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Polemical Pain

, 344 pages

10 halftones

March 2011



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Polemical Pain

Slavery, Cruelty, and the Rise of Humanitarianism

In 2008 and 2009, the United States Congress apologized for the "fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery." Today no one denies the cruelty of slavery, but few issues inspired more controversy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Abolitionists denounced the inhumanity of slavery, while proslavery activists proclaimed it both just and humane. Margaret Abruzzo delves deeply into the slavery debate to better understand the nature and development of humanitarianism and how the slavery issue helped shape modern concepts of human responsibility for the suffering of others.

Abruzzo first traces the slow, indirect growth in the eighteenth century of moral objections to slavery's cruelty, which took root in awareness of the moral danger of inflicting unnecessary pain. Rather than accept pain as inescapable, as had earlier generations, people fought to ease, discredit, and abolish it. Within a century, this new humanitarian sensibility had made immoral the wanton infliction of pain.

Abruzzo next examines how this modern understanding of humanity and pain played out in the slavery debate. Drawing on shared moral-philosophical concepts, particularly sympathy and benevolence, pro- and antislavery writers voiced starkly opposing views of humaneness. Both sides constructed their moral identities by demonstrating their own humanity and criticizing the other’s insensitivity.

Understanding this contest over the meaning of humanity—and its ability to serve varied, even contradictory purposes—illuminates the role of pain in morality. Polemical Pain shows how the debate over slavery’s cruelty played a large, unrecognized role in shaping moral categories that remain pertinent today.

Margaret Abruzzo is an assistant professor of history at the University of Alabama.

"A fascinating book on history and consequences of slavery. The research [is] impeccable and it [is] organized in a very readable and easy to grasp fashion."

"Writing with clarity and grace, Abruzzo makes a persuasive case... Her book will fascinate not only scholars exploring slavery and sectionalism but also historians examining the emergence of new definitions of cruelty and benevolence at the advent of the modern world."

"Abruzzo's lucidly written and stunningly original analysis, encompassing debates over the slave trade, colonization, emancipation, and the impact of Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, challenges present-day assumptions concerning the evident nature of ethical judgments."

" Polemical Pain is highly recommended as a first-rate work of intellectual history. Abruzzo has written a richly detailed history not easily captured by the limited space of this review. The result is an important book that is well researched and impressively argued, and that greatly advances our knowledge about the national quarrel about slavery through the language of humanitarianism. It is widely applicable and will surely find a diverse audience."

"A significant reappraisal of Civil War causation and an important contribution to the broader history of the emergence of the modern United States."

"Abruzzo offers a detailed and comprehensive examination of the relationship between American debates over the morality of slavery and evolving national and international notions of the meaning and limits of humane behavior... It is a very illuminating book."

"A well-rounded discussion."

" Polemical Pain: Slavery, Cruelty, and the Rise of Humanitarianism will interest scholars of pro- and antislavery thought as well as humanitarianism."

"Highly readable and certainly teachable."

"[A] thought-provoking study... Polemical Pain makes an important contribution."

"An important work of scholarship, especially for those interested in the history of slavery or humanitarian reform."


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