The Transformation of American Abolitionism: Fighting Slavery in the Early Republic

Overview

Newman traces the abolition movement's transformation from the American Revolution to 1830, showing how what began in late-18th-century Pennsylvania as an elite movement espousing gradual legal reform had by the 1830s become a radical, egalitarian mass movement based in Massachusetts.

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The Transformation of American Abolitionism: Fighting Slavery in the Early Republic

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Overview

Newman traces the abolition movement's transformation from the American Revolution to 1830, showing how what began in late-18th-century Pennsylvania as an elite movement espousing gradual legal reform had by the 1830s become a radical, egalitarian mass movement based in Massachusetts.

Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

James Brewer Stewart
Because of its persuasive reformulation of accepted historical narratives and because of its revealing analyses of actions as well as ideologies, [this book] is a major historiographical turning point.
Waldo E. Martin Jr.
In thoughtful and often original ways, [this book] redirects our attention to the fascinating 'first wave' of the movement and, in turn, resuscitates its historical significance.
From the Publisher
Because of its persuasive reformulation of accepted historical narratives and because of its revealing analyses of actions as well as ideologies, [this book] is a major historiographical turning point. (James Brewer Stewart, Macalester College)

In thoughtful and often original ways, [this book] redirects our attention to the fascinating 'first wave' of the movement and, in turn, resuscitates its historical significance. (Waldo E. Martin Jr., University of California, Berkeley)

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807849989
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
  • Publication date: 4/22/2002
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 939,081
  • Product dimensions: 6.26 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 0.65 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard S. Newman is assistant professor of history at Rochester Institute of Technology. He is coeditor of Pamphlets of Protest: An Anthology of Early African American Protest Literature, 1790-1860 and an educational consultant to Strong Museum in Rochester, New York.

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The Transformation of American Abolitionism
Fighting Slavery in the Early Republic


By Richard S. Newman

University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2002 The University of North Carolina Press.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0807826715



Introduction


Abolitionist Transformations


There are no second acts in American Lives. —F. Scott Fitzgerald


In January 1831 William Lloyd Garrison began publishing the Liberator, a radical abolitionist newspaper dedicated to immediate abolition and full equality for African Americans. "I will not equivocate," Garrison thundered, "and I will be heard."

In both the popular imagination and in many scholarly accounts, Garrison's debut remains the benchmark of abolitionism. Against the backdrop of religious revivals, a broader reform sensibility, and an emerging market system of free labor, a radical abolition movement appeared almost overnight. The early struggle against slavery (described variously as "gradualist" and "Quaker-oriented") had long since died out; a brand-new age was born. Indeed, despite the impressive growth in abolitionist literature over the previous two decades (described by one well-known scholar as an "avalanche"), abolitionism as an organized movement is still understood in this post-1830 context. Many prominent historians (including Robert Abzug, Richard Blackett, Aileen Kraditor, Lewis Perry, James Brewer Stewart, Ron Walters, and most recently Paul Goodman and Julie Jeffery) slight the work of early abolitionists, placing meaningful debates over strategy, tactics, and personnel only in later years. Conversely, scholars detailing the push for slavery's eradication after the American Revolution (such as Gary Nash and Jean Soderlund, Merton Dillon, Arthur Zilversmit, and Shane White) have neglected abolition's continuity through the 1800s. Even David Brion Davis's magisterial work on slavery in the post-Revolutionary world, which focuses on antislavery philosophies rather than tactics, stops at the Missouri Compromise.[1]

Abolitionism was born with the American republic. It did not fade until the nation's near-death experience of the Civil War. Yet while abolitionists worked consistently to destroy slavery and racial injustice in these years, their strategy and tactics constantly evolved. The era between the American Revolution and the 1830s was the first great period of transformation. What began as an elite abolitionist movement in Pennsylvania during the post-Revolutionary period yielded to an egalitarian movement based in Massachusetts during the early 1830s. With this shift in location, abolitionist strategy, tactics, and, perhaps most significantly, personnel shifted too. Whereas Pennsylvanians sought politicians' support for gradual abolition, "modern" abolitionists roused the masses—including blacks and women—to end slavery immediately. Instead of Pennsylvanians' specialized legal tactics designed to persuade jurists to end bondage, Bay Staters dispatched traveling agents to organize local antislavery societies; instead of learned legal briefs, they crafted emotional appeals emphasizing the horrors of slavery. Profound changes in American political culture and social life influenced abolition's transformation in the 1820s and early 1830s, from the advent of revivalism and egalitarian political theories to the rising prominence of free black and female activists. Massachusetts agitators seized these cultural developments to turn the abolitionist movement itself into a revolutionary force over and against Pennsylvanians' conservative tradition of reform.

