Excerpted from The Color Of Abolition: How a Printer, a Prophet, and a Contessa Moved a Nation. Copyright © 2022 by Linda Hirshman. Published and reprinted by permission of Mariner Books.

No social movement in American history matters more than abolition. Slavery was the mortal sin of the American republic. Abolition was the movement to end slavery. It was, like all movements, incomplete. But as my teacher the legendary historian David Brion Davis taught me along with generations of American students, abolition was an astonishing historical achievement, and a crucial landmark of moral progress.

Since the first slave ship landed in Virginia in 1619, there have been movements to resist. Quaker antislavery protest goes back to 1688. Major slave rebellions marked the 1700s. Throughout the early years of the republic, Black activists, fugitive and free, agitated for abolition in the slave states and equality in the free. The social forces reached an inflection point in 1830, when the Black writer David Walker’s incendiary Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America crossed the desk of white printer William Lloyd Garrison. The modern abolition movement lasted from that point roughly until Juneteenth in 1865.

As the historian David Blight said in the introduction to his magisterial Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, “Context and timing are often all.’’ When I finally gathered the courage to take on this most important social movement, a lively and painful conversation about the possibility and conditions of an interracial alliance was taking place all around me in the here and now. From 1841 to 1853, the movement benefited immeasurably from the alliance of Garrison and the fugitive slave, then free man, Frederick Douglass. Until it didn’t. Although abolition, like the Civil War, is the subject of an abundance of study, vision, revision, and re-revision, there was not a lot of writing about the Garrison–Douglass alliance so central to the movement.

This story seemed to me worthy of a telling in itself, and also as a window into the larger contemporary question of interracial alliance. Ultimately, the story reflects the focus of all of my work: How did the movement, the abolitionist movement in this case, succeed? The social movement of abolition went from publisher Garrison, who could not pay his newsprint bill when he opened the modern era with the first issue of The Liberator in 1831, to the Emancipation Proclamation little more than three decades later, a mere moment in the timetable of social change. Historian Eric Foner set the table for the inquiry into abolition’s success for more than a generation of scholars with his study of the cultural and economic forces that pulled the North away from the slave empire. But in seeking the how, I was looking for the mechanics of activism—the meetings, the speeches, the broadsides, the litigation—for my analysis. And Garrison and Douglass were both central to the mechanics of activism. Their alliance fueled critical years of the movement, and their breakup affected the direction of the movement profoundly. This was the project I started.

And then the history gods gave me the ultimate gift: a key player who had never been the subject of a full biography and an archive full of her letters. Meet Maria Weston Chapman, the power beside the throne of Garrison’s abolition organization, variously “the Contessa” and “Lady Macbeth.” (A woman after my own heart.) Weston Chapman (along with her five sisters) wrote so many letters it’s a miracle she had the time to run major portions of the abolitionist movement. Other activists, recognizing her epistolary inclination and the fact that she was really running the show much of the time, also wrote to Maria. The hundreds of letters are online, thank Clio, as the libraries were mostly closed for this history in the Plague Years. Locked down during the plague, I was able to spend endless hours scrutinizing the illegible handwritten missives, often overwritten at right angles, to squeeze in more text and save on postage.

When I first spotted Maria Weston Chapman, I thought I had hit feminist research gold, a female hero whose gender had obscured her importance. And that is definitely part of the story. At some social sacrifice, she had run the bazaars that funded Garrison’s operation for many years, organized the petitions that were the first wave of mass public engagement, and ghosted his newspaper when Garrison was AWOL.

But a closer examination of her letters revealed an ugly downside to her story: she was a prime mover in driving Frederick Douglass out. In a perfect storm of intersectionality, the wealthy, fashionable Contessa added the issue of class to the already fraught alliance across the line of race. Unsurprisingly, she and her Brahmin friends and relatives brought with them—into the abolitionist movement—the casual racism of the privileged class. What started out as an analysis of the interracial duo turned into a threesome, as the forces of race and class combined to catapult Frederick Douglass out. The letters were then and are now shocking.

The shameful history that led to the breakup is the bitter story. The sweet story is how the breakup of the interracial cross-class alliance put Frederick Douglass right where the action was. In an opposite response to the Boston branch’s behavior, the New York factions of abolition, which had long since separated from Garrison’s shop, extended open arms. “Welcome to New York,” white upstate abolition leader Gerrit Smith wrote when Douglass transferred his base from Massachusetts to Rochester. He promptly gave Douglass a piece of land, part of his crafty initiative to help Black voters meet the racist property requirements for voting. Smith’s unreserved outreach to Douglass is the very model of successful interracial cooperation. The Smith–Douglass alliance also allowed me to tell the story of how new legal thinking and overt political organizing—the hallmarks of New York abolition—came to the forefront of the movement and powered its last, successful decade to the election of 1860.

Douglass’s support for those novel and contested initiatives meant the world to the new movement. In 1865 he went to Washington and helped the Chief Justice put on his robes for the second inauguration of Abraham Lincoln.

Excerpted from The Color Of Abolition: How a Printer, a Prophet, and a Contessa Moved a Nation. Copyright © 2022 by Linda Hirshman. Published and reprinted by permission of Mariner Books.

Read an interview about The Color of Abolition between Linda Hirshman and Claire Potter.

Linda Hirshman is a lawyer, cultural historian, and the author of The Color of Abolition: How a Printer, a Prophet, and a Contessa Moved a Nation (Mariner Books), making its debut on February 8.