‘Undoing Slavery: Bodies, Race and Rights in the Age of Abolition’

Historian Kathleen M. Brown’s new book reexamines the antislavery struggle and is the focus of the first episode of a new podcast series from the McNeil Center for Early American Studies.

image of jane johnson rescue
Engraving published in William Still’s book “The Underground Rail Road,” depicting the July 1855 rescue of Jane Johnson and her children. Still (center in top hat seen escorting Johnson and her sons off the boat) was a Philadelphia-based abolitionist. Since Johnson’s former slaveowner willingly brought Johnson and her children into a free state, they were entitled to their freedom, and Still and colleagues fetched them while fending off the former slaveowner. (Image: Courtesy of House Divided: The Civil War Research Engine at Dickinson College)

The American antislavery struggle is often associated with the image of white, religious activists using biblical arguments to bolster their push to free enslaved people.

But a new book by historian Kathleen M. Brown of the School of Arts & Sciences turns that idea on its head. “Undoing Slavery: Bodies, Race and Rights in the Age of Abolition” takes a fresh look at that struggle for liberty and highlights how bodily rights and personal freedom were put at the forefront of the fight, often by Black women abolitionists.

Brown’s “Undoing Slavery” is also the focus of the first episode in a new podcast series by the McNeil Center for Early American Studies. The series introduces listeners to the authors of the most recent book publications in the Early American Studies series, published by Penn Press. 

Launched earlier this month with support from Penn LibrariesResearch Data and Digital Scholarship center, “Early American Conversations” puts McNeil Center graduate fellows in conversation with authors from the series. The podcast is curated by Anders Bright, a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate studying early American history with a focus on capitalism and finance.

Penn Today sat down with Brown to talk about her new book’s premise, some main takeaways, and how her research pertains to the current resurgence of white nationalism and the battles for reproductive rights.

Left side of image shows a book cover reading "Undoing Slavery" and the right side of the image shows the author, Kathleen Brown.
Kathleen Brown's new book sheds new light on the abolitionist movement. (Image: Courtesy of Penn Press/Kathleen Brown)

Some reviews of your book have said that it undoes what people think they know about abolitionist campaigns. How does it go about that?

There’s a much older literature by historians that pitches abolitionists as the epitome of white do-goodism, but there are many problems with that view. For one, they weren’t all white. There were lots of black abolitionists who were often more radical than their white counterparts when pressing for new ways to approach the conflict over slavery. And some of the white do-gooders weren’t so good. For many, taking a public stance against slavery was about showing off their own morality, and some activists seemed to be a little too invested in making a spectacle of the violence of slavery.

There is a more recent literature that’s very critical of white abolitionists and sees them as interested in bringing down slavery but perpetuating racism and white supremacy through the use of tactics that re-racialized free African-descended people. This critical literature argues that abolitionists were mainly interested in taking down slavery to put capitalism and wage labor in its place.

I disagree with all of this. 

My point of departure is to focus on what we have missed, which is that abolitionists were very focused not on abstract rights claims but on the health and integrity of the human body, the person’s physical being. Their language about the suffering of enslaved people didn’t need to be metaphoric or embellished to communicate slavery’s violations because slavery was, at its core, a system of labor that inflicted physical and psychic pain in order to extract work out of people. Abolitionists did not have to indulge in metaphors, exaggerations, and the creation of spectacle to communicate slavery’s horrors. 

Abolitionists themselves used a lot of language that was focused on the physical body. Their argument about basic human equality was rooted in the equality of human creation. They started at the end of the 17th century with a very radical claim, ‘we are of one blood,’ drawn from a biblical verse. In the present day we can’t even appreciate the radical nature of that statement. It was made at a time in which people were beginning to think not just about the blood connection of families and ancestry but even about whole nations sharing blood. The abolitionist ‘one blood’ claim challenged the notion of distinct nations and ancestry and represented everyone as part of one human family.

How did concerns about the body frame the ways in which abolitionists developed their arguments to end slavery?

Early on, people based a lot of what they knew on the Bible, and in the 17th and 18th centuries Quakers led the way for white people. Early Quaker activists had witnessed the separation of enslaved people’s families, or saw people being beaten. Reacting to and rejecting the physical spectacle of violence was especially important in Quaker testimony against slavery.

By the end of the 18th century and into the 19th century, female abolitionists developed their own arguments against slavery in two main ways. One way was to focus on what they saw as the specific victimization of enslaved women. They were too genteel to use the word rape, but they portrayed the enslaved mother’s grief at having her child taken away as a physical trauma that stood in for other violations and traumas. Black poets as well as white noted that a mother’s blood coursed through her child’s veins and detailed the physical manifestations of her grief. 

Another aspect of abolitionist body politics occurred early on in Britain, where women waged a successful boycott against slave-produced sugar, a consumer tactic that reemerged later in the 19th century United States. Abolitionists depicted morality as physical and warned against ingesting sugar that had the blood of enslaved people in it. To put cotton on your body that had absorbed the blood of the enslaved person who picked or ginned it would be similarly repulsive and morally wrong. They turned the consumption of slave-produced goods into a physical politics in which the consumer’s body as well as the enslaved laborer’s body might suffer harm.

