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Slavery and the Liberal Aesthetic

By: Nicholas Buccola
October 4, 2012

The Abolitionist Imagination (The Alexis De Tocqueville Lectures on American Politics), by Andrew Delbanco

John Brown, whose failed slave revolt at Harper's Ferry in 1859 hastened the coming of the Civil War, might best be described as "the abolitionist imagination" gone wild. Yet for all Brown's imprudence and tactical amorality, his fellow abolitionist Frederick Douglass could not help but find something deeply admirable in him. "He had evinced," Douglass said, "a conception of the sacredness and value of liberty which transcended in sublimity that of...Patrick Henry and made even his fire-flashing sentiment of ‘Liberty or Death' seem dark and tame and selfish. Henry loved liberty for himself, but this man loved liberty for all men, and for those most despised and scorned, as well as for those most esteemed and honored."

What should we make of men like Brown, Douglass, and their abolitionist colleagues? What do they have to teach us about the nature of our rights and responsibilities as Americans? These are the two questions that Andrew Delbanco, director of the Center for American Studies at Columbia University, set out to answer in his Alexis de Tocqueville Lecture on American Politics delivered at Harvard University. Delbanco's provocative lecture and four thoughtful responses—by John Stauffer, Manisha Sinha, Darryl Pinckney, and Wilfred McClay—are collected in The Abolitionist Imagination.

Delbanco's animating "hope" in the lecture was to avoid the "hagiography and demonology" that all too often characterizes scholarship on the abolitionists. The "abolitionists as demons" school of thought tends to emphasize the irrational, imprudent, and extreme nature of abolitionist thinking and behavior. According to this view, the abolitionists did much to encourage the bloodbath of the Civil War and did little to contribute to a reasonable resolution of the slave controversy. The "abolitionists as heroes" school emphasizes the prophetic nature of the movement and the justice of its cause. This sympathetic reading, the spirit of which is captured to varying degrees by all four respondents in this collection, draws our attention to the fact that the abolitionist vision of a multi-racial, egalitarian liberal democracy was far ahead of its time. Americans would not see this vision become a legal reality until over a century after the heyday of the abolitionists and we continue to live with many de facto forms of racial discrimination that undermine equality of opportunity for many Americans. Delbanco's attempt to avoid the pitfalls of these camps is successful; his reflections on the abolitionists are balanced, nuanced, and defy simple labeling.


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So just what sort of complex, nuanced story does Delbanco tell about the abolitionist movement? To begin with, who were they? The abolitionist movement—though "diverse, decentralized, and divided"—was united by the vision of "a world reconstructed on a new principle of universal liberty" and an old principle of "temperate liberty," a term Delbanco uses to capture the abolitionist sense that slavery destroys the virtue of slaves, masters, and the regime that condones it. The abolitionists demanded that this world be achieved as soon as possible (hence the oft-used label "immediatist" to distinguish the abolitionist from the more moderate and gradualist "antislavery" positions) and without compensation for the slaveholders, who had violated natural justice. Against Marxists who dismiss the abolitionists as "instruments of Northern money interests" or critics of various other stripes who dismiss them as members of the "radical fringe," Delbanco embraces what he calls the "Foner synthesis" (drawn from the work of Columbia historian Eric Foner): "they were passionate idealists who enlarged the imagination of mainstream politicians...by awakening ‘the nation to the moral imperative of confronting the problem of slavery.'"

It is Delbanco's response to his second question—what is at stake in how we understand the abolitionists—that arouses the greatest controversy. Unlike many contemporary readers, he cautions against an enthusiastic embrace of the abolitionists. The trouble with them, and the recurrent strand of American political thought they represent, is that they expect far too much of frail human beings. The abolitionist conception of moral responsibility is far too robust for most of us to handle. In the words of Frederick Douglass, "there...is no freedom from responsibility for slavery but in the abolition of slavery." If we pull a general principle of political morality from this claim, as many abolitionists desired, we would embrace something Douglass called "true virtue," which consists in the disposition to take action to rectify injustice wherever we see it. At a certain level of abstraction the doctrine of true virtue may have some appeal, but Delbanco encourages us to reflect upon its practical consequences: "Most of us live quite comfortably today with our knowledge of cruelty and oppression in nation-states whose exports are as essential to our daily lives as slave-grown cotton once was to the ‘free' North—yet few of us take any action beyond lamenting the dark side of ‘globalization.'" Even in a world where most of us could agree about fundamental questions of justice, the "moral urgency and uncompromising fervor" of true virtue would be too much of a burden for most of us.

