“A little learning, indeed, may be a dangerous thing, but the want of learning is a calamity to any people.” ~ Frederick Douglass
“The compact which exists between the North and the South is a covenant with death and an agreement with hell.” ~ William Lloyd Garrison
“I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.” ~ John Brown
“I appeal to you, my friends, as mothers: are you willing to enslave your children? You stare back with horror and indignation at such questions. But why, if slavery is not wrong to those upon whom it is impressed?” ~ Angelina Grimke
“Never give up, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.” ~ Harriet Beecher Stowe
“A battle lost or won is easily described, understood, and appreciated, but the moral growth of a great nation requires reflection, as well as observation, to appreciate it.” ~ Frederick Douglass
“I will be as harsh as truth and as uncompromising as justice. I am in earnest, I will not equivocate, I will not excuse, I will not retreat a single inch, and I will be heard.” ~ William Lloyd Garrison
A few weeks ago, I watched The Abolitionists, a PBS documentary on the abolition of slavery movement in America during the decades before the Civil War. The documentary mixed together the traditional tools of the format- narration, commentary by historians, period photos and pictures, and location footage- with the use of actors playing parts, and all in all, the combination was effective and insightful. It told the story through the point of view of five individuals whose lives intersected, whose contributions to the cause varied. They were seen as radicals and troublemakers by some; liberators and prophets by others. They, and those who were in the movement, were people of fierce principle, and extraordinary courage. Four of them were well known to me.
Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave who became the eloquent speaker, the most influential African-American of the century. William Lloyd Garrison, the ardent abolitionist who sought for decades to persuade society that the institution of slavery was wrong. Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the book that fuelled the cause. And John Brown, the militant abolitionist who went to war in the West against the institution of slavery years before the Civil War, and more than any other individual brought about the War itself by unleashing his raid on Harper’s Ferry.
|William Lloyd Garrison|
The fifth was someone not known to me. Angelina Grimke was an abolitionist with a peculiar background. Born and raised in a wealthy, prominent Southern family, she grew up with slaves around her... and yet something about the institution and the idea of slavery offended her. She believed it to be wrong, spoke out publicly against it, and would end up estranged from some of her family and social circles. She spent much of her adult life in the North, involved in the Abolitionist and suffrage movements with her husband until she largely withdrew from public life out of exhaustion. I suspect that this is why, unlike the other more familiar names, I didn’t know about her. As abolition drove events forward towards the war, Grimke herself was mostly absent from the proceedings.
|Harriet Beecher Stowe|
I’ve had an idea for a one-off book for years, something in between what I usually write, and perhaps that’s why her story seemed to resonate: she had something in common with the character who would be at the heart of it. A Southern man, raised in a wealthy family in Virginia, uneasy with the concept of slavery so close at hand, goes to West Point to the military academy for his education in the late 1850s. There he’s exposed to the abolitionist movement for the first time, giving voice to his doubts. He undertakes a decision to steal away as many of the slaves on his family property as he can, and when it’s finished, his brothers and father vow that no matter how long it takes, they’ll have their revenge on him for the betrayal, a course that takes them all into the war itself.
Still, it’s a tall order. With some books, you have to be from the area in question to do justice to the story. Can a Canadian who hasn’t lived in the South, let alone been there since childhood, properly tell that kind of story?