The Abolitionists in Primetime: Two Responses

The Abolitionists on PBSThis week, PBS’s American Experience aired the first episode of The Abolitionists, a new three-part documentary. If you missed it, you can still watch it online. It is written and directed by Rob Rapley. The next two episodes will air on January 15 and 22.

The film profiles Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Brown, and Angelina Grimké. Part I covers the 1820s and 1830s, fitting it comfortably into The Junto’s portfolio. Kenneth Owen, an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Springfield, and Jonathan Wilson, a PhD candidate at Syracuse University, have a review.

Jonathan Wilson:

Before I sat down to watch The Abolitionists, I made a wishlist. I was thinking about showing this documentary (part of it, anyway) in class later this spring. My course is an American history survey built around biographies, so the focus on individual abolitionists wouldn’t be a problem. But I was hoping the film would also do justice to abolitionism as a movement and as a historical moment. So I identified five things I really wanted to see.

First, I wanted it to be clear that abolitionism, per se, was highly controversial among white Americans with antislavery sentiments. This is a concept a lot of students have trouble grasping. Ideally, the film would give some attention to the American Colonization Society as an antagonist. Second, African-American activists, and women as well as men, needed to be central to the story. Third, in a corollary, I thought it was important to make clear that this was a sexual as well as a racial drama; the audience needs to understand that questions of slavery and freedom were questions of manhood and womanhood. Fourth, the antislavery movement needed to be portrayed as vexed by questions about racial equality. And fifth, I wanted careful handling of religious discourse and the wider context of nineteenth-century religious reform.

So how does Part I hold up? In outline, well enough. It’s based on up-to-date research; I noted talking-head appearances by Carol Berkin, Lois Brown, Manisha Sinha, David W. Blight, James Brewer Stewart, Julie Roy Jeffrey, Caleb McDaniel, John Stauffer, Erica Armstrong Dunbar, and R. Blakeslee Gilpin. But I’m not sure how well it will convey my five points to viewers. The film’s many dramatizations are useful for drawing viewers into the story, but they may distract them from the film’s argument. And the five people around whom the story is built — Angelina Grimké, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and John Brown — tend to crowd out some crucial context.

On my first point of concern (abolitionism as controversial within antislavery), this section of The Abolitionists is tolerable but not great. There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss it reference to colonization but none to the ACS — or to any other organized group except the AAS, that I noticed. In fact, the film hardly provides any backstory on antislavery. It just begins in the late 1820s, making a very vague allusion to African-American abolitionism and northern emancipation laws but otherwise giving (or leaving undisturbed) the impression that there was no significant antislavery activity before the 1830s.

Young Frederick DouglassOn my second point, The Abolitionists is pretty problematic. White women do get their share of the story; Angelina Grimké gets as much attention as William Lloyd Garrison, and emotionally she’s the star of Part I. Unfortunately, using Frederick Douglass as the lone African-American principal character, along with omitting any specific discussion of earlier black activists, means that Part I doesn’t have anything to say about black intellectual life or resistance traditions. In Part I, Douglass is still a young slave. The film shows us his emerging self-consciousness as a rebel, dramatizing his pivotal fight with Edward Covey, which I consider one of the most important passages in American literature, but its treatment of the scene is underwhelming. For the most part, African Americans’ function in this section of the documentary is to be abused while a few heroic white activists begin to notice their plight and try to do something about it. That is not good.

As a result, Part I of The Abolitionists also really doesn’t meet my third requirement. The film doesn’t convey a sense that motherhood and fatherhood, masculinity and femininity, or parenthood and childhood were at stake. We do see a family parted at the auction block and hear Angelina Grimké complain about what slaveownership is doing to white Christian virtue in the South, and we see how controversial a sexually and racially mixed gathering could be in the North, but I’m not satisfied with how the film handles social relationships or self-concepts. Slavery is depicted as physically brutal, but not as something profoundly disruptive to a man’s or woman’s dignity.

The documentary is better with the question of antislavery racism, I think. Students watching The Abolitionists will probably come away from the film understanding that opposition to slavery wasn’t the same thing as racial egalitarianism. It’s not a point the filmmakers press very hard in Part I, but it’s there, and reviews by people who have seen the rest of the documentary suggest that it becomes clearer later on.

Garrison prayingMy final requirement is the one the documentary fulfills best. James Brewer Stewart delivers some pithy but eloquent lines on evangelical Protestant reformers’ moral vision, and John Stauffer refers to the importance of their eschatological sense “that any day, any moment, slavery can end.” A dramatization depicts Garrison singing hymns in a crowd of African Americans, and John Brown’s only appearance in Part I characterizes his as a religious awakening too. Reviewers (see below) have tended to treat The Abolitionists as a study in moral conviction and in faith, suggesting that it communicates this element of abolitionism quite well, though perhaps without much attention to detail.

So Part I of The Abolitionists leaves a lot to be desired. But I’m still thinking of using it in my course. Mostly, a good teacher should be able to fill in the gaps. Taken as the story of certain abolitionists rather than “the” abolitionists, this part of the film leads in some promising directions. It just doesn’t go there itself. I found the dramatizations effective; I think they will make it much easier for students to visualize life in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. (Tim Cragg’s cinematography is downright pretty.) And I consider that to be one of the most important — and difficult — things to get right in a history classroom.

