The Abolitionists: Episode 2 of a three part Civil War era series

Episode two, covering 1838 – 1854, tries to overwhelm us on the subjects of slavery and abolition. Photo: The Abolitionists / PBS

VIENNA, Va. January 15, 2013 – The first episode of the three-part PBS TV series, “American Experience: The Abolitionists,” is a simplified survey course on American life during the Civil War. Episode two, which follows, covers the years 1838 – 1854 at a breakneck pace, seemingly trying to overwhelm us with information overload on the topics of slavery and abolition. 

This latest episode begins by charting the life of Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave who enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame as a touring public speaker under the mentorship of William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison, a journalist and social reformer, founded the American Anti-Slavery Society. Not surprisingly, he himself was regarded as a superb public speaker in an era still renowned for its uncommon number of the silver-tongued orators.

Frederick Douglas and William Lloyd Garrison / Historical photos

Frederick Douglas and William Lloyd Garrison / Historical photos

The struggles and travails of the abolitionist fight are laid out for the viewer in considerable historical and legal detail. In this version of the Abolitionist narrative, Douglass is the young man with a uniquely moving personal story to tell. Garrison, in his turn, is the man with the ability to spread the inspirational tale of Douglass’ rise from slavery far and wide.

Their association proved highly beneficial to both men as they traveled the nation speaking passionately of their beliefs wherever and whenever possible. Building on their considerable popularity among Northerners and Abolitionists, Douglass was eventually able to publish his own autobiography, something unheard of for a black man at that time. That book, telling the tale of an escaped slave turned passionate Abolitionist, becomes a best seller in its own time and is still regarded as a classic today.

With the ever increasing number of people and crowds who turned out to hear him speak, Douglass gradually realized he’d begun to surpass his teacher. When Garrison fell seriously ill and was forced to give up part of the speaking tour, Douglass not only took over the tour he almost literally ran over his mentor, caught up as he was in his unexpected fame and good fortune. 

Even so, Douglass still found it difficult to escape his past. When his former owner threatened to capture him—regarding himself to have been defamed by Douglass’ portrayal of his cruelty—the former slave was forced to make a hasty retreat, escaping to temporary exile in England. Once there, he settled in and enjoyed a life of freedom for several years, eventually making enough money under the sponsorship of English friends and admirers to depart once again for America with the goal of starting an abolitionist paper, “The North Star.”

It was at this time that Douglass encountered more than a whiff of scandal, as a young female admirer followed him here from England and moved into his home. This proved a bit much even for his admirers, and the young woman soon departed, depriving the gossips of amunition.

While Douglass tried to remain true to his dream of peacefully winning over the majority of whites to side with the Abolitionists’ cause, he did finally meet with the antithesis of his soft spoken persuasiveness in the person of the radical John Brown. Brown, of course, led his anti-abolitionist forces in a kind of guerilla warfare, culminating in his legendary, if futile, attack on the Federal Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Having failed in his revolutionary endeavors, Brown was captured and hanged after standing trial in nearby Charles Town.

During the program, viewers are also taken to the year 1852, and introduced to novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of the wildly popular Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a melodramatic anti-slavery tale that radpidly became the best selling American novel of the 19th century. Her book’s incredible success is all the more interesting, given that Stowe, born in the North and residing there, or later, in lower Florida for most of her life, never lived near or touched upon the ravages of slavery first hand in the course of her life.

Author Harriet Beecher Stowe / Historical image

Author Harriet Beecher Stowe / Historical image

In fact, Stowe’s only known encounter with slavery occurred when she whisked her children off to Cincinnati to escape the cholera epidemic that tragically took the life of her youngest child. During that sojourn, a friend escorted her across the Ohio River to Maysville, Kentucky where they managed to attend a slave auction.

Ironically, this apparently proved to be the only connection the author ever had with the business of slavery. However, it was enough to inspire her to pick up her pen and write the novel that President Lincoln credited with starting the Civil War when he later met with its author.

In the spring of 1854, two years after the novel was published, Stowe was overcome with emotion by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. At the same time, however, she was gratified to witness her book’s adaptation into a stage play that soon proved as popular as the original. At times, as many as four separate theatrical productions of the play were running at the same time, spreading Stowe’s message and furthering the cause of Civil Rights for slaves.

It was at about this time that Anthony Burns, a fugitive slave, was incarcerated in Boston’s city jail. Angry Bostonians had attempted to free him, but he remained jailed and heavily guarded until he was put aboard ship and sent back to Virginia and slavery once again. The incident ignited the fires of excess in both the pro- and anti-slavery movements. The episode conclude with the country hopelessly divided, with neither compromise nor resolution providing a means to resolve the problem of slavery-the ultimate obstacle to achieving national unity once again.

The quality of the current series is somewhat uneven. In this writer’s view, the absence of any good music accompanying the program a missing link. We get a whiff of a Civil War era tune here and there, such as a bar or three of “Simple Gifts.” But then the minimal score drifts off again. This is somewhat baffling, considering the prominent role played by music on the battlefield and in the parlor as each side attempted to express its patriotism.

The acting in the series, on the other hand, proved far better than the atmospherics. Richard Brooks as Frederick Douglass was outstanding in his portrayal of this central figure. He has been an accomplished actor, singer, and director for many years, and “Law and Order” fans will immediately recognize him as having played Asst. District Attorney Paul Robinette in the earlier years of that series. 

Also excellent were Neal Huff as Garrison, and Kate Lyn Shell as Harriet Beecher Stowe, the prim and proper yet incendiary authoress and mother who lit the fuse of the Civil War. 

The third and final program in this series will be aired next Tuesday, January 22, when events will move to 1854 and later, highlighting the events leading up to and including the Emancipation Proclamation and the final victory of the anti-slavery forces.

Watch The Abolitionists on PBS. See more from American Experience.

Slavery in all of its ramifications on Part Two of “The Abolitionists”


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Martha M. Boltz

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor  to the long running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War feature in the print and online editions. She has been a regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page since 1994, and is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history."  She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."


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