Date of Award
Master of Arts
This paper looks at three significant instances of the representation of abolitionist martyrdom in nineteenth-century America to first sketch the abolitionist discourse and its varied conceptualizations of martyrdom and second question the rationale and success of this strategy for manumitting slaves. Accordingly, I start with Brown, who (with help from sympathetic northerners and the megaphone of the Associated Press) appealed to the martyrological tradition in order to transform his paramilitary failure at Harper’s Ferry into a powerful symbol of his own abolitionist righteousness over and against the state’s iniquity. Though the superficial differences between Brown and arch-sentimentalist Harriet Beecher Stowe have discouraged their comparison, a look at the logic of martyrdom reveals a similar strategy at work in both Brown’s martyrization and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which makes death an argument for the manumission of slaves. I argue that this hugely successful novel reveals the potency of martyrological thinking in 19th-century America as it also reveals martyrdom and its logic to be the foundation of sentimentalism like Stowe’s. Finally, I look at the speeches and nonfiction of Frederick Douglass to argue that his own martyrization of John Brown is different than what we see in Brown and Stowe because it provokes change rather than validating abolitionism that already exists. To various degrees, these writers seem aware that there may be a problem in the rhetorical use of martyrdom against the putatively secular state; they consequently employ different strategies for negotiating the meaninglessness of suffering and death with the soteriological and eschatological assumptions of their day. These negotiations reveal the extent to which martyrdom could be taken seriously as a hammer of abolitionism by different authors and thus also indicate the degree to which martyrdom can be taken seriously as a political solution whatsoever. Ultimately, I want to argue that martyrdom and its logic are at best dubious when applied to secular politics precisely because it relies upon the analogy to Jesus Christ as savior, which cannot hold outside Christianity. Simply put, the death of a mortal cannot register eschatologically and, more importantly, death does not make a cogent argument for anything. Instead, martyrdom is preaching to the choir par excellance; whether the choir is Christian, abolitionist, or something else, martyrological appeals do not grow its membership, as martyrologists since early modernity have assumed.
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