ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
Gerrit Smith’s correspondence with Frederick Douglass and James McCune Smith
represents the largest extant biracial correspondence in antebellum America
Radical Abolitionists and The Transformation of Race
By John Stauffer
The white man’s unadmitted–and apparently, to him, unspeakable–private fears and longings are projected onto the Negro. The only way he can be released from the Negro’s tyrannical power over him is to consent, in effect, to become black himself. –James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (1963)
A few days after Christmas in 1846 the black physician James McCune Smith told his wealthy white friend Gerrit Smith what must be done to convince Americans of “the eternal equality of the Human race.” “Good Government” would help, he said, particularly “Bible Politics” and its “first principle” of racial equality. But politics and government represented only the “outward sign” of “an inward and spirit-owned conviction.” Before equality could be attained, there had to be a profound shift in American consciousness: “The heart of the whites must be changed, thoroughly, entirely, permanently changed.” McCune Smith said.
He went on to suggest that whites had to understand what it was like to be black. They had to learn how to view the world as if they were black, shed their “whiteness” as a sign of superiority, and renounce their belief in skin color as a marker of aptitude and social status. They had to acquire, in effect, a black heart.
This book is about that moral shift. It focuses on James McCune Smith Gerrit Smith, and their better-known comrades Frederick Douglass and John Brown, all of whom embraced an ethic of a black heart. Their story is remarkable. Together these four men, two black and two white, forged interracial bonds of friendship and alliance that were unprecedented in their own time and were probably not duplicated until well into the twentieth century. In a society pervaded by slavery and racism, they came together to seek equality for all people in their communities and throughout the country.
They offered an alternative to an American dream that privileged white men over almost everyone else.
As they transformed themselves and overcame existing social barriers, they reimagined their country as a pluralist society in which the standard of excellence depended on righteousness and benevolence rather than on skin color, sex, or material wealth. in one sense they were exemplars of the notion, now quite fashionable in the academy, that race, class, and gender are social constructs. In their time this was a radically new concept.
The rise and fall of these four men’s alliance occurred alongside the fragmentation of America from the panic of 1837 to secession. While the nation virtually doubled in size and dramatically expanded its slave territory and slave population, these men experienced their own extraordinary self-transformations. They saw themselves as prophets preparing for a new and glorious age–a new America that would be free from sin and oppression. they embraced the idea of “sacred self-sovereignty,” believing that the kingdom of God was within them and potentially within all individuals.
And at a time when the country’s two main political parties were fragmenting, they created their own political party. They became Radical Political Abolitionists, and viewed the government as sacred and the appropriate means for pursuing their millennium. But they were overcome by the lack of progress toward a just and moral society. The hearts of whites were not being changed, and they felt profoundly alienated from the white laws and conventions that defended slavery and racial oppression.
In their quest for a perfect society, they accepted righteous violence, which finally resulted in John Brown disastrous raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, as part of a scheme to liberate the slaves. The event produced Brown’s execution, sent Gerrit Smith to an insane asylum, and destroyed the very alliance that they had so courageously created. It also propelled the nation toward a brutal Civil War that had been previewed in Brown’s attack on Harper’s Ferry and earlier in his efforts to keep Kansas safe from slavery.
A number of other figures united these four men. They corresponded frequently and saw one another as often as possible. In fact, they all lived in New York State during their alliance, three of them in upstate New York. They were more successful than any of their peers at collapsing racial barriers, as is revealed by their political and social alliance. And they were instrumental in shaping each other’s self-definitions and reform visions.
These lines of influence and interconnectedness are revealed in form as well as in content in the story line that unfolds in the following pages, which weaves together the four men’s lives by highlighting one at a time. the overall effect is a kind of collective biography, a braiding together of four lives. Only by changing perspectives, listening to multiple voices from different social groups and vantage points, is it possible to understand how racial identity gets defined, blurred, and remade.
Gerrit Smith is the lead protagonist. He is the tragic figure who ultimately loses himself and his black heart. he is also the primary thread linking the other three characters. without him, this biracial quartet could not have existed, for it was through his initiative and generosity that the four men first came together.
