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The Abolitionist Imagination

Albert Delbanco; Harvard University Press

Abolitionism has been a hot- button issue since the word first entered our cultural lexicon in relation to ending slavery in 19th-century America. Albert Delbanco proposes to interpret the concept in a broad cultural context, as a recurrent American phenomenon where a motivated minority sets out to eradicate a perceived social evil, using any means necessary—even in the face of determined opposition by the majority of the population.

Delbanco defines abolitionism “not only as a historically specific movement but as an ahistorical category of human will and sentiment.” Four scholarly commentaries follow, opposing or supporting all or parts of Delbanco’s concept. John Stauffer eloquently argues that the early abolitionists “sought gradual abolition through peaceful and legal means.” Manisha Sinha criticizes Delbanco for identifying abolitionism “as an extremist trend in American history.” Darryl Pinckney connects his early recognition of black abolitionists to the emerging civil rights’ movement of the 1960s, while Wilfred McClay admires Delbanco’s method of taking abolition and elevating it “to symbolic status, using it as a vehicle for reflecting upon certain enduring characterological features of American political and moral life.”

Delbanco ends his exploration of abolition’s place in America’s past and current views with a question. Does abolitionism “continue to connect past with present and provide inspiration for building a more just future?” It’s an inquiry well worth another volume of learned essays.


Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.