Thursday, May 30, 2013

Activists, Agitators, and Abolitionists - Interview with W. Caleb McDaniel

A few months ago I posted a review of the PBS American Experience 3-part television program "The Abolitionists" (here and here).

The program acquainted (and re-acquainted) me with important leaders of the Abolitionist movement, especially John Brown, Frederick Douglass, and William Lloyd Garrison.

The program also introduced me to a rising young historian in my own locale: W. Caleb McDaniel, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Rice University in Houston, Texas.

Dr. McDaniel was featured as a historian in "The Abolitionists," commenting specifically on the life of Garrison.  I was most pleased to receive a review copy of his new book - The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery: Garrisonian Abolitionists and Transatlantic Reform (May 2013) - from LSU Press.

My review of this excellent book appears at the end of this post.  Dr. McDaniel was also kind enough to answer some interview questions.

About the book, from the publisher:

In The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery, W. Caleb McDaniel sets forth a new interpretation of the Garrisonian abolitionists, stressing their deep ties to reformers and liberal thinkers in Great Britain and Europe. The group of American reformers known as “Garrisonians” included, at various times, some of the most significant and familiar figures in the history of the antebellum struggle over slavery: Wendell Phillips, Frederick Douglass, and William Lloyd Garrison himself. Between 1830 and 1870, American abolitionists led by Garrison developed extensive networks of friendship, correspondence, and intellectual exchange with a wide range of European reformers—Chartists, free trade advocates, Irish nationalists, and European revolutionaries. Garrison signaled the importance of these ties to his movement with the well-known cosmopolitan motto he printed on every issue of his famous newspaper, The Liberator: “Our Country is the World—Our Countrymen are All Mankind.” That motto serves as an impetus for McDaniel’s study, which shows that Garrison and his movement must be placed squarely within the context of transatlantic mid-nineteenth-century reform. 

Through exposure to contemporary European thinkers—such as Alexis de Tocqueville, Giuseppe Mazzini, and John Stuart Mill—Garrisonian abolitionists came to understand their own movement not only as an effort to mold public opinion about slavery but also as a measure to defend democracy in an Atlantic World still dominated by aristocracy and monarchy. While convinced that democracy offered the best form of government, Garrisonians recognized that the persistence of slavery in the United States revealed problems with the political system. They identified the participation of minority agitators as part of the process in a healthy democratic society.

Ultimately, Garrisonians’ transatlantic activities reveal their deep patriotism, their interest in using public opinion to affect American politics, and their similarities to other antislavery groups. By following Garrisonian abolitionists across the Atlantic Ocean and exhaustively documenting their international networks, McDaniel challenges many of the timeworn stereotypes that still cling to their movement. He argues for a new image of Garrison’s band as politically savvy, intellectually sophisticated liberal reformers, who were well informed about transatlantic debates regarding the problem of democracy.

My interview with Dr. McDaniel:

W. Caleb McDaniel, Ph.D.
Jim Schmidt (JS): Please tell us a little about yourself, why you pursued history as a profession, your research and teaching interests, etc.
W. Caleb McDaniel (WCM): I consider myself a historian of the nineteenth-century United States, broadly speaking, and my methods are mainly those of social, cultural, and intellectual history. Increasingly, I also have an interest in digital history, for reasons I have explained here.

As for why I became an historian, I'm fortunate in that since around seventh grade, I can't really remember wanting to be something else. I had fantastic middle-school, high-school, and college American history teachers, and I wouldn't be practicing history today without them.

William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879)
JS: What inspired the line of inquiry that led to your dissertation and the book?

WCM: I've always been interested in the Civil War, but I can date my serious interest in the abolitionists to Steven Spielberg's film *Amistad*, which I saw at least twice when it came out in the middle of my freshman year of college. It is a problematic film in some ways, but it piqued my interest in John Quincy Adams, about whom I (like most other viewers, I suspect) knew very little. While browsing at a Barnes and Noble for a book on him, I stumbled across William Lee Miller's *Arguing about Slavery*, which introduced me to a wider cast of abolitionist characters and the debate over the "gag rule" that prevented antislavery petitions from being read in Congress. At that age I was green enough to be gobsmacked by the idea that such a rule had existed, and it made me want to learn more.

The more specific subject of my dissertation emerged from a paper I wrote during my first year as a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins. The paper started out as a study of abolitionist celebrations of the Fourth of July; as I recall it, I was interested in better understanding how and to what extent American radical abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison laid claim to the American Revolution. What did they think they were doing by observing the Fourth, even in a subversive way?

But in doing the research I kept noticing references to the First of August, the anniversary of British West Indian emancipation, and to other transatlantic reform movements like Irish Repeal. At the time I was green enough to be surprised by this, too. The paper itself became an article about abolitionist holidays, but it also planted seeds for the dissertation as I set out to understand why Garrison and others followed overseas reform movements and events so closely.

The thesis that resulted was focused primarily on Garrisonians' ideas about cosmopolitanism and nationalism, which I believed were encapsulated in Garrison's favorite motto, "Our Country is the World--Our Countrymen are all Mankind." I probably quoted that motto
ad nauseum in the dissertation itself. That phrase figures in my book, too, but the through-line of the The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery is actually very different from the dissertation. It has more to do with Garrisonians' ideas about democracy and the American experiment. I guess in a way I finally came back to my original questions about Garrisonians' relationship to the Fourth of July and the implications, for them, of the fact that democratic government could produce evils like the "gag rule."

