Tuesday, January 18, 2005


Abolitionists everywhere

Lately it seems that "my" abolitionists have been popping up everywhere in the MSM. In the January 10 issue of The New Yorker, there is a nice little article on Bronson Alcott, the father of Louisa May Alcott, who was one of the numerous utopian seers, education reformers, and abolitionists who sprouted in antebellum New England. And in the current issue of the Atlantic Monthly, one of the most prominent American evangelical abolitionists, Lewis Tappan, gets a mention in Benjamin Schwarz's review of Scott Sandage's Born Losers: A History of Failure in America. (By the way, has any one else ever wondered if Schwarz, the Atlantic's main book editor, is or was an historian? He seems intent on giving academic history books prominent billing on the glossy pages, and I, for one, am not complaining.)

Tappan is mentioned in the review because of his role in establishing one of the first credit-rating systems in the United States, and Schwarz calls him a "busybody, moral reformer, fervent abolitionist, and one of history's great snoops." The humorous index that is now published at the end of every Atlantic lists this entry: "Tappan, Lewis, as moral reformer, 160; as busybody, 160; as spy, 160." Perhaps not entirely fair to Tappan, but certainly not entirely unfair either.

I'm simply happy to have large audiences of readers discover how perpetually fascinating abolitionists are. They never cease to amaze me, and I mean that in the obsolete sense of the word. Why, just the other day, I was reading along in an issue of the Liberty Bell, an annual gift-book published by Garrisonian abolitionists in Boston, and ran across this gem by David Lee Child, in an article that echoes many of Bronson Alcott's ideas about education reform:
Thus in all things we see the dawning rays of a better age. In all things the Equalizing Principle manifests itself. In Anti-slavery associations, the democracy of morals; in Free Schools, the democracy of Intellect; in Phrenology, the democracy of metaphysics; in Daguerrotype, the democracy of painting; in the invention of the Hand-Harmonicon, and the theory that every man may be a singer, the democracy of music; in Free Trade, the democracy of commerce; and in Jacotot's system, the genuine democracy of education. Verily, all is in all.
How can you not be fascinated by people who saw the same "Equalizing Principle" in the harmonica, abolitionism, phrenology, and free trade? Sometime I'll have to post about how some Garrisonians believed medicine should be democratized, too, since doctors were as tyrannical in their control of the body as slaveholders were. Think about that the next time the doctor is hitting your knee with a blunt object and forcing a piece of cardboard down your throat.

But with abolitionists everywhere, their highest-profile appearance came in this recent review in the New York Times of two new books about British abolitionism. I have much more to say about this review, but it will have to wait, because speaking of abolitionists, I have a dissertation on them to write, and a syllabus about them to prepare for this semester (scroll down to 100.168).

Collective Improvisation:
I hope - albeit selfishly - that you do get some free time. I'd love to hear more about both your thoughts on the NYT review and any potential musings on a more democraticized medicine. My knowledge of the abolisionist movement is embarrassingly limited, and you've definitely encouraged me to explore. (Thank you.) 

Posted by Siona

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