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  • Standard-Bearers of Equality: America's First Abolition Movement by Paul J. Polgar
  • Richard Newman (bio)

Abolitionism, Black abolishionists, Slavery, Antislavery, African American history

Standard-Bearers of Equality: America's First Abolition Movement. By Paul J. Polgar. (Chapel Hill: The Omohundro Institute and the University of North Carolina Press, 2019. Pp. 342. Cloth, $39.95; ebook $29.99.)

In Standard Bearers of Equality, Paul Polgar challenges scholars to reframe their very understanding of early abolitionism in the United States. Focusing on "first movement" activists between the 1770s and 1820s, he argues that Black as well as white reformers shaped an egalitarian vision of American society that remains powerful centuries later. Indeed, as he concludes, while early activists failed to slay slavery nationally and end white prejudice in the North, "the most enduring legacy of America's first abolition movement was its abiding faith that a world free from black oppression and inequality was possible" (325). Full of insightful analysis and bracingly written, this is a bold book to reckon with. Yet Polgar also pushes early abolitionist radicalism too far, raising key questions about the first movement's ultimate impact on American and Atlantic society.

Polgar's study comes at a key moment for abolitionist historiography. On the one hand, much recent work focuses on African American struggles for justice before the Civil War. Books by Martha Jones, Christopher Bonner, and Kellie Carter Jackson have pictured Black activists as the center of a decades-long movement for immediate abolition, birthright citizenship, and civic equality. On the other hand, the Caribbean turn in Atlantic studies—including seminal work by Laurent Dubois, Vincent [End Page 299] Brown, and Ed Rugemer, among others—has focused increasing attention on the impact of slave rebellion on emancipation movements and laws between the 1760s and 1830s. In both cases, early American abolitionists have been pushed to the margins of Atlantic reform. Even the legendary David Brion Davis, whose early work focused on the power of Anglo American abolitionism before 1820, later saw Caribbean slave rebellion—which resulted in immediate freedom for hundreds of thousands of enslaved people—and the advent of the Black republic of Haiti as the keys to understanding Atlantic society's "first emancipations" (see The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation, 45).

So just what did early abolitionists do? Polgar takes on this question with gusto and verve. As he puts it, while "the racially progressive origins of American abolitionism" have been "buried" by recent scholars, it is clear that early activists offered a "reform blueprint" that made universal freedom and racial equality essential goals of modern democratic society (7–8). First movement reformers sought to strip slavery of its legal, constitutional, and political protections where they could, especially in the U.S. North. "In so doing, they built a reform agenda" that was also "premised on the eventual overturning of Black degradation" as an organizing principle across American society (7). For Polgar, the long march to Black freedom begins with first movement abolitionists.

Idealists as well pragmatists, early abolitionists argued that changing African Americans' circumstances would shift racial destinies in the United States. Deploying new understandings of societal environmentalism, early abolitionists "pinned Black inequality on the circumstances of slavery"—their oppressive environment—and "not [on] the inner character of people of color," as many anti-abolitionists did (133). By rejecting the concept of innate Black inferiority, early abolitionists imagined a world defined by human equality rather than slavery.

The first steps toward building that world occurred in the U.S. North, where early abolitionists secured gradual emancipation laws that would take effect over several decades. But first movement activists also vigorously prosecuted masters who violated these laws, often winning outright freedom for some African Americans. Polgar shows that white abolitionists in Pennsylvania and New York brought forth 520 cases of illegal enslavement over the span of a decade, enjoying an 84 percent success rate. In Pennsylvania abolitionist complaints also persuaded the state government to close slave-trading loopholes in the gradual abolition act of 1780. By enforcing and even expanding statutory abolition, first movement [End Page 300] activists made clear to slaveholders and others that they would remain vigilant...


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pp. 299-302
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