James Brewer Stewart has devoted much of his professional life to the study of abolitionism and is today recognized as the “dean” of antislavery historians. Abolitionist Politics successfully brings together the central findings of his research. The author of biographies of Joshua Giddings, Wendell Phillips, and William Lloyd Garrison as well as the best overview of the antislavery movement (Holy Warriors: The Abolitionists and American Slavery, rev. ed., New York, 1997) and numerous articles on key aspects of the crusade against slavery, Stewart here presents his path-breaking research on key aspects of the movement. Stressing the biographical approach, he emphasizes black and white abolitionist cooperation in the challenge to northern racism and discrimination and the southern way of life and defense of slavery. He considers all aspects of the movement, from anti-institutional reformers like Garrison to those devoted to antislavery politics like Giddings. Stewart asks and answers the question of why the movement actually mattered, and he discusses the role that abolitionists played in bringing civil war as well as the degree to which religion and other cultural factors influenced their behavior.
Readers interested in new insights on abolitionism may be disappointed, but those desiring a thematic consolidation of the findings of [End Page 165] forty years of research will be highly rewarded. The initial essay, “From Moral Suasion to Political Confrontation” (2004), uses Phillips to trace the development of militant resistance to slavery, showing why increasing numbers of northerners agreed as abolitionists conducted searching critiques of injustices in both North and South, giving the crusade against slavery its significance, then and now.
In “Modernizing ‘Difference’ ” (1999), a look at racial attitudes from the American Revolution to 1840, Stewart shows how views on white supremacy evolved and solidified, and how protest against it resembled the civil rights movements of the twentieth century. Black voices of protest moved from the moderation of Hosea Easton and Richard Allen to the militancy of Nat Turner and David Walker. Main-line Americans, whether Whigs endorsing colonization or Democrats inclined to racial violence, led to modern-like reactions such as the moral suasion of Garrisonians and the political approach of the Liberty party. It was an age of increasing racial tensions as black and white protests became more militant and led to legislative restrictions on blacks and mob action, sometimes aided by governmental forces in cities throughout the North. While some African Americans sought racial independence, others worked with both Garrisonians and Liberty party activists in pioneering many of the methods of the protests of the 1960s.
In “The Roberts Case” (2004), Stewart and coauthor George R. Price study the motivation of prominent Massachusetts black leaders, beginning with the legacy of the activism of Benjamin Roberts’s grandfather James Easton, who walked out of his segregated church after having served in Patriot armies. His efforts included a manual labor school for African American youth, which succeeded until 1830 when racism forced its closure and an age of mob violence began. Easton’s daughter married Robert Roberts, and it was their son Benjamin who filed his desegregation suit against the Boston School Committee in behalf of his five-year old daughter Sarah. Roberts worked with black and white attorneys and other abolitionists in the state in their challenge to segregation. Legislative victory in regard to the schools of Boston came in 1855 after court cases had failed. Roberts’s life reveals a legacy of activism established by Easton during the Revolution, with the former seeing the school victory as the “greatest boon ever bestowed upon our people” (88).
Turning more directly to biography, Stewart compares the lives of the Beacon Hill aristocrat Wendell Phillips with the commoner William Lloyd Garrison (“William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and the [End Page 166] Symmetry of Autobiography,” 1994) and finds the values and approach of these two abolitionists strikingly similar. With absent fathers and dominant single mothers, both advocated women’s rights and provided powerful leadership to the movement, driven in part by their charismatic...