Arts & Culture » Book Review

Wishful History

Mother Jones founder Adam Hochschild wants very badly for the legacy of the abolitionists to belong to the left.



Bury the Chans: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves

Adam Hochschild (Houghton Mifflin)

Was Jesus pale or a few shades darker? Is a monkey your great-uncle? Were they fighting for freedom at the Alamo or for the right to keep slaves? You'd think eventually people would tire of arguing about events that happened a couple hundred, thousand, or million years ago, but they never do. That's because origin stories are as much about the present as they are about the past. They still have implications for how we think about ourselves and how we run our society.

Advance copies of Adam Hochschild's new Bury the Chains were subtitled "Prophets, Slaves and Rebels in the First Human Rights Crusade." As this overheated kicker suggests, the book's not a dry-as-dust account of the dead past but an origin story with Important Lessons for Our Time. Like a Ken Burns miniseries, it's sodden with drama, irony, and heart. In fact it's so concerned with uplifting the reader that it deliberately downplays some of the less savory implications of the moral heroics it applauds.

Bury the Chains traces the rise and fall and finally the success of the abolitionists in Britain in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Its primary focus is a handful of players whom Hochschild considers either emblematic or important in the campaign to convince the public of the evils of slavery. We meet lawyer James Stephen, converted to the cause in Barbados after witnessing a trial where four slaves were sentenced to be burned alive; Olaudah Equiano, one of the few Africans to write an account of the Middle Passage; and the best known of the British abolitionists, William Wilberforce, an evangelical Christian do-gooder and member of parliament who introduced antislavery legislation almost every year of the 1790s without success. In reading their stories, we manage to learn about slave revolts in Haiti, the French Revolution, farming in Africa, the horrible conditions endured by British seamen, and the state of the English infrastructure at the time. Slavery, Hochschild argues, touched virtually everyone in the world, and the narrative breadth of Bury the Chains alone goes a long way toward proving the point.

Unfortunately, Hochschild's epic scope is not well served by his style: he writes with the ingratiating self-consciousness of a determined popularizer. Every historical figure, it seems, is described with a burst of Dickensian enthusiasm: Granville Sharp, an early antislavery leader, had "thin lips, a long nose, a fierce, determined gaze accentuated by an outward jut of the chin." And Hochschild will never write "attitudes toward slavery changed" when he can instead say "forces burst into life."

Nonetheless, the prose bounces along quickly enough, in the "poetic" style of a public radio essay. The contemporary touch is intentional. Hochschild--one of the founders of Mother Jones magazine--is using the past to inspire today's liberals. In his view abolition in Britain was the granddaddy of all progressive movements. He suggests that it was the first time leftists took on an entrenched industry, compares the West Indian sugar planters to today's oil conglomerates, and makes much of the crossover between the antislavery and suffrage movements. Moreover, he points out, the abolitionists developed tactics that would be used by activists right up to the present day: boycotts, petitions, the celebrity book tour. The abolitionists even had perhaps the first self-abnegating Nader-esque career human rights campaigner: Thomas Clarkson.

Clarkson is far less well-known than William Wilberforce, but his story is at least as compelling. While a clergyman in training at Cambridge, he wrote a prizewinning essay in Latin denouncing slavery. It was merely an exercise, but what Clarkson uncovered while researching his composition so horrified him that after graduation he devoted the rest of his life to abolition. He spent 16-hour days looking through the records of slave ships to learn all he could about the industry and its practices. He traveled incessantly throughout Britain to drum up support for emancipation; on one trip he logged almost 2,000 miles. His greatest work was probably his pamphlet Abstract of the Evidence, which summarized the antislavery evidence placed before parliament; it became, according to Hochschild, the most widely read nonfiction antislavery document in history and the first piece of modern investigative journalism ever published.

Hochschild makes every effort to spread credit around: he takes care to point out the important contributions of women's antislavery societies and of the slaves themselves--the Haitian revolution made it clear that if the slaves were not freed by law, they might well free themselves in a far bloodier manner. Yet despite this evenhandedness it's Clarkson whom Hochschild singles out early in the book as his "central character." Why?

