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The Bonds and Boundaries of Antislavery

From: The Journal of the Civil War Era
Volume 4, Number 1, March 2014
pp. 84-105 | 10.1353/cwe.2014.0021

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Recent historians of abolitionism have tackled questions as diverse as the movement they study, but two of the oldest questions about antislavery continue to shape the field. First, what role did antebellum abolitionists play in driving the nation apart? And second, where should historians draw the boundaries of abolitionism?

The first question connects abolitionist history to scholarship on the coming of the Civil War, two fields that have overlapped since the war and have never been separated for long. Abolitionists' responsibility for disunion remains a contentious subject, particularly in light of what Yael Sternhell calls an "antiwar turn" in recent Civil War scholarship. But many recent historians of Civil War causation now feature the abolitionists, especially by enlarging the cast of characters identified with the antislavery movement.

Broadened definitions of abolitionism have also revived debates about the boundaries within abolitionism. Ronald G. Walters's observation that "the more that is written about antislavery the more trouble we have finding its boundaries" remains as true today as it was when he made it in 1979. But two new developments appear in recent work. First, whereas historians used to be impressed by how little united the abolitionists, recent work often notes that they "built bridges and interacted with each other" even as "they bickered." Assessments of which gaps most needed to be bridged have also shifted, and historians are reconsidering the boundaries of abolitionism once regarded as the most important—"immediatist" versus "gradualist" and "colonizationist," "moral suasion" versus "political," "black" versus "white," even "antislavery" versus "abolitionist." Ideas about how to delineate various antislavery positions, or about which were the most radical, are once again in flux.

Other boundaries of abolitionism remain stable, however, especially the boundary marking the end of abolitionism. In 1979, Walters noted that previous historians typically treated 1831 to 1865 as a "distinct phase of American antislavery" and urged scholars to push "outward in both directions." Since then, historians have answered part of this call with a slew of works on antislavery between 1808 and 1831, the years Alice Dana Adams once called the "neglected period of anti-slavery in America." But work challenging the endpoint of 1865 is more fragmentary. Today the neglected period of anti-slavery in America is not the first third of the nineteenth century, but the last.

The middle third of the century, meanwhile, continues to feature prominently in abolitionist historiography, and for good reason. After briefly surveying recent scholarship on these antebellum decades, I will note an emerging focus in this literature on the bonds, instead of the boundaries, between abolitionists. In the final sections, I will consider complementary developments in the recent historiography on abolitionism and the coming of the Civil War, before closing with a recommendation that future historians of antislavery follow its implications beyond 1865.

Scholars have long recognized the innovations and significance of the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS), established in 1833, and recent comparative studies only underscore its impressive ascent. By 1840, groups affiliated with the AASS claimed at least 100,000 members and may have had three times that many. As historians Seymour Drescher and David Brion Davis both emphasize, the seventy lecturing agents sent into the field by the AASS in the early 1830s far outnumbered the handful of agents paid by Great Britain's radical Agency Committee, which agitated for West Indian emancipation. And the publishing output of the American society also outstripped British precedents. The well-known severity of the backlash against the AASS in the 1830s testified not to the movement's weakness but to its considerable strength and growing ability to unnerve slaveholders and their allies.

Despite its achievements, however, the AASS lacks a full book-length study even today. Most recent work on antislavery has instead ranged far beyond the AASS as an organization, dramatically expanding the movement's membership, geography, and chronology. One major historiographical impulse has been to emphasize that African Americans were "architects of their own liberation" and the most important influences on the predominantly white founders of the AASS. Scholars have also challenged the significance of 1833 by recovering the origins of American antislavery in Quaker philanthropic networks, early national partisan politics, postrevolutionary radicalism, and even intersectional...



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