Wednesday, January 26, 2005


Antislavery scripts: Part I

A few weeks ago the Sunday Times published Marilynne Robinson's review of two new books on British abolitionism: Steven M. Wise's Though the Heavens May Fall, and Adam Hochschild's Bury the Chains. I have not read either book, although I did read Hochschild's shorter article on British abolitionism published in Mother Jones a year ago. Both that article and this review may suggest why, as I noted earlier, abolitionists have been so much in the news of late.

Abolitionism, whether in America or in Britain, is the movement that everyone wants to claim. In November, both Republicans and Democrats tripped over each other trying to wear the mantle of Lincoln, as both parties do every four years. And since the election has since become defined as a referendum on "moral values," people from all sides of the political spectrum have sought to identify with a movement whose moral values seem unimpeachable. We are all abolitionists now -- or, at least, this has become a powerful cultural presumption in Western liberal democracies. Forms of slavery persist in the world, even at this late date, and apparently its defenders persist as well. (Via Whig Hill.) Nevertheless, our national identity is bound up with a trinity of ideas: that slavery is dead, that "we" -- either Britons or Americans -- killed it, and that this is a good thing.

Because consensus on these matters is so overwhelming, abolitionism is a ready-made moral high ground in contemporary debates. As one particularly bizarre moment from the presidential debates made clear, some pro-life advocates on the Religious Right seek out this high ground by comparing Roe v. Wade to the Dred Scott decision. On the other end of the spectrum, Christians who like their politics progressive point to the abolitionists as examples of how religion can be a force for good in the public sphere. In his recent appearance on The Daily Show, Jim Wallis expressed his belief that movements change history, counting off the usual examples on his left hand -- women's suffrage, civil rights, and, of course, abolitionism.

Progressives who like their politics secular also point to the abolitionists as their own, as I noted in a previous post. It was not coincidental that Hochschild's article appeared in Mother Jones, the progressive magazine he helped to found. For the piece was clearly intended as an exercise in edification, a pep-talk to progressives who had taken to the streets in vast numbers the year before to protest a war that happened anyway. History is still on our side, Hochschild seemed to be arguing, and abolitionism was his Exhibit A:
Though born in the age of swords, wigs, and stagecoaches, the British anti-slavery movement leaves us an extraordinary legacy. Every day activists use the tools it helped pioneer: consumer boycotts, newsletters, petitions, political posters and buttons, national campaigns with local committees, and much more. But far more important is the boldness of its vision. Look at the problems that confront the world today: global warming; the vast gap between rich and poor nations; the relentless spread of nuclear weapons; the poisoning of the earth's soil, air, and water; the habit of war. To solve almost any one of these, a realist might say, is surely the work of centuries; to think otherwise is naive. But many a hardheaded realist could-and did-say exactly the same thing to those who first proposed to end slavery. After all, was it not in one form or another woven into the economy of most of the world? Had it not existed for millennia? Was it not older, even, than money and the written word? Surely anyone expecting to change all of that was a dreamer. But the realists turned out to be wrong. "Never doubt," said Margaret Mead, "that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
I gather from Robinson's review that this paragraph would serve as a fitting coda to Hochschild's book as well as his article: His abolitionists are knight exemplars. Though "born in the age of swords, wigs, and stagecoaches," they still have an air of swashbuckling derring-do and a flair for the dramatic. Consider an interview with Hochschild in this month's Mother Jones, one year after his article appeared. In answer to the very first question -- "How did you come across the topic for this book?" -- Hochschild gives a revealing response:
As with many books, I started off trying to do something else entirely. I had long been fascinated by the character of John Newton, because I always like stories of personal transformation. The idea that this former slave trader had become an abolitionist and would write this beautiful hymn long intrigued me. So I had the idea of doing a biography of him. I started looking into his life and fairly quickly discovered that didn’t fit the script that I had in mind. He left the trade for medical reasons and not out of belief and kept all his savings invested with his former employers, even while he was a minister and started to write these hymns. He never said a word in public about slavery for more than 30 years after leaving the sea, and only spoke up when some guy named Thomas Clarkson, whom I’d never heard of, came to see him. So I began to wonder, “Who is Thomas Clarkson?” Gradually, it dawned on me after three or four months of going up the wrong path that the story was the movement and not Newton.
Newton "didn't fit the script" Hochschild "had in mind" -- the Margaret Mead script of history. Neither, we discover from the interview, did William Wilberforce work well as Hochschild's leading man: "Wilberforce has always been more politically convenient to lionize as the hero. He was such a respectable figure of the establishment, while Clarkson was quite a radical and quite a rabble-rouser, especially in his younger days. To me, he is by far the more interesting figure: riding 35,000 miles by horseback all over England, and going out again in his 40s and his 60s and making the rounds. An incredible man. He really got shortchanged by history." Radical. Rabble-rouser. Anti-establishment. Young. Clearly Clarkson is the better role model for today's generation of anti-war and anti-globalization activists.

