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So in exploring the friendship between the two Smiths, Frederick Douglass,

and John Brown, Stauffer has, indeed, created an "original" work

 

 

The Black Hearts of Men

Radical Abolitionists and The Transformation of Race

By John Stauffer

Review by Emma Jones Lapsansky

 

Almost four decades ago, when I was about to enter an interracial marriage, a German comrade in the civil rights movement encouraged me. "Unless some people live as if the future is already here," she prophesied, "the future we need will never come."  John Stauffer's new volume  The Black  Hearts of Men introduces us to four nineteenth-century civil rights activists who attempted to live as if the future they needed had already come.  And hence Stauffer's study reminds us that the future of cross-racial and cross-cultural alliances may depend upon remembering that such alliances have had an honorable past, one that allowed individuals to transcend such political constructs as race, gender, class, age, or the other boundaries created by societies.

Stauffer's study, an intertwined biography of four men--two white, two black--recounts, in its basic story line, the events and experiences that led them to found a political party based upon their Christian beliefs concerning the necessity of bringing about a new future for American slavery, race relations, and democracy. Convening a small conference in Syracuse, New York, in the summer of 1855, Gerrit Smith, James McCune Smith, Frederick Douglass, and John Brown founded the Radical Abolition Party, which lasted five years, and polled a few thousand votes in its various political campaigns between 1855 and 1860.  (Among its several campaigns, the party ran Gerrit Smith for president, and Frederick Douglass for secretary of the state of New York, making Douglass the first black man to be placed on an American ballot.) 

Distinguishing themselves from the left-leaning Free Soil Party, that opposed the extension of slavery, and from the even farther left-wing Garrisonians who sought to use "moral suasion" to convince all Americans that slavery was a sin and should be immediately eradicated everywhere, the Radical Abolitionists insisted that removing slavery from every inch of American soil was a God-driven mission, and that it must be pursued by whatever means necessaryeven violence and murder.  Unlike the Garrisonians, who held that morality and spirituality should be aloof from politics, the Radical Abolitionists argued that politics should be the foundation and the outlet for true spirituality, and that the Constitution should be seen as a sacred text on a par with the Bible.

Stauffer argues, however, that the most important contribution of the Radical Abolition Party is not in its politics, but in its leadership, a leadership comprised of four men who broke through the mistrust inherent in a racist system to become friends as well as abolitionist colleagues. Using these men whose cross-racial friendship previewed the future, Stauffer suggests that the empathy, admiration, and trust that cemented their friendship is the key to a democratic future for America, even while he notes the tragedy of that relationship. 

The tragedy, Stauffer tells us, is that the friendship between these men was built upon a mutual commitment to violenceGod-inspired violence, but violence nonetheless.  It is here that Stauffer moves from neutral historian to biased commentator, for he frequently reminds his readers of his own conviction that nothing enduringly positive can come from violence. (I agree with this conviction, but Stauffer's repetition of it is sometimes annoyingly didactic.)  He focuses heavily on Gerrit Smith's "guilt about his sanction of violence" (p. 267), and leaves no room for the possibility that it was John Brown's commitment to violence that paved the way for the positive change wrought by the Civil War.

Black  Hearts won the Avery O. Craven prize, awarded by the Organization of American Historians for "the most original book on the coming of the Civil Warwith the exception of works of purely military history."  The work certainly fits that guideline, for it explores an aspect of American history aptly named by Reconstruction historian C. Vann Woodward as a "forgotten alternative," namely, that antebellum American history contains several examples of cross-racial alliances and cooperation, which, for many reasons, the late-nineteenth-century era of Jim Crow has erased from our collective memory.

Stauffer tells us that Gerrit Smith's correspondence with Douglass and McCune Smith "represents the largest biracial correspondence in antebellum America" (p. 3), and, therefore, it offers a window onto a crucial aspect of nineteenth-century race history.  I have recently come upon a similarly rich cache of correspondence between Philadelphia white Quaker Benjamin Coates and more than a dozen African Americans, including Frederick Douglass, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, and Joseph Jenkins Roberts, the Virginian who relocated to Liberia and eventually became its president.[1] Like Gerrit Smith, Coates was generous in his economic support of black causes (although nowhere near the magnitude of Smith) and tireless in his correspondence with them.  But Coates differed from Gerrrit Smith in that, although he sometimes entertained Roberts in his home, and often addressed his black correspondents in intimate terms, he did not embrace them as equals, seldom incorporated their ideas into his own thinking, and never developed an intimate interracial community.

