On Tuesday, November 14, the New-York Historical Society hosted a discussion, “A Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition.” This Frederick Douglass Council event featured Manisha Sinha as the guest speaker and Eric Foner as the moderator.
Manisha Sinha, a James L. and Shirley A. Draper Chair in American History at the University of Connecticut, is the author of The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition. She won the 2017 Frederick Douglass Book Prize, which named her book the best book written in English on slavery or abolition. Eric Foner, a DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, served as a president of the Organization of American Historians, American Historical Association, and Society of American Historians.
Sinha and Foner specialize in the history of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and slavery. Their discussion mapped the history of the abolition movement from the Revolutionary Era through the passage of the 13th amendment. Abolitionism was a movement that focused on emancipating slaves and ending racial discrimination. Manisha Sinha’s new book was used as a point of reference for the discussion.“We should not go into archives with a preconception. We should let our sources dictate what we write,” Sinha told the audience, a piece of guidance she learned from Foner.
“I was unsatisfied with the way historians had written about abolition,” said Sinha, explaining her purpose of writing a new history on the subject. “There was no sense of abolition as a social movement. The literature was fractured in different pieces.”
Her book is divided into two halves: The first half focuses on the beginning of the abolitionist movement in the late-18th and early 19th century. The second half focuses on the movement leading up to the pre-Civil War era.
The movement was filled with a wide array of people. It involved women, racists, slaves, and even slave owners. At the beginning of the program discussion, Foner provided a brief description on abolitionists: “There was a moment in the civil rights era where they were not seen as radical enough.” Foner explained that some people saw them as “irresponsible fanatics who helped to bring about a needless civil war.”
A good portion of the discussion focused on the abolitionist movement having different factions. The early organizations were predominantly white, and there were no restrictions against blacks. For a few abolitionist societies, slaveholders were not permitted to join, while other societies allowed their participation. These slaveholders eventually freed their slaves.
Early abolitionists rejected the program of colonization. Colonization was the process of sending enslaved people to Africa to colonize it. The abolitionists didn’t want to send Africans Americans to colonize Africa. African American members of abolition organizations played a central role in pushing forward abolition and its ideas. “African American members of abolition organizations convinced white abolitionists that colonization is not an anti-slavery scheme—it is a pro slavery scheme,” said Sinha.
New York Manumission Society, one of the early organizations, set up education programs for African American children. The Manumission Society, like other organizations in the North, saw education as a form of citizenship. Abolitionists in the North fought against slavery as well as segregation in the school system.
Sinha provided clear and in-depth descriptions of various aspects of abolition. She provided examples and mentioned important people who were part of the movement—one of these people being William Lloyd Garrison.
Garrison’s involvement in the abolitionist movement played a major role in the discussion. He was part of the second wave of the abolitionist movement that occured around the Civil War era. This wave was more radical, and these abolitionists wanted slavery to be abolished immediately. Sinha spoke of Garrison’s role as a liberator: “They thought he was a black man. He said, ‘I’d take that as the highest compliment for my work.’”
Sinha’s next project is writing a new history on Reconstruction. The new history will involve how the outcome of the abolitionist movement affected black citizenship and democracy.
Abolitionism was a concerted effort by people of different backgrounds and social levels. This movement did not happen overnight. It took many years and many setbacks to get to where we are today. Women’s rights and other equal rights movements that have taken place since the abolitionist movement, owing a lot of their victories to abolitionism. Garrison and other abolitionists made a major impact on American democracy, as well as American history. They showed how when people are united, their voices will be heard.
“These people are the unsung heroes of American democracy,” said Sinha.
—Written by Cassandra Wilkins, N-YHS Intern, St. John’s University
Learn more about the abolitionist movement from the Emmy-nominated PBS documentary The Abolitionists, for which Manisha Sinha served as an adviser and on-screen expert.
Watch more clips and learn more about the series on the American Experience website.