DAL LAGO: William Lloyd Garrison and Giuseppe Mazzini (2013)

William Lloyd Garrison and Giuseppe Mazzini: Abolition, Democracy, and Radical Reform by Enrico Dal Lago.  Louisiana State University Press, 2013.  ISBN: 0807152064.  $42.50.
Enrico Dal Lago’s oeuvre demonstrates his breadth of knowledge and mastery of transnational and comparative history. He has compared slaveholders in the United States with landholders in Southern Italy; has edited a volume of essays comparing the United States South with the Italian Mezzogiorno; and has analyzed the international dimensions of the “peculiar institution.” Now, with William Lloyd Garrison and Giuseppe Mazzini: Abolition, Democracy, and Radical Reform, Dal Lago offers a thoughtful discussion of the parallel lives of radical abolitionist Garrison and Italian activist Mazzini.

From the outset, the author confronts a potential problem. Were the similarities between these men so superficial and the differences so great as to cast doubt on the utility of the parallel biography approach? In addition, can two men who met so infrequently (one can count on one hand the number of times Garrison and Mazzini met) really be thought of as living parallel lives or being engaged in parallel struggles? The answer to the first question is a resounding no, and the second an equally resounding yes. One of the great virtues of this book is that Dal Lago does not take a narrow biographical approach and focus solely on Mazzini and Garrison. Rather, he adeptly employs transnational and comparative methodologies to construct a layered and nuanced narrative. By analyzing a wider Atlantic world of reform and radicalism, this book makes a fine companion to Caleb McDaniel’s The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery.

What are we to learn from this exploration of Garrison and Mazzini? Dal Lago begins by noting differences in their early lives. While Garrison was born and raised in poverty and was self-educated, Mazzini came from more comfortable origins and received a classical education. Despite these differences, Dal Lago contends that their lives began to follow comparable trajectories in the sense that both men “looked for ways to acquire a knowledge of the world that would help them make sense of the momentous events occurring all around them, as a new wave of revolutions engulfed Europe and the Americas” (29). Dal Lago next argues that both men harnessed journalism (for Garrison, The Liberator, and for Mazzini, La Giovine Italia) when initiating their revolutions (in Garrison’s case the abolition of slavery, in Mazzini’s case the creation of an Italian republic). Although Mazzini’s paper was elitist and Garrison’s more popular, “each of the two publications used a language and a style that were new to its nation’s journalism” (52). Dal Lago continues with a discussion of how both men widened their revolutions with the formation of the American Anti-Slavery Society and Young Europe, and asserts that the parallels between the organizations suggest some similarities between the language of progressive thought in Europe and the United States.

Dal Lago offers a good discussion of how Garrison and Mazzini were challenged by abolitionists who had different ideas and strategies concerning the fight for freedom. Despite the fact that both men faced serious challenges, the late 1830s marked the beginning of a critical period for Mazzini and Garrison because they began to better understand the international dimensions of their struggles. Dal Lago’s insistence that both men and their causes need to be seen and understood in an Atlantic perspective is important because it allows him to move seamlessly from his discussion of parallel trajectories into an analysis of how the awareness of being part of a wider world spurred them to become acquainted (which they did in 1846). The meeting bore important fruit, particularly during the heady days of 1848-1849, when Garrison and his collaborators endorsed Mazzini and his short-lived Roman Republic. Garrison and Mazzini recognized the parallels between their causes. Both men employed language linking the oppression of slavery and the oppression of nationalities because, according to Dal Lago, both radical abolitionists and democratic nationalists “believed that the twin fights against slavery and against national oppression led humankind onto an increasing progressive path” (137).

This is largely a story of parallel lives, parallel trajectories, parallel challenges, and shared ideas. However, the final chapters of the book focus on a critical difference: Garrison and Mazzini’s disparate responses to the crossroads they faced in 1861. In the end, Garrison proved more willing to compromise over what freedom meant, while Mazzini refused to concede his principles. In part, this difference can be explained by the fact that the radical event Garrison had longed for occurred, whereas Mazzini’s did not. However, Dal Lago also asserts that, despite no longer following parallel courses, “the lives of Garrison and Mazzini continued to be seen and considered as equally emblematic of the two related progressive and radical struggles, which they had sustained with such a strong commitment for longer than three decades” (190). Dal Lago’s analysis of the final years of both men and how they have been remembered, however, seems rushed – and might have been dealt with at greater length.

By blending comparative and transnational history, Dal Lago places himself in a select group of scholars. This well written book will appeal to both scholarly and lay audiences, and it will prove useful in both upper-division undergraduate classes and graduate seminars.

Evan C. Rothera is a doctoral candidate in history at The Pennsylvania State University. His dissertation analyzes reconstructions in the United States, Mexico, and Argentina.

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