John Stauffer, in his book The Black Hearts of Men sets out to make one simple point through four men. He aims to bring to light the unified and revolutionary goals of what he describes as “the only true revolutionaries” among antebellum abolitionists. These were John Brown, Frederick Douglass, Dr. James McCune Smith, and Gerrit Smith. By describing for the first time these personalities and their actions as a form of sociological struggle, Stauffer sheds new light on a dark moment in American history
One of the goals that Stauffer is intent upon is proving that these important figures beliefs were more than just religion and reform but more specifically religion and class. This is an important distinction, because by attempting to prove this the author will show perhaps a bit more far reaching importance of their work. Rather than treat them as isolated agents of change, he treats them as representatives of a social construct. This then lends more credence to their ideals and the criticism of the society in which they lived. Stauffer does an especially good job in proving this in chapter entitled Glimpsing God’s World on Earth.
Here, nearly contrary to the title he analyzes this view. Especially focusing on the better known John Brown (as compared to the others in the book), he shows that the struggles to change society were just that – an effort to change equalities of classes – and not just a blind attempt to change laws. Another important facet of Stauffer’s writing appears to be his rejuvenation of the history of Gerrit Smith. Despite the fact that the book features aspects of the very well known Douglass, and the infamous Brown, it is the focusing of narrative on Smith that sets this book apart from others on the subject.
In this way, too, he restresses the vitality of his original point about the abolitionist movement being part of a greater class struggle, and therefore more important to America’s history than generally related. Each chapter returns to Smith in some way and with some new angle, to bring out the key figure’s integral part in the events. This in an unexpected thing, and again is successful. Chapter 5, Bible Politics and the Creation of the Alliance shows how this is accomplished. What is expected is a religious treatment on how everyone should be equal and loved.
However, what is discussed is Smith’s vision: that the Bible is a socio-political tool that can be used not to justify merely universal love, but as a catalyst for social change. It is Smith that is given credit by Stauffer, and perhaps very justly, for the larger guiding principles of the movement. The third function of The Black Hearts of Men is to bring out into the open the unjust blindness the country has regarding Smith, Brown, Smith and Douglass. Even worse is the general ignorance of them shown by even their contemporary abolitionists as soon as 1874.
According to Stauffer, the history of these men, their aims and their achievements began to fade as soon as their alliance was broken. Certainly Douglass’s fierce orations on the subject of slavery are remembered in textbooks today. Likewise, John Brown and his daring raid on Harper’s Ferry are also found in popular retellings of the Civil War. However, there is no mention neither Gerrit Smith, nor Dr. James McCune Smith. In point of fact, these latter two are not only unmentioned, but are completely forgotten throughout history in its popular sense.
Perhaps worst of all, Stauffer implies, is that the connections between even the two remembered figures are severed. There is no sense of a joined movement or ideals between the two. They are just revolutionaries who are known for their behaviors and actions, not shared sense of a larger, social and class related revolution. They were out to form the perfect world – but are only known as abolitionist icons. John Stauffer’s aims of his book are far-reaching and accomplished. The Black Hearts of Men is successful because it accomplished the relation of its purposes.
It brings to light the unified and revolutionary goals of what he describes as the true revolutionaries among antebellum abolitionists and their personal histories are properly rejuvenated. Most importantly, the book succeeds in showing just how much more there was to the abolitionist movement – not just revolutionary zeal, but agent for sociological change. ? BIBLIOGRAPHY John Stauffer. The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2001.
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