This study probes more deeply abolition's transformation during the early republic. It revolves around several questions: Just who were Pennsylvania abolitionists, and how did they function tactically? Why did abolitionism change when it did in the 1830s? What roles did African Americans and women (long ignored by first-generation reformers as public activists) play in forming more radical abolitionist activities, and how did the Pennsylvania Abolition Society (PAS) react? Finally, how exactly did abolition's strategy and tactics change so that Americans would ever remember the aggressive post-1830s movement as the essence of organized antislavery?

It is important to make two caveats at the outset of this study. First, this work does not delve deeply into the religious inspirations of abolitionists. Historians have long known that religion was the primary motivator for generations of abolitionists. However, this focus on motivation has often pulled scholars' attention away from what abolitionists did and how their activities shifted over time. Yet whatever their reasons, reformers' tactics often made more of an impression on slaveholders and skeptical northern politicians. In the 1830s Governor Edward Everett worried less about the inducements of new abolitionists and more about their aggressive speaking campaigns in the Massachusetts hinterland, which he sought to ban. Similarly, just before the Civil War some southern slaveholders referred to the earliest petition campaigns of Pennsylvania abolitionists as the beginning of an abolitionist offensive—and a just reason to secede finally from a Union soon to be overrun by abolitionist policies.

The second caveat is that although the transformation of abolitionism is considered here largely from the perspective of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts activists, it would be an oversimplification to reduce the antislavery movement to these two states. In the early national era, for example, the New York Manumission Society and the American Convention of Abolition Societies joined the Pennsylvania Abolition Society as leaders in the fight against slavery. Similarly, the Massachusetts Antislavery Society was but one of a whole new generation of immediatist organizations that formed in the early 1830s, particularly in New York City, where black and white activists formed crucial ties. Nevertheless, the Pennsylvania and Massachusetts campaigns became virtual personifications of the abolitionist struggle during the early republic. Following the American Revolution, a variety of American and European reformers recognized the PAS as the preeminent organization to end slavery. The flow of information relating to abolitionist tactics went through the group's headquarters in Philadelphia more so than any other locale. Fifty years later, however, Massachusetts served as abolitionism's tactical center. "I like the spirit of Massachusetts abolitionism," one Maine reformer wrote at the end of the 1830s, for "it is energetic." Pennsylvania reformers realized that a transition had occurred, and that abolitionists in Massachusetts (whom they labeled "Garrisonian" or "modern" reformers) now occupied a leadership position. "To Pennsylvania belongs the honor of first organizing a society" for abolishing slavery, one Quaker State activist somberly wrote in the late 1830s. "Its members were amongst the most excellent and virtuous of the day. They were animated by clear and lofty benevolence . . . and thus constituted and recognized, they wielded moral power, the effect of which is now felt among their descendants." But, he made clear, the present belonged to the younger generation of Massachusetts radicals. "Has abolition gone defunct in Pennsylvania?" one Bucks County, Pennsylvania, reformer wanted to know. "For a long time it has seemed as though the spirit of freedom had fled from our citizens' bosoms," a new local abolitionist society in Pennsylvania answered in 1837. The new group was Garrisonian.[2]

The transformation of abolitionism strained relations between first- and second-wave reformers in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. For a time the PAS even refused to admit "modern" abolitionists, and during the transition of the early 1830s its members often did not support public speeches by Garrisonians in the Quaker State. "Modern" abolitionists labeled the old guard as "halfway" abolitionists at best. "The cause must come out of their hands," one Philadelphia woman aligned with Massachusetts reformers wrote in 1838. As perhaps the ultimate snub, second-wave abolitionists' histories of the movement paid little attention to their predecessors. "The cradle of abolition," Boston's James Freeman Clark summarily declared after the Civil War, "was Massachusetts."[3] Hence the belief, still very much alive, that abolition really began in the 1830s.


