Abolitionism's Two Formulations

Donald A. Yerxa

Last night Andrew Delbanco gave the Alexis de Tocqueville Lecture on American Politics at Harvard’s Center for American Politics. His “Abolition and American Culture” was a provocative interdisciplinary assessment of antebellum abolitionists (‘the originals”) that also explored abolition as an enduring American cultural dynamic. Without detracting from the originals’ accomplishments, Delbanco believes that more measured approbation acknowledging the “limits of the abolitionist imagination” is needed. Their sacred rage, uncompromising fervor, and furious certitude, he noted, indeed broadened the horizons of the possible in American society—no small thing! But this needs to be considered in the light of the fact that it took the pragmatic Lincoln and a very bloody Civil War to end slavery.

One of the four scholars Harvard invited to respond to Delbanco was THS board member Wilfred McClay. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that not only is Bill McClay a dear friend, in my opinion he is one of the finest historical essayists of his generation. And this was an ideal venue for his formidable skills. McClay observed that the Puritan-abolitionist style seems prone to a “strange combination of moral grandeur and nannying coerciveness.” In the main agreeing with Delbanco, McClay stressed the importance of the abolitionists’ millenarian religious fervor: “No religion. No abolitionism; it’s that simple.” And like Delbanco, McClay appreciates that abolitionism is amenable to two formulations. The prophetic moral clarity that single-mindedly has named evil as just that also exhibits overbearing and coercive tendencies that seemingly blind it to “the limits of human intentionality and the abyss of unknowable consequences.”

It was not hard to imagine Reinhold Niebuhr looking down on the proceedings last night at Harvard with a smile. And I was also reminded of David Brion Davis’s claim that history is a kind of moral philosophy, teaching by example. Single-minded devotion to noble ends stirs the moral imagination, but it also breeds a moral certitude that flirts with godlike mastery, which in some religious traditions is humanity’s besetting—even "original"?—sin. Much to ponder not only as we reflect on the 19th-century American experience, but also as we consider our present state of affairs.