And without his penchant for saving the letters he received and making copies of those he wrote, their friendship would have been lost to posterity. most of the letters among the four men run through Smith. The other three corresponded with him far more than they did among themselves.
Gerrit Smith’s correspondence with Frederick Douglass and James McCune Smith represents the largest extant biracial correspondence in antebellum America, and possibly in the nineteenth century.
There are hundreds of letters between them in the Gerrit Smith papers and the Frederick Douglass Papers, and hundreds more in Douglass’s newspapers, providing the raw text of their friendship.
As a land baron, Gerrit Smith was also the only character able to connect the world of wealth and power with that of Christian benevolence, militant abolitionism, and the marginalized status of the other three men. And his integrated village of Peterboro, in Madison county, New York, and the black settlement he helped establish at North Elba, New York (which constituted John Brown’s permanent residence from 1834 until his death), offer manageable settings in which to view the dynamics of race, religion, class, and gender at the levels of both self and society.
Gerrit Smith, James McCune Smith, Frederick Douglass, and John Brown were in no way “representative” men in antebellum America, even though they were often defined as such by their admirers. They did, however, represent what was possible: they occupied an endpoint on the spectrum of “identity formation,” and their self-conceptions and hopes for America depended upon their success in blurring and breaking down distinctions of race, religion, class, and gender. Although they stood apart from their peers in their efforts to imagine and realize a new America, their reform rhetoric resembled the poetic rhetoric of a number of romantic writers.
Lord Byron, Walt Whitman, and Ralph Waldo Emerson describe a similar quest for self-transformation and liberation from existing social codes, and the four abolitionists were either inspired by or otherwise connected to these literary figures. Treating their reform work as “art” and comparing it to the work of the broader culture of dissent in America by revealing what kinds of test were permissible, possible, even thinkable.
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The story of this interracial alliance offers a number of new insights and perspectives on antebellum reform and the Civil war era. It shows how Americans from different social groups interacted and shaped each other’s worldviews–something no other study of antebellum reform has done in depth. Additionally, the links between personal faith and behavior on the one hand and broader historical, political, and literary developments on the other hand have been inadequately addressed, especially among people from different social groups. In the case of this biracial quartet, these links produced an exceptional symbiosis that altered the course of American history, even though two of the characters Gerritt Smith and James McCune Smith) slipped into an obscurity that itself obscured what they had accomplished.
Together these men also highlight the dynamic interactions between race, religion, class, and gender among moral and social reformers. beginning in 1933, when the historian Gilbert Barnes published his pathbreaking book on the religious roots of the abolition crusade, scholarship on antebellum reform has evolved from the emphasis on religion and reform to one of religion and class. The current emphasis on gender and race remains limited, for it downplays the diverse aspects of identity and personal behavior. Among these four men, religious belief was the single most important facet of their identities; it was the principal factor that allowed them to befriend and trust one another.
Their understanding of God was inseparable from their understanding of themselves, their shared vision of America, and their ability to break down social barriers. The trend in recent scholarship has been to downplay questions of faith, and instead to question why racism and inequalities existed. But beliefs in freedom, equality, democracy, and the every idea that slavery was a sin were still relatively new concepts in the nineteenth century. These men’s alliance shows how and why some blacks and whites were able to work together in an effort to overcome these barriers.
As historical actors, Gerrit Smith and James McCune Smith have been downplayed or ignored, even though in their own time they were considered preeminent men. Contemporaries hailed Gerrit Smith as a world-renowned philanthropist and a central figure in reform, but he has received little attention since. Only two full-scale biographies of Smith exist: one was published in 1878, four years after his death, by his friend Octavius Brooks Frothingham; the other, which appeared in 1939, was by Ralph Volney Harlow, who treated his reform efforts as misguided at best and pathological at worst.
Yet Smith’s papers represent one of the richest collections on nineteenth-century reform, and they are also well indexed and organized. After researching Smith and talking with other historians and critics, I concluded that one reason he has been neglected is that his handwriting appears at first to be illegible–it almost brought tears to my eyes when I tried to read it. Fortunately, I was able to read Smith on microfilm, which allowed me to enlarge his writing by a factor of twenty or more, make copies, and compare words until I had mastered his hand.
