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

By Lindquist, Mike | Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

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


Lindquist, Mike, Historical Journal of Massachusetts


Making Slavery History: Abolitionism and the Politics of Memory in Massachusetts. By Margot Minardi. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. 228 pages. $24.95 (paperback).

Margot Minardi's Making Slavery History: Abolitionism and the Politics of Memory in Massachusetts traces the rhetoric and reality surrounding emancipation in Massachusetts between the American Revolution and the Civil War. Minardi illustrates how people participated in the historical process as both actors and as narrators and how they came to influence the popular perception of events. Minardi argues that the historical action of the abolition of slavery around 1780 coincided with the creation of the historical memory of the Revolutionary era, particularly the notion that Massachusetts was a haven of freedom. Later, this notion would be influential in the political debates surrounding abolition and antislavery. Thus Minardi's book shows how the American Revolution-and especially the revolutionary ideals of liberty and freedom-were remade through the process of narration. Moreover, throughout her work, Minardi focuses on the changing perceptions of historical agency exercised through the actions of white and black abolitionists of Massachusetts, and-Minardi would argue-the shifting of those groups' roles within the historical narrative.

First, Minardi illustrates that the figures active in the history of emancipation were denied historical agency through the idea that slavery was abolished through "publick opinion" (13). She also describes how free people of color were erased from the collective memory of Massachusetts by the denigration of people like Crispus Attucks, a black man believed to be the first civilian shot in the Boston Massacre, and the veneration of people like Joseph Warren, a white doctor active in the patriot movement. Historical memory became a contest over agency as white abolitionists sought to downplay the abilities of blacks while they promoted their own heroic qualities. The final chapter focuses on the Massachusetts African-American community's efforts to revitalize the historical agency of prominent African Americans from the revolutionary era.

Minardi uses a wide variety of sources to make her arguments about slavery in Massachusetts and strikes a nice balance between primary and secondary sources. Much of her primary research is culled from the archives of the Massachusetts Historical Society, consisting primarily of correspondence between and among abolitionists. One of her most impressive uses of source material is her analysis of artwork. Minardi illustrates how contemporaries changed the meanings of the artwork to fit their current views on society and abolition. Two prominent examples of this phenomenon are John Trumbull's The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker's Hill and various versions of Paul Reveres Bloody Massacre Perpetrated in King Street. Minardi skillfully illustrates how, initially, the Trumbull painting was meant to glorify Warren-the hero-while promoting the social status quo by depicting a black servant tending to his master. However, as the abolitionist movement gained steam over time, the servant became a representation of either Peter Salem or Salem Poor, two black soldiers renowned for their service at the Battle of Bunker Hill. …

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