Design: DF / Public Seminar

Linda Hirshman is a lawyer and cultural historian whose book The Color of Abolition: How a Printer, a Prophet, and a Contessa Moved a Nation, is making its debut this week. Linda, a historian of social movements who is also the author of books about the feminist and gay rights revolutions, sat down to talk to me about interracial alliances, yesterday and today.

Claire Potter[CP]: Linda, I want to start with the first line of the book, which captured me immediately: ‘‘I write about social movements, those moments when people act collectively to change their shared world.’’ Why do Americans need to know more about social movements right now?

Linda Hirshman [LH]: Because the fate of the republic is, once again, on the table, as it was during the struggle for the abolition of slavery in the United States. It is such a fabulous example of a movement that succeeded, and hopefully, we will succeed in advancing the project of a multiracial democracy just as the abolitionists did.

CP: There are three characters at the center of this book, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and Maria Weston Chapman. Tell me how you settled on them.

LH: In America, it seems that cross-racial relationships are always the hardest to establish and maintain. So, my plan was to write about the interracial alliance that abolitionism was. Imperfect as it was, it was still pretty great.

I try to sneak up on the movements I write about by finding people whose stories are gripping and will lure people in. I was looking for an interracial alliance between two people that would exemplify the undertaking and would get readers interested in abolitionism as a movement. When I found out that William Lloyd Garrison’s print shop in Boston had printed the actual copies of Frederick Douglass’s first autobiography, I knew I had the couple that I wanted to follow, a Black man and a white man whose alliance did not last forever.

So, I’m thinking that’s a great book, I’m done right? Brothers in abolition. Then, I stumbled across a little book by Lee Chambers, and I became interested in Maria Western Chapman, because she was a central player in abolition and in the successes and failure of interracial alliances around that issue. I realized that historians had seen the men, but they had not seen Chapman, and she was immensely important.

CP: What about Garrison made it possible for him to understand the moral case for abolition, to see the humanity in Black men when other whites could not?

LH: That’s a fabulous question. In 1829, Garrison meets a Quaker abolitionist. The Quakers had a very honorable history of recognizing that people are all human regardless of the color of their skin. Garrison was coming from a political tradition whose best idea was to send emancipated slaves, many of whom had been in America for longer than many whites, back to Africa.

Garrison was also deeply influenced by the Second Great Awakening, a religious revival that swept across the Northeast in the early nineteenth century. But I also think he was an unusual thinker. He was sort of an orphan and left on his own to figure out what was good and what was bad in the world, and what to make of himself. He had no touchstone but his own inner life, and he became completely independent.

Garrison did not buy into anybody’s thinking. It was his blessing and then later, it became a drawback because other people had insights that were useful. But Garrison would never listen to anyone. Yet, he was a romantic and a lover of freedom and, because of that, he took the radical position that the United States must abolish slavery immediately.

That position became known as ‘‘immediatism,’’ and contrasted with colonization or gradualism. There were lots of people who wanted slavery to disappear, but they wanted it to disappear over centuries, or geographically disappear in a return to Africa. Garrison was not the least bit interested in any of those solutions.

He was also very impatient. When Garrison was a temperance publisher, he wanted immediate prohibition too.

CP: He believed the response to evil was a moral revolution. So, Maria Weston Chapman enters the friendship and alliance between Douglass and Garrison. Tell our readers how that happens.

LH: Chapman did not have an abolitionist background herself, but she married into a very rare thing—a rich, white abolitionist family. So, when Garrison starts the New England Anti-Slavery Society in 1832, white women in Massachusetts see free Black women starting women’s abolition societies and anti-slavery societies, and they organize too. Two early members were Chapman’s Boston cousins by marriage, and they introduced her to the issue.

As the story goes, she shows up one day at an anti-slavery society meeting. She’s very wealthy, young, gorgeously dressed, and by all accounts, extremely beautiful. So, Chapman walks into this meeting, and they think she’s a spy. It’s the only explanation they can think of.

