The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lively depiction of abolition dissects its competing philosophies and strategies

William Lloyd Garrison was best known for his antislavery newspaper the Liberator, which he founded in 1831. (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

A feminist activist and labor lawyer, Linda Hirshman has tried cases before the Supreme Court; she has served as a distinguished professor of philosophy and women’s studies; she has written best-selling works about contemporary movements for progressive social change: “the 50-year epic battle against sexual abuse and harassment”; “the triumphant gay revolution”; “a manifesto for women of the world” — to quote the celebratory subtitles of three of her books. With “The Color of Abolition: How a Printer, a Prophet, and a Contessa Moved a Nation,” Hirshman turns her attention to a 19th-century social movement that she deems “a crucial landmark of moral progress”: the campaign to abolish slavery. Inspired by her one-time teacher, the great historian David Brion Davis, to regard it as “an astonishing historical achievement,” she seeks new meaning and inspiration for our own time from a moment when individuals not only came together to do the right thing but also ultimately succeeded in bringing about slavery’s demise.

Originally, Hirshman intended to title her book “Black and White: How William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass Defeated the Slave Empire.” This would be a triumphal story that combined an examination of the “mechanics of activism” — the how — with narrative emphasis on the who, the two extraordinary men who could draw the general reader into the broader and often complex history of abolitionism. At a time when we “in the here and now” are considering the potential and challenges of interracial activism, the past might provide a new perspective. During her research, however, the “history gods” surprised her with a third character to add to her tale, Maria Weston Chapman, antislavery organizer and editor, who Hirshman believes to have been heretofore “substantially overlooked.” Her book evolved into a depiction of the ties among “a threesome,” and the “creation, duration, and impact of their alliance to abolish slavery.”

Initially regarding her discovery as “feminist research gold,” Hirshman was soon disillusioned by “shocking” letters in which Chapman revealed the “casual racism of the privileged class” as she sought to manage Frederick Douglass’s role within the Garrisonian wing of the abolition movement. Chapman’s imperiousness, her efforts to control Douglass — what he pointedly referred to as her “overseership” — and her willingness to regard Douglass as a tool rather than a full human being are vividly portrayed. But Hirshman casts these distressing realities as more than simply a challenge to Chapman’s bona fides as an inspirational agent of “moral progress.” Their effect, Hirshman argues, was to drive Douglass out of the Garrisonian wing of abolition, with its dedication to the exclusive power of moral suasion, into the arms of the New York antislavery activists led by Gerrit Smith, who saw political action as the path to freedom. Ironically, Chapman’s behavior results in Douglass’s embracing alliances and views that prove far more effective in the antislavery cause. Chapman’s offensive words and deeds work ultimately for Douglass’s — and abolition’s — own good.

Hirshman’s book is a lively depiction of the antislavery movement, in which the three charismatic characters at the heart of her story provide an engaging avenue into the competing philosophies and strategies that continually challenged abolitionism’s unity and effectiveness. Her writing is breezy, designed to engage readers who are not historians and whose interests may lie more in the present than the past: Douglass is a “superstar” and so, indeed, is John Quincy Adams; ideas take off in an “1844 version of viral.” The book’s depiction of the racial divisions and White prejudices at the heart of abolition will convey to a wider audience important — “shocking” — realities that have long been recognized in more academic writings about antislavery. Chapman was far from alone in her racist views, and she was far from the only fellow abolitionist — Garrisonian or otherwise — to treat Douglass with condescension. It was telling that when Douglass traveled to the British Isles for a lecture tour in 1845, he repeatedly wrote of finding himself regarded as a human being for the first time in his life.

But Hirshman’s expository device of the “threesome” distorts the underlying forces in antislavery as well as overstating the significance and distinctiveness of the connection among her three main characters. Chapman, at best, stood on the margins of the deep, complex, and much-studied relationship between Garrison and Douglass. More important, Hirshman’s interpretation of Douglass’s move from Garrisonianism to Republicanism focuses largely on his personal conflict with Chapman. He is pushed not pulled; she, not he, becomes the “prime mover,” the fundamental agent in this story. But other factors were at work. Douglass’s own experiences, including the purchase of his freedom by British abolitionists and the founding of his newspaper, “The North Star,” gave him new perspectives, as did the shifting political landscape and the appearance of the Liberty and Free Soil parties. As Douglass himself put it, he came to recognize by 1855 that the anti-political tenets of Garrisonianism offered abolition “no intelligible principle of action.” As he revised his views of politics and the Constitution, he forged his own path. He was his own prime mover.

Hirshman ends her book with the description of a new alliance: Douglass and Lincoln: the “fragile hope of a Black and white movement toward equality, resting on these two extraordinary men.” But as she recognizes, it “would have to wait.” She reminds us of how racial equality eludes us still.

Drew Gilpin Faust is the Arthur Kingsley Porter University professor and President Emerita at Harvard University. She is the author of “This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War.”

The Color of Abolition

How Printer, a Prophet, and a Contessa Moved a Nation

By Linda Hirshman

Mariner. 330 pp. $28