Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Abolitionists (PBS, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s viewing was all three episodes in a recent PBS-TV mini-series, The Abolitionists, three one-hour programs telling the story of the movement to abolish slavery from its official beginnings in the 1830’s until the end of the Civil War. Written, produced and directed by Rob Rapley, it alternated between actors playing dramatized versions of real-life events and the Ken Burns approach with photos of the real people involved and actors (the same ones who played them in the fully dramatized sequences) reading their letters or published writings. It focused on five particular people, three men and two women: William Lloyd Garrison (Neal Huff), the white writer and editor who founded the first anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator, and helped pull together various abolitionist groups into the American Anti-Slavery Society; Frederick Douglass (Richard Brooks, who of all the actors looked the most like his real-life counterpart), the former slave who in 1845 published his famous autobiography (and though Rapley downplays this aspect in his script, one of the most important aspects of Douglass’s book was that the very phrase “Written by Himself” on the title page threw down the gantlet against racism; how, the claim of authorship mutely but powerfully asked, can you justify enslaving a race of people who are human and intelligent enough that at least one of them has written a book? No wonder Douglass’ claims of authorship were challenged at the time, with many opponents of abolition claiming that Garrison had ghost-written it!); John Brown (T. Ryder Smith), who ultimately became convinced that only revolutionary violence could take down the slave system and the social order that supported it.

The two women were a well-known name, Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (who, according to this show, was roused to write the book partly because she needed a project to occupy her after the tragic death of her favorite son Charlie from typhoid fever and partly because the loss of her own son made her appreciate the even greater tragedy of a slave woman whose children were routinely taken away from her as soon as they were born and frequently sold to other masters); and a little-known one, Angelina Grimké, the daughter of a planter family in South Carolina whose religious convictions led her to turn against slavery and turn away from the South altogether. In 1838 Grimké published a book called American Slavery As It Is, a meticulous document of all the horrors of the “peculiar institution,” all the whippings and starvings and locking up recalcitrant slaves, turning them over to “slave-breakers” (like Edward Cowan, the man Douglass’s owner, Thomas Auld, turned him over to — Douglass physically fought him back and said that from that day forward he realized he was a man) and “selling them South” from the relatively easy work of the tobacco and rice plantations of the Carolinas and Virginia to the tougher life in the cotton fields of the Deep South. Though I can see why PBS cut this show up into three parts, there’s a peculiar intensity about it that comes through most strongly when you watch the parts consecutively as we did; and what comes through most strongly is how the abolitionist movement has provided a template for virtually every social-change movement that has followed it in America. Abolitionism begat first-wave feminism — the movement for women’s suffrage was started by women abolitionists who openly questioned why they were being made second-class participants in a movement that was supposedly about human equality — and it also set the pattern for the subsequent movement for African-American civil rights that percolated throughout the 20th century after the unrepentant Southern states (with the connivance of Northern business interests who wanted cheap cotton and steel for the Industrial Revolution) reversed the gains Blacks had made under Reconstruction and installed the system of segregation. In much the same way the revived African-American civil rights movement of the 1960’s begat the anti-Viet Nam war movement, the movements of other people of color for their equality, the second-wave feminist movement (started by women in the 1960’s who wondered why they were being discriminated against inside the Left just as their 1850’s predecessors had wondered why they were being discriminated against as women within the abolitionist movement) and the Queer rights movement.

What’s more, The Abolitionists reveals disagreements and sectarian squabbles within the movement that have repeated themselves through virtually the entire history of the American Left: the clash between religion as an instrument of human liberation and religion as a justification of oppression and tyranny (virtually all the early abolitionists — especially the white ones — proclaimed their movement as a fulfillment of Christian beliefs and values that all people were equal before God; and the defenders of slavery were equally adamant that the Bible condoned it and therefore it was not only wrong but blasphemous to claim that Christian values and slavery were incompatible); the clash between nonviolent and violent means (Garrison was essentially a Gandhian before Gandhi — he remained a pacifist until the Civil War started and he realized that, even if the war hadn’t been started to defeat slavery, that might well be the end result of a Union victory); the struggle between whites leading a movement for Black liberation and the growing demand of Black people to take charge of their own struggle (exemplified when Garrison and Douglass broke over tactics and Garrison’s paper printed rumors of Douglass having an affair with a white female houseguest to discredit him — which Douglass understandably loathed as a blatant appeal to white racism); the endless sectarian battles and the whole question of the movement’s attitude towards America’s past: celebrate the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and say their guarantees of equality could be truly fulfilled once the slave power was defeated (as Radical Republican Congressmember Thaddeus Stevens did indeed say after the war), or attack the Declaration and especially the Constitution as fundamentally unjust because they had been built on a compromise with the slave power (as Garrison did when he ceremonially burned the Constitution on what would today be called an “alternative” Fourth of July celebration)? To say these are still live issues in (what’s left of) the American Left is to state the obvious. So is the whole question of how you relate to the electoral process — treat electoral involvement and direct action as mutually exclusive (as Garrison did when he urged abolitionists not to vote at all) or see them as reinforcing each other despite the constraints on elected officials (including the powerful interests on whom they depended then, as now, for the money to win office at all!) that never allow them to be as uncompromising as the outside activists can afford to be?