But Chapman was stunningly well organized, hard-working, and ambitious and she had a lot of class privilege. She looks around at this rag-tag bunch and says, ‘‘I don’t understand why we’re not doing this better,’’ and she immediately starts to organize a bazaar, which was how women raised money for causes.

CP: Does Chapman’s class make a difference to the story you are telling about this movement?

LH: Well, the Weston sisters were a force. It wasn’t just Maria, it was Maria and her five sisters. They were not raised rich. Their father was a failure, but their ancestral family had a great deal of money. So, they were raised with class privilege, and they expected the world to do what they said.

Here’s an example. Public anti-slavery meetings were always threatened with violence, and the people in the moment were nervous about that. Maria went to the mayor of Boston in 1835 and said, ‘‘I’m Maria Weston Chapman and you need to protect my meeting.’’ He said he couldn’t. Chapman decided to meet anyway, and it was attacked—by a mob organized by the Lords of the Loom, the cotton merchants of Boston. The mayor shows up and says, ‘‘I’ll protect you if you’ll leave right now.’’

Chapman scolds him and says, ‘‘I told you. You were supposed to protect us.’’ Then she says, ‘‘I guess if we’re going to die anywhere, might as well be here.’’ And two by two, Black, and white, they leave the meeting hall, with the mayor holding back the mob. So, the class of the members starts to change because they now have the protection of the mayor.

Her confidence changed the movement. But it was a two-edged sword. When the time came for Chapman to take on the ministers, a class fracture appears between the wealthy Calvinist and congregationalist women and the Episcopalian Weston sisters, their fancy friends, and the petit bourgeois members, and the society broke up under that pressure.

CP: Let me steer us back to Frederick Douglass, a well-known character in American history. How did putting him in a book with Garrison and Chapman produce a new story about his life?

LH: First, I had a terrible moment because, when I had already committed to the book, I found out that the greatest contemporary scholar of the period, David Blight, was writing a biography of Douglass. He would become a great friend and ally, and the book would become a wonderful source for me. Blight had access to a whole archival trove of post-Civil War material, which is not a period I cover in my book.

But I chose to emphasize a relationship between three people walking this road together, so I went into that archival material, looking for information about the relationship, not about the details of Douglass’s life. For example, when was Douglass traveling with Garrison? What can we know about the way they thought about one another? How often did they write personal letters versus letters for publication? Then, of course, looking through the Weston correspondence, I came across this staggeringly racist, scandalous series of letters, reflecting the racism in Douglass’s relationship with Chapman and her Boston clique.

So, I felt I could tell a new story about Douglass because I’m really writing about the movement.

CP: And a biography of a movement raises important questions about how Black and white people can work together in a racist society when, in fact, they are socially unequal. What lessons would you want today’s anti-racism activists to learn about the role white people can play in supporting Black freedom?

LH: If you’re trying to have an upright relationship with a person of another race in America, this book has pretty much all the elements you need to learn how to do it.

Garrison began in a neutral place. He recognized the value that Douglass had to a movement that he, Garrison, wanted to advance. And that doesn’t seem very loving or understanding but it sure beats treating someone like they’re inferior or as if they have no value.

Then Garrison, I think, came to love Douglass as a person. The best example of that is when Douglass’s English friends raised a fund to buy his freedom. That act violated the core principle of the abolitionist movement, which was to have no dealings with slave owners. To buy people’s freedom from their enslavers recognized the rectitude of the ownership relationship. That was Garrison’s idea, he wrote it down the first time in the beginning, and it goes all the way back to the foundation of the New England Anti-Slavery Society.

But when the moment came to buy Douglass’s freedom, he conceded that was different. Garrison, who was not tolerant of incoherence or contradiction, contradicted himself to the core by supporting that.

Not surprisingly, when the break with Douglass came, it was because of these same qualities. It was when Douglass took the position of the other branch of the abolition movement that the Constitution did not support slavery. Douglass was going against Garrison’s core political belief that slavery was a contract with Satan. He could not tolerate that. So, the lesson from this is to recognize that even good actors are standing on a corrupt pile of unconscious social and historical racism.