So in exploring the friendship between the two Smiths, Frederick Douglass, and John Brown, Stauffer has, indeed, created an "original" work, introducing the importance of friendship, mutuality, and what he calls "diverse aspects of identity and personal behavior" (p. 4) into our understanding of nineteenth-century politics.  Stauffer spends considerable time on the important diverse aspects of religious identity in nineteenth-century America, and by and large the book is the stronger for it.  Like many scholars, however, he falls into the trap of describing "the Quakers" without distinguishing the continuum of Quaker radicalism over race that extends from Lucretia Mott, who included black people in her social circle, to colonizationists like Coates, who felt that African Americans would be better off in Africa, to those who insisted that all society would be better off if African Americans were to return to Africa.

In these ways, Stauffer's work invites a deeper search for correspondence between nineteenth-century black Americans and their white benefactors.

Stauffer's work has a tantalizingly contemporary tone, without falling into the sin of "presentism."  In seeking to make himself a "colored man" (p. 15), Gerrit Smith, Stauffer tells us, embraced the modern notion expressed by James Baldwin, whom Stauffer quotes, that "the only way [white Americans] can be released from the Negro's tyrannical power over him is to consent, in effect, to become black himself" (p. 1).  Using more than a dozen illustrations, quotes from nineteenth-century thinkers as well as late twentieth-century writers, and his own lyrical prose, Stauffer takes us into the lives, minds, and "hearts" of his four heroes, arguing that they were right:  unless white and black Americans allow their hearts to embrace the world of each other, salvation is unlikely for either. Readers will be grateful to Stauffer for showing us four nineteenth-century leaders who lived as if the future of cross-racial comradeship were already here.

 John Stauffer. The Black  Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002.

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JOHN STAUFFER is the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University.  He received his Ph.D. in American Studies at Yale University in 1999, and won the Ralph Henry Gabriel Prize for the best dissertation in American Studies from the American Studies Association.  His first book, The Black Hearts of Men:  Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race (Harvard University Press, 2002) was the co-winner of the 2002 Frederick Douglass Book Prize from the Gilder Lehrman Institute; winner of the Avery Craven Book Prize from the OAH; and the Lincoln Prize runner-up.  He is completing an edition of Frederick Douglass’ My Bondage and My Freedom for the Modern Library; editing a collection of John Brown’s writings; and writing a new book, “The American Sublime:  Interracial Friendships and the Dilemma of Democracy.”  

The Problem of Evil: Slavery, Freedom, And the Ambiguities of American Reform . Edited by Steven Mintz and John Stauffer

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James McCune Smith

(1813-1865)

James McCune Smith (1813-1865), a dignified and highly trained physician, was the first university-trained black physician. After attending the Free African School of New York where he distinguished himself as a pupil he was helped by a clergyman to matriculate in the University of Glasgow. There he worked with the Glasgow Emancipation Society and completed his MD degree, graduating in 1837. Smith received from the University of Glasgow (Scotland) the A.B., M.A., and M.D. degrees.

His mother was self-emancipated; his father was freed by a New York law passed in 1827. After his graduation, Smith returned to America and established two drugstores in New York City.

Dr. Smith became well-known for his pioneering work in the scientific study of race and for the scholarly treatment of the slavery question. He was a prolific writer on the subject of racial equality and able speaker who fought against the deportation of the Negro.

 He wrote on abroad range of subjects concerning the Negro. He sought to change attitudes toward the Negro and direct sober thought to the question of the physical and moral equality of Negro and white. 

Source: Wilhemena Robinson, Historical Afro-American Biographies.

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Gerrit Smith

(1797-1874)

 

Gerrit Smith (1797-1874), born in Utica, New York, in March 1797, resided his entire life in the small community of Peterboro in Madison County, New York. His father, Peter Smith, was a partner of John Jacob Astor in the fur trade and land speculation ventures and eventually acquired nearly a quarter-million acres of undeveloped land scattered across the states of New York, Vermont, Michigan, and Virginia. Gerrit graduated from Hamilton College in 1818 and soon thereafter received responsibility for the management of much of his father's landholdings. In the late 1830s, the Smith fortune was endangered by a nationwide financial depression, but Gerrit ultimately survived the crisis richer than ever. In the 1840s and 1850s, Smith's annual income from his landholdings typically exceeded $60,00

Smith's fortune led him to be a leading philanthropist of the early nineteenth century. Smith contributed money to the American Bible Society, the American Tract Society, and the American Sunday School Society. His fortune also assisted numerous reform movements popular in upstate New York's famous "Burned-Over District" during the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s. Smith became a leader and major financial sponsor of state and national organizations promoting temperance, prison reform, women's rights, international peace, and land reform.  Initially, Smith supported colonization of slaves in Africa, but in 1835 he joined the militant abolitionist movement that demanded the immediate, complete, and uncompensated emancipation of the slaves. He also supported self-improvement efforts of northern free blacks as a means to combat pervasive racial prejudice.