I think Rob Rapley was a bit hard on Abraham Lincoln — though given how nearly deified he has been by several generations of American historians and mythmakers it’s nice to be reminded that in his time he was reviled not only by his enemies in the South (where Lincoln and the Republicans weren’t on the ballot and did not pick up any popular votes!) but by abolitionists in the North who saw him as too ready to compromise with the slave power, too eager (at least in the first two years of the war) to agree to amend the Constitution to fix slavery in place where it existed in 1860 in order to preserve the Union. Rapley’s account of Lincoln’s attitude towards what to do about slavery in late 1862 is of a confused man who didn’t know whether he should free the slaves, keep them in bondage or try to get rid of them altogether — he describes a meeting Lincoln had with five African-American leaders in 1862 urging them to join the “colonization” movement and relocate the entire U.S. Black population to Africa; then mentions the famous letter Lincoln wrote to Horace Greeley in August 1862 (which Greeley, no doubt as Lincoln had intended him to, published) saying that his purpose in waging the war was to preserve the Union and neither to preserve or destroy slavery (“if I could preserve the Union by freeing all the slaves, I would do that; if I could preserve the Union by keeping them in bondage, I would do that; if I could preserve the Union by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would do that,” Lincoln wrote — I’m quoting from memory here); then talks about Lincoln drafting the Emancipation Proclamation but being unwilling to sign it into effect; then mentions a last-ditch effort Lincoln made in terms of a feeler to some Southern representatives who were meeting with him to agree to yet another plan for a Constitutional amendment to freeze slavery in place if that would end the Rebellion; then his decision to sign the Emancipation Proclamation after all. Other historians have told these stories differently; my own impression has long been that Lincoln’s letter to Greeley was a classic bit of disinformation since at the time he wrote it he had the draft of the Emancipation Proclamation in his desk drawer and was only waiting to sign it until the Union armies had won a big enough victory on the battlefield that it would have military as well as political credibility, which happened at Antietam Creek in September 1862.

Be that as it may — and as limited a document as the Emancipation Proclamation was (Lincoln restricted its application to the Confederate states because he didn’t want to alienate the so-called “border states” — slaveholding states that hadn’t seceded) — from the moment he signed it, ending the slaveocracy basically became a Union war aim whether either Lincoln or anyone else formally said so (and the Proclamation had its roots in the similar one the first Republican Presidential nominee, John C. Frémont, had issued in 1861 as military governor of Union-occupied Missouri), and Congressional passage of the Thirteenth Amendment (the actual subject of Steven Spielberg’s current film Lincoln), as well as the 14th and 15th amendments that followed, were the formal adoption of the terms of peace. It was fascinating to hear some of the abolitionists of the time calling for a new Constitution — which was essentially what they got with the post-war amendments, the 14th in particular — on the ground that the original one of 1789 had been fatally compromised by the slave-state power, in light of the fact that the 14th Amendment (which was essentially consigned to the scrap heap as an instrument of racial equality and civil rights a decade after Reconstruction and — to add to the plus ça change, plus ça meme chose department — instead became a tool used by corporations to raise themselves to the status of legal “persons” and effectively put themselves above the law) has once again come under attack by the Tea Party, whose most militant members regard the Constitution of 1789 as literally divinely inspired and the amendments of 1865-1870 as a human-made error blotting the original vision of the Founding Fathers by acknowledging the rights of immigrants (and their children!) as well as people of color. “Ignorance and fanaticism is ever busy and needs feeding,” said Clarence Darrow in his opening statement in the Scopes trial. “Always it is feeding and gloating for more.”

The real lesson of the abolitionists is that things change, and even under long odds the fight for social justice is not only an honorable calling but one which it’s worth pursuing; at a time when I often despair of the sheer power of the corporocracy not only in the U.S. but throughout the world, including the weight of the media power by which it constantly molds people’s minds so they accept it as not only the right but the only possible way society can be, it’s nice to be reminded that the slave power seemed as overwhelming in the 1850’s as the corporate power seemed today — indeed, the 1850’s consisted of one Southern victory after another (the expansion of the Fugitive Slave Law, the battles over “Popular Sovereignty” in Kansas and Nebraska, and the Dred Scott decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that was meant to put the slave power as far beyond any effective challenge as Citizens United was meant to put the corporate power) until the Southern leaders overplayed their hand and decided that rather than be governed by Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans, they would quit the country entirely and found what would have been, if the South had won, essentially a latifundismo republic dependent for both its economic and military security on (ironically enough) Great Britain, as the principal market for the Confederacy’s cotton exports. The fact that abolition went from being a fringe movement to the law of the land in less than 20 years is an inspiring story and gives us all hope that we, too, can overcome the similarly entrenched economic oppression of our own time.