If it was lurking in Garrison and the people who spent their lives trying to end slavery, then you know it’s going to be there no matter what. So, what do you do?

You do what Jared Smith did, which is to not just stop discriminating but to act affirmatively to make the races substantively equal. Smith was rich, and New York State—in its infinitely racist and ghastly way—required that if a Black man wanted to vote, he had to own property worth a certain amount of money. So, Jared Smith took a huge amount of his money and bought property land and gave it away to free Black people.

CP: That’s also reparations.

LH: It doesn’t really matter what you call it, what is beautiful about this story is that these were people of good intentions. Jared Smith was a product of the Second Great Awakening too. He felt it was his obligation to not just to treat everybody in the world, however, wounded they were, as equal, but to heal the world, to prepare it for the Second Coming.

CP: So why was a wealthy white man, like Jared Smith able to have that insight and Maria Weston Chapman could not?

LH: I think that it may be because Maria came from Boston, which was a caste society. There’s a reason they call them Brahmans. So did Edmund Quincy and the people who wrote these racist things to each other about Frederick Douglass and the other wonderful Black speakers in the movement. They come from a very rigid hierarchical society, in which status was based on who your ancestors were.

But Jared Smith was a New Yorker. His father was the partner of John Jacob Astor, a New York entrepreneur, and I think that that made him less inclined to that kind of rigid hierarchical thinking. There’s a fluidity to the nineteenth-century New York makers of great fortunes, men like Astor, and Jared Smith’s father, Peter Smith. They often came from nothing, just like Garrison did, and I think that it made them more open.

CP: What you’re talking about is self-made men who look at the potential for Black people becoming free and understand that every person can succeed.

LH: Right, and even though all New Yorkers were not good actors in this because New York was financing the cotton empire—they insured it, they shipped it from the deep-water port of New York—there were also people who were also products of Second Great Awakening and thinking about making the world a better place. These were the entrepreneurs and would-be small businessmen, including small farmers of the small towns and countryside of the north.

These are the people who became the heart of the Republican Party.

CP: I want to ask you a big question about what we can learn about the present from the past. One of the things we hear about a lot is the comparison between this political moment and the period leading up to the Civil War. What is true about that and what isn’t?

LH: I spent the last five, six years of my life with this story and when I saw what was happening in America now, it seemed very familiar to me. What period was as politically divided?

CP: I would say the civil rights movement.

LH: That would be the only period that even comes close, and the central question is, When do both sides recognize that the other’s ideology and vision of a good society are unacceptable to them and threatening to their future? Today’s political divisions resemble the antebellum period far more powerfully. One similarity is that a rigid interpretation of the Constitution favors the less powerful demographic. You’ve got a rigid constitution enforced by a Supreme Court, and on the other hand, you have the street violence, the vigilantism, the heavily armed societies—those factors were present in the pro-slavery movement of the 1850s.

CP: I want to close with your final scene, Lincoln’s second inauguration in 1864. Everybody tells Douglass, ‘‘Don’t go to the White House, they’re not going to let you in, it’s just going to be humiliating.’’ Douglass goes anyway and is initially turned away. Then Lincoln hears that Frederick Douglass has come, and he sends for him, going public with their friendship. It’s very moving, particularly because we know that Lincoln’s work is nearly done. He will be assassinated and Douglass will go on to a whole new chapter.

Do you want to follow Douglass into that next chapter?

LH: David Blight has written that book and I would have to be crazy to try to think that I could be as eloquent or as thorough as him. And sadly, the victory of emancipation is partially reversed. Douglass died after having gone to an anti-lynching rally.

I don’t want to write that book. I want to put more examples of successful social movements into the world. I would be interested in writing about how Black musicians and singers came finally to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. I love the opera, and if I’m going to do one more book, I would be very honored to be in the company of those artists and heroes who are way too late to the greatest arts organization in America.

I would like to do that next.

Read an excerpt from The Color of Abolition, courtesy of Linda Hirshman and Mariner Books.

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, making its debut on February 8 and from Mariner Books.

Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).