Dr. Manisha Sinha’s new book The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition provides a counter to the historical narrative that is often presented of abolitionists as only being White, bourgeois reformers who were burdened by racial paternalism and economic conservatism.
In fact, Sinha — one of the nation’s most prominent scholars of slavery — provides a nuanced and rich understanding of abolition’s long interracial roots, starting with Black activism and the Quaker abolition societies of the Revolutionary Era up to the end of the Civil War. All along the way, Sinha unearths the story of a hidden past that includes free and enslaved people who were instrumental in the ongoing fight for freedom.
“There is this weird notion in American history that, somehow, because there were not too many slave rebellions, that enslaved Black people didn’t really resist slavery,” says Sinha, adding that slave runaways is an example of fierce resistance. “You couldn’t have a fugitive slave issue if there were not fugitive slaves. You couldn’t have an underground railroad if there were not fugitive slaves.”
Sinha, who spent 20 years as a professor in the W.E.B Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and will head to the University of Connecticut in the fall where she will hold the Draper Chair in Early American History, has written a compelling movement history of U.S abolitionism that is told in a transnational context.
Throughout the book, Sinha illustrates how the Christmas Rebellion in Jamaica in 1831, as well as Nat Turner’s revolt in Virginia that very same year, influenced the politics of the time. White abolitionists learned from their Black counterparts and, in the case of Turner’s revolt, she says that William Lloyd Garrison — a White abolitionist who was committed to non-violence — publicly supported the rebellion.
“I really want people to understand abolition as this radical, interracial, social movement. It’s often not seen in that way,” says Sinha. “Abolitionists are often seen as these individual, sanctimonious, moral do-gooders with a few Blacks who had no influence on the ideology, the program and the shape of the movement.
“What I’m saying is that this is America’s civil rights movement of the 19th century and you have to understand the centrality of African-Americans in it, in shaping its program, its agenda and its ideas.”
Throughout the book, Sinha chronicles the roles of obscure Black abolitionists such as William J. Watkins and James W. Pennington who used their penmanship to fight for freedom. In 1849, the University of Heidelberg awarded Pennington an honorary doctorate of divinity.
“Everyone knows Frederick Douglass, but there are just so many more Black men and women in the movement,” says Sinha. “We see this ongoing Black intellectual influence on Blacks and Whites.”
Another early example of Black resistance came in the form of Black newspapers such as the Freedom’s Journal that was founded in 1827 by John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish.
“There is a proud tradition of an independent Black press that African-Americans have had,” says Sinha. “Black newspapers give Black abolitionism a kind of independent voice in Black abolition and also it creates what I call the Black counter public. There is a public sphere and there are many newspapers at that time in the United States, but really in terms of projecting views of slavery, citizenship, race, nothing is there until African-Americans start writing their own newspapers.”
Dr. Eric Foner, the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, praised Sinha’s book as groundbreaking.
“In emphasizing abolitionism’s long historical trajectory, its international perspective and its interracial character, Sinha situates her story firmly within the most up-to-date trends in historical writing,” says Foner. “And with her extensive research and broad command of the era, she has produced a work of high originality and broad popular appeal.”
Sinha’s first book, The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina (The University of North Carolina Press), focused on Southern slave holders — “people I don’t like,” she says with a chuckle in a recent interview with Diverse. But The Slave’s Cause “is a book about people that I like a lot.”
Sinha says that she wants readers to understand abolitionism as a radical movement that gave birth to other movements, including women’s rights and the conditions of the working poor.
“The slaves’ cause was something that galvanized people to think of other wrongs in the world,” she says. “This was true of both Black and White abolitionists.”
Abolitionists, she argues, were not “isolated fanatics and extremists.” The move to abolish slavery was ongoing and influenced mainstream politics.
And slaves themselves were not static, Sinha says. At every turn enslaved people “ran for freedom, wrote for freedom, petition for freedom, and sued for freedom. Dred Scott doesn’t just come along and sue for his freedom. There’s a whole tradition amongst African-Americans of suing for freedom, finding sympathetic White anti-slavery lawyers to argue these cases,” says Sinha. “When Black people saw these openings, they took these openings.”
Jamal Eric Watson can be reached at [email protected] You can follow him on Twitter @jamalericwatson.