Beverly C. Tomek’s study of antislavery thought in Pennsylvania from the formation of the American republic to the Civil War draws attention to the wide variety of ideologies and activists—immediatists, gradualists, and colonizationists—who collectively challenged slavery [End Page 201] from the Keystone State. Tomek sees Pennsylvania as an important “lens” to view the evolution of the national antislavery community. As a northern border state neighboring three slave states, Pennsylvania contained elements of all three ideologies, represented by the immediatist Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society (PASS), the gradualist Pennsylvania Abolition Society (PAS), and the Pennsylvania Colonization Society (PCS). Few abolitionists of the nineteenth century considered colonization an antislavery movement and their antislavery credentials have been only unevenly restored by historians. But Tomek is aware of these challenges, and she focuses her narrative on colonization in order to demonstrate that the movement—and she hedges her bets with the all-important qualifier “at least in Pennsylvania”—was an antislavery movement (p. 1). Although nominally an account of how these three antislavery ideologies overlapped, colonization is really the engine that drives Tomek’s story.
While she eschews focusing on abolitionism, Tomek does advance several critical arguments for our understanding of the colonization movement. Significantly, she classifies colonizationists into two camps situated under the same broad umbrella. One group based its support for colonization on the belief that slavery was a backward economic model. Uninterested in concerns for morality or black uplift, these colonizationists saw slavery as a national threat to industrialization, modernization, and progress. “Humanitarian” reformers constituted the other camp. Often ideological drifters from the gradualist PAS, these people grew increasingly disenchanted with the possibility of black uplift in the United States as the nineteenth century progressed. Equally significant, Tomek does not ignore the contributions of African Americans to these antislavery causes. While African American opposition to the ACS has been well documented, Tomek adds an important addendum to this established narrative by noting that many African Americans were not intrinsically opposed to colonization schemes, especially if those plans were tied to black uplift, but rather were wary of the white-led American Colonization Society (ACS).
The book is organized into eight chapters. Chapter one focuses [End Page 202] on the foundation of organized antislavery activity in Pennsylvania with the establishment of the PAS. Tomek astutely notes that these reformers often merged their opposition to slavery with a desire to control the Pennsylvania black population through education and demands for moral uplift. The second chapter centers on the rise of the PCS as it established a broad coalition of politically minded and frustrated humanitarian reformers. The heart of the book, however, is a series of five chapter-length case studies that spotlight persons who embody the disparate elements of the colonization movement and demonstrate the breadth of antislavery thinking. Matthew Carey represents the politically and economically minded side of colonization. For humanitarian reformers of the gradualist stripe, Tomek focuses on Elliott Cresson. Black businessman James Forten is Tomek’s example of upper-class African Americans who flirted with the idea of colonization. While the idea of a black republic appealed to Forten as a demonstration of black equality with whites, he ultimately decided that the white-led ACS did not fulfill this ambition. Benjamin Coates, also a Philadelphia Quaker like Cresson, followed in his predecessor’s footsteps by emphasizing colonization as a vehicle for black uplift. The final case study centers on Martin Delany and his arguments for self-help and emigration as the ideological descendants of Forten. Tomek concludes her narrative with a final chapter “assessing the success and failures of Pennsylvania’s competing antislavery agendas” (p. 219).
The approach is not without its problems. For those who are supposed to stand in for entire ideological camps, the reader is often presented with such exceptional characters that one wonders at the extent of their representativeness. After uncritically quoting another historian who described Cresson as a “one-man show,” Tomek immediately declares that “many Pennsylvanians shared Cresson’s...