The Black Hearts of Men

by John Stauffer
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1930

John Stauffer’s The Black Hearts of Men is a story of social idealism and friendship in nineteenth century America. Its protagonists are four radical opponents of slavery, two black and two white, two major historical figures and two almost forgotten. Gerritt Smith is presented as the central character in the alliance of the four. Smith was a wealthy resident of the state of New York, a U.S. congressman for a time, and an abolitionist. James McCune Smith was a graduate of the University of Glasgow in Scotland and the first black professional physician in the United States. Frederick Douglass was a self-educated escaped slave, author, and orator, one of the renowned heroes of African American history. John Brown was a financial failure who became a prophet of violent slave uprising, a martyr in the eyes of some and a fanatic in the eyes of others after he was hanged for a raid on a federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. These four men were tied to each other by friendship and by their commitment to ending slavery. Stauffer argues that it was an unusual friendship in the setting of nineteenth century America, not just because it cut across racial lines, but because the two white men, Gerritt Smith and John Brown, identified with the blacks and became black in their hearts.

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Although all four were close friends, the only recorded time that they were together in the same place was in June, 1855, at the convention of Radical Abolitionists at Syracuse, New York. The Radical Abolitionists, also known as the Radical Political Abolitionists, differed from other abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879). Garrison and his associates favored a chiefly moral opposition to slavery and many favored breaking up the United States to maintain the moral purity of the nonslave portion of the country. In most abolitionist societies, the leaders were all white and blacks played only supporting roles. Colonization, the program of sending freed blacks to Africa, was widely popular among abolitionists. Few argued that freed slaves should become equal citizens in the United States. The Radical Abolitionists, however, favored political action to end slavery and looked forward to an interracial society. James McCune Smith, Frederick Douglass, and other blacks were prominent in the Radical Abolitionist party.

Gerritt Smith’s father was self-made man who made money in fur trading, invested in land, and became a partner of John Jacob Astor (1763-1848). The young Smith had uneasy relations with his father. The older man, for much of his life, saw business and the pursuit of wealth as the only worthwhile occupations and he was apparently uncomfortable with close personal relations. Gerritt aspired to be a scholar and a poet in the Romantic tradition of Lord Byron (1788-1824). Raised in prosperity, the younger man wanted to realize high ideals in his life, not to be caught up in the tedium of making money. However, after his father turned to religion, Gerritt was left with no option but to take over the family business.

Gerritt Smith resolved his dilemma by turning his wealth to idealistic ends. He involved himself in temperance reform, a cause that would continue to concern him throughout his life. He also turned to abolitionism, buying slaves and setting them free. He supported Oberlin College, the first American college to make a policy of admitting blacks and an institution strongly associated with the abolitionist cause. Elected to Congress, Gerritt Smith served a largely ineffectual term attempting to promote his causes.

One of Smith’s most ambitious acts of philanthropy was his plan to donate land in the Adirondacks for settlement by poor blacks. The members of the community, known as Timbucto by the inhabitants, were expected to be self-sufficient on their farms. Although intended for blacks, one piece of the land was acquired by John Brown, who lived there for a time.

James McCune Smith was Gerritt Smith’s close associate. McCune Smith was born a slave in New York City, but was freed by a state emancipation act when he was fourteen. Unable to enter any American universities because of the color of his skin, McCune Smith went to Scotland to become a physician. Stauffer argues that McCune Smith was an admirer of author Herman Melville and that Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) served as a model for some of the black physician’s own writing. If this is true, then James McCune Smith deserves more attention from literary scholars as well as historians. Moby Dick was generally regarded as unreadable in the nineteenth century and was only acclaimed to be a masterpiece with the emergence of modernist approaches to literature in the early twentieth century. McCune Smith may have shown extraordinary foresight in his literary judgement.

Gerritt Smith and James McCune Smith between them worked out a view of the world that they referred to as “Bible politics.” This view was based on the idea that there should be no difference between principles of divine justice and government on earth. If slavery was contrary to divine justice, then slavery would have to be brought to an end immediately. No compromises were possible and the institution could not continue to exist in any portion of the country. The Bible politics of the Smiths would serve as the philosophy of the Radical Abolition party.

Frederick Douglass and John Brown are familiar to every American student. Douglass was an escaped slave who published two widely read autobiographies, edited his own periodicals, and achieved renown as a public speaker. In a time when it was commonly assumed that blacks were inferior to whites, Douglass served as living evidence of black intelligence and ability.

