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You know, it confirms that there were suspicions of course abolitionists in the marriage. Right. Right. So how did... I mean, suddenly it's perceived that if those move to desegregation and that end in particular, the lifting of the marriage in the marriage. All of the moves that abolitionists made to assert the humanity of people of color, have enslaved people, self-amantimated people. People other than white residents of these United States had implications for social order. And abolition for some was a direct threat to the way in which lives were lived and social codes and class structure existed. And one of the best ways to both scare a population or rile them up is to suggest that there will be radical, unpredictable changes to the ways in which they live their lives, who will their neighbors be, who will they have to sit next to a church?
Who might their daughters bring home to marry? So that social dimension of abolition, the subtext, the social subtext of abolition. Right. What is equality after all? It's the freedom to be places where you haven't been before. It's the license to live a life right next to someone who depends on your invisibility or your subservience in order to acquire, preserve their privilege and their way of life. So as abolitionists are on the one hand, asserting the humanity of African Americans, challenging the segregation practices, challenging the interracial ban on marriage, or the ban on interracial marriage, they are going to the heart of the social order of slavery. There is, of course, the Southern reality, which is that it is a very mixed race society on some levels.
And we have those moments of, you know, the craft's record, Ellen and William Kraft, Ellen and William Kraft escaped to slavery because Ellen and enslaved woman is able to pass as a white man. And one might wonder, well, how is that possible? And one traces the genealogy same for Douglas. You know, just that sense of an interracial reality in the South that is either denied, set aside, conveniently ignored, just not accounted for by those who have power. So the abolitionists again, you know, there's all, it's almost as though there are always, there's a twofold mission to abolitionist exercises. One is to advance their own beliefs and philosophies because they are indeed asserting that there should be equal rights. They are then going to advocate where they can for those equal rights to be made manifest. A ban on interracial marriage is one of those places.
A ban on segregated seating is another of those places. And yet, the other side of that kind of advocacy and that kind of representation of equality is a way of drawing out the South. They are not advocating for abolitionist or abolition just for their own purposes and delights. It's a political movement. Garrison may be a complete pacifist and he may decide never to cast a vote, but he is an entirely political creature. And so you see the South again rising to say, this cannot be. This is yet another assault on our way of life and the kind of fictions and facts that then emerge because the hornets nest has been poked again provides evidence to all who are interested in working that indeed there are practices that are completely real and known but contested and denied. So you have, for instance, you know, these moments where I just lost my train of thoughts. Sorry.
Oh, okay, good. It's the line that Garrison crossed in Baltimore is really challenging slavery to challenging the civil rights. Right. Yes. Yes. That's great. Jumping ahead again. Douglas, of course, by this time is working with Garrison and he goes out to Britain. I get the impression that by the time you returned from Britain, he's chasing at the rain, but he's not a 23 year old kidding wine.
The genius has become manifest and he's been treated that way in Britain. Why, I mean, so he's chasing at the rain. Why do you think he saw the struggle differently from Garrison? William or Garrison and Frederick Douglass have this impressive partnership and connection and alliance. And yet it's a political and abolitionist anti-slavery alliance that is still influenced by matters of feeling and the heart and ego and pride. And so Douglass goes, you know, in some ways, I think, you know, at a point later on in their lives when Douglass is really striking out and heaping scorn on former colleagues of color and or not.
And Garrison says, stop chiding and harassing all the people who made you who you were without whom you would not be here. Essentially saying, we made you. You have your difference of opinion. But don't harass us. You know, don't be mean spirited. But in a way, there's this real finite kind of moment of being made, right? So Garrison sees Douglass, sees the power that this man can bring. And the whole dynamic of how that story of slavery and enslavement is told changes when Douglass comes to the anti-slavery stage. Because usually the dynamic was that you would have a self emancipated or fugitive slave who would show the scars, who would be the object that everybody would be able to see, who would make slavery real.
