The Abolitionists Go to War: Part 3

Harpers FerryThe final episode of The Abolitionists aired this week on PBS. The entire three-hour documentary is now available online here (Part 3 begins at the 1:40 mark). A full transcript is also available. Kenneth Owen and Jonathan Wilson previously discussed the first two episodes for The Junto. Today, we discuss the final hour.

Jonathan Wilson:

We’ve been fairly hard on The Abolitionists thus far, so I’m happy to say I thought the final chapter of the film is the strongest, both historiographically and dramatically. This episode reflects recent scholarship on slave rebellions, and on John Brown in particular, by meditating in a fairly sophisticated way on the uses and languages of violence.

Part 3 sets up a story in which abolitionists variously provoke violence, recoil at it, and are overtaken by it. Thus, it gives people like Garrison and Douglass, as well as the apocalyptic John Brown, credit for helping to create the national crisis of the 1850s, and then it gives them credit for refusing to abandon their moral claims during the early 1860s, when the same crisis seems to imperil all their dreams. Without going into very much detail, the film shows a complicated pushing and tugging among Douglass, Garrison, John Brown, and Abraham Lincoln (not to mention the southern states)–with everyone else trying to cut the middle ground out from under the president, and largely succeeding.

Because of this, although there are gaping holes in this story (there’s virtually no political history as such, for one thing), the episode is an interesting corrective to Spielberg’s Lincoln, or will be, in the unlikely case that someone has the leisure to screen them both for discussion purposes. This Lincoln is a realistically frustrating figure, a man making the most of the chance to be a moderate antislavery voice and deliberately distancing himself from the abolitionists’ work even as their decades of labor make his position possible. The abolitionists, not Father Abraham, get all the credit here for his eventual decision to support full emancipation. If anything, the episode unfairly ignores Lincoln’s long dedication to the antislavery cause.

So The Abolitionists has failed to address my concern that it gives a two-dimensional view of antislavery by neglecting forms other than abolitionism. It still hasn’t really depicted abolitionism properly as a movement or set of networks; this episode is a story about a handful of individuals (appearances by Julie Roy Jeffrey and Caleb McDaniel notwithstanding). But it has at least represented the turmoil leading up to the Civil War as an in-house problem as well as a battle against proslavery forces. And its main narrative—about abolitionists’ being “swept along by the changing events around [them],” in McDaniel’s words—is well-told.

Kenneth Owen:

I agree with Jonathan that this was easily the best episode of the series. Dramatically, the producers built up the tension really effectively – showing how the maelstrom of events from Bleeding Kansas onwards caused the abolitionists personal danger and great moral strife. The inherent radicalism of the abolitionists’ arguments also shone through tremendously strongly – the scene in which Garrison set fire to the Constitution was my favorite of the entire series; it gave a graphic demonstration of Garrison’s belief in a moral cause that transcended nationality.

The demonstration of the friction between different abolitionists also came across very well. The scene in which Douglass and Brown attempt to persuade each other to change their mind on the Harper’s Ferry raid got across the passion and the danger of the situation. This episode demonstrated far more clearly than the others the way in which different forms of abolitionism intersected with each other, and the causes and the consequences of each different path.

That then fed through to the consideration of the Civil War – the documentary outlined the contradictory nature of Lincoln’s thought better than most documentaries that I have seen that touched the subject. Here, I can only really echo Jonathan’s comments that the consideration of the effect of the Civil War on slavery was as nuanced as anything that had been shown previously in the series. Similarly, the aftermath of the Emancipation Proclamation was covered very fairly and accurately – a joyful moment, for sure, but not one that guaranteed the end of slavery by any means. The triumphant visit of Garrison to Charleston was a fitting end to the series – especially in drawing out the practical consequences of the movement and the way that Garrison and others had touched the lives of the freed African-Americans.

I wonder if the reason that this episode worked so effectively because the paths of the three main characters dovetailed quite so obviously. The appearances of Grimké and Beecher Stowe in the first two episodes did not fit so easily into the narrative arc of the series (the Uncle Tom’s Cabin section in episode two seemed particularly forced); in this episode, though, the relationship between Douglass and John Brown in particular, and the two of them and Garrison more generally, was much more clearly drawn. Of course, it would have been impossible to make a documentary about abolitionism without mentioning prominent female figures; the failure to show the links between abolitionism and the women’s rights movement was a big lost opportunity for the series.

There was one final point that was raised that I wish had been more fully developed throughout the series. In the section covering Douglass’s eulogy to Garrison, they emphasized the extent to which abolitionism had been a generational movement – and that at the time of Garrison’s death, the abolitionists had largely passed from national life. This seemed to be a valid point – yet the portrayal of the wider society in which the abolitionists had lived was, as we have pointed out through our reviews, disappointingly two-dimensional. If all these figures were part of the same generation, wouldn’t it have been better to give some idea of how they actually fit within broader society in that generation? To that end, the absence of politics in the series remained somewhat jarring. But this was a really enjoyable episode – tense, well-paced, and with vividly drawn characters. Though the episode portrayed the vindication of the abolitionists, it really got across how easily it could have all gone wrong. Even at the moment of greatest triumph, The Abolitionists portrayed the potential calamity that may have been waiting around the corner.

2 responses

  1. I was surprised by the presentation of Lincoln. As a Canadian, I have always thought that the U.S. president was such a great man and did so much to end slavery. In this documentary, it looks like the slavery issue was just a annoying side issue for him. However, this show was not about Lincoln – it was about the abolitionists. Therefore, their story should be front and center.

  2. Thanks, I really enjoyed this series of reviews matched with each episode.
    It struck me that the series was arranged from the perspective of the abolitionists, so that everything was viewed through their lens. For example, the rendering of John Brown was as sympathetic as I’ve seen and Lincoln, as mentioned by pam2626, was not an actor at the forefront of history but apparently a reluctant participant.

    I think the lack of politics and various other issues noted in these reviews highlights the difficulty in presenting a truly “full” account on video of what would generally be considered a narrow aspect of history.


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