The absence of James McCune Smith in the historiographic and critical literature is even more striking. He was a brilliant scholar, writer, and critic, as well as a first rate physician. In 1882 the black leader Alexander Crummell called him “the most learned Negro of his day,” and Frederick Douglass considered him the most important black influence in his life (much as he considered Gerrit Smith the most important white one). Douglass was probably correct when, in 1859, he publicly stated: “No man in this country more thoroughly understands the whole struggle between freedom and slavery, than does Dr. Smith, and his heart is as broad as his understanding.”
As a prose stylist and original thinker, McCune Smith ranks, at his best, alongside such canonical figures as Emerson and Thoreau. His essays are sophisticated and elegant, his interpretations of American culture are way ahead of his time, and his experimental style and use of dialect anticipates some of the Harlem Renaissance writers of the 1920s.
Yet McCune Smith has been completely ignored by literary critics; and aside from one article on him, he has remained absent from the historical record.
Although Frederick Douglass and John Brown have been analyzed at length, important aspects of their characters have been inadequately addressed. No one has emphasized the significance of Gerrit Smith, McCune Smith, and Brown in the development of Douglass’ reform work. As a result, scholars have been reluctant to point out the militant and violent nature of his abolitionism in the 1850s. Additionally, historians and especially literary critics have tended to downplay Douglass’ millennialist view of America and his self-conception as a prophet, thus ignoring the important links between his personal religious beliefs and his quest to transform his country.
John Brown has typically been described as a thoroughgoing Puritan and Calvinist whose religious views never changed, and he is almost everywhere seen as having no interest in political action. Yet his religion and politics were far more dynamic than scholars have acknowledged, and they shed enormous light on who Brown was in the context of his society. Brown deviated from Puritan and Calvinist theology during the 1850s.
He embraced sacred self-sovereignty, harbored perfectionist visions, and looked forward to a heaven on earth and the end of all sin. Moreover, Brown’s reform work in the 1850s was thoroughly political. He played a central role in the formation of the Radical Abolition party and in the development of his three comrades’ militancy.
Indeed, Brown’s participation in the Radical Abolition party helped shape the course of American history. By miscasting Brown as an orthodox Puritan and nonpolitical militant, most scholars have not viewed Brown as he saw himself–as someone who identified so closely with blacks that he chose to live among them and was willing to sacrifice his life for their cause. In other words, they tend to see Brown simply as a white man, and do not take into account his ability to blur racial categories.
Focusing on these men’s interracial alliance also sheds light on the origins of a major shift in cultural and intellectual history–one that moved beyond an understanding of “character” as fixed and unchanging, based primarily on heredity and social status, toward a highly subjective notion of the self in a state of continuous flux. At the heart of this shift was an effort to reintegrate cultural dichotomies that had long been present in Western culture–those of black and white, body and soul, sacred and profane, ideal and real, civilization and savagery, and masculine and feminine.
The idea of “whiteness” as a sign of superiority and as a justification for racial oppression depended in part on the belief in “character” as static and fixed. The gradual dismantling of these dichotomies relates directly to my characters’ alliances and shared visions of America, their radical and ultimately revolutionary means to reform, and the corresponding shifts in their self-conceptions.
Source: John Stauffer. The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002.
JOHN STAUFFER is the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University. He received his Ph.D. in American Studies at Yale University in 1999, and won the Ralph Henry Gabriel Prize for the best dissertation in American Studies from the American Studies Association. His first book, The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race (Harvard University Press, 2002) was the co-winner of the 2002 Frederick Douglass Book Prize from the Gilder Lehrman Institute; winner of the Avery Craven Book Prize from the OAH; and the Lincoln Prize runner-up. He is completing an edition of Frederick Douglass My Bondage and My Freedom for the Modern Library; editing a collection of John Browns writings; and writing a new book, The American Sublime: Interracial Friendships and the Dilemma of Democracy.
The Problem of Evil: Slavery, Freedom, And the Ambiguities of American Reform . Edited by Steven Mintz and John Stauffer
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update 13 June 2012