Abolitionists Remember: Antislavery Autobiographies & the Unfinished Work of Emancipation

By Julie Roy Jeffrey | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1
The First
Recollections

When Harper’s editor George W. Curtis described the 1865 debate within the American Anti-Slavery Society over the question of disbandment, he saw the success of those wishing to continue the Society as “a victory of sentiment” by a group that was out of touch with reality. What Wendell Phillips, Frederick Douglass, Samuel J. May, and the new Executive Board of the AAS “seemed to forget,” Curtis affirmed, was “that the whole country is now an anti-slavery society”.1

The easy confidence that abolitionists had achieved their goals and that the northern public had embraced them persisted for a few years, at least in the pages of northern monthly magazines, if not in the hearts and minds of all abolitionists. An article originally published in Harper’s Weekly and reprinted in the Living Age in 1867 discussed how the apparent transformation of public opinion had affected the reputation of abolitionists. The recent celebration of Garrison in London prompted the author to observe, “It is not often that we see the general verdict upon a man so wholly reversed in his lifetime.” Once regarded as a fanatic, Garrison now was seen as embodying “moral inspiration” and “heroic persistence,” with an understanding of slavery “in the main entirely correct.” And while no one man could be exclusively responsible for the great events of history, Garrison’s “moral force” had inspired the emancipation of the South’s slaves. That same year, Harper’s Magazine made a similar point. At one time, the northern public had rejected abolitionism as a crazy fringe movement. Now abolitionism’s significance was so obvious that some “eleventh-hour” converts to the antislavery cause were unwilling “to allow the Anti-slavery men and women of that time the sole honor of the work” and sought some of the credit for emancipation for themselves. Agreeing with the Living Age’s assessment of abolitionists’ influence, the writer thought that it was obvious that “the pioneers” could not have achieved their goals alone. But their role in transforming northern public opinion had been crucial to realizing emancipation.2

The suggestion that Garrison’s analysis of slavery was justified left little room for sympathy for prewar southerners, who defended their peculiar

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