In pointing out that Hochschild is following a script, my aim is not to dismiss his book. I have it on very good authority that "Hochschild's book is by far the best general survey we have of the British abolitionist movement." Besides, you should never believe a historian who tells you she works without a script -- especially a historian of antislavery. History is always brought to you written, directed, and produced by a particular historian. This does not mean that historians of abolitionism are simply writers of fiction, or that they all shoehorn their characters into preconceived dramatic molds. (History has its share of Steven Spielbergs and M. Night Shamalayans, but there are also plenty of directors who are less omnipresent in their works.) Yet after every good historian has made sure to do the relevant research and to get her facts straight, she has to mold those facts into some sort of narrative shape. And although a good director gets out of the way of her actors as much as possible, no director can remove herself entirely from the performance. There is always some kind of script. Dramas are more realistic than melodramas, but not because only one genre has scripts.

Nor do I necessarily take issue with Hochschild's belief that lessons can be learned from the past. You should also never believe a historian who tells you we historians never bestow any praise or blame on historical figures, because that historian is actually doing that very thing -- passing a normative judgment on the Whiggish history of a bygone age. The proper attitude towards histories that seem to pass moral judgments is skepticism, but not outright dismissal. This skepticism hopefully will encourage us to do what I have done above. Figure out where the historian is coming from. Try to set his history in the context of its own history. Some historians have the wrong idea that the aim of these appropriately skeptical methods is to rid history of any bias or subjectivity. Yet I'm skeptical about that, too. We fool ourselves if we think that all judgment can be rooted out of historical practice, since that idea is itself a normative one. Rather, the best historians can do is to keep being historians -- try to isolate the bias, not for the purpose of destroying it, but for the purpose of understanding it as contingent and constructed.

So what I found interesting about Robinson's review is not that Hochschild (and apparently Wise, too) appears to have a script. Nor am I prepared to dismiss these books automatically because its authors appear to admire the abolitionists. I admire many abolitionists, too. Rather, what is interesting to me is that Hochschild's script is pretty well-worn. (Again, I speak without having read the book, so take what I say here with a grain of salt.) In some ways the script dates back to emancipation itself: a few heroic abolitionists, with no gain for themselves and "against all odds," succeeded in persuading the British public and its leaders to purge the empire of slavery.

Robinson seems aware that this script needs some work. It leaves the characters underdeveloped, it leaves some characters out completely, and there are not really enough scene changes. Most of the action takes place in Britain, which seems problematic. So Robinson knows that there needs to be a little more complexity and irony in Hochschild's story. But here's what is interesting: there are several ways of deepening the story's complexity, and Robinson is not sure which more ironic, more complicated script to use.

One possible way to tweak the script is to suggest that Hochschild's abolitionists were selective philanthropists. This is also an old line, which also dates back to the era of emancipation: the abolitionists' charity abroad was neglect at home. According to this script, abolitionists turned a blind eye to the sufferings of the English working class, screening out those evils while denouncing the evil of slavery. Another way to tweak the script is to point out some of the ironies of British history after emancipation: Britain's claim to be a liberating nation authorized the expansion of its supposedly enlightened empire into Africa and Asia. These scripts are not necessarily incompatible, but they have developed sequentially. The second alternative script is a more recent development in the history of antislavery history. (You may also remember me using it in an earlier post.)

In Part II, I will argue that Robinson's review reveals the influence of several different impulses in antislavery historiography. All of these impulses take issue, in some sense, with Hochschild's story. But they do so for different reasons and in slightly different ways. There may be a lesson we can learn about ourselves by figuring out which scripts seem most compelling right now.

Collective Improvisation:

Post a Comment

Back to Main Page

Site Meter