The transformation of abolitionism is best told in the tale of two organizations: the Pennsylvania Abolition Society and the Massachusetts Antislavery Society (which became the model for the American Antislavery Society). Together, they dominated the first fifty years of organized abolitionism, spanning not just many years and numerous activists but two completely different tactical styles and political/social worlds. The PAS created the world's first abolitionist organization and set the tone for the American abolitionist movement before 1830. Though initially composed of Quaker antislavery theorists who sought private conversions of slaveholders, the PAS quickly established itself as a prestigious organization of politically oriented strategists. Based on an examination of the tactical leadership and strategy of the society, abolitionism appears to have been part and parcel of a post-Revolutionary world marked by deferential governing styles and Enlightenment sensibilities. Dominated by societal elites—wealthy philanthropists, political representatives, businessmen, and, above all, well-known lawyers—the PAS advocated gradual abolitionism by means of painstaking legal work and legislative action. As William Rawle, the organization's longtime president and a noted lawyer, soberly put it, the Pennsylvania Abolition Society engaged in a particular mode of "dispassionate" reform. Emotional appeals to the public and religious zeal had no place in its procedure.[4]

Despite this careful approach, the PAS became a controversial participant in post-Revolutionary debates over American slavery. In an era when most political leaders avoided the divisive issue, PAS strategy emphasized that government and its representative legal and political institutions should gradually attack the institution of slavery. By pressuring state and federal officials to craft abolitionist statutes, and by challenging courts to hand down pro-abolitionist decisions, Pennsylvania activists tried to delegitimize slavery's legal standing in the nation. Government interference, the PAS argued again and again, was the key to broad emancipation in American society.

This strategy of striking at bondage via government power stood out in two PAS tactics: petitioning and providing legal aid to African Americans. Abolitionist petitions routinely pushed state and federal governments to prohibit the domestic and overseas slave trade, to stop slavery's westward expansion, and to eradicate the institution itself in federally controlled areas, such as the District of Columbia. Before 1830, the group drafted over twenty petitions to Congress on such issues and over twice as many to the Pennsylvania legislature. And well before the gag rule debates of the 1830s, southern congressmen sought to ban antislavery memorials from the federal legislature.

The PAS viewed litigation against masters as another important way to strike at bondage gradually. By representing kidnapped free blacks in court, by bargaining with slaveholders for a fugitive slave's freedom, and by requiring northern courts to protect the constitutional rights of blacks, the PAS hampered slavery's legal protections nationally—turning bondage into a distinctly sectional institution with different legal sanctions in northern and southern courts. Pennsylvania abolitionists spent most of their time and money planning legal tactics and achieved a national reputation as blacks' legal representatives.

The group did not do it alone. In fact, PAS litigation illuminated the remarkable struggles of African Americans (both free and enslaved, in Pennsylvania as well as in southern states where bondage remained entrenched following the Revolution) to fight slavery throughout the early republic. On a consistent basis, Pennsylvania blacks ran away from masters who tried either to circumvent the Quaker State's gradual abolition law or more boldly attempted to kidnap free blacks into servitude. African Americans fought back not just by fleeing but by trying to secure abolitionist representation in Pennsylvania courts. On several occasions, African Methodist Episcopal leader Richard Allen was contacted in Philadelphia by endangered blacks. He, in turn, engaged white lawyers to assist them. Eventually, slaves from neighboring states sought refuge in Pennsylvania, and they too gained PAS legal aid—under the right legal circumstances. All the same, black activists were not officially invited to join the Pennsylvania Abolition Society until decades later.

The PAS's tactical and strategic arsenal reflected a late-eighteenth-century republican worldview. The group operated in a rational, enlightened, and highly dispassionate manner. It worked conscientiously within the American political and legal system. And it believed that only certain individuals could serve the abolitionist cause: elite white males who could bolster the group's legislative strategy and tactics, lawyers who could manipulate legal codes, and wealthy benefactors who could fund legal work. In the hands of the PAS elite, abolitionism operated like a sober business.

