Prophets of Protest: Reconsidering the History of American Abolitionism

By Cameron, Christopher | Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Prophets of Protest: Reconsidering the History of American Abolitionism


Cameron, Christopher, Historical Journal of Massachusetts


Prophets of Protest: Reconsidering the History oj American Abolitionism. By Timothy Patrick McCarthy and John Stauffer. New York and London: The New Press, 2006. 382 pages. $22.95 (paperback).

In the historiography of American abolitionism there are a number of important debates among scholars, perhaps none more important than the "origins" debate. One origin that is just beginning to receive its due is the rise of black protest during the revolutionary period. By stretching the temporal boundaries of abolitionist historiography and fully including the efforts of both women and African American abolitionists, the essays in Prophets of Protest reposition the movement as an interracial one in which blacks themselves first articulated the most prominent arguments that would comprise the radical abolition movement from the 1830s until the Civil War.

Beginning with a reassessment of abolitionist historiography, Manisha Sinha contends that "despite some prominent exceptions, the dominant picture of abolitionists in American history is that of bourgeois reformers burdened by racial paternalism and economic conservatism" (23). To counter this dominant picture of American abolitionists, Sinha argues that we must look to the efforts of both women and African Americans in bringing down slavery. Indeed, blacks were themselves the progenitors of black abolitionist historiography.

William C. Nell's work anticipated modern scholarship on black abolition by documenting black activists and showing continuity in the efforts of African Americans from the revolutionary to antebellum periods. The work of William Wells Brown and Martin Delany similarly present an expansive sense of black abolitionism by highlighting the influence of the Haitian Revolution and the interracial nature of the movement. These early activists and scholars shaped both the course and interpretations of the movement for years to come. While white academics ignored their work, African American scholars from Carter Woodson to Dorothy Porter Wesley and Benjamin Quarles highlighted many of the same themes as these earlier historians of abolition, and modern scholars such as Gary Nash and Leslie Harris have continued to paint a broader picture of abolitionism than the traditional story would suggest exists.

Along with this historiographie assessment of black abolitionism, many of the essays in this collection present compelling arguments for the importance of black protest in the origins of the American antislavery movement. Richard Newman argues for the prominence of "black founders" in the movement, or "men and women who fought against racial oppression in some way, shape, or form, and thereby established models of protest for later activists" (62). These founders included individuals such as Prince Hall, Paul Cuffe and Phillis Wheatley of Massachusetts, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones of Philadelphia, and William Hamilton of New York City. Black founders helped to develop independent black institutions such as churches and self-help organizations, and they were instrumental in developing the earliest abolitionist strategies, including the use of print culture, which is the subject of Timothy Patrick McCarthy's essay. McCarthy posits that by arguing for racial equality and rejecting colonization, the black abolitionists who published and supported Freedom's Journal and David Walker's Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World actually represent the beginnings of American abolitionism. By starting their analyses of the antislavery movement with William Lloyd Garrison in 1 83 1 most scholars have slighted the importance of both black abolitionists and those activists working prior to the advent of Garrisonian abolition, according to McCarthy. …

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