research

The Abolitionists on PBS

Posted by W. Caleb McDaniel on January 15, 2013

Last Tuesday, PBS premiered the first episode of The Abolitionists, a three-part documentary showcasing the lives of five prominent antislavery Americans. I was honored to appear briefly in the film and hope the show sparks increased popular interest in the history of abolitionism.

Like any documentary—or any work of history, for that matter—the film is open to criticism. Even in a three-hour film, it would be difficult to place abolitionists fully in their historical context, especially since the filmmakers spotlight only five figures out of many they could have chosen.

Indeed, the film itself frequently points beyond its own quintet to the larger cast of characters that participated in the actual drama of the abolitionist movement. In one scene in Episode One, for example, William Lloyd Garrison addresses an African American man standing in the offices of The Liberator whom he calls “William”—a likely reference to William Cooper Nell. Nell was a man who could easily inspire a three-hour biopic of his own, one that would further showcase the role of black abolitionists in the movement, the close connection between the fight against slavery and the fight against racial discrimination, and the conflicts and schisms that troubled even the closest abolitionists.1

Still, I think Nell—one of the country’s first African American historians—would be glad to see a film like this exist, and even gladder to see the range of critical discourse about it on the Internet. In a recent book that I highly recommend, historian Margot Minardi notes that Nell and other abolitionists always “perceived history as a story that was still being written,” in contrast to antebellum Americans who preferred to build monuments to the past and “privileged the idea of history as a received narrative.” As a result they would probably welcome the conversation surrounding the film as much as the film itself, and would be disappointed if the movie were viewed as a static monument.2

In fact, the abolitionists would probably view a film like this as an opportunity to reflect on the present, not just to reflect the past. Wendell Phillips, another important abolitionist not featured in the film, believed that “the honors we grant mark how high we stand,” but he cautioned against using history only for self-congratulation. “The men we honor, and the maxims we lay down in measuring our favorites, show the level and morals of the time,” he once said, but then as now, those very maxims may well reveal how much more there is to be done. Any time a state or nation “offers a pedestal for the statue of a citizen,” or a PBS documentary for that matter, Phillips would say that “such a step deserves thought. On this let us dare to think.”3

I hope—and am optimistic—that viewers of this film will “dare to think,” and I believe the film invites such daring. By asking viewers to participate in making a map or to talk about the film on social media, and by dramatizing the everyday lives of the characters, the film encourages the audience to interact with history instead of receiving it passively. If you’ve come to this page interested in learning more about the abolitionists, then read on. Investigate, question, dare to think, and you’ll be doing part of what I think the abolitionists themselves would demand of you if they were still here.

Further Reading

The American Experience website has a good list of related books and websites on the abolitionists, including a link to an extensive bibliography hosted at IUPUI. There are also some additional links to resources on one of my course websites.

I also have a fair number of bookmarks I have collected on abolitionism over the years, and my LibraryThing collection lists about 120 books on the subject.

Because my own research has centered on abolitionism since 2001, I also have several publications on the movement available online. These include:

For those interested in my other publications, whose notes can point you to other scholarship on the subject, feel free to check out my CV.

I also hope to be available on Twitter when the second and third episodes of The Abolitionists air, in case anyone wants to chat about the film or antislavery history. Happy watching and reading!


  1. For an excellent recent book about black activists like Nell and their struggle to win both abolition and citizenship rights, I recommend Stephen Kantrowitz’s More Than Freedom: Fighting for Black Citizenship in a White Republic, 1829–1889 (New York: Penguin, 2012). Many of Nell’s writings can also be found at the excellent Black Abolitionist Archive. His most famous work, Colored Patriots of the American Revolution, is also online.

  2. Margot Minardi, Making Slavery History: Abolitionism and the Politics of Memory in Massachusetts (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 94.

  3. Quotes are taken from Phillips’s speech “Idols,” which you can read at Google Books. Speaking of the present, several historians of abolitionism have recently joined forces in a group called Historians of Against Slavery, whose aim is to provide well-informed historical context for ongoing struggles against forced labor and contemporary forms of enslavement.