John Brown was the least admirable and the most influential of the four men. A failure in farming and business, Brown became convinced that God had called him to end slavery, which could be ended only through bloodshed. In 1854, the U.S. Congress gave Brown an opportunity to pursue his crusade when it passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The act left the issue of slavery in the territories of Kansas and Nebraska up to popular decision. Proslavery forces poured into Kansas from Missouri and antislavery forces moved in from the North. Supported by the two Smiths and Douglass, Brown and five of his sons moved into Kansas to take part in the armed struggles between the two forces. He became notorious when he and his followers dragged five unarmed proslavery settlers out of their cabins and hacked them to death.

Brown’s last and most renowned venture occurred in the summer of 1859, when he led sixteen whites and five blacks in an attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in Virginia. Brown was hoping that he would spark a slave rebellion that he could arm with weapons from the arsenal, leading to an uprising and warfare across the South. Instead, after a battle, he was captured by U.S. Marines under the command of Robert E. Lee (1807-1870), tried for treason and murder, and hanged.

Brown’s raid was a crisis for the four men. James McCune Smith was the least affected. Frederick Douglass had known about the raid but decided not to participate. Still, he was charged with being part of the conspiracy and had to flee the country. Gerritt Smith had known about Brown’s plans and had supported them. Afterward, Gerritt Smith was stricken with regret at the bloodshed for the sake of a failed rebellion. He suffered a mental breakdown and was confined to an institution for a time. When he recovered his faculties, he concluded that his close association with blacks and his support for their causes had led him into error. Despite efforts by James McCune Smith to contact Gerritt, the friendship came to an end.

Stauffer makes intriguing observations about the relationship of the economic panic of 1837 with abolitionism and other forms of moral and political reform. After a period of economic growth, high prices, and easy credit, the year 1837 saw a crash and the beginning of several years of economic depression. Shattered optimism led many to new views on society and morality. For the two white men under consideration in this volume, the changes of 1837 helped to cut psychological connections with established respectability and pushed them to define themselves as outsiders and to identify with enslaved blacks. Gerritt Smith’s lands dropped drastically in value and for several years he struggled to pay off mounting debts. Although he managed to become solvent again, he responded to his financial hardships by emotionally devaluing his wealth and property and by committing himself to opposition to alcohol and to radical, uncompromising approaches to abolition. John Brown lost his farm, plunged into business failure, and in 1842 finally had to declare bankruptcy. Having failed at worldly activities, Brown gave himself over to his crusade against slavery.

The life of Frederick Douglass was also affected by the hard times, though in a more advantageous way. Douglass proposed to his master that he be allowed to hire out his own labor at caulking ships, in return for which he would guarantee to the master a regular payment. Falling profits may have inclined the master to accept this proposal, and the slave’s control of his own time and the money he earned from caulking appear to have enabled him to escape.

Stauffer makes unique use of the daguerreotypes included with the text. These old photographs do not simply illustrate the text, they are actually part of it. Stauffer points out that the new medium of photography caught on quickly in nineteenth century America and that photographs quickly became ways in which people identified themselves. He interprets and comments on photographic portraits as presentations of self. While some readers might see his interpretations of the daguerreotypes as overly speculative, Stauffer does raise interesting questions about how new media of communication express social and psychological currents in history.

The organization of the book is a bit loose and the author has a tendency to repeat the same themes more than necessary. The chapters on what the four main characters thought about women and American Indians seem to be included because these are trendy academic matters and not because they are relevant to the book’s main subjects. Stauffer is also remarkably uncritical of extreme violence, as long as violence is on the side that has his approval. He shows few qualms about John Brown cutting the throats of unarmed civilians during the years in Kansas, but is sorely disappointed with Frederick Douglass for moving toward greater political moderation with age.

Stauffer’s sympathy with the unyielding values of his four Radical Abolitionists leads him to present their political perfectionism as an admirable state of integrity and to view Gerritt Smith and Frederick Douglass in their later years as backsliders for shrinking from this perfectionism. Critical readers might ask what the radicals achieved by their radicalism. Gerritt Smith was ineffective as a congressman, founded a utopian community that did not succeed, and was driven to insanity by the consequences of his support for John Brown. Brown practiced terrorism in Kansas and led a senseless raid at Harpers Ferry that freed no slaves and killed a black worker and sixteen other people. William Lloyd Garrison is often criticized for being more concerned with maintaining the moral purity of opposition to slavery than with freeing slaves, but at least Garrison did not slash throats for the sake of his moral posturing.

Sources for Further Study

Choice 40 (October, 2002): 344.

The New York Times Book Review 107 (March 24, 2002): 11.

Publishers Weekly 248 (November 21, 2001): 44.

The Virginia Quarterly Review 78 (Autumn, 2002): 122.

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