Massachusetts abolitionists diverged strikingly from their Pennsylvania competitors. Operating from within the "modern" abolitionist organizations that emerged in Massachusetts during the early 1830s, they demanded immediate—not gradual—emancipation of southern slaves. Equally important, these second-wave agitators revolutionized the abolitionist strategy and tactics. Arguing that the PAS's republican style of reform was outdated in an increasingly egalitarian and romantic age, modern abolitionists emphasized the power of nonelites to halt slavery. Indeed, mobilizing the masses (including blacks and women), not careful legal and political planning, became the central abolitionist strategy after 1830. Only by opening up the movement to democratic activists and egalitarian sensibilities could reformers eradicate bondage. If enough people joined the abolitionist cause, Bay Staters argued, then the people themselves could compel governments to act—for instance, to amend the federal constitution to outlaw slavery, drop fugitive slave laws, and curtail racist laws. As one Massachusetts activist proclaimed in 1835, the new reformers would turn the "entire American continent into one big Anti-slavery society."[5]

Although an important part of early abolitionist legal maneuvering, African Americans had long been denied membership in the PAS. Black leaders created their own parallel antislavery movement. In the abolitionist world of the 1830s, African American reformers quickly became coworkers and allies, bringing with them a protest tradition that emphasized national action, public and often emotional attacks on bondage, and immediate emancipation. Similarly, female abolitionists who came to prominence in Massachusetts during the late 1820s focused intensively on people's reform potential as well as slavery's moral evil. For both groups of activists, mass mobilization and emotional outrage formed the core of new abolitionist activities.

A mass action strategy necessitated tactical innovations. To funnel masses of citizens into the abolitionist movement, Bay State activists spent most of their time and money lecturing, pamphleteering, and organizing in every town and community possible. Their relentless work in the countryside paid big dividends in the 1830s: local abolition societies proliferated, petition signatures exploded, and abolitionists gained favorable coverage of their strategy and tactics in many small newspapers. Agents also connected to an ever-widening circle of nonelite activists, particularly women. When elite citizens refused to support abolitionism, these grassroots participants filled the void. To cite one critical trend, women purchased twice as many Liberator subscriptions as professional men and other prominent figures.

Finally, Massachusetts abolitionists provoked citizens' outrage by publishing gripping accounts of bondage and emotional slave narratives. Pennsylvania abolitionists vetoed such "literary" tactics, favoring instead erudite legal briefs. Bay Staters argued that the PAS's dispassionate works elided slavery's immorality and restricted abolitionist activity to the educated few. To properly understand the plight of slaves, these reformers announced in the 1830s, citizens should now consult black authors and "modern" abolitionist narratives of black suffering. Befitting a romantic age, Massachusetts activists sought to pierce the American heart as a critical first step to obliterating slavery nationally. "I shall never forget his first speech," William Lloyd Garrison recalled of Frederick Douglass's debut in the Bay State, "the powerful impression it created upon a crowded auditorium . . . I never hated slavery so intensely as at that moment." Though this event occurred after the transformation of abolitionism, it merely continued interracial efforts begun in the early 1830s. Garrison's 1832 anticolonization pamphlet was so firmly grounded in the black public protest publication that one colonizationist wrote that he paid little attention to the bombastic white printer. Black anticolonizationist voices, he said, made more of an impression than anything else in the document.[6]

The PAS deplored these new abolitionist approaches. Some members of the old guard referred derisively to second-wave activists as young upstarts who knew nothing of moderation or the skills of backroom politicking. From black and female membership and grassroots organizing campaigns to immediatist ideology and emotive appeals to the citizenry at large, the PAS worried that Massachusetts radicals would ruin the American republic before they destroyed slavery. The venerable PAS impeded the new abolition's growth in its own state, closing meetinghouses to traveling lecturers and limiting the distribution of "modern" abolitionist publications. Yet for a whole new generation of American abolitionists after 1830, Massachusetts activists, not the PAS, became the defining force of abolitionist strategy and tactics. Indeed, despite PAS opposition, "modern" abolition societies eventually assumed supremacy in the Quaker State. Moreover, some of the PAS's most notable activists transferred their allegiance to Massachusetts abolitionist societies in the 1830s.


