UMass professor Manisha Sinha re-examines abolitionists’ role in Civil War

By Christina Gregg

In a Distinguished Faculty Lecture yesterday, Manisha Sinha, associate professor of Afro-American Studies, posed the question, “Did the abolitionists cause the Civil War, and if so, was that a bad thing?” 

She discussed the often overlooked role that African-Americans played in the abolitionist movement. She said that some historians see abolitionists as “fanatical, unreasonable and extreme” and that some have gone as far as to equivocate them to “terrorists” or “meddlesome outsiders.”

Sinha explained that this demonization of abolitionists began around the turn of the 20th century, when lynchings, disenfranchisement of freed slaves and debt peonage made a “mockery of black freedom.” It wasn’t until the 1960s that these figures were seen as “freedom fighters.” She quoted W. E. B. DuBois, whom the University of Massachusetts Afro-American Studies Department is named after, who pointed out, “the slaves stood briefly in the sun before being shoved back into the shadows.”

Giving a lengthy portfolio of the most dedicated abolitionists, Sinha provided countless examples of the brave men and women who put their reputations at stake to take part in the American Anti-Slavery Movement. Characters such as William Lloyd Garrison, Phillis Wheatley and Lydia Maria Child utilized what Sinha described “the tactics of religious benevolence and moral reform.”

Sinha traced the development of the abolition movement from the late 1700s leading up to the beginning of the Civil War. She brought up one of the seemingly more pertinent opponents of abolition at the time – President Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson, Sinha said “deplored slavery in the abstract” but in reality was heavily racist. In opposition to Jefferson, she depicted President John Quincy Adams as the “first political hero” for the abolition movement who led a “one man fight” pushing anti-slavery in Congress.

Sinha criticized those revisionist historians that describe abolitionists as “determined to plunge the nation into a needless war.”  She said that they contradict themselves when giving them the title as a “bitter minority” while at the same time “powerful enough to cause the nation’s most destructive war.”

She concluded her lecture by returning to her opening question of whether the abolitionists caused the Civil War.

“We can blame them for emancipation, but not the war,” she said. 

Sinha also explained that abolitionists were passionate radicals that “devoted their lives to fighting for their freedom.”  This was not a “hobby” or “fad” for these activists, but rather an “all encompassing life mission advocating for a multi-racial society equal and open to everyone.”

“There is no such thing as a good war, but there are some causes worth fighting for,” said Sinha.

The lecture took place yesterday in the Massachusetts Room at the Mullins Center in front of a crowd of approximately 60 people including Sinha’s colleagues, friends and parents, who flew from India to be present for the event. 

John H. Bracey, a professor in the department of Afro-American Studies since 1972, introduced Sinha with warm regard.

Bracey joked about Sinha’s frequent travels between Cambridge – where she is working on a book – and Amherst, saying she chose the “more civilized activities going on in Amherst over those occurring on the Charles River.” He stated that she puts herself and her research on the line, open to the possibility of being “chastised and berated” and that fact alone stands “firmly in tradition of the department.”

Despite being born and raised in India, Sinha explained her connection to 19th U.S. century history.

“It all began with slavery,” she said. “I come from a family that was already very interested in history. I saw the similarities between Gandhi and Martin Luther King and became very interested in the civil rights movement and questions of race.”

After the lecture, Chancellor Robert Holub presented Sinha with the Chancellor’s Medal, which is given to individuals who have “rendered exemplary and extraordinary service to the University of Massachusetts Amherst.”

Sinha is one of the four faculty members selected to be a part of the Distinguished Faculty Lecture Series. She received her doctorate degree at Columbia University and has also published her own book, “The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina.”

Sinha has been nominated for and received numerous grants, fellowships and prizes for her research on 19th century history in regards to abolition and the civil war.

Christina Gregg can be reached at [email protected]