Saturday, December 8, 2012

James Basker on Antislavery Writings

James Basker, president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, has edited a new collection of American antislavery writings.  American Antislavery Writings: Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation was published by The Library of America.

Check out this interview with Basker at the blog of the Library of America.  Here is a small taste:

What do you think will be the most surprising thing readers learn about the antislavery movement?

Two things stand out. First, how early the first fiercely critical opponents of slavery began to speak out, more than 100 years before the radical Garrisonians of the 1830s or Harriet Beecher Stowe in the 1850s: the Moravians in 1688, George Keith in 1693, Samuel Sewall in 1700, John Hepburn in 1715, Elihu Coleman in 1733, Benjamin Lay in 1737, John Woolman and Anthony Benezet in the 1750s, and so on. Second, calling it a “movement” is a reductive misnomer. Antislavery sensibilities and behaviors were far more diverse and diffuse than any single “movement” spanning the 1680s to 1865: every act of resistance or rebellion by a slave, every owner’s voluntary manumission or emancipatory purchase of a slave, every religious congregation that banned or condemned slaveholders, every school founded to educate black children or minister willing to baptize them, every state that abolished slavery (Vermont first, in 1777) or court that supported petitions for freedom (Massachusetts, 1780), every federal act that curbed slavery (Northwest Ordnance, 1787) or the slave trade (transatlantic trade outlawed, 1808), every expression of antipathy or disapproval of slavery, or local action against it, drained something from its power, its aura of inevitability or sustainability. 

Basker presenting Was America Founded as a Christian Nation at the George Washington Book Prize gala in May 2012

What’s your favorite piece in the collection?

So many leap to mind: Frederick Douglass’s novella “The Heroic Slave” or Louisa May Alcott’s edgy short story “An Hour” or Sumner’s emotional “Eulogy on Abraham Lincoln,” but my single favorite has to be “The Anti-Slavery Alphabet” composed by Hannah and Mary Townsend in 1847, for little children learning to read. Each letter of the alphabet is accompanied by a simple but powerful rhyme that would inculcate antislavery feelings in beginning readers, including feelings of guilt by implication. Under the letter “M,” for example, comes this: “M is the Merchant of the north, / Who buys what slaves produce— / So they are stolen, whipped and worked, / For his, and for our use.”