What prompted the shift from first- to second-wave abolitionism during the early republic?[7] And why did it occur precisely in the early 1830s? Several background factors help answer these vexing questions. American abolition changed as American society and culture evolved. During the early republic political and economic life intensified, both with the advent of democratic politics and with the formation of an integrated national market economy. A great wave of revivalism swept across the nation, lasting for decades and touching many aspects of political and social life. Finally, the early national period saw the rising prominence of African Americans and women in the public sphere at a time when newspapers and the print media were becoming a parallel universe for political and social debate. Abolitionism mirrored many of these changes in politics, economy, religion, and culture, with reformers themselves contributing to America's dynamic political and social character between the 1790s and 1830s.

Religion was a cornerstone of abolitionism throughout the Revolutionary and early national periods. As David Brion Davis has argued in Slavery and Human Progress (1984), liberal religious thinkers continually broadened the antislavery struggle in Anglo-American culture. "In the 1760s, black slavery was sanctioned by Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and reformed churchmen and theologians," he writes. Quakers unleashed the first sustained abolitionist initiative during the Revolutionary era. With the Second Great Awakening, evangelicals advanced the antislavery cause in the early 1800s.[8]

Revivalism also created a new intellectual framework for nineteenth-century Americans, democratizing both religion and society. Revival preachers such as Charles Finney and Theodore Weld promulgated doctrines of universal salvation based not on clerical authority or Calvinist predestination but on an individual's ecstatic conversion experience and good works. As Robert Abzug has put it, "old structures" of church life were "blown apart" by the new mode of lay conversions. In celebrating emotion as the key to salvation, nineteenth-century revivalists challenged the rationalistic worldviews of the founding generation. Sentiment and feeling arose alongside what Timothy Smith long ago called a "revivalist movement of massive proportions." Were Thomas Paine, the free-thinking pamphleteer of the American and French Revolutions, to have visited America in the mid-1800s, he would have been amazed to find that the nation conceived in rational liberty was now fulfilling its democratic promise through the power of evangelical faith. For Paine, man was the ultimate scientific instrument: Rational thinking could solve even the most vexing problems, from governance to social problems such as slavery. Religion seemed to be part of a premodern world to Paine, and his book The Age of Reason (1793) relegated it to the dustbin of history. The evangelical upsurge, Timothy Smith concluded, proved Paine wrong, for "common grace, not common wisdom, was the keynote of the age!"[9]

Although it would operate with particular intensity in several locations, by the 1820s and 1830s the Second Great Awakening became identified with many Bay State reform causes, from transcendentalism to communalism. At this cultural moment, Boston regained national prominence as a reform capital. As far as abolitionism was concerned, revivalism profoundly affected the way reformers in Massachusetts viewed their world and crafted their tactics. Ideologically, of course, evangelical thinking now embraced a new antislavery ideology based on the concept of immediately stamping out the sin of slavery. Strategically, the missionary impulse that accompanied the evangelical uprising helped new generations of abolitionists mobilize partisans in the countryside, far beyond the statehouses and courtrooms favored by first-wave abolitionists. In short, revivalism decisively shaped American reform culture during the early republic.

Political changes influenced abolition's transformation, too. Reformers of the 1820s and 1830s sat on the cusp of an age where ordinary people began to shape the nation's political direction. Whereas formerly democracy in its crudest, purest form had been feared as a precursor to mob rule or even anarchy, by the 1820s many Americans saw mass democracy as the defining characteristic of the nation. "Democratized public opinion became the 'vital principle' underlying American government, society and culture," Gordon Wood notes, "a new standard for everything."[10] The Jacksonian era, as Harry Watson observes, "liberated ordinary white men from many of the deferential restraints of 18th century politics," thus according them a "new respect in the public sphere."[11] Although Massachusetts had strong Federalist roots, even Bay Staters believed in what one Concord paper called "the sovereignty of the people." "Whiggism," the founding generation's belief in elite rule and deference to the better sort, had finally "died."[12]

