VIENNA, Va. January 23, 2013 — In all honesty, Part 3 of the series “The Abolitionists” on PBS was so outstanding that the producers could have “preambled” the first two episodes briefly and just stuck with this one. Granted it is the conclusion, the point to which the narrative was directed, but it was a singularly outstanding program.
It starts with the strife in and around Kansas, for if slavery is to continue, it must add Kansas as a slave-holding state. John Brown, however, is there, fomenting as much strife as he can, and he does his best to enlist Frederick Douglass in his efforts. Douglass, of course, still wants a peaceful resolution, but he goes so far as to contribute rifles, pistols and broadswords to Brown’s coming efforts.
The attacks and counter-attacks in 1855 create a “Bleeding Kansas,” as the citizens try to settle the matter, but resulting in mayhem.
Perhaps the outstanding aspect of this segment is the explanation and factual lessons supplied by Pulitzer Prize- winning author Tony Horwitz, who tells the story with simple phraseology and an air of knowledge that frankly surpasses the people identified as historians.
He talks like he writes, in a reportorial style rather than the “let me impress you with how much I know” of several of the historians on the program.
He also brings the characters to life, making the collision of ideals and ideas easy to follow. Horwitz relates the facts, cuts no corners, brooks no self-established experts, and it shows.
John Brown and his sons succeed in killing five pro-slavery men, literally hacking them to pieces as “God’s punishment” for their slavery activities. After that massacre, the idealistic Potawatomi heads back East to carry forth his diabolical plot: “I will carry the plans into Africa,” he says, by which he means the South.
Frederick Douglass spends two days with John Brown, who tries to persuade Douglass to join in his Harpers Ferry plans even as Douglass tryies to convince Brown of the futility of this.
“No,” says Brown, “when I strike the bees, the bees will begin to swarm, and I want you to hive them.” In a decision he regrets for a long time, Douglass declines and goes the other way.
As the battle starts, the U.S. Marines arrive to defend the Harpers Ferry Armory, led by Colonel Robert E. Lee, and half of Brown’s men are killed. Douglass manages to escape and goes to Rochester, N.Y. An innocent note from Douglass inviting Brown to dinner is found and instantly an all-points alarm is issued for the arrest of Douglass, who by then has boarded a boat for Canada, out of the reach of the United States.
The injuries suffered by Brown reduced him to a litter-borne defendant, who is carried into court where he delivers a fantastic speech to the court and agrees to forfeit his life if that will bring justice to the slaves. All of John Brown’s groups is hanged in what is now Charles Town, W. Va.
Horwitz calls him the “abolitionist grandfather you sort of wish you’d had,” saying that his greatest accomplishment was to “expose the depth of the divide between North and South.”
This is best expressed when Lincoln is elected president, without carrying a single Southern/slave-owning state.
In early 1861, Douglass and his daughter are waiting to board a ship to take them to Haiti — interestingly enough, one of the potential colonization sites Lincoln had considered — when they learn of the firing on Ft. Sumter. One of the best scenes in the series is when William Lloyd Garrison’s young son comes rushing to his father with the news that the war has begun and repeats verbatim what he has heard so that his editor father can get the news out.
The Civil War thus begins, more of a war to preserve the Union than one to end slavery. Douglass decides not to go Haiti and returns to aid the Abolitionists in their work to rekindle slavery as the cause of the War. After a parting many years earlier, Douglass and Garrison are back together with Angelina Grimke who leads a Women’s League. Harriet Beecher Stowe also reappears, considering the war as “divine retribution” for slavery. By then she has seen her young son go off to war.
Lincoln tries to convince the freed blacks to leave the country, meeting with five black ministers. He tells them how the two races can never live peaceably together, and it would be best “for them” if they sought a home elsewhere. This outrages the Abolitionists who feel he has turned his back on them.
In a few months, however, comes the premature announcement of a Proclamation of Emancipation, since Lincoln seems to feel that the high cost of the war would be for naught unless a higher purpose could come out of it. Slaves could be kept for another 40 years, he then said, if the South would lay down its arms now, and the slaves would be theirs until 1900. That never happens and the war continues.
Finally at a large meeting in Boston, where numerous speeches were being made, lasting until midnight, a messenger arrives to say that the official Emancipation Proclamation has been issued. Lincoln had kept his word.
The War merges with the Abolitionists’ aims, and the order was given that black men could also enlist in the Union Army. Both Garrison and Douglass allow their sons to enlist in a show of equality, as uniforms were given to black soldiers who were then told to kill white Southern soldiers. History would show that the War would last for two more years with hundreds killed on both sides.
But “The Abolitionists” does not include the fact that these newly enlisted black soldiers would be paid roughly one-half of the pay given to white soldiers and would also have the cost of their uniforms subtracted from their pay.
Four years to the day the troops were evacuated from Fort Sumter, it was all over. Garrison was now ready to accept Lincoln and they blended “together like kindred drops into one.”
Garrison would shortly issue the last of his 1,803 issues of “The Liberator,” everyone of them set painstakingly by hand, primarily by Garrison himself. Anyone who works in any aspect of today’s newspapers has no concept of the hard work those one thousand plus issues cost Garrison.
Finally in December of 1865, the 13th Amendment was added to the U. S. Constitution, abolishing slavery forever. Garrison died in 1879 at the age of 73. Grimke was bedridden by then, and Stowe was no longer in the public eye. However, something — Abolition — had “moved these men and women to bend the arc of history.”
When Garrison died, he was remembered eloquently by his old friend, Frederick Douglass. A portion of that elegy concludes “The Abolitionists” and rightly so:
“He moved not with the tide, but against it. He rose not by the power of the Church or the State, but in bold, inflexible and defiant opposition to the mighty power of both…. It was the glory of this man that he could stand alone with the truth, and calmly await the result….
“Now that this man has filled up the measure of his years, now that the leaf has fallen to the ground as all leaves must fall, let us guard his memory as a precious inheritance, let us teach our children the story of his life, let us try to imitate his virtues, and endeavor as he did to leave the world freer, nobler, and better than we found it.”
PBS has once again provided a look into the past and made it live and breathe for those of us of this generation. Kudos to them!
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