The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition

Reviewed by Mat

Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 768 pp., $25

From start to finish, The Slave’s Cause challenges prevailing notions about slavery and abolition, exposing the way these notions were formed as well as their enduring grip on historical inquiry and popular consciousness. Correcting a false image of who the abolitionists were and of what the abolitionist movement consisted of, would alone have made an important contribution to our understanding. But Manisha Sinha’s masterful history goes further to explore abolition’s roots in slave resistance and the role slaves played in emancipating themselves. This was not confined to risking life and limb in rebellion or escape but was crucial to forging a revolutionary consciousness contributing, in theory as well as practice, to principles usually credited solely to the European Enlightenment. “Our country is the world. Our countrymen are all mankind,” read the masthead of The Liberator. That newspaper’s immediate predecessor was The Genius of Universal Emancipation. The publications may be gone but the ideas are hotly contested to this day. The Slave’s Cause tells us where they came from, and with what urgency, a quality all too rare in books of history.

To begin with, Sinha attacks the commonly held view of abolitionists as white, bourgeois “do-gooders,” whose delicate sensibilities were offended by a slavery of which they had little knowledge and with which they had no direct contact. “Caricatured as unthinking, single-minded fanatics, who caused a ‘needless war,’” she writes, “abolitionists are often compared unfavorably to political moderates and compromise-minded statesmen” (1). Such views are reinforced by compressing abolitionism into a time-frame of thirty-five years, 1830-1865, and populating it exclusively with religious reformers and Republican politicians to the exclusion of all but one or two black notables such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, who are sometimes not even referred to as abolitionists! Sinha shows, instead, that abolition began with resistance to the slave trade in Africa, gathering force over the course of two centuries to become a recognizable social movement in the mid-18th Century.

This did not lead in a straight line to slavery’s end, however. Abolition unfolded in two great waves, the first culminating in the American, French and, above all, the Haitian, Revolutions, the second culminating in the American Civil War (the cases of Cuba and Brazil are touched on but are not the focus of this book). While tracing in detail the contributions of Protestant nonconformists, especially Quakers such as Anthony Benezet, Sinha never loses sight of the leading role played by slaves and free black people in pursuit of their own emancipation. From well known examples such as Olaudah Equiano, Phyllis Wheatley, and Lemuel Haynes to numerous others long forgotten, Sinha carefully documents how abolition was always a multi-ethnic, international movement involving, moreover, working people as well as educated clergymen and politicians.   

There is more to this than the composition of a movement, however. Situating slave resistance and abolitionism at the center, instead of the margins, of historical processes both requires and enables a more comprehensive account of what constituted resistance and abolitionism. It also leads to some stunning conclusions. Conventional wisdom has it that slave resistance was limited and ineffective, rebellions were few and escapes are exaggerated; the Underground Railroad and Harriet Tubman may have been heroic but their net effect was moralistic and not material, and so on. The Slave’s Cause proves otherwise. Estimates vary, but there is much agreement that no less than 100,000 and as many as 150,000 slaves successfully escaped between 1830 and the Civil War. Needless to say, countless others tried unsuccessfully to do so, and these figures do not include the thousands who ran away before, during and after the Revolution of 1775-83 or during the War of 1812, when thousands of slaves absconded to the British or ran off to Spanish Florida. Amplifying the consequences, escape was facilitated by a broad network extending throughout the Northern states, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. This explains the urgent necessity of the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850, the first to the founding of the United States, the second to the maintenance of the Slave Power in the decade prior to the Civil War.

Perhaps even more significant was the unending succession of rebellions extending from the beginning of the slave trade down to the 200,000 black soldiers who fought for their freedom in the Civil War. Not only were there at least three hundred reported rebellions (common criteria being: a minimum of ten slaves, organized for a concerted, armed attack on their masters), there were the overlapping instances of rebellions, maroon community formation (the Great Dismal Swamp, the Seminoles, etc.) and the underreported rebellions at sea (the famous Amistad and Creole cases, notwithstanding). The evidence assembled demonstrates not only that the Civil War was an Abolition War, but that the slaves emancipated themselves.