Ken Owen:

Like Jonathan, I approached The Abolitionists as an interested non-specialist – someone who teaches abolitionism as part of his classes, but whose research does not focus on the question of slavery directly. Given the very positive responses my students have had to the screening of historical documentaries in the past (including the past American Experience series ‘We Shall Remain’), I hoped that this would provide a means through which some of the more complicated points of abolitionism could be introduced to a wider audience. Insofar as the documentary focuses on the main abolitionist characters who ‘star’, it does an excellent job. In terms of situating abolitionism within the broader 19th century context, however, I was more disappointed.

The star, at least for this episode, was William Lloyd Garrison. He came across exactly as I imagined him – a character with a quiet determination but with a stubbornness that ran counter to his unimposing physical presence. Yet he was undoubtedly a very human character – his joy at receiving the letter from Angelina Grimke, for example, seemed genuine (and not as didactic or purely expository as it might have been). The warmth he displayed when he met with success helped bring his passion to life.

Grimke in hallwayIndeed, one of the strengths of the documentary in general was its use of historical re-enactment. This can often be a dangerous road for documentary-makers, yet in this case it helped to bring across the sense of crisis and personal danger in which many abolitionists found themselves. If anything, it could have been used more frequently to underline the violence of the institution of slavery, and the use of the mob as a means of coercion even in northern areas. Another area in which dramatization worked well was the portrayal of Grimke’s speaking tour – it is always helpful to hear the words of historical actors spoken aloud. For sure, some of the re-enactments were a little twee, or a little forced, but they made the moral force of the abolitionists all the more human.

Given the vividness with which the abolitionists themselves were portrayed, though, I was left underwhelmed by the portrayal of wider 19th century society. At times, the narration seemed to be close to self-contradictory – portraying the 1820s as a world in which the only voices against slavery were those of blacks, for example, seemed to be a gross exaggeration (and if it were true, why did we not hear more of those voices?). Only with the arrival of Garrison on the scene does abolitionism garner any serious political support – but quite how America moves from having no serious voices against slavery to the formation of a national anti-slavery society in a handful of years is left more or less unexplained, unless Nat Turner’s Rebellion takes on an interpretive weight it cannot hold. Even then, Lyman Beecher is mentioned shortly afterwards as a believer in gradual emancipation. Further explication of quite why there was such hostility in the North towards abolitionism would have gone a long way.

Therein, of course, lies a deeper problem. The establishment of characters like Garrison, Grimke, Douglass and Brown as the heroes of the piece casts the anti-slavery movement in America in a very particular light. The documentary illuminates this very well – not least the social radicalism inherent in the views the abolitionists came to espouse. I cannot think of many historical documentaries that invite the viewer to reflect on the role of gender in political movements so closely; I hope that the next installment will follow through on the increasing radicalism of Garrison and his disdain for any form of civic participation (not least because this would draw further attention to why Garrisonians were considered so threatening to the social fabric). At the same time, though, The Abolitionists comes dangerously close to implying that a Garrisonian form of abolitionism was the only legitimate form of opposing slavery. Though brief mentions are made of gradual abolition plans or colonization schemes, they aren’t given any serious attention – this would help demonstrate why northerners were so opposed to the abolitionists. This may make for a more dramatic narrative, but ultimately one that is less historically convincing.

While the abolitionists are brought strikingly to life, 19th century society seems strangely flat. In contrast to Jonathan, I was disappointed by the portrayal of religion. The beliefs of all the key participants were mentioned, but (brief cameos from Stauffer and Gilpin aside) seemed to be skated over quickly, rather than explained in greater detail (positioning this within a wider movement of religious revival would have been helpful). The ideology of paternalism, in all its hypocrisies, was never adequately explained. Perhaps this highlights the biggest difficulty in portraying slavery to a modern audience. The complicated story to us today isn’t why Garrison, Grimke, Brown and Douglass despised slavery and campaigned so vigorously against it – it is why so many other people remained complicit with the slave system. Hopefully the next installments will go some way to creating a more vivid and dynamic world in which the institution of slavery became more strongly challenged.

Additional Reactions to The Abolitionists:

One comment on “The Abolitionists in Primetime: Two Responses

  1. Nic Wood says:

    I should acknowledge that I still need to finish watching the end online. I liked most of what I saw but am also troubled by some of the things that bothered Wilson and Owen. In a single sentence, the show mentioned the abolition of slavery in the North but then proceeds to act as if no white person had ever opposed slavery prior to the late 1820s. As the scholarly literature from the past two decades has shown, the early abolitionists of late-18th century were essential to the destruction of slavery in the northern states and generally more influential politically than were the post 1830 abolitionists (in terms of eliciting a positive rather than negative reaction from Congress). As historian Donald Ratcliffe has recently argued, the 1820s and 1830s represented not the rise of antislavery but the time when the two party system succeeded in forcing antislavery out of politics. As a result, more blacks and women became involved in the mass (but less political) movement that abolitionism became, but this also built on trends dating back to late 18th century especially in terms of interracial cooperation. The movement of the 1830s was built on half a century of precedents ignored by the show.

    And I do hope the show develops the point, noted by Wilson and Owen, that antislavery can and did exist without abolitionism. Antislavery sentiment was widespread, but the distance between sentiment and action is huge, and one could be both antislavery and anti-abolitionist at the same time. Plenty of people disliked slavery but feared radical abolitionism was more likely to lead to disunion than emancipation. (It was far from inevitable that disunion would lead to Civil War.) What made the abolitionist of the 1830s unique was not their recognition that slavery was wrong, but their willingness to agitate regardless of the consequences.


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