To shape popular majorities nationally, new party politicians led by New York Democratic leader Martin Van Buren utilized new political tactics. Nominating conventions, massive press coverage, and grassroots organizing strategy became the watchwords of politicians at every level of government. And more than ever, campaigning was a matter of public relations, as mass rallies, sloganeering, and parades advertised candidates' credentials to the people at large. According to Robert Remini, these activities "recast the style and tone of American politics." Gone were the political clubs and elite congressional caucuses of the Revolutionary era. As Andrew Jackson himself declared, the new political tactics would rally the masses and allow the people to exert their "full influence on government."[13]

This new age of people power also embraced a radical new individualism.[14] Philosophers began extolling the individual soul. "All barriers to growth and achievement seemed to crumble," Lewis Perry writes, and a commoner could now "dream of expressing one's deepest genius, of gaining fame, of furnishing leadership to the new age." Moreover, Perry continues, a new sense of "inborn intuition made all men and women immediately equal." In Massachusetts, transcendentalists emphasized the importance of the "individual conscience," personal "feeling," and "private experience." "The individual is the world," Emerson declared. Like other idealists of the new age, Emerson believed that radical individualism would emancipate Americans from society's restraining conventions—conventions that the PAS had upheld for years.[15]

William Lloyd Garrison was part of this political age before he became a professional abolitionist. As a young man, Garrison threw himself into electioneering for John Quincy Adams, particularly as editor of the Newburyport Herald in 1828. Although possessing neither a college education nor social connections ("a plain, unlettered man," as he referred to himself), Garrison sought to become a player in American political debates. Indeed, even though he had begun his journalistic career as an ardent Federalist, he bristled at deferential codes of political behavior. Each "man is his own master," he wrote of the dawning age of mass politics. Though he might respect their abilities, Garrison no longer viewed men like John Quincy Adams and Daniel Webster as "idols." Nor did he have to "soothe the delicate nerves and republican sensibility" of any gentleman. Garrison, like thousands of other common men, could now shape and define his political and social worlds. Attending political rallies in Boston, skirmishing with established political hands and "respectable" editors in state politics, and jousting with national figures such as Andrew Jackson and "Governor Troup" of Georgia, Garrison placed himself squarely in the coming democratic tide of popular movers and shakers. As he made clear, the "great body of the people" reigned supreme in American culture. How different from the previous age's conception—and the PAS's governing principle—that a small body of gentlemen must rule. According to Garrison's most recent biographer, in fact, the young printer's genius lay in his melding of politics and reform. Garrison's Liberator brought his ardent and hectoring electioneering style to the sensitive slavery issue.[16]

Mass democracy cut many ways, often hindering as well as helping the struggle for racial justice. As scholars such as Alexander Saxton, David Roediger, and Noel Ignatiev have shown, white democratic advances often came at the expense of black liberty.[17] In New York and Pennsylvania, for example, black suffrage was taken away as white suffrage expanded. "Is this the light of the 19th century?" exasperated Pennsylvania black activists asked in the 1840s, a few years after the Quaker State revoked black voting rights.[18] Yet at the same time, as scholars studying women's and African Americans' response to antebellum political changes have pointed out, gender and racial conventions came under more intense attacks than ever before as new generations of reformers challenged the social status quo. Long advocates of universal freedom, black activists in many northern (and some southern) locales inaugurated new tactics to reinvigorate the cause of racial justice. Organizing local, state, and national protest organizations, founding autonomous newspapers, and creating new educational institutions, African American reformers vowed to bring the twin evils of American slavery and racism to a halt. Black Philadelphians alone established thirty-five reform or benevolent institutions between 1820 and 1830 (twenty-two of them female groups)—four times the number formed between the 1780s and 1810s.[19] Even more impressive, perhaps, in 1826 Boston's black community created the General Colored Association, calling on blacks everywhere to combine their protest efforts into a coordinated national movement. "The civil rights of a people being of the greatest value," the editors of the first black-owned newspaper Freedom's Journal called out, "it shall be ever our duty to vindicate our oppressed brethren" in the eyes of white society. Thus, they continued, "this paper shall lay our cause before [the entire American] public . . . urge our brethren to use the elective franchise [where possible], [and] bring together . . . from the different states" black activists to shatter "the iron fetters of bondage."[20]