You would have the reasoned argument about why that body needed to be saved. In Douglass, you now have the body and the intellect. And both were becoming even more polished and refined. And the way to imagine slavery was very different when Douglass began to really make a place for himself. So Douglass goes to England. They go to England. And there is this reception. You know, granted it's from the Empire, which has itself a legacy of slavery that is really quite staggering and would render us horror struck as Garrison once was. But Douglass comes back a free man. That's key. That's huge. And it's complicated. You know, he is a man who has been self emancipated, who marries the woman, who sowed the clothes that he wore to make his way to freedom. And he's still not free until money changes hands.
However, he comes back to these United States as a free man. So the moment, you know, sort of that reverse middle passage, right, that coming back is all about him rethinking the terms of his engagement with the peculiar institution. But also with the institution of the New England anti-slavery society, the American anti-slavery society, the American colonization society, all those institutions that are focused on the place for the black body in America. So the challenge then is really about how does Douglass represent himself. And, you know, on the one level, you hate to reduce it to race. On the other, it's a reality. But Garrison is representing an institution in America that is racially motivated and racially informed.
Douglass comes from that system. So no matter how many stories Garrison hears, no matter how many coffees he sees, no matter how many mothers he can imagine and conjure up, Douglass has had that experience. And so their approach to their testimony, the way in which they can bear witness to that reality of slavery is very different. On the other hand, the power that they have, the resources that they have are also very different because Garrison is a white man in a white man's America. And he has longevity where Douglass has not. And he has the power granted he has skepticism about the role of institutions, but he has the power of institution behind him. And Douglass is about to make his way. He is representing the abolitionist cause. He is the darling, if you will, of the abolitionist ladies who say, you know, when Douglass tells that story, our cause goes forth.
He is the one who will take us to that next stage of victory. But Douglass is also going to figure out how to do that on his own terms. And there will be that chafing and that sense of evaluation and re-evaluation about what place he has and what place he wants to make for himself. Yes, they say that Garrison can afford to be the purest in the idea of that kind of a step at that time. Right. Right. Yeah. Oh, I wonder. He just turns around in this program, the series it up, right up, Confirmite to 1850. So I wonder if I could ask you to kind of put us in the shoes of an abolitionist, you know, take stock at that point. So this fall of 1850, for 20 years, when you were doing butter and saving money. Right. Right.
And, you know, I wonder if you can just give sense of the sacrifices that people made, but large and small and also just how discouraging that must have been basically everything that seemed close and dealt away in Washington in some deal. They can't see forward. They don't know that the future is like, well, we're triggered. And so if you could just, you know, kind of encapsulate that moment. So all they can do is look back and take stock in this way. And, you know, are we ever going to get a situation where it's compromised, doesn't we? No, it's all helpful.
I'm just trying to find what sacrifice of people have made and just how long it has been for the season to lose track of the fact that in 20 years, so they've been doing this. And what have been given, and I'm sorry, how discouraging that must have been. I crowds are celebrating and compromised. Right. Right. Right. Okay. Okay. Okay. So what's it? All right. Take a bunch of steps. What? Take a bunch of steps. Okay. Here we go. All right. All right. So the abolitionist effort that Garrison is involved in sees some major change every decade. The 30s are the age of net turner and all the ramifications. The 40s are the Mexican War. The 50s is the compromise.
And there are these moments that are, these are these are moments that are that expose the manipulations and the machinations of politicians, of Washington, of government, of Congress, of representatives who are not entirely there to represent all of the people. And these are moments that also highlight the very local struggle that is abolition and the very national mandate that is American policy. So you see in these moments like the the compromise of 1850 is huge. On the one hand thoroughly demoralizing because, you know, I mean, you think of Garrison who says I will not equivocate. He will not compromise under any circumstances on any occasion. And people will say, well, let's negotiate. And he says no. And for now there to be this, you know, you can almost hear the tectonic plates shifting in the way in which slavery is being moved around the nation.
