Ohio History Journal

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Book Reviews

Book Reviews




The Abolitionists & the South, 1831-1861. By Stanley Harrold. (Lexington:

The University of Kentucky Press, 1995. x + 245p.; illustrations, notes, bibli-

ography, index. $29.95.)


Did the struggle to end slavery cause the Civil War? Twentieth-century theories

of the war from Charles Beard's economic interpretation to the currently fashion-

able cultural split between North and South have relegated abolitionist radicals to

the sidelines as a causative factor in the war and by implication questioned the ca-

pacity of radicals to bring about significant change in society. To Stanley Harrold

(South Carolina State), however, abolitionists should not be studied merely as ex-

emplars of aspects of northern culture but instead as people who were genuinely

interested in the South's peculiar institution and had an important role in destroy-

ing it.

In this, Harrold's second book on the abolitionist movement, he argues in topi-

cally organized, highly analytic chapters that abolitionists continued to be deeply

interested in the South, even after their initial efforts to propagandize the region

in the 1830s failed. Their newspapers and letters, he points out, continued to

carry news of antislavery agitators (Cassius Clay, John Fee, Charles Torrey, and

others) in the border states as well as indications of slave unrest. The complex

images created of these white and black southern warriors against slavery encour-

aged emotional commitment by northern abolitionists to their cause. While not

all factions of abolitionists favored the same types of actions in the South to end

slavery, various groups did sponsor Christian antislavery missions and churches,

slave liberating expeditions (long before John Brown), and the formation of free

labor communities that would literally export northern civilization to the South.

Abolitionists' experiences in such enterprises shaped their commitment to and

understanding of abolition as much or more than any worries they might have had

about social changes in the North. Their aggressiveness forced moderate antislav-

ery supporters to constantly redefine their commitment and also warned slave-

holders that the abolitionist threat was "neither distant, inadvertent, nor insub-

stantial" (p. 153). Harrold even suggests that the assumptions upon which recon-

struction of the South were based owed something to the abolitionists, who fre-

quently continued their interest in the South after the formal end of slavery.

Harrold's reinterpretation of the abolitionists does not stand alone. It comple-

ments Herbert Aptheker's 1989 study, Abolitionism:     A  Revolutionary

Movement, and recalls James L. Huston's significant 1990 article in the Journal

of Southern History, "The Experiential Basis of the Northern Antislavery

Impulse." The presence of a real abolitionist threat in the southern border rein-

forces William Freehling's vision of a divided South in The Road to Disunion

(1990). Clearly polarization, confrontation, and ideological commitment are re-

ceiving new respect from Civil War historians.

Yet a word of caution is necessary. While abolitionist media contained news

about the South and slavery, they also covered internal disputes within the move-

ment and discussions of all aspects of reform, here and abroad. To demonstrate the

dominance of one theme over another would seemingly require some form of con-

tent analysis and perhaps an analysis of where antislavery societies used their lim-