I awaited with baited breath the second part of PBS’ American Experience, The Abolitionists. I thought part one was very good. But I was bitterly disappointed with part two. Let me start with what I liked:
I think their discussion of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law was excellent. The rendition of Anthony Brown back to Georgia was a radicalizing moment in American history. However, I am still wondering: Could the abolitionists avoided the sectional strife they brought? What about northern secession? Perhaps the writers could not have anticipated that hundreds of thousands of Americans signed petitions on secession at the White House website. But also I was moved by the struggles of Harriett Beecher Stowe and how her book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, changed many hearts and minds. The mistreatment of slaves was searing.
Here’s my fault with night two:
The show is starting to make John Brown look respectable. I cannot go there. Brown was a terrorist or mentally ill. Not a hero. Here’s what Brown did in Kansas: murdered innocent people. Let’s hope part three makes that clear.
But my deepest disappointment was the treatment of William Lloyd Garrison. His “feud” with Frederick Douglass is discussed in detail as a petty literary fight between giants and Garrison as a petty racist. Nothing could be further from the truth. Garrison did feel abandoned in illness by Douglass but according to Mayer’s All on Fire, Garrison defended the decision to purchase Douglass’ freedom (p. 372) and denies any sort of racism on Garrison’s part (p. 374):
“For now, however, the rift remained personal, though the anxiety occasioned by Douglass’s about-face suggests that the radicals were afflicted not so much with racial bias as with the lingering effects of their sectarian warfare.”
It is true that Garrison did suggest that Douglass might have had an affair with British abolitionist Julia Griffiths. However, Mayer argues this was a response goaded by repeated sallies from Douglass and his allies (p.432):
“Garrison kept silent as long as he could, but eventually he responded, returning vitriol with vituperation that provoked more unseemly and damaging exchanges.”
I wish they had not feuded but the motive was not pettiness or racism on Garrison’s part. A large part of William Lloyd Garrison’s greatness was he supported both equal rights for African-Americans and women, too. He was one of our greatest Americans. It’s a shame more did not heed his exhortations. Try this out from July 4, 1876 (keep in mind that Garrison had burned the Constitution in public more than twenty years earlier) where Garrison spoke bitterly of a promise unkept (614):
“He (Garrison) reviewed the long-standing compromises with slavery, the national guilt incurred in the campaigns against the Indians and the war with Mexico, the lack of political equality for women, and the continuing caste prejudices that blighted the effort at political reconstruction. ‘If we rejoice at all,’ the editor warned in all his prophetic dignity, ‘let it be with contrite hearts that we have not been utterly consumed.'”
Douglass was also a great man, too. He was the first African-American nominated for Vice President (on Victoria Woodhall’s Equal Rights Party in 1872) and actually had his name placed into nomination for President and received a vote for that office at the 1888 GOP Convention. But both exhibited the frailness that humans are born with due to Adam’s sin. Garrison and Douglass did reconcile during after the so-called Civil War (536):
“…and even Frederick Douglass declared an end to the old hostilities,…[f]or the first time in a decade, favorable notices of Douglass’s speeches appeared in the Liberator, and the following year Garrison would invite many of the old colleagues to share the platform at the thirtieth-anniversary celebration of the AAS…”
I think the issue deserved better from PBS. However, watch part three of The Abolitionists. I hope they mention NO UNION WITH SLAVEHOLDERS. Can a state secede? We might see what the abolitionists thought about it.