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The Fourth and the First: Abolitionist Holidays, Respectability, and Radical Interracial Reform
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American Quarterly 57.1 (2005) 129-151

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The Fourth and the First:

Abolitionist Holidays, Respectability, and Radical Interracial Reform

For twenty-five years, said William Lloyd Garrison in 1858, abolitionists like himself had been described in Northern newspapers as "crazy lunatics and wild disorganizers—and [their] meetings represented as unworthy of countenance by sane and decent men!" He knew the reasons why. Radical abolitionists, and Garrisonians in particular, transgressed the norms of polite society in antebellum America. Their views on slavery, gender, race, and religion were marginal in the extreme. Because their audiences were frequently "promiscuous," meaning that they included both women and men, their meetings struck many as "crazy" or "wild." More troubling to many Northerners was the fact that Garrisonian societies were racially integrated, which opened abolitionists to the charge that they favored "amalgamation." Such people were not the company that "sane and decent men" would keep.1

Yet despite their reputation, most abolitionists represented their meetings as inimitably "sane and decent." In fact, Garrisonians were often as concerned as their contemporaries by a perceived declension of manners and virtue. Many antebellum Americans, especially those from an emerging middle class, feared that honored social mores were being swept aside by the twin forces of industrialization and democratization. To preserve social order, middling Americans participated in a revival of interest in politeness and "respectability." Books on manners proliferated, a cult of domesticity enshrined women as the defenders of respectability, and politicians trumpeted the importance of refinement to republican citizenship. Despite their radicalism, Garrisonians were not immune from these powerful cultural forces. In 1857, Garrison's Liberator even reviewed one of the etiquette manuals flooding Northern markets. The book, titled How to Behave: A Pocket Manual to Republican Etiquette, and Guide to Correct Personal Habits, was praised for demonstrating that "good manners and good morals rest upon the same basis, and that justice and benevolence can no more be satisfied without the one than without the other."2 [End Page 129]

Just as surely as "good manners" and "justice" went together, respectability and radicalism coexisted in abolitionism. Although Garrisonians overturned conventions regarding gender and race, their own practices reinforced conventions about manners. The reasons for this were partly strategic; abolitionists cast themselves as respectable to counteract the caricatures of their enemies. Their concern with respectability can also be explained by biography. Many Garrisonians came from elite families or from the middle class, making their aspirations to cultural refinement unsurprising. More important, respectability and religion were fungible normative systems in antebellum America, and the abolitionists' roots in Protestantism bore fruit in their commitment to public morality. In the last three decades, historians have situated abolitionism within these and other contexts—middle-class culture, republicanism, and evangelical religion—demonstrating that the movement was not an excrescence on antebellum society, but a rare flowering of seeds sown throughout the early republic.3

This article shows how "respectability" pervaded abolitionist ideas and praxis by examining two holidays that many radical abolitionists celebrated every year—the Fourth of July, which by the early nineteenth century was already an important anniversary, and the First of August, an antislavery holiday commemorating British emancipation in the West Indies. On both anniversaries, Garrisonians convened to advocate immediate emancipation, a "wild" and "crazy" doctrine at the time. But their gatherings also observed long-standing social conventions about behavior. They were restrained, quiet, and polite, rather than rowdy, noisy, and rude. Garrisonians described their celebrations, which featured long speeches, light collations, and cold water instead of beer, as living tableaus of respectability.

My central argument is that Garrisonian holidays were both respectable and radical, despite the fact that radicalism and respectability might seem incompatible.4 "Radicalism" is the advocacy of extreme change, often in the direction of equality; "respectability" is the attempt to conserve etiquette, often in deference to hierarchy. Because the two seem like polar opposites, it is easy to regard them as mutually exclusive. But such a view can polarize narratives of abolitionism in one of two ways. On the one hand, it...