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Michaël Roy, Marie-Jeanne Rossignol & Claire Parfait (eds.), Undoing Slavery: American Abolitionism in Transnational Perspective (1776-1865)

Paris : Éditions Rue d’Ulm, 2018. 168 p. ISBN : 978-2-7288-2782-4. 12 €
Mélanie COURNIL
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Michaël Roy, Marie-Jeanne Rossignol & Claire Parfait (eds.), Undoing Slavery: American Abolitionism in Transnational Perspective (1776-1865). Paris : Éditions Rue d’Ulm, 2018. 168 p. ISBN : 978-2-7288-2782-4. 12 €

Texte intégral

1Edited by Michaël Roy, Marie-Jeanne Rossignol and Claire Parfait, Undoing Slavery: American Abolitionism in Transnational Perspective (1776-1865) is a collection of essays that grew out of contributions to a conference that was held at Université Paris Diderot in January 2018. The text itself – a preface by Manisha Sinha (Draper Chair in American History at the University of Connecticut), an introduction and seven essays by Yohanna Alimi-Levy, Claire Bourhis-Mariotti, Sandrine Ferré-Rode, Claire Parfait, Hélène Quanquin, Marie-Jeanne Rossignol and Michaël Roy, – amounts to roughly 130 pages, and is completed by a 25-page bibliography. While it is acknowledged from the start that the main topic, the abolition of American slavery, may appear at first as “a path that has been ploughed thoroughly”, the volume’s avowed ambition is to shift perspectives and offer new stimulating lines of thought regarding that particular issue.

2The introduction, written by the volume’s editors, presents three common themes as underlying motives that connect the different essays: a transnational approach, the importance of the abolitionist print culture, and an extended chronology – from the last quarter of the 18th century to the Reconstruction era at the end of the 19th century. Much attention is devoted in the volume to explaining how American abolitionism was greatly informed by international influence and cooperation quite often on a much longer period than commonly thought. As pointed out by the editors, this longue durée approach is at times understandably fraught with seemingly internal ambiguities: different agendas, different chronologies related to different ideologies and movements sometimes overlapped or intersected, sometimes not.

3The seven essays of the volume cover a lot of ground in a small number of pages. Chronologically, the book takes us on a long journey that starts in the 1760s with Anthony Benezet’s writings, which helped shape anti-slave trade arguments and antislavery thought both in Britain and the United States (Marie-Jeanne Rossignol). It then addresses the Reconstruction era with the crumbling of Garrisonian abolitionism and its consequences on women’s rights (Hélène Quanquin), and to the 1990s with a historiographical analysis of a sixty-second movie vignette, part of a popular Canadian TV series “Heritage Minutes”, which offered a very biased representation of the Underground Railroad (Sandrine Ferré-Rode). The volume also addresses the “complex geographies of abolitionism” (p. 19). Black mobility is thus examined via two different angles, one of fear and displacement – the Underground Railroad – when flight seemed to be the only choice (Sandrine Ferré-Rode), and one of voluntary migration to foreign locations (Claire Bourhis-Mariotti). The geographical nature of the movement is also represented in the dissemination of abolitionist ideas: connections between abolitionists in Britain, the United States and France created a transatlantic channel of information that became essential to promote their radical ideologies (Yohanna Alimi-Levy; Marie-Jeanne Rossignol). Their efforts were sustained by the extensive circulation of abolitionist works (Michaël Roy; Claire Parfait), but were sometimes thwarted by censorship.

4The power of the written word is demonstrated at length throughout the volume. Indeed, Marie-Jeanne Rossignol underlines how the writings of American abolitionist Anthony Benezet, who presented Africa in a positive light and took a stand against the Atlantic slave trade, proved essential in fostering the anti-slave trade movement in Britain from the 1780s onwards. In a convincing argumentation, Rossignol examines how Benezet’s works, as well as those of other early anti-slavery authors that he influenced, gained momentum first in Britain and then in the United States, where anti-slave trade rhetoric was later taken up by African American abolitionists in the early years of the nineteenth century. The use of antislavery literature became extensive as decades went by and proved one of the most efficient means to advance the abolitionist agenda. In her essay, Claire Parfait dwells more specifically on works of fiction, written by white abolitionists as well as African Americans. She explains how the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852, a sentimental novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe, changed the public reception of antislavery arguments by becoming an instant bestseller. First serialised in an antislavery weekly in 1851-1852, it was written in reaction to the passing of the Fugitive Act of 1850 that required that fugitive slaves be returned to their masters in the South. Its focus on family and religion was close to the heart of many Americans and explains its success. Some aspects of the book – such as the colonisationist stance that supported the relocation of some of the characters to Liberia – deeply unsettled some antislavery readers, particularly African Americans who considered that Stowe had no right to tell their story. Yet, as Parfait shows, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which drew its inspiration from slave narratives, might have paved the way for the publication of several antislavery novels written by African Americans before the Civil War. However, the international success of Stowe’s novel should not eclipse the difficulties encountered by abolitionists when it came to publishing or circulating antislavery works. Michaël Roy therefore provides a stimulating analysis of the censorship that struck abolitionists in antebellum America. Publishers and booksellers alike were reluctant to promote antislavery literature, especially abolitionist tracts. In the South, it was even banned in some places. As Roy exemplifies, this prompted black abolitionists to adopt alternative creative strategies outside the traditional (white) publishing industry.

