[Marxism] Well Before Lincoln, Enemies of Slavery

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Jan 10 08:05:41 MST 2013

NY Times January 7, 2013
Television Review
Well Before Lincoln, Enemies of Slavery

Abraham Lincoln drew Steven Spielberg’s cinematic attention, but Lincoln 
was still a store clerk when William Lloyd Garrison published the first 
issue of the newspaper The Liberator in 1831, vowing to “not retreat a 
single inch” in his campaign to eradicate slavery.

“The Abolitionists,” a three-part “American Experience” that begins 
Tuesday night on PBS, is a reminder for our noisy, instant-news present 
that the great movements of history, whether for civil rights or 
equality for women or the rights of people with disabilities, take 
decades to mature, and that presidents and other politicians are often 
among the last to board the bandwagon.

The program, so rich in well-staged re-enactments that it is more 
docudrama than documentary, traces the abolitionist movement across 
almost 40 tumultuous years, a period of colliding worldviews that makes 
our current polarization seem slight.

The focus is on five prominent figures with a lifelong dedication to the 
cause: Garrison, Angelina Grimké, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher 
Stowe and John Brown. That oversimplifies things considerably, of course 
— it takes more than five people to move a mountain — but the principals 
are well chosen in that they represent a range of approaches as to how 
best to rid the country of slavery. Garrison, at least in the beginning, 
thought words could do the job; Brown preferred the sword and the gun.

The first installment looks at the 1820s and ’30s, when the abolitionist 
movement coalesced and began to realize just what it was up against. 
Antislavery leaflets in the South were met with violent protests, which 
was no surprise, but Garrison and others were taken aback when ugly 
opposition also materialized in the North.

“The mobs shattered every abolitionist assumption: that righteousness 
would triumph over evil; that their fellow Americans would listen to 
reason; that their Northern neighbors would support the abolitionist 
cause,” the program’s narrator, Oliver Platt, relates.

Part 2 explores how war with Mexico in the mid-1840s accelerated the 
debate by raising the question of whether territory gained by the United 
States in that conflict would be slave or free. Douglass (portrayed in 
re-enactments by Richard Brooks of “Law & Order”) emerges as a major 
player, recruited by Garrison to speak across the North. His appearances 
put a face on what for many had been a theoretical discussion.

“Many of the audience members had never, ever seen a slave, let alone 
been to the slave South,” the historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar says. “So 
to have a person like Douglass gave the antislavery cause teeth. It gave 
it authenticity. It gave it a new voice.”

Meanwhile, Garrison (portrayed by Neal Huff) was beginning to despair 
that political bodies or other entrenched institutions would ever act 
against slavery, and his writings and lectures became more impatient. 
The ultimate champion of radical action, though, was Brown (T. Ryder 
Smith), who, as Part 3 begins, is killing slavery advocates in Kansas 
and then setting his sights on the armory at Harpers Ferry. In the 
program’s most evocative scene, he meets Douglass at Chambersburg, Pa., 
where Douglass tries to talk him out of the raid that would help push 
the nation to civil war.

“It will kill you, and it will serve no purpose,” Douglass says. “It 
will be a blood bath.”

To which Brown replies, “Without the shedding of blood, there is no 
remission of sin, Douglass.”

Lincoln turns up late, and in this telling he is a bit of a waffler, 
trying some appeasement strategies before eventually, 150 years ago this 
past New Year’s Day, issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. By this 
point in the program, the case has been made that war was the only way 
this defining issue would be resolved. But it was a long journey to get 
to that point, full of soul-searching, reasoned debate and 
not-so-reasoned violence. Food for thought for our contentious age, when 
discussion of perfectly solvable problems seems to turn inflammatory so 

American Experience

The Abolitionists

On PBS stations on Tuesday and Sunday nights (check local listings).

Produced by Apograph Productions Inc. for American Experience. Written, 
directed and produced by Rob Rapley; Sharon Grimberg, executive 
producer; Mark Samels, executive producer for American Experience; John 
Chimples and Aljernon Tunsil, editors; Tim Cragg, cinematographer; 
Oliver Platt, narrator.

WITH: Richard Brooks (Frederick Douglass), Neal Huff (William Lloyd 
Garrison), Jeanine Serralles (Angelina Grimké), Kate Lyn Sheil (Harriet 
Beecher Stowe) and T. Ryder Smith (John Brown).

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