- Sister Societies: Women's Antislavery Organizations in Antebellum America, and: Slavery and the Peculiar Solution: A History of the American Colonization Society
During his visit to the United States in the mid-nineteenth century, Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at the American propensity for volunteerism [End Page 184] and establishing associations. Indeed, for Tocqueville, in order to understand American democracy, one needs to examine the political and civic associations in the United States closely. By participating in their associations, Americans truly lived democracy. At their associations, Americans wrote constitutions, voted members for offices, raised funds, debated with one another, created communication networks that circulated ideas, and importantly, actively engaged the public. American associations did not simply mimic national political institutions; they reinforced and legitimated those institutions by enabling Americans to practice democracy in their everyday lives.
It seemed that wherever De Tocqueville turned, he saw Americans immersed in associational life. Whether in temperance organizations, antislavery societies, or similar institutions, Americans were engaged in activities that made politics their lifeblood. It is important to keep Tocqueville's perspective in mind when considering women's antislavery organizations or the American Colonization Society, the subjects of Beth Salerno's Sister Societies: Women's Anti-Slavery Organizations in Antebellum America and Eric Burin's Slavery and the Peculiar Solution: A History of the American Colonization Society. Through the activities of black and white women in the North (Salerno), or colonization advocates from the North and South, as well as black and white (Burin), these authors examine the ways the "peculiar" dilemma of American slavery galvanized people who used civil associations to address the politically, economically, and morally provocative issue of emancipation. Even as political leaders sought to marginalize slavery from national affairs, in the private sector Americans as diverse as black women in Massachusetts and proslavery plantation owners in Maryland were working to solve the "peculiar" problem that plagued the nation. In their important books, Salerno and Burin remind us that Americans at the grassroots level were seriously engaged in the debate over slavery's future in America, and by extension the role of African Americans in the American republic.
In Sister Societies, Salerno documents the emergence of female antislavery societies in the northern United States and the ways women negotiated the contested terrain between the private and public sphere. As protectors and teachers of moral virtue, women were expected to refrain from the corrupt world of politics. But as abolitionists argued, it was from their position as matrons of morality that women needed to work to end the immoral practice of slavery. As Salerno points out, in their meetings, women would stress slavery's destabilizing impact upon women, children, and the family, and, more provocatively, they petitioned [End Page 185] legislators to abolish slavery. Rather than prompting a new political presence in the public sphere, advocating for emancipation was part of a long tradition of women using public and political means to support and protect the domestic sphere. Nevertheless, Salerno demonstrates that female antislavery societies met strong resistance, not just from antiabolitionists but also from those who believed that women should not engage in political affairs. Fearing that women were participating in "promiscuous" associations (ones where women encountered and worked with men), laboring with African Americans, or, most provocatively, lecturing and speaking out against slavery, critics contended that these women were turning social and gender conventions upside down. In her careful analysis, Salerno cautions readers that the majority of members of female antislavery societies did not see their public activity as subverting gender norms. Yes, they were politicized, but in ways to challenge slavery. And while some women were provoked to question contemporary views of gender and racial categories, most were not.
Women's historians have called attention to the ways that female participation in antislavery associations fed into a women's movement that...