Monday, January 14, 2013

The Abolitionists - Part II and III

A week ago I gave a preview and review of Part I of the 3-part series "The Abolitionists" on PBS's American Experience.  You can read that post here and watch Part I yourself here:

Watch The Abolitionists on PBS. See more from American Experience.

As I mentioned in that post, I had the great privilege of receiving advance DVDs of the series from the kind folks at PBS.  I finished Parts II (to air Tuesday, January 15, 2013) and III (to air Tuesday, January 22) this past weekend.

A summary of the two parts from the official website (here):

Part Two

Frederick Douglass
In 1838, Frederick Douglass escaped slavery, eventually joining William Lloyd Garrison in the antislavery movement. In the North, Douglass became a powerful orator, and reached tens of thousands more with the 1845 publication of his autobiography. When threatened with capture by his former owner, Douglass fled to England, where he experienced life as a free man for the first time. Returning to the U.S. in 1847, he launched his own antislavery paper, The North Star, out of Rochester, New York, causing a rift with his mentor Garrison. Later that year, John Brown met with Douglass in Springfield, Massachusetts, and revealed his radical plan to raise an army, supply them with arms, and free the slaves. Douglass did not share Brown's enthusiasm for such violent tactics.

In 1852, following the tragic death of her own young son and moved by the plight of slave families being torn apart by the Fugitive Slave Law, Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin. An instant best seller that became wildly successful as a play, this influential fictional story helped change the hearts and minds of millions of Americans by depicting slavery through the eyes of its victims.

In the spring of 1854, fugitive slave Anthony Burns was held in Boston's city jail, where he became a focal point for both pro- and antislavery advocates. Angry Bostonians attempted to free him, but President Franklin Pierce, an ardent Southern sympathizer, sent in the military to escort him to a ship in the harbor and eventually back to enslavement.

All the attempts at compromise and resolution had only deepened the divide between North and South, touching off a crisis that was about to careen out of control.

Part Three

John Brown
By 1854, the battle over admitting new territories to the Union had reached a fever pitch. Kansas was the front line of a bloody battle between pro-slavery and free-soil contingents. In 1859, John Brown summoned Frederick Douglass to a secret meeting in Chambersburg, PA, and revealed his plan to capture the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, VA, and start a revolution; Douglass refused to join him. Brown went ahead with the raid, and was injured and captured. Before being executed, he managed to turn himself into a public figure and a martyr for the cause.

In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected president. As Southern states seceded from the Union, the country continued its descent into chaos, and by the following spring, the Civil War had begun. What was almost universally expected to be a quick and bloodless conflict dragged on. On the 22nd of September 1862, news broke that Lincoln would sign the Emancipation Proclamation. For Lincoln, the carnage was unendurable unless it could be given over to a higher purpose.

On New Years Day 1863, Bostonians gathered at two celebrations: William Lloyd Garrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe attended a concert at the Music Hall; Frederick Douglass was at Tremont Temple. Near midnight, the crowds erupted with joy when the announcement came that Lincoln has emancipated the slaves in rebel territory. Not only were slaves free, but African American men could now enlist in the Union forces. Two of Douglass' sons went to war; and even William Lloyd Garrison, the "ultra peace man," allowed his first born to sign up.

In December 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified, banning slavery in all the states -- forever. For almost four decades, the abolitionists had dedicated their lives to this moment. It is a triumph of perseverance, of steadfastness, and in the logic and moral power of a movement that had never wavered.

My review:

After watching all three episodes, I happily affirm my recommendation.  To be honest, Part II may be the weakest of the three parts (too much reliance on the "dramatizations," in my opinion), but Part III - the conclusion - is easily the best, and it is necessary to watch all three to fully appreciate the narrative arc of the personalities, friendships, betrayals, hope, despair, defeats, and victories that are explored in the series.

The strongest parts in these final two episodes are:

1) An emphasis on the "slave-holding conspiracy" that encompassed the entire nation and its body politic, not just the South, was interesting and enlightening...the show really shows the exasperation of the Abolitionists and free and enslaved African-Americans in the face of presidents, congress, and courts that passed or enforced laws and decisions such as the Fugitive Slave Act and the Dred Scott Decision.

2) The emphasis on John Brown in Part III of the series served as an excellent companion to Tony Horwitz's Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War, which I am currently reading.  Indeed, Horwitz serves as one of the commentators in Part III. 

3) The angst the Abolitionists felt in watching President Abraham Lincoln waffle among various courses: Empancipation, re-colonization, and a peace plan that would keep slavery alive until 1900, before finally keeping his promise to free the slaves on January 1, 1863, and building on that promise by allowing for the enrollment of freed slaves into the United States military.

4) As mentioned above, it's necessary and important to watch all three parts, as several story lines are explored.  One of the most important is the friendship, estrangement, and reunion of William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, that can only be fully appreciated by watching the entire series.

Watching the series has compelled me to study several of these personalities further and to read books by some of the historians featured in the series.


1 comment:

Mark said...

I saw the first episode, but missed the second. I'm so glad to see stuff like this on TV. I was familiar with Frederick Douglas and John Brown, but was amazed to learn more about Garrison and the female abolitionists as well.