There seem to be two reasons. First, Clarkson lived a long time. He was there when parliament first debated abolition in the late 1780s, he was there when the cause foundered in the 1790s, and he was there when it was taken up again in the early 1800s. He saw the slave trade banned in 1807 and was still alive to celebrate when all British slaves were finally freed in 1838. Large sections of Bury the Chains don't mention Clarkson at all, but the narrative always comes back to him, still committed, still plugging away.

The second reason, however, is probably more important. Clarkson is the hero of the piece because he is the figure most analogous to a modern human rights activist. Like other abolitionists, he devoted his life to fighting for the "rights of other people, of a different skin color, an ocean away." But where people like Wilberforce were clearly motivated by religious concerns, Clarkson's orientation was secular. Earlier antislavery literature had relied on arguments from scripture or the religious doctrines of the Quakers. Clarkson was an Anglican deacon and he eventually became a kind of honorary Quaker, but his Abstract read "more like a report by a modern human rights organization than the moralizing tracts against slavery that had preceded it." Clarkson relied on accounts of atrocities against bodies, not souls, to move his audience.

For Hochschild, the great achievement of the abolitionists was that they were among the first to replace God with empathy as a motivating force in world affairs: "The riveting parade of firsthand testimony [the abolitionists] put together . . . is one of the first great flowerings of a very modern belief: that the way to stir men and women to action is not by biblical argument, but through the vivid, unforgettable description of acts of great injustice done to their fellow human beings."

This substitution strikes Hochschild as an unalloyed good; like many leftists, he's smitten with the Enlightenment. The 1700s and early 1800s saw a shift to personal feeling as a means of judging almost everything. In art, the personal lyrics of the Romantics were supplanting devotional hymns as the stuff of poetry; in government, the concept of inalienable rights was edging out the divine right of kings. Fatalistic appeals to God were for remorseless hypocrites like John Newton, the slave ship captain who thanked the Lord for allowing him to prosper in his chosen profession. Empathy was more honest and more trustworthy.

But was it? The empathy of the abolitionists, as Hochschild points out, was closely linked to condescension. One of the most widely reproduced images of the movement was a drawing of a slave kneeling in chains with the inscription am i not a man and a brother? Abolitionists, Hochschild says, saw slaves as victims begging for aid rather than dignified men and women like themselves. But he seems to believe that modern liberals can take the empathy and leave the contempt.

The history of modern activism, however, suggests that things aren't quite so simple. Hochschild writes that the abolitionists would be thrilled by the trial of Slobodan Milosevic, for example, but I think their imaginations would be fired by a less legalistic campaign. The antiabortion movement--with its ties to evangelicals, its focus on helpless, infantile victims, its gripping horror stories--is much closer to abolitionism in spirit than is any left-wing movement I can think of. The pro-lifers are well aware of this: in 1977, Jesse Jackson (now pro-choice) argued that "there are those who argue that the right to privacy is of higher order than the right to life. . . . That was the premise of slavery. You could not protest the existence or treatment of slaves on the plantation because that was private and therefore outside of your right to be concerned." Peter Fitzgerald used the analogy in his Senate campaign against Carol Moseley Braun in 1998, and Alan Keyes tried it against Barack Obama last summer.

The truth is that the abolitionists' legacy of liberalism and progressivism belongs at least as much to the right as it does to the left. Kipling argued in "The White Man's Burden" that imperialism was justified on humanitarian grounds. The libertarian Economist argues forcefully for international aid and intervention. George W. Bush speaks idealistically of a democratic--but not a Christian--Middle East. We live in a world where all have been injured and all must have empathy. Morality in the West used to be measured by how loudly you prayed; now instead--or in addition--it's measured by how loudly you sympathize.

Perhaps that's an improvement, though it hardly seems like the hope for the future that Hochschild wants it to be. As a blueprint for a utopian future, the past is a gigantic pile of dead bodies. Which isn't to say that history is useless; on the contrary, it can work quite well as a blunt instrument with which to thwack all and sundry. And on these terms, Hochschild's book succeeds well enough. It bludgeons conservatives and gives liberals a steady series of encouraging taps on the rear. As for those without a voting interest in a Western democracy, Hochschild provides the comforting revelation that some imperialists are good folk once you get to know them.

Add a comment