Female reformers forged newly prominent roles for themselves in the public sphere by pushing for temperance, educational, and religious reform in cities and towns throughout the North. As Nancy Hewitt has written, "women stepped beyond the prescribed boundaries" of motherhood and home in unprecedented numbers beginning in the 1820s. The Pennsylvania Abolition Society noticed this surge of female activism at the close of the decade, when a group of Philadelphia women began renting a PAS building for meetings of female educators and abolitionists. In North Carolina, female reformers stunned members of the state abolition society in 1826 by asking how they might attack southern slavery. According to these women, "the assistance of our sisters in the work of benevolence" signaled a possible integrated future of organized abolitionism. In fact, many northern women would move from local reform activities into the national movement against slavery—taking over petition drives to Congress, raising money for state and national abolitionist organizations, and becoming a forceful abolitionist constituency in their own right.[21]

For both women and African Americans, the political and cultural strands of the Jacksonian era would meld in second-wave abolitionists' mass action strategy that defined abolitionism itself as a movement of all Americans. Some of these "new" public reformers pushed this approach before the 1830s even began. In 1829, for instance, David Walker urged the black masses in Boston to become the vanguard of a new national movement against racial injustice. If only a fraction of "two million and a half of colored people in these United States" organized, he challenged, "what mighty deeds could [not] be done by them for the good of our cause?" At virtually the same time, a young Philadelphia woman called out from the pages of the Genius of Universal Emancipation for women everywhere to step outside the home and agitate for political solutions to slavery. "You can give it your active exertions," Elizabeth Chandler proclaimed, "and you must."[22]

Massachusetts abolitionists exploited these political and cultural developments to revolutionize the movement to end slavery in America. Combining transcendentalism's belief in the innate power of every individual to change society with the new mass politics' emphasis on a collective "people power," Bay State abolitionists formulated a strategy of grassroots activism. As Charles Follen announced at an 1836 meeting, "every human being, whether colored or white, foreigner or citizen, man or woman, is a rightful and responsible defender of the natural rights of all." Massachusetts abolitionists, Follen concluded, must "make this whole nation one great anti-slavery society."[23]

As the written appeals of second-wave activists such as Margaret Chandler, David Walker, and William Lloyd Garrison would indicate, print culture became a valuable and viable weapon for attacking the nation's racial ills. Black activists' literary tactics provided a firm foundation of the new abolitionists' crusade. Americans' broader emphasis on literacy and print technology also had an impact on the evolving abolitionist movement. Between the 1790s and 1830 American literary production steadily increased. After 1830, however, it exploded. The number of newspapers grew fourfold between that decade and the 1850s. American printers increased their activities in virtually every corner of the nation. Much of the impetus for printed matter came from the market revolution. In many Americans' minds economic progress became linked with the diffusion of knowledge and information. As John Quist has shown, even slave-holding regions of the Deep South (such as Alabama) witnessed an expansion of printed materials after 1830. Similarly, scholars of African American life in the North have pointed out that literacy rates increased among black as well as white Americans. Across lines of class, color, and gender, Americans increasingly viewed the printed word as a vital means of both self-expression and diffusion of knowledge.[24]

It was through print, moreover, that women and African Americans exerted a profound tactical influence on American reform, working as editors and writers for journals emerging in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, and New York.[25] The classic example was the inauguration of Freedom's Journal in New York City in 1827. The famous opening line of the editors called attention to blacks' redoubled efforts to make their voices heard: "for too long others have spoken for us." Of course, the editors, John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish, often demonstrated their indebtedness to black pamphleteers and petitioners dating back to the Revolutionary era. In one prominent case, they republished an 1813 pamphlet by James Forten (Series of Letters by a Man of Color) for the edification of younger black activists. Yet Freedom's Journal publicized African American protest as never before. As the editors and correspondents noted during its brief two-year run, the paper could be found on ships, in private homes, in barbershops, and in all manner of public places. Furthermore, it promulgated a different strategy from that favored by the first generation of white abolitionists. The American people at large must be stirred to fight slavery, not merely statesmen and judges. To do this, black writers had to create new public images of African American society (ones that would convince the white citizenry at-large to accept black equality) and to focus as much on the emotional impact of slavery and racism as on its philosophical evil. At a time in the 1820s when the colonization movement was gaining increasing converts and slavery itself was continuing to expand, black writers sought to make anger and moral outrage a central part of abolitionist discourse.[26]