5One of the major themes of the book, spelt out in the title, is the transnational aspect of American abolitionism. Even though this perspective is addressed in various ways in most essays of the volume, three contributions in particular underline how the study of American abolitionism should not be solely grounded in the Southern context but must be approached on a more global scale. In her essay, Yohanna Alimi-Levy provides a transnational analysis of the consequences of the 1848 revolution in France – which proclaimed the Second Republic and saw the abolition of slavery in the French colonies – on the abolitionist debate in Britain and the United States, and shows how past British endeavours – slavery having been abolished in 1833-1838 in the British colonies – influenced the debate in France. Her argumentation demonstrates how abolitionist ideas were not born in a vacuum but flourished with international cooperation. The two other essays tackle the transnational aspect of abolitionism via the prism of black mobility. In Sandrine Ferré-Rode’s essay, the Underground Railroad that led many to Canada is addressed from an original historiographical perspective. She questions the very binary (mis)representation of Canada as a safe haven, and the Underground Railroad as mostly operated by white agents and only used by slave fugitives. This allows her to convincingly challenge contemporary conceptions of Canada’s own relationship to its slave past. International black mobility is also examined by Claire Bourhis-Mariotti, albeit from a very different angle. She studies the movement of voluntary emigration that emerged in the United States from the beginning of the 19th century onwards and that aimed at relocating free(d) African Americans abroad. Geographical separation was indeed advocated as a viable solution to prevent racial tensions, as emancipated and free blacks were considered unable to assimilate by white people at the time. The American Colonization Society (founded in 1816 and dominated by white members) pushed for emigration to foreign lands (mostly in Africa). The relatively new black republic of Haiti was also considered as a welcoming land for voluntary migrants in the 1820s. There were two migration waves (one in the 1820s and another in the 1860s) that saw a few thousand people relocate there. Bourhis-Mariotti revisits the reasons why the scheme proved quite unsuccessful, showing that African American migrants were faced with difficulties in adapting to a very different society fraught at times with social and economic problems.

6Studying American abolitionism by taking a step back and extending its chronology is another of the volume’s main goals. This helps the reader understand how anti-slave trade and antislavery arguments emerged long before the 1808 abolition of the American slave trade, as demonstrated in Marie-Jeanne Rossignol’s essay. At the far end of the volume’s timeline, Hélène Quanquin’s essay stands out a little as she proposes to “think counter-historically” (p. 127). Taking as a starting point 1870 and the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution – which, in effect, enfranchised black male voters but still excluded women from the suffrage –, she offers a retrospective analysis to explain the rift between abolitionists and women’s rights’ activists during the Reconstruction era. While blacks’ rights and women’s rights were considered a common cause in the 1840s by American abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and his supporters, Quanquin shows that postbellum divisions among them were a mere continuation of tensions that existed before the Civil War, and were revealing of the complexities of two political movements that ultimately failed to reconcile race and gender issues.

7Ambitious in its aim, while not intended to be exhaustive, this fairly slim volume does not disappoint as it provides new avenues of thought regarding the study of American abolitionism. It reveals the complexity of a protean movement and its evolution overtime, driven by the radicalism of its proponents and supported by a rich print culture. The volume may appear to lack unity as several essays do echo one another through a variety of similar themes and/or sources while others stand a little apart, but this is not entirely unexpected considering these are the proceedings of a conference. The relative brevity of the book is both a strength and a weakness: it is short enough to keep non-specialists interested in a particular subject – although some prior knowledge of American abolitionism may be at times necessary to grasp the implications of certain events and concepts – but some topics addressed in the volume piqued my curiosity and may have deserved a longer development. Nonetheless, Undoing Slavery offers stimulating and original contributions to the study of American abolitionism and testifies to the need to carry on “ploughing” this field.

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Mélanie COURNIL, « Michaël Roy, Marie-Jeanne Rossignol & Claire Parfait (eds.), Undoing Slavery: American Abolitionism in Transnational Perspective (1776-1865) », E-rea [En ligne], 18.1 | 2020, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2020, consulté le 26 janvier 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/erea/10096 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/erea.10096

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Mélanie COURNIL

Sorbonne Université, Paris

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