peace treaty that ended the war. The result was the Compromise of 1850, which made it so that most of the new states that were formed in the West (including California, whose population had boomed after the Gold Rush of that time) were free states; but with a major catch, which was the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 - the harshest such law in the nation's history.


Frederick Douglass

What was new about the fugitive slave law of this year, you might be wondering, when the original Constitution had already included a "Fugitive Slave Clause" that said that slaves who tried to escape could be returned into slavery, even if the state they escaped to was a "free state"? The answer is that the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was the first law in the nation's history that made it a crime for white people to assist the slaves in their attempts to escape - something that drew many angry whites into the abolitionist movement, who saw their own freedom limited in a way it never had been before. You might wonder why the oppressed slave people would have cared about these comparatively tame restrictions on the white population, and wonder how it could possibly have affected them; but when one considers that help from sympathetic whites became harder for slaves to come by after the new punishments were written into law, it becomes quite clear that it did affect the slaves as well, by making it harder for them to escape successfully from the dreaded slave-catchers - something that drew the ire of Northern abolitionists of both races as much as anything else.


Dred Scott, a fugitive slave that the Supreme Court refused to free

But there was one provocation that was even worse, which was the Supreme Court decision "Dred Scott v. Sanford" - the most influential Supreme Court case involving slavery in the nation's history. The Dred Scott decision, in short, applied the Constitution's clauses about slavery to all black people indiscriminately, and thus endangered many free black people who were legally considered freemen even then. The decision said that a black man "had no rights which the white man was bound to respect," and denied that they could ever be citizens of the United States - a decision that could have sent many free black people into slavery, and thus brought ever more angry whites into the ranks of the abolitionist movement - people who were more-or-less content with the status quo before then, but who felt that they had been pushed too far after the Dred Scott decision of 1857 - only four years before the outbreak of the Civil War at Fort Sumter.


John Brown, one of the central figures of this series

The last event I shall mention here is the famous John Brown raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859, which was an attempt by the abolitionist John Brown - a white man with both white and black followers - to free the slaves of the South by sparking armed rebellions among the slaves; something that was impossible with the small number of followers that John Brown had at his disposal. Despite the purity of his motives, there is some reason to consider Mr. Brown insane for thinking that he could accomplish this monumental task so easily, when it actually took half a million dead to accomplish what he tried to do with only 22 individuals - a naive attempt that actually led to his execution at the hands of the Virginia government. Nonetheless, his raid may have done more to bring on the Civil War than any other single event; and began the process of emancipation that he had tried to accomplish with such haste in this poorly planned (but nonetheless influential) raid.


I am skipping over many things in this discussion of the abolitionist movement - such as the violence between supporters and opponents of slavery in the years prior to the outbreak of the Civil War - but suffice it to say there is much more to this story than the war itself, and that this ferocious Civil War has roots going back as far as the Constitutional Convention (if not further). This documentary isn't a complete history of the abolitionist movement, I should note here; but it is a good treatment of the movement's most important period; and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in either black history or the Civil War - which features so prominently in this documentary.

DVD at Amazon

If you liked this post, you might also like:

Frederick Douglass: The forgotten antislavery leader

A review of PBS's miniseries "The Civil War"

A review of Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln"


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