A Review of
Let Justice Be Done: Writings from American Abolitionists, 1688-1865
Kerry Walters, ed.
Reviewed by Lynn Domina
Let Justice Be Done: Writings from American Abolitionists, 1688-1865, edited by Kerry Walters, includes editorials, speeches, poems, song lyrics, and other types of writing by nearly three dozen individuals and groups, all relying on Christian values to make their arguments. The writers range from household names like Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, to those easily recognized by historians like William Lloyd Garrison and Lucretia Mott, to those like George Bourne and Elizabeth Margaret Chandler who will be new to many readers. Some of the earlier writings included here are particularly useful, for so much discussion of abolitionism pays little attention to material written before 1830. The collection is compact yet thorough, and the book’s Introduction as well as the introductory paragraphs for each entry provide sufficient contextual guidance for readers just beginning their study of American abolitionism and for those who haven’t recently considered this subject.
Walters reminds readers that abolitionist arguments were primarily religious ones, with the Religious Society of Friends offering the earliest and most sustained arguments opposing slavery. Members of other Protestant denominations, individually and eventually corporately, also raised their voices, often citing scripture and relying on orthodox Christian theology. (Of course, pro-slavery voices also easily found support for their arguments in the Bible.) So while this book foregrounds Christian abolitionist writing and is published by a well-known Christian publisher, any collection of abolitionist writing would be hard-pressed to ignore religious perspectives.
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In part because of the writers’ reliance on Christian tradition, many of the pieces are more abstract and philosophical than concrete and narrative. A few of them, in order to be appreciated fully, demand more Biblical or theological knowledge than the average 21st century American reader possesses, but even in these cases, Walters situates the entry expertly enough for contemporary readers to understand its significance. For example, John Rankin’s “Letters on American Slavery” is highly exegetical, analyzing the Bible’s use of words like “servant” or “slave” and “yoke” in order to refute a pro-slavery Biblical argument. Anticipating readers’ impatience with Rankin’s level of detail, Walters explains his decision to include this letter by referring to 19th century practices of belief: “To a casual reader, Rankin’s reply may seem an exercise in philological nitpicking. But because the Bible was so frequently invoked to justify slavery, Rankin felt obliged to examine in some detail the meaning of the words Cameron [Rankin’s epistolary recipient] cherry-picked. For a generation that looked to scripture for moral guidance, such clarity was crucial” (47).
Such writing as Rankin’s is balanced by the much more accessible “I Am Pleading for My People,” lyrics composed by Sojourner Truth, and a children’s poem, “The Anti-Slavery Alphabet,” written by Hannah and Mary Townsend. “F is for the heart-sick Fugitive,” one stanza begins, continuing, “The slave who runs away, / And travels through the dreary night, / But hides himself by day” (109). By contemporary standards, this poem is surprisingly explicit for children’s literature, refusing euphemisms for violence and refusing also to excuse children from complicity:
S is the Sugar, that the slave
Is toiling hard to make,
To put into your pie and tea,
Your candy, and your cake. (111)
While many abolitionists especially toward the beginning of the movement preferred a nonviolent solution, relying on moral suasion rather than force, Walters includes representative examples from those who advocated force, particularly John Brown, whose speech concluding his trial includes both Biblical quotation and language suggesting that the blood of slaves will be redeemed by the blood of slaveholders.
My only wish for this collection is that it had included greater rhetorical variety. When it comes to persuasion, storytelling is at least as effective as analysis, so brief excerpts from John Woolman’s journal or Frederick Douglass’s Narrative could have complemented the more philosophical writing. Aside from that caveat, however, Let Justice Be Done provides a very good introduction to primary sources influencing the abolitionist movement.