Smith became the leader of a small faction of uncompromising political abolitionists who nominated him for President of the United States in 1848, 1856, and 1860. In 1852, through a coalition of abolitionists and more moderate antislavery voters, Smith won a seat in Congress. He became frustrated in his inability to promoted his abolitionist program and resigned his congressional seat before his term expired.

On 1 August 1846 Smith advertised that he would divide 120,000 acres of undeveloped land in the Adirondack Mountains of northern New York into lots for blacks to farm. A year and a half later, John Brown approached Smith and requested permission to settle among these blacks "to aid them by example and precept."  Smith was immediately impressed by Brown's self-reliance, religious nature, and commitment to aiding the blacks and sold him a 244-acre tract at North Elba, Essex County, New York, for a bargain price of $1 an acre. Brown lived on that farm from 1849 to 1851 and settled his wife and daughters there in 1855 before he moved to Kansas to join the free-staters' struggle.

With the steady aggression of pro-slavery forces in the 1850s, Smith settled on violence as the only solution to the slavery question. He strongly detested the Fugitive Slave Bill of 1850, which required northern citizens under penalty of law to assist public officials in the recapture of runaway slaves. In September 1851, he joined a mob in Syracuse, New York, that stormed a police station and freed an escaped slave, Jerry McHenry, who was awaiting rendition to the South. Smith and twenty-five others were indicted for their role in the "Jerry Rescue," but only one was convicted; and the other cases, including Smith's, were later dismissed.

Gerrit Smith was implicated in Brown's plot of Harper's Ferry. Until his death in 1874, Smith steadfastly refused to admit any intimate connection with the planning of the Harpers Ferry raid.

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A History of the Black Press
By Armistead S. Pride and Clint C. Wilson II

In this work, Dr. Wilson chronicles the development of black newspapers in New York City and draws parallels to the development of presses in Washington, D.C., and in 46 of the 50 United States. He describes the involvement of the press with civil rights and the interaction of black and nonblack columnists who contributed to black- and white-owned newspapers. . . . Through reorganization and exhaustive research to ascertain source materials from among hundreds of original and photocopied documents, clippings, personal notations, and private correspondence in Dr. Pride's files, Dr. Wilson completed this compelling and inspiring study of the black press from its inception in 1827 to 1997.

This is a major and noteworthy contribution to scholarship on the African American press. As Washington Post columnist Dorothy Gilliam concludes in the foreword, “Pride and Wilson’s comprehensive history is a lasting tribute to the men and women within the black press of both the past and the present and to those who will make it what it will be in the future.

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Pictures and Progress

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Edited by Maurice O. Wallace and Shawn Michelle Smith

Pictures and Progress explores how, during the nineteenth century and the early twentieth, prominent African American intellectuals and activists understood photography's power to shape perceptions about race and employed the new medium in their quest for social and political justice. They sought both to counter widely circulating racist imagery and to use self-representation as a means of empowerment. In this collection of essays, scholars from various disciplines consider figures including Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and W. E. B. Du Bois as important and innovative theorists and practitioners of photography. In addition, brief interpretive essays, or "snapshots," highlight and analyze the work of four early African American photographers. Featuring more than seventy images, Pictures and Progress brings to light the wide-ranging practices of early African American photography, as well as the effects of photography on racialized thinking.

*   *   *   *   *

The Black Hearts of Men

Radical Abolitionists and The Transformation of Race

By John Stauffer

John Stauffer's new volume  The Black  Hearts of Men introduces us to four nineteenth-century civil rights activists who attempted to live as if the future they needed had already come.  And hence Stauffer's study reminds us that the future of cross-racial and cross-cultural alliances may depend upon remembering that such alliances have had an honorable past, one that allowed individuals to transcend such political constructs as race, gender, class, age, or the other boundaries created by societies. Stauffer's study, an intertwined biography of four men--two white, two black--recounts, in its basic story line, the events and experiences that led them to found a political party based upon their Christian beliefs concerning the necessity of bringing about a new future for American slavery, race relations, and democracy. Convening a small conference in Syracuse, New York, in the summer of 1855, Gerrit Smith, James McCune Smith, Frederick Douglass, and John Brown founded the Radical Abolition Party, which lasted five years, and polled a few thousand votes in its various political campaigns between 1855 and 1860.

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The White Masters of the World

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W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Related files: Black Hearts Review  More Black Hearts Reviews     Black Hearts of Men Introduction  The Works of James McCune Smith