Sinha is not the first to advance this argument; indeed, it was advanced long ago by W.E.B. Du Bois and Herbert Aptheker, among a notable few. But The Slave’s Cause is pathbreaking in situating slave rebellions within a larger context of multi-faceted and international resistance, not limited to a common – and narrower – definition of revolt. This is not an attempt to elide the distinction between organized rebellion and agitation for reform, or collective vs. individual action. It is, on the contrary, to more firmly grasp the wide-ranging movement toward an enduring and effective revolution, especially, the Haitian Revolution. Instead of an image of spasmodic, spontaneous and disconnected rebellions, we get a scrupulously documented account of continuity and mutual reinforcement, over the course of two centuries and internationally, that provides a far more satisfactory explanation of otherwise anomalous or random outbursts. Figures such as Gabriel Prosser, Nat Turner, and John Brown did not spring from the frustrated longings of “noble souls,” let alone the crazed minds of deluded fanatics, but were representative of, and in turn the spur for, countless thousands of dedicated people – slaves, free black people and white radicals – who joined in a mighty enterprise that ebbed and flowed in size and influence as the struggle unfolded.

This book’s most significant contribution may not, however, be in its meticulous recounting of events, but in clarifying the thinking that arose with them. The Slave’s Cause foregrounds how revolutionary ideas such as liberty, equality and humanity emerged, not fully-formed from the heads of privileged white men in Europe and the colonies, but out of intense, violent conflict that increasingly came to focus on slavery and the resistance to it. On the one hand, these ideas could embolden many from different social classes, with opposing interests, to rise up against tyranny and royal absolutism. On the other, this very turmoil forced everyone to confront the greatest tyranny and oppression of all: the enslavement of human beings. No doubt, the Civil Rights and Black Liberation struggles of the 1960s and 1970s rudely exposed the hypocrisy of America’s founding myths. No doubt, these struggles have long since made it impossible to gloss over the Founders’ own stake in genocide and slavery. Nevertheless, these myths could be perpetuated in new guises because so little attention was paid to the concurrent and interwoven struggle against slavery. In this regard, not only does the Haitian Revolution play a decisive role historically and politically, but the articulation of revolutionary ideas by slaves and free black people emerges as pivotal, at the time and ever since.

What revolutionaries in Boston, London, Paris or Port-au-Prince were saying comprises not only the practical application but a theoretical advance of principles expounded previously and these were to animate public discourse and political action from that time onward. Among such advances are, of course, the famous declarations of Toussaint L’Ouverture and other Haitian revolutionaries, but also many lesser known works Sinha cites, such as Benjamin Banneker’s Almanacs (1792-97) and Rev. Alexander McLeod’s Negro Slavery Unjustified (1802). And this is only in the first wave. In the period following, marked by the 1829 appearance of David Walker’s famous Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, such argument gathered force. Concretely, this took the form of a virtually unending stream of poems, essays, novels, autobiographies and speeches which reached across continents. Philosophically, it provided a wedge that would, in the second wave, open upon the broadest vistas of emancipatory thinking, including the women’s movement, the labor movement and socialism.

 By demonstrating how slaves themselves developed and enunciated ideas, above all, the idea of universal emancipation, Sinha shows how history is shaped, and sometimes decisively, by the enlightened struggle of the oppressed. Universal emancipation was the slaves’ indisputable rebuke of white supremacy and the pseudo-science of race. It was furthermore an aspiration capable of uniting all humanity. And what but this noble aim could redeem the slaves’ great sacrifice? Only universal emancipation was of a magnitude equal to their suffering and struggle. By bringing this to us now, The Slave’s Cause makes a monumental contribution to our historical understanding, but it is also a reminder of what faces us today. Not only does it demolish an edifice of distortions and falsehoods; The Slave’s Cause restores to us the very means by which to carry out pressing tasks.  

Reviewed by Mat Callahan Bern, Switzerland