Making Slavery History: Abolitionism and the Politics of Memory in Massachusetts

By Harrold, Stanley | The Historian, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Making Slavery History: Abolitionism and the Politics of Memory in Massachusetts


Harrold, Stanley, The Historian


Making Slavery History: Abolitionism and the Politics of Memory in Massachusetts. By Margot Minardi. (New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. ix, 228. $49.95.)

History is often defined as the study of change over time. In Making Slavery History, Margot Minardi analyzes how perceptions of events, and those who participate in them, change and how such changes reflect and affect action. Minardi is not the first to undertake such a project. She is, however, the first to center on this phenomenon as a means of understanding how, between the American Revolution and the Civil War, people in Massachusetts understood slavery and abolition, African American character, and the antislavery struggle. Despite the book's title, this study is much more about emancipation and its intellectual and cultural legacy than about slavery.

Minardi has read carefully in primary and secondary sources, but she offers no revolutionary revision of historians' understanding of slavery, abolition, or African American history. Instead she calls her book "a story about storytelling"--and she is a good storyteller (5). In excellent but complicated prose, she concentrates on the relationship between "historical narration," myths that shape perceptions of reality, and action regarding slavery in the South as well as equal rights for black people in the North. She deals with shades of meaning and interpretation.

The book begins with a discussion of the belief, in the wake of the American Revolution, that public opinion had abolished slavery in Massachusetts. Out of this belief, Minardi contends, a "historical narrative" emerged that championed the state's (white) citizens as stewards of the Revolution's antislavery legacy (37). This narrative helped motivate opposition in Massachusetts to the South's proslavery agenda. …

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