In Ending Slavery, the Abolitionists Came First by Robbie Lieberman


KENNESAW, Ga. (Mar 3, 2015) — To the Editor: Re “Was Abolitionism a Failure?” (Sunday Review, Feb. 1): Jon Grinspan’s assertion of the failure of abolitionism fails to persuade. By focusing almost entirely on the Civil War, he misses the central significance of the abolitionist movement in American history.

Beginning in the late 1820s, the abolitionist movement fostered the creation of an antislavery constituency in the Northern states that grew over time. White Northerners may have been racist, but most became antislavery in their political views. One did not have to be an abolitionist to be against slavery. By the presidential election of 1860, the antislavery North was a sizable constituency that the Republicans captured. The fire eaters of the Deep South did not recognize the difference between antislavery and abolitionist, and they seceded in 1861 because they did not trust Abraham Lincoln, whom they considered to be an abolitionist. Yes, the war abolished slavery, but the abolitionist movement brought the war.

EDWARD B. RUGEMER New Haven The writer is an associate professor of history and African-American studies at Yale. To the Editor: The claim that “the abolitionists did not succeed” is a meaningless statement. No movement ever succeeds by the measure Jon Grinspan uses — even the much-admired civil rights movement. He ignores how complicated the process of change is, and that we can usually point to more than one cause. Any social movement that stubbornly calls attention to issues of inequality and shifts the political debate helps pave the way for dramatic social change. This is what the abolitionists did, against great odds and in the face of violent attacks, and it explains why they have inspired so many other movements. Strategies and tactics may succeed or fail, and persuasion alone did not work for the abolitionists or for many later freedom movements. Yet, as Mr. Grinspan points out, ideas considered outrageous in one era often become common sense a generation or two later. Consider where mainstream thinking about women’s equality or gay rights was half a century ago.


The writer is chairwoman of the Interdisciplinary Studies Department and Professor of American Studies at Kennesaw State University. A version of this letter appears in print on February 6, 2015, on page A22 of the New York edition with the headline: In Ending Slavery, the Abolitionists Came First.