Author Noel Ignatiev

Abolitionism: A Study Guide

(This was first posted at Hard Crackers).

We think it would be useful to study American abolitionism as a home-grown radical movement launched in inauspicious times. To further that end, we have prepared a reading list and a set of questions.[1] For hard-to-find works, we can help with copying and scanning. We want this study guide to promote a wider conversation about these issues, and we will to do what we can to make that happen, including putting people and groups in touch with each other. Write to us.

Things to Read

Noel’s introduction to Lesson of the Hour, the collection of speeches of Wendell Phillips published by Charles H. Kerr. A survey of events which identifies strategic questions.[2] We also recommend the first three speeches in the volume. The entire book can be obtained from AK Press. (There is a glitch on the Amazon listing, making it impossible to order it through

Aileen Kraditor, Means and Ends in American Abolitionism. Strategic disagreements among abolitionists. Used copies available $4–$6.

Albert Fried, John Brown’s Journey: Notes and Reflections on His America and Mine. The writer’s discovery of Brown while participating in the movements of the late ’60s. Chapters 5 and 6 are especially useful. Used copies available for about $4 each.

Dorothy Sterling, Ahead of Her Time: Abby Kelley & the Politics of Antislavery. A biography of one of the most dedicated and radical among the abolitionists. Chapters 4, 6, 7, 9, 10, 12, 14 and 15 are especially useful for providing a picture of what the abolitionists did from day to day. Used copies available for $4.

David S. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights. Chapters 6 (on Brown’s relationships with black people), 16 (on Brown’s relationship to the rest of the abolitionists) and 17 (on his legacy, including a critique of Walt Whitman).

C.L.R. James, American Civilization, especially pages 85–98. The best. Noel drew heavily on it for his introduction to Lesson of the Hour.

W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America, Chapters 1–5 (pages 3–127).

Robin Blackburn, An Unfinished Revolution: Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln. The most important documents.

David Roediger, Seizing Freedom: Slave Emancipation and Liberty for All.

Questions and an Observation

What were the essential differences between abolitionists and others with anti-slavery sentiments?

What were the most important divisions among abolitionists?

What was Free-Soilism? What was its relation to abolitionism?

Who was right, the Garrisonians or the “political” abolitionists?

What were the relationships between white abolitionists and free blacks?

What were the relationships between abolitionists and slaves?

What role did the abolitionist movement play in ending slavery?

What lessons for today can we learn from the abolitionists?

Marx and Engels, who wrote brilliantly on slavery and the Civil War, abandoned these topics shortly after the war ended. Like northern white labor, they did not see freed slaves as workers or view postwar struggles in the south as part of the working-class movement.[3]

  1. [1]We are encouraged by a recent column by Linda Hirshman in The Washington Post, November 18, 2016.
  2. [2]It is available, slightly abridged.
  3. [3]In a letter to Meyer and Vogt on April 9, 1870, (the peak of Reconstruction), Marx wrote, “A coalition of the German workers with the Irish workers (and of course also with the English and American workers who are prepared to accede to it) is the greatest achievement you could bring about now.” In another to Engels on July 25, 1877, (during the Great Railroad Strike), he predicted that capital would drive black labor into an alliance with white. In a letter to Schluter on March 20, 1892, Engels surveyed divisions among various nationalities comprising the working class in New York, failing to mention blacks, although he did refer to “John Chinaman… who far surpasses them all in his ability to live on next to nothing.” On December 2, 1893, in a letter to Sorge, he spoke of the divisions between native-born and immigrant workers and among the latter, adding (as if by afterthought), “And then the Negroes.” These letters can be found at the Marxists’ Internet Archive.