JS: Apart from autobiographies or collected correspondence, what 4 or 5 books would you recommend to someone building a library on American Abolitionists?

WCM: That's a tough question because there are so many good ones out there! One very recent book that I like a lot is Stephen Kantrowitz's More than Freedom. Another personal favorite that reads like a novel is Albert J. Von Frank's The Trials of Anthony Burns. If you want a short, accessible overview, I recommend James Brewer Stewart's revised edition of Holy Warriors.

JS: The recent American Experience series, The Abolitionists, in which you were featured, concentrated more on the relationship between Garrison an Frederick Douglass; I'm not sure Wendell Phillips was even mentioned, unfortunately.  He plays a very large role in your book.  Why is he so

Wendell Phillips (1811-1884)
WCM: Though often forgotten today, Phillips was regarded--even by his enemies--as one of the nation's greatest orators. For that reason alone he was a crucial convert to the abolitionist cause at a time when stem-winders were more appreciated and influential than they are today. As I argue in my book, he was also the Garrisonians' leading intellectual---the one who was able to translate their arguments and experiences into a coherent philosophy intelligible to the likes of a John Stuart Mill or Ralph Waldo Emerson.

I don't think I fully appreciated the power or coherence of Phillips's thinking until long after the dissertation, when I finally sat down and read the published volumes of his speeches cover to cover. It was a breathtaking experience that really laid bare, I found, both the rigor and the flexibility of his mind.

JS: What I loved most about the book is how relevant it is to today's political climate; and, alas, probably a timeless climate at that.  Was this intentional?

WCM: You're not the first to say that, and it's interesting for me to hear. I don't think my primary intention was to suggest parallels with the present day, but I suppose it's improbable, if not impossible, to think that I could wholly bracket from my mind the present I was living through while writing the book.

I guess I'm not displeased if readers do hear faint echoes of the past in the present, or vice versa. Garrisonians like Phillips really did believe that certain dangers in a democracy would be perennial---the dangers of blind conformism or selfishness, for instance, or the dangers posed by a majority that is hostile to the rights of a trampled minority. My goal was for readers to take the abolitionists' ideas about these things seriously and see the Garrisonians on their own terms, but perhaps it's easier to do that if you can relate, on some level, to some of their feelings, frustrations, and fears for their country.

JS: Are you working on another book project?

WCM: Yes, I am, though it is taking me away from the abolitionists for the moment and closer to home here in Texas. I'm currently researching wartime slavery and emancipation in our backyard, with a focus (at present) on what was happening to slaves brought into Texas during the war by slaveholders from neighboring states. I'm also trying something new for this project that is much in line with what you do on your blog. I'm sharing the results of my work in progress online here.

Thank You Dr. McDaniel and best wishes for continued success in your teaching, research, and writing!

My review of  The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery:

This book was an outstanding compliment to the recent 3-part series, "The Abolitionists," on PBSIndeed, one of the faults of the program is that it focused almost solely on the domestic aspects of slavery and abolition.  The beauty of McDaniel's book is that it takes a global view: how leading American abolitionists were inspired by examples of activism in Europe and elsewhere and how the international community longed to use America as an example of the promises of liberty but were forestalled owing to our country's attachment to slavery.

Part biography of Garrison, part primer on 19th century political philosophies, and part chronology of the decades-long struggle to secure emancipation for millions of American slaves, the book achieves all three goals with a serious, systematic, and logical argument and narrative.

One of the great features of this book is how relevant it is to today's political climate.  One also is struck by the patience and tenacity of abolitionists, especially Garrison: his persistent and decades-long agitation stands in stark contrast to the impatience that surrounds the modern cry of "What do we want? [Cause]! When do we want it? Now! Activists of all stripes can take lessons - and solace - from Garrison's long-term view and strategies.

The book - as much of my recent reading oin slavery and abolition also has -  makes the point that the Abolitionists were up against a nationwide "slave-ocracy" that permeated all levels of government - executive, legislative, and judicial - especially in the South, but also in the north.  It is also a warning against the dangers of the mob-thought, nationalism, aristocrarcy, and other dangers to liberty and the free expression of opinions, especially minority and dissenting opinions.

Highly recommended.

I thank LSU Press for the review copy.


Mark Noce said...

Cool interview and the book looks pretty rad, thanks!

Kelly Boyer Sagert said...

I live in the same county as Oberlin, Ohio and am fascinated by their abolitionist history. This book looks like a great read and a way to expand my understanding of abolitionism. I'm glad I found your blog. (I found it through your guest post at Renegade Writer!)

Kelly Boyer Sagert said...

I live in the same county as Oberlin, Ohio and am fascinated by their abolitionist history. This book looks like a great read and a way to expand my understanding of abolitionism. I'm glad I found your blog. (I found it through your guest post at Renegade Writer!)

Jim Schmidt said...

Kelly (and Mark!) - thanks so much for the comments! I'm just beginning to read more and more about the Abolitionists myself. The book "Midnight Rising" about the John Brown raid is terrific...I've also read some great books about slavery and abolitionist sentiment here in texas...and, indeed, Oberlin is mentioned several times in Dr McDamiel's book!