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Abolitionist Politics and the Coming of the Civil War

James Brewer Stewart

Publication Year: 2008

Before the Civil War, slaveholders made themselves into the most powerful, most deeply rooted, and best organized private interest group within the United States. Not only did slavery represent the national economy's second largest capital investment, exceeded only by investment in real estate, but guarantees of its perpetuation were studded throughout the U.S. Constitution. The vast majority of white Americans, in North and South, accepted the institution, and pro-slavery presidents and congressmen consistently promoted its interests. In Abolitionist Politics and the Coming of the Civil War, James Brewer Stewart explains how a small group of radical activists, the abolitionist movement, played a pivotal role in turning American politics against this formidable system. He examines what influence the movement had in creating the political crises that led to civil war and evaluates the extent to which a small number of zealous reformers made a truly significant political difference when demanding that their nation face up to its most excruciating moral problem. In making these assessments, Stewart addresses a series of more specific questions: What were the abolitionists actually up against when seeking the overthrow of slavery and white supremacy? What motivated and sustained them during their long and difficult struggles? What larger historical contexts (religious, social, economic, cultural, and political) influenced their choices and determined their behavior? What roles did extraordinary leaders play in shaping the movement, and what were the contributions of abolitionism's unheralded “foot soldiers”? What factors ultimately determined, for better or worse, the abolitionists' impact on American politics and the realization of their equalitarian goals?

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press


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Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Table of Contents

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p. vii

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pp. ix-xi

Before the Civil War, slaveholders made themselves into the most powerful, most deeply rooted, and best organized private interest group within the United States. There should be no surprise in this. Investment in slavery, in all of its financial manifestations, was exceeded only by investment in real estate. ...


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p. xiii

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Part I : Narratives

Few historical narratives are as complex or as open to conflicting interpretation as those recounting the coming of the Civil War. Though agreeing on the major events is easy enough, disagreement inevitably arises when one asks how these events should be interpreted when determining who and what was responsible for causing that war. ...

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From Moral Suasion to Political Confrontation American Abolitionists and the Problem of Resistance, 1831–1861

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pp. 3-31

In January 1863, as warfare raged between North and South, the great abolitionist orator Wendell Phillips addressed an enormous audience of over ten thousand in Brooklyn, New York. Just days earlier, President Abraham Lincoln, in his Emancipation Proclamation, had defined the destruction of slavery as the North’s new and overriding war aim. ...

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Part II : Contexts

From its inception to its conclusion, the abolitionist movement constantly struggled with the pervasive and intractable problem of racial prejudice. Those difficulties were all the more complicated by the fact that racial prejudice expressed itself in new and disturbing ways as circumstances changed throughout the pre–Civil War years. ...

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Modernizing “Difference”: The Political Meanings of Color in the Free States, 1776–1840

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pp. 35-57

As the decade of the 1830s opened, people living in the states “north of slavery” found themselves facing unprecedented dangers and opportunities that resulted from rapidly accumulating racial tensions. As crises multiplied, headlines of that time (even in generic form) conveyed their enormity and potential for violence—Nullification Spirit Sweeps...

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Part III : Commitments

There is no more difficult challenge for historians, particularly for historians of abolitionism, than that of explaining motivations. What circumstances made the abolitionists decide to take on such an unpopular, even dangerous and seemingly impossible task? ...

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The Roberts Case, the Easton Family, and the Dynamics of the Abolitionist Movement in Massachusetts, 1776–1870 (co-authored with George R. Price)

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pp. 61-88

As one of Boston’s most militant black abolitionists, Benjamin Roberts surprised no one when he filed a desegregation lawsuit against the city school committee in 1848. This familiar and important story ultimately set formidable precedents in the struggle for racial equality and in the history of American law. ...

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William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and the Symmetry of Autobiography: Charisma and the Character of Abolitionist Leadership

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pp. 89-109

When explaining the motivations of America’s white abolitionists, many historians emphasize the importance of “grassroots” approaches. Yet, the problem of motivation can also be fruitfully investigated by considering the movement “from the top down,” in this instance by comparing the biographies of William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips. ...

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Part IV : Consequences

Political historians who explain the coming of the Civil War see little reason to emphasize the importance of the abolitionists. In the epochal shattering of the nation’s systems of electoral politics and governance, they discern little if any influence being exerted by so small and marginalized a group. ...

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Joshua Giddings, Antislavery Violence, and the Politics of Congressional Honor

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pp. 113-138

To historians of the American conflict over slavery, the censure and re-election of Congressman Joshua Giddings is a familiar but important story. In 1842 Giddings defied the House of Representatives’ “gag rule” by presenting resolutions that defended the right of slaves on ships in international waters to rise in bloody insurrection. ...

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The Orator and the Insurrectionist

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pp. 139-171

“I regard you as providentially raised up to be the James Otis of the new revolution,” wrote William Lloyd Garrison to Wendell Phillips in 1857. The year before, Thomas Wentworth Higginson had also offered him the same challenging thought: “Some prophetic character must emerge as the new crisis culminates. . . . Your life has been merely preliminary to the work that is coming for you.”1 ...

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The New Haven Negro College and the Dynamics of Race in New England, 1776–1870

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pp. 172-202

In 1831, a group of black and white abolitionists embarked on a path- breaking experiment: they would establish an academic institution devoted to educating young African Americans, and, most unprecedented, it would be funded by philanthropists of both races. Modeling their scheme on the manual labor schools already popular in Germany and England, the planners adopted a curriculum designed to help students...

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Reconsidering the Abolitionists in an Age of Fundamentalist Politics

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pp. 203-226

The era we refer to as the “Jacksonian Era” or the “Era of the Market Revolution” can just as accurately be termed the “Era of Bible Politics.” As we know, people in the antebellum era quarreled incessantly over whether their nation ought to be refashioned as a “Christian Republic.” Should the lives of Americans and the mandates of their institutions accord with sacred scripture? ...


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pp. 227-236

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781613761663
E-ISBN-10: 161376166X
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558496347
Print-ISBN-10: 1558496343

Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2008

OCLC Number: 608551565
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Abolitionist Politics and the Coming of the Civil War

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Abolitionists -- United States -- Biography
  • Equality -- United States -- History.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1775-1783.
  • Political activists -- United States -- Biography.
  • Radicalism -- United States -- History.
  • Abolitionists -- Political activity -- United States -- History.
  • Antislavery movements -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Causes.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1783-1865.
  • Slavery -- United States -- History -- 18th century.
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