As an alternative to the abolitionist imagination, Delbanco draws on the ideas of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Lionel Trilling to formulate a perspective he calls "the liberal aesthetic," the central characteristics of which are a suspicion of moral certainty and passionate politics and an embrace of a disposition that aims, ever so modestly and moderately, at the "vital center" of American politics. The abolitionists may indeed have much to teach us about rights, responsibilities, and social change, but role models they are not.


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In their responses to Delbanco, John Stauffer and Manisha Sinha offer strong defenses of the abolitionist imagination and, in so doing, expose some of the limits of Delbanco's liberal aesthetic. Stauffer, a historian at Harvard, describes himself as a "contextual absolutist;" in the face of radical political evil (e.g., slavery and totalitarianism), it is often necessary to root oneself in the firm ground of absolutist doctrines, such as the natural law, as the basis of "a more humane fanaticism." The problem with Delbanco's liberal aesthetic, Stauffer contends, is that it fails to appreciate how the moral clarity of one's imagination might be sharpened by viewing questions of justice through the eyes of the victims of injustice. Stauffer's defense of a kind of absolutism is reminiscent of political theorist Leo Strauss's counsel in Natural Right and History(1953): in the shadow of political evil, we must be wary of the ways "indignation" can cloud our judgment. For Strauss and many other refugees of totalitarianism, the experience of tyranny certainly produced indignation, but it also provided cause for reflection on the recurrent human "need" to appeal to "a standard higher than the ideal of our society." Without such a standard, Strauss concluded, "we are utterly unable to take a critical distance from that ideal."


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Manisha Sinha offers a thoughtful defense of the abolitionist role in American history that is more focused on the nobility of the abolitionist goal—the achievement of an egalitarian, multi-racial democracy in the United States—and the reasonableness of their means given the moral depravity of their proslavery opponents. In response to the claim that the abolitionists "caused the Civil War," Sinha, who teaches at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, draws on the natural rights philosophy of John Locke to remind us that "war" was declared on the slaves themselves long before the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter. The attempt to deprive an individual of his liberty is in itself a declaration of war. The abolitionists, she argues, recognized the long-standing and deeply rooted belligerence of their opponents and played the crucial role of awakening Northern moderates to it. In the end, Sinha concludes, "we can blame abolitionists for emancipation but not the war."

In the novelist and essayist Darryl Pinckney's poetic meditation on Delbanco's essay, he draws on his own evolving consciousness of abolitionism as an African-American coming of age in the 1960s. Although his style and approach are very different, Pinckney's essay on "The Invisibility of the Black Abolitionists" is a wonderful complement to Stauffer's contribution to the volume. Pinckney points out that "abolitionists were generally thought of as white" because African-Americans "almost couldn't do anything else." For an African-American like Frederick Douglass, could there be an appropriate imagination other than the abolitionist one? To paraphrase the title of one of Douglass's most famous speeches, "What to the Slave is the Liberal Aesthetic?"


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In "Abolitionism as Master Concept," Wilfred McClay, a professor of history at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, focuses on the larger question that was invoked explicitly and hovered implicitly throughout the volume: what does "the abolitionist style in American reform" tell us about enduring characteristics of American culture and society? In addition to reflecting on this large question that is at the heart of Delbanco's project, McClay raises many others: What should we make of the fact that the abolitionists did not succeed in persuading Americans to abolish slavery, and that its end was only the result of a "ghastly and wasting war"? What does the abolitionist project tell us about the relative merits of "deontic" versus "consequentialist" moral philosophy? What role can or should "imaginative literature" play in movements for social change? What role did "religious fervor" play in abolitionist politics and what role should it play in contemporary American politics? McClay proposes a few tentative answers to these and other big questions, but his essay seems to be offered more in a spirit of invitation to further reflection than as a declaration of final answers.

Like McClay's essay, the volume as a whole raises many questions that have implications far beyond our understanding of the American abolitionists. One cannot help but share Delbanco's longing for the sort of moderate, grown-up politics he sees in the liberal aesthetic. At the same time, one cannot imagine convincing Frederick Douglass that liberal aestheticism would have been an appropriate attitude toward the slavery controversy and one suspects Douglass would be right. Perhaps in the end, the common good of stability is best served when most of us practice the sort of moderation praised by Delbanco. But for the sake of the common good of justice, we need a few abolitionists around as well