Slavery, Race, Abolition, Black Laws, Midwest, Old Northwest
Historian Dana Weiner’s Race and Rights is a welcome addition to the growing body of literature examining abolitionists who battled slavery [End Page 139] and racial prejudice in the antebellum Midwest. Focusing on the struggles of activists—female and male, black and white—in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois, Weiner argues that these four states constituted “the central battleground over race and rights in antebellum America” (3). This key claim about the significance of the Old Northwest over other regions is difficult to gauge, especially given the absence of substantial comparative analysis. Nonetheless, Weiner illustrates that this region was an important hotbed of controversy over slavery, race, and freedom of expression. This well-researched study will interest scholars of abolitionism and civil liberties and should be read alongside the recent work of Stephen Middleton, H. Robert Baker, and Stacey Robertson, among others.1
Weiner’s nine chapters are arranged both thematically and chronologically, and within each chapter Weiner uses repeated section breaks to bring order to the many controversies occurring in the region over space and time. A preliminary chapter sets the stage for the ascension of abolitionist activism in the 1830s by detailing the Old Northwest’s racial, political, religious, and reform landscape. The second chapter focuses on early battles over fugitive slave laws and the region’s notorious “Black Laws,” which restricted black migration into these states and hampered black residents by denying them a range of rights that were enjoyed by whites. From continued black migration and black conventions to court action, petitions, and the use of rights arguments, Weiner describes the ways that activists contested these hostile measures. In the final chapter, Weiner returns to these issues as they persisted in the era of sectional crisis, Civil War, and Reconstruction. In both chapters, she persuasively makes the case that resistance to the “Black Laws” constituted a vital aspect of Midwestern abolitionism and that these efforts at legal reform advanced new egalitarian conceptions of rights. Especially in light of the repeated failures of activists to change public policy and the only “limited signs of local progress” (232) that appeared by the post-Civil War period, the public reception and lasting impact of these rights claims, particularly outside of activist circles, is less clear. [End Page 140]
The middle four chapters explore the perils of publicly advocating abolitionism and racial equality in the Old Northwest. At least since Russel Nye’s classic Fettered Freedom: Civil Liberties and the Slavery Controversy, 1830–1860, abolitionism’s role in provoking controversies over civil liberties has been well known.2 Weiner’s study, however, takes readers away from the gag rules in Washington, DC, to show how freedoms of speech, assembly, and press were contested on the ground in the combustible Old Northwest. In describing the vitality of public meetings, itinerant lecturers, and the press to Midwestern abolitionists’ grassroots crusade against slavery and racial prejudice, Weiner provides new readings of such well-known events as the murder of abolitionist printer Elijah Lovejoy in 1837. She also richly portrays events that have received far less attention, including the “One Hundred Conventions” Tour of 1843 that brought Frederick Douglass, John A. Collins, and other eastern abolitionist lecturers to small towns throughout the Old Northwest. To Weiner, such events reveal the importance of the region to abolitionists’ nationwide reform efforts. They also expose the conflicts that erupted as activists (especially when in mixed-race and mixed-gender groups) sought to preach abolitionism in local communities.
Indeed, Weiner’s analysis of the anti-abolitionist backlash and its eggthrowing and violent mob action is as fascinating as her portrayal of the abolitionists and a highlight of the book that scholars should note. Clashes between abolitionists and hostile locals produced a series of freedom-of-expression controversies that tested activists’ ability to speak and local communities’ power to determine the boundaries of acceptable expression. Perhaps not surprisingly, Weiner champions the abolitionists, heralding them as...