What can your book teach readers about what’s at stake in the current battles over reproductive rights?

One important thread of the book concerns the professionalization of medicine and how both racist science and the effort to eliminate midwives and women’s own healing methods contributed to the move to criminalize abortion. I did a lot of my research here at Penn, looking at the archives of student medical theses. By 1858, medical students had read and heard that abortion should be considered a criminal act. The path to criminalizing abortion was a gradual one of disparaging and discounting a woman's own testimony about the timing of conception and the health of her pregnancy.

By the early 1860s, the medical establishment was seeking to establish so-called objective medical criteria for making judgments about pregnancy that would be considered legally sound. They were seeking to be treated as medical experts in courts of law. Disparaging what women patients reported was one path to gaining this greater medical authority. And finding so-called objective criteria for evaluating all aspects of pregnancy as well as other female ‘conditions’ gave 19th-century doctors professional standing and credibility in courts of law.

Why is it important to re-examine the anti-slavery struggle now?

It’s always been a good time, but when I started researching this book there weren’t as many books reexamining abolition. The history of the campaign for the abolition of slavery is especially timely in this political moment. It offers us a view of the first human rights campaign at a time when new struggles for human rights have become more pointed. In the last 10 years we have seen the emergence of the Movement for Black Lives and new political battles over reproductive justice and transgender people’s rights. The campaign to end slavery offers many lessons in the winding path to undoing any injustice. 

One inspiration for my research came from Penn students themselves. When I started working with the Penn & Slavery Project students, I learned a lot from them about slavery and the University of Pennsylvania, about Pennsylvania’s place in the national conflict over slavery, and about the Penn medical school’s role in creating, theorizing, and then teaching racist science. The Penn & Slavery Project taught me a lot that I didn’t know. It changed my view of the connections between the medical view of bodies, the political movement of bodies across state jurisdictions, and the national conflict over whether African-descended people were entitled to the same privileges of citizenship as white men.

A lot of the earliest and most radical abolitionist organizations were located here in Philadelphia, not far from the University’s medical school and its southern medical students. The conflicts between white supremacy and abolitionist activism played out in a very intense way in this city. Pennsylvania became a crucial dividing line between so-called free states of the North and the slave states in the South. The state’s southern border was the jurisdictional line people were trying to cross to escape slavery.

After working with the students, I realized, ‘Oh, actually, a lot of the story I'm interested in is happening right here,’ which was convenient but also really changed the direction of my research to focus more on medicine and the encouragement activists offered to people seeking refuge in Pennsylvania from slavery.

What is the most important thing for people to understand about this book?

One of the things that really interested me from the very beginning of this research was the racial history of the term ‘liberty.’ When English people spoke of liberty in the 18th century, they had a specific kind of person in mind: freeborn Englishmen. They were talking about the rights of English people at exactly the point when England was getting more involved in the transatlantic traffic in African slaves.

This English concept of liberty, which subsequently became so important during the American Revolution, had the English nation baked into its linguistic DNA. This notion of liberty, which we tend to speak of as ‘freedom’ in the present day, would later become racialized as white supremacy. When I hear people talk about white nationalism in the present day, I think of an intellectual genealogy that takes us from ‘freeborn Englishmen’ to the present moment.

The book also has a more forgiving view of flawed activists who nonetheless gave their lives to causes they believed in. People are very fond of looking at the abolitionists, seeing those flaws, and blaming activists for failing to change the world, especially because we know that when slavery ended, capitalism and white supremacy surged. Part of me objects to that. The fact that white supremacy regrouped very quickly does not mean that abolitionists didn’t accomplish important political work. In general, abolitionist activists were marginal players in a world in which powerful people had a stake in both white supremacy and capitalism. Ending slavery did not strip these powerful actors of their power to dominate the world after slavery.

Activists are always having to revise their game plan. They may want to change the world, but the world is not just sitting there waiting to be changed. The forces that are threatened by social justice activism are always themselves coming up with new tactics. Despite their flaws, abolitionists earned my respect. They also helped me to see that even flawed people can accomplish important political work. Abolitionists dedicated their lives to abolishing slavery, felt gratified that slavery was ended but were horrified by—or in denial about—the resurgence of white supremacy and the oppressive conditions of wage labor.

I am sympathetic to people who give their entire lives to what they think of as justice. I’m not talking about somebody who makes a huge amount of money and then becomes a philanthropist. I’m talking about people who lived their whole lives willing to be fringe voices in an often-violent campaign against injustice. Think about people 20 or 30 years ago who warned about climate change; they were treated like freaks. Now some of those same people might feel a bit gratified that others are finally listening to their message. 

Activism is not for the impatient or the faint of heart. The pace of change is very slow because people who benefit from injustice fight ferociously to hold onto their privilege. This is one of the other lessons that abolitionists can teach us.

“Early American Conversations,” the new McNeil Center for Early American Studies podcast series can be found at https://open.spotify.com/show/2rhCo1EgfrzjJyc5u4I0lX.