And it says though they become just these tiny little cogs in this big wheel that just can override all the effort, all the struggle, all the sacrifice, all the just the lives lived and lost. I mean, they can think of the martyrs for the struggle. They can think of those defining moments when when they themselves had lives on the line. You know, what was that worth? What was that for if there's going to be this wholesale undermining, but not even undermining it's like this wholesale investment in the institution of nation building that is just completely antithetical to what should be a free and equally united states. But, you know, if abolitionism was going, you know, one thing, one lesson that the abolitionist cause could teach anybody who stepped into into the movement was that this is not a race that will be won in a moment.
This is not a road that can be walked with just five steps. And, you know, Garrison, as you know, you have the compromise, you have the fugitive slave act, you have, you know, even the approach to the Civil War and then the hub of about whether or not there's going to be an emancipation proclamation and what will it be and will he abolish slavery or not. And at one point, Garrison says, you know, slowly, we creep, we creep ever closer. And so while we can look at that moment as one that would just rock them to their core, we also can see them thinking about it as just yet another mile in the road and they have to stay true to the cause. And they recognize that there is this institution and, you know, part of Garrison's even interest in disunion and separation is because he's, you know, it's as though he comes to this understanding that, you know, it's as though when you're really an innocent and you think that everybody's playing fair and that what people say is what they really mean.
And as you grow older, you realize that people are hypocritical and too faced and that there is a world of intrigue well beyond you, over you, behind you. You have no sense of all the deal making and the ways in which you are thoroughly irrelevant to the larger picture. Garrison gets that awareness and he has these moments of, you know, realization whether he's in jail and sees that the state will defend those who are doing the practice of slavery. Or he sees the ways in which the judges will remind people like Anthony Burns back into slavery and the whole world has to watch while military might escort one man through Boston, this cradle of liberty. But that moment of compromise in 1850 is again a moment that reveals the extent to which slavery has compromised the core of the nation.
So it becomes possible to move through it when one realizes that it exposes the ugly truths and clarifies how much more there is to do but where one must do it. So they have to survive that moment. They cannot fold because whatever suffering they are going through, pales in comparison, pales in comparison to those for whom they are are fighting. And so it's that kind of humble consciousness that enables them to withstand, yeah, it's heartbreaking, totally, you know, demoralizing, but they have to get through it because it's not personal. It's not against them, right? It's against this larger plank, this platform for freedom.
Does it look like I have water on my mouth? Okay, okay, all right, great, thanks. Can you describe the atmosphere at Boston? So slavery comes into Boston in a way that's intense and non-negotiable. When slave catchers come to town. And part of the wickedness of slavery, you know, and part of what Garrison hated was that there was northern complicity and that there was no free north. It was just one nation thoroughly compromised. And so, you know, part of these moments with Sims, with Burns, are poignant and heartbreaking.
And thoroughly illuminating, because when Anthony Burns is, when news of his capture gets, you know, when news of his capture goes out, of course, you know, men like Lewis Hayden and the vigilance committees are plotting. They're going to see what they can do to interfere and to rescue the captive. They've been successful once. Can they be again? But now the state, the system is forewarned, so there are just legions of marshals and officers. And you see a city that Garrison calls home that is referred to as the cradle of liberty, transformed into a police state. And in some ways, it's thoroughly, you know, just the scale, the magnitude of the federal response to one man, to one man is really quite.
Again, it's just, you know, it's illuminating because one can argue that there is a federal investment in the perpetuation of slavery. And others can say, oh, no, no. But then you have evidence of how much is invested in the perpetuation of bondage made manifest through the figure of someone like Anthony Burns. And when he is marched through the streets of Boston, back down to the harbor, you know, there are thousands in the streets, thousands. And they're on the ships, you know, they're on boats in the harbor. They're hanging out of windows and doorways. And it's as much to see him as it is to register the lengths to which the government will go to accommodate slavery and slavery's claims. When he is transported, when that ship takes himself, the whole city goes into mourning, or at least, you know, the anti-slavery quarters do.
