- From Abolition to Rights for All: The Making of a Reform Community in the Nineteenth Century
A renaissance in abolitionist studies notwithstanding, many scholars still understand the antislavery movement within the confines of the Civil War era. Reconstruction’s failure is the last act in a drama that began just decades earlier. And then the next play begins, whether it is new battles between capital and labor, the rise of civil service reform and progressivism, or any number of other issues. When racial reform reenters the narrative, it is with a completely new cast of characters in a later period. As John Cumbler’s From Abolition To Rights For All makes clear, radical antislavery reformers did not see things this way. Understanding the abolitionist movement as a struggle for human rights, he traces the lives of roughly a dozen radical antislavery men and women who moved seamlessly from struggles against racial injustice into battles over public health, workers rights, women’s rights, and housing reform. Indeed, as Cumbler asserts, historians need to see abolitionists as vital members of the postbellum American reform community. In short, for Cumbler (a noted environmental scholar) there are no neat gaps between stages of reform, only transitions among and within social movements. “For the most part historians have presented antebellum reformers (with the exception of women’s suffrage activists) as having retired from the historical stage, unwilling or unable to engage the complex world of government and commerce in the postwar era.” (3). From Abolition To Rights For All corrects this perception by tracing abolitionist continuities and consequences. It is a fine book that should be high on the reading list of anyone interested in American social movements.
The abolitionist “reform community” (2–3), as Cumbler labels it, coalesced in the 1840s and ’50s, stayed loosely together through the Civil War era, and then used the old abolitionist struggle as the lens for understanding new reform causes. The stars of Cumbler’s insightful study are Henry Ingersoll Bowditch (scion of a Salem merchant family and a well-known Boston physician) and Julia Ward Howe (best remembered as the author of the abolitionist anthem “John Brown’s Body” but also an unheralded antislavery publicist). Like most of Cumbler’s subjects—including radical preachers Theodore Parker and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, female abolitionists Abigail Kelley and Elizabeth Buffum Chace, and the truly unheralded likes of Marie Zakrzewski and Franklin Sanbor—Bowditch and Howe occupied the second tier of radical New England abolitionists. Neither were founders of the New England Antislavery Society, [End Page 469] nor (with the exception of celebrated orator Wendell Phillips) did they become as famous as William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass. Yet they helped create a movement culture whose human rights philosophy shaped the meaning of liberty and justice for years to come.
Cumbler makes several important points. First, radical abolitionists must be seen as progenitors of modern liberalism. “Like many other activists in American politics, the abolitionists viewed the world as a conflict over the defense of liberty,” he writes. (7) Antislavery reformers defended “the common people” over and against the power of wealth and privilege, whether defined as the slavocracy or its northern defenders. (7) In thus constructing the abolitionist struggle, radical abolitionists “rooted their critique of slavery in natural rights.” (1) Yet they also hoped to expand Lockean ideas by veering away from libertarianism, hoping instead to utilize the powers of the state to ensure “social justice.” (1) Here, Cumbler diverges from scholars who understand abolitionism in largely religious terms, instead placing them at the heart of American debates over citizen well-being and state power.
From Abolition To Rights For All makes a second key contribution to reform historiography by emphasizing the ties that bound abolitionists together through time and space. Relying on Lawrence Goodwyn’s classic work, The Populist Moment, Cumbler argues that “the story of the struggle against slavery and later activism is the story of a community and a social justice movement.” (8...