Although the inaugural African American newspaper folded in 1829, black viewpoints pervaded abolitionism during the 1830s and beyond. In the most impressive example, nearly one-fifth of the Liberator's writers during its first year of operation were African American. African Americans continued to publish more pamphlets, more narratives, and more newspapers during each of the three decades leading to the Civil War. It did not take that long for the nation's oldest abolitionist group to recognize that this new trend was taking shape. At an 1827 PAS meeting it was noted that African Americans were publishing a new paper entitled Freedom's Journal. The venerable abolitionist group subscribed to it and watched a new abolitionist future appear.


The year 1830 marked a transitional moment for both American culture and American abolitionism. Religious revivals heralded a new age of perfectionism in which sin would not be tolerated. Egalitarian rhetoric celebrated commoners as the essence of the republic, challenging the deferential political styles that had dominated American statecraft for decades. Cultural politics intensified as northern black communities matured and asserted themselves anew in public demonstrations for racial justice. Moreover, female reformers joined a variety of causes, from colonization to religious revivals, and they increasingly viewed themselves as legitimate actors within the broader spectrum of American political culture. Despite the impact of these extensive societal changes, second-wave abolitionists were not merely "reactors" (suddenly set in motion by a change in economic philosophy or political ideology) but agents of history who changed with the times and changed their times. When Elizabeth Chandler told would-be abolitionist women that they "must give it their active exertions" to finally end slavery, she spoke the keynote for a whole new generation of activists—black as well as white, women as well as men, nonelites as well as the so-called better sort.

Movements for social change in American history have often followed abolition's path. After establishing an exclusive movement of activists with a relatively narrow strategic vision, and after achieving initial successes in government and law, social movements evolve into more populist phases. As new people with new ideas about now to attack social problems become involved, they challenge both old reformers and society at large to come to terms with new strategies. The civil rights struggle, women's rights movement, even gay and lesbian movement—all have evolved from relatively conservative strategies to much more radical ones.

Abolitionism became the first social movement to so completely transform itself. This strategic overhaul explains not simply how and why new abolitionists helped make slavery the most divisive antebellum issue, but how abolitionism itself became an increasingly radical outlook on American democracy.[27]


Excerpted from The Transformation of American Abolitionism by Richard S. Newman. Copyright © 2002 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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Table of Contents

Preface
Introduction: Abolitionist Transformations 1
Ch. 1 Republican Strategists: The Pennsylvania Abolition Society 16
Ch. 2 Deferential Petitioners: The Pennsylvania Abolition Society in State and Federal Government, 1790-1830 39
Ch. 3 Creating Free Spaces: Blacks and Abolitionist Activism in Pennsylvania Courts, 1780s-1830s 60
Ch. 4 An Appeal to the Heart: The Black Protest Tradition and the Coming of Immediatism 86
Ch. 5 From Pennsylvania to Massachusetts, from Colonization to Immediatism: Race and the Overhaul of American Abolitionism 107
Ch. 6 The New Abolitionist Imperative: Mass Action Strategies 131
Ch. 7 A Whole Lot of Shoe Leather: Agents and the Impact of Grassroots Organizing in Massachusetts during the 1830s 152
Epilogue: The Struggle Continued 176
App. 1 Letters from Maryland Slaveholders to Judge William Tilghman, Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Regarding Fugitive Slaves 185
App. 2 Map - 1A-D: Agent Travels in Massachusetts 188
App. 2 Map - 2: Liberator Subscriptions in Massachusetts, 1830-1840 190
Notes 191
Selected Bibliography 229
Index 239
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