But shops close. It's like a national day of mourning in Boston. And that kind of performed grief. That registered the black armbands and the the bunting, the black bunting, hanging and shops closing and people in just despair. Again, it's a way to rally. It's not to be opportunistic. But out of their grief, out of this day of loss, they're able to then say, we are now newly resolved. Because see what we're up against. But, you know, depending on how they read the Bible, they can conjure up the David vs. Goliath story and take heart. It doesn't have to be that they are indeed powerless. They will be able to make a difference. But it also, I think, underscores the validity of moral swation.
Right? Because there's going to be no way that abolitionists, that brawmans, that well-to-do Boston ladies, and their husbands are going to be able to bear arms enough to face down the militias and the marshals who show up for one man. How would they fight it? How would they fight that force? They have to do it by other means. So moral swation becomes even more necessary and more powerful and more accessible for people who see such wrong being perpetrated in plain sight. It seems just in Boston's reaction to a bit of a watershed. I think I wonder whether Perry Mason would have considered that a leading question.
But how did water shed the path in terms of the Northern public opinion by 1854 in some places? We're seeing that kind of resistance. Right. We know moments like the reminding of Anthony Burns makes slavery non-negotiable. You cannot imagine it away. One of the differences, say for instance, between the British abolitionist movement and the American abolitionist movement is that slavery for the average person in England at that time was away. It did not reside within those borders. It never really came home to England.
It was, of course, the province. It was about empire. It was those other places. The 1850s just keep eroding and eroding that line between what's not, I mean, because you can never call it a free north, but slavery just keeps insisting on more ground. You might have westward, sorry, what did I say? Over the course of the 1850s, slavery keeps pushing further and further into the north. It becomes something that has to be accommodated. People become complicit whether they like it or not. And the stakes are going, the stakes are higher and higher. The punishment for not complying a really quite frightening. So everybody is always already involved. And as you see slavery making its way north in that way, now northerners have to contend with the loss of their way of life and their perspective on what it means to be in America.
And in a way you also have, with the scale and specter of an Anthony Burns moment, you have people in, for instance, the African-American community, the Louis Haydons and the Robert Morrisis, who no longer have to say, believe us. Here it is, here it is. So, you know, for Garrison, the work of abolition was about trying to make people come to a moment of conscience and act accordingly. He wanted conversion. He wanted conversion. But to be converted from one state to another, one has to see, you know, in this case, one has to see the devil in order to then turn towards God, one has to see evil in order to be committed to a life of good, slavery marches right up into Massachusetts. And people get to see the face of evil. And, you know, in a way it could be that abolitionists have drawn out that monster.
On the other hand, it could be that the federal government by virtue of its accommodation has given this license that will not necessarily yield a good result. Because slavery was easier in some ways to ignore when it was not present and visible, when it wasn't compromising people. You know, if you even assist a fugitive, you could be punished and imprisoned and fined. And we know that there was just callous disregard for whether people were free or enslaved or not. You know, if you just, you know, papers were changed and judges were swayed. It was so unpredictable. And that kind of, you know, trespass made it imperative. I think that's the watershed. It became personal for a lot more people. It became non-negotiable for a lot more people. And there had to be a response. They had to defend themselves from slavery now in a way that they never had to before.
Thank you.
American Experience
The Abolitionists
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Interview with Lois Brown, part 3 of 4
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Lois Brown is a professor in the African American Studies Program and the Department of English at Wesleyan University. Brown's scholarship and research focus on African American and New England literary history and culture.
Race and Ethnicity
American history, African Americans, civil rights, racism, abolition
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Chicago: “American Experience; The Abolitionists; Interview with Lois Brown, part 3 of 4,” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed June 20, 2024,
MLA: “American Experience; The Abolitionists; Interview with Lois Brown, part 3 of 4.” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. June 20, 2024. <>.
APA: American Experience; The Abolitionists; Interview with Lois Brown, part 3 of 4. Boston, MA: WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from