American Experience: Season 24, Episode 9

The Abolitionists: Part 1 (2012)

TV Episode  |  TV-PG  |   |  Documentary, History
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The stories of the major figures of the pre-American Civil War political movement to eliminate slavery.



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Episode cast overview, first billed only:
Narrator (voice)
John Brown
Carol Berkin ...
Herself, historian
Lois Brown ...
Herself, historian
Manisha Sinha ...
Herself, historian
David Blight ...
Himself, historian
James Brewer Stewart ...
Himself, historian
Julie Roy Jeffrey ...
Herself, historian
W. Caleb McDaniel ...
Himself, historian
John Stauffer ...
Himself, historian
Erica Armstrong Dunbar ...
Herself, historian
R. Blakeslee Gilpin ...
Himself, historian
William Lloyd Garrison


Shared beliefs about slavery bring together Angelina Grimké, the daughter of a Charleston plantation family, who moves north and becomes a public speaker against slavery; Frederick Douglass, a young slave who becomes hopeful when he hears about the abolitionists; William Lloyd Garrison, who founds the newspaper The Liberator, a powerful voice for the movement; Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose first trip to the South changes her life and her writing; and John Brown, who devotes his life to the cause. The abolitionist movement, however, is in disarray and increasing violence raises doubts about the efficacy of its pacifist tactics. Written by Anonymous

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Release Date:

2012 (USA)  »

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16:9 HD
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User Reviews

A Pecular Institution.
22 August 2015 | by (Deming, New Mexico, USA) – See all my reviews

One of the most prominent of the early anti-abolitionists was Boston editor William Lloyd Garrison who, in the 1820s, recruited a runaway slave, Frederick Douglass, as a representative of the movement. Douglass was a compelling speaker and his audiences throughout the North knew little about the conditions in the South, whereas Douglass could speak about them first hand.

The increasing strength of the abolitionist movement was a direct threat to the economy of the South, which was primarily dependent on the labor-intensive cotton industry. The program claims that the wealthier plantation owners were the richest society on earth at the time. I don't know about that, but they were pretty well off. The slaves were divided into those who worked as servants and handmaidens in the Big House and those who worked in the fields. None of them was well off. They could be whipped, raped, and sold at will.

John Brown organized a paramilitary group designed to translate the sentiments of the well-meaning do-gooders up North into action. He intended to bring about a slave revolt in the South, and he began by taking over the federal armory in Maryland. It failed and he was hanged.

Perhaps of greater importance at about the same time, 1859, a slave owner took one of his slaves, Dredd Scott, to Wisconsin, where slavery was illegal. Scott sued for his freedom and the case wound up before the Supreme Court. Here's how Wikipedia describes the decision: " The Taney Court ruled that persons of African descent could not be, nor were ever intended to be, citizens under the U.S. Constitution, and thus the plaintiff (Scott) was without legal standing to file a suit. The framers of the Constitution, Taney famously wrote, believed that blacks "had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever profit could be made by it." In other words, the decision not only denied Scott his freedom but virtually declared slavery legal everywhere in the United States. Pretty radical stuff and a retrograde move if there ever was one. Recent arguments about "judicial activism" pale.

The anti-slavery movement was growing, but not as fast as the negative reaction to it. In Washington, South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks took a gold-headed can to anti-slavery Senator Charles Sumner, beat him to the floor, beat him until he was unconscious, then continued beating him. Sumner never fully recovered. Brooks was celebrated in the South and received many canes as gifts.

It's a well-done program from an exceptional series. There are some reenactments -- Richard Brooks of "Law&Order" is Frederick Douglass and is almost unrecognizable with a full head of hair -- and still photographs and talking experts. I couldn't detect any bias. It surprises me how little thought most of us give to slavery and its consequences, not just in the 19th century but today. It all seems far removed from our consciousness, as if it were nothing more than a word representing a problem in our collective past, now satisfactorily dealt with. For instance, it never occurred to me, growing up in New Jersey, that in a state just across the Delaware River, Delaware, people had once owned slaves. Hurray for PBS, bringing enlightenment to the darker niches of our memories.

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