American Abolitionism and Antislavery is a new series that presents the best scholarship on antislavery activism and abolitionism in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century United States. The series will include books by promising young scholars as well as by established leaders in the field. Volumes published in the series will include biographies, monographs, anthologies, and new editions of classic works on the antislavery and abolitionist crusades.
These books are available through The Kent State University Press. Click on a book cover below to view information about the book.
One Nation Divided by Slavery: Remembering the American Revolution While Marching toward the Civil War
Michael F. Conlin
The centrality of the American Revolution in the antebellum slavery controversy
In the two decades before the Civil War, free Americans engaged in “history wars” every bit as ferocious as those waged today over the proposed National History Standards or the commemoration at the Smithsonian Institution of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. In One Nation Divided by Slavery, author Michael F. Conlin investigates the different ways antebellum Americans celebrated civic holidays, read the Declaration of Independence, and commemorated Revolutionary War battles, revealing much about their contrasting views of American nationalism.
While antebellum Americans agreed on many elements of national identity—in particular that their republic was the special abode of liberty on earth—they disagreed on the role of slavery. The historic truths that many of the founders were slaveholders who had doubts about the morality of slavery, and that all thirteen original states practiced slavery to some extent in 1776, offered plenty of ambiguity for Americans to “remember” selectively. Fire-Eaters defended Jefferson, Washington, and other leading patriots as paternalistic slaveholders, if not “positive good” apologists for the institution, who founded a slaveholding republic. In contrast, abolitionists cited the same slaveholders as opponents of bondage, who took steps to end slavery and establish a free republic. Moderates in the North and the South took solace in the fact that the North had managed to end slavery in its own way through gradual emancipation while allowing the South to continue to practice slavery. They believed that the founders had established a nation that balanced free and slave labor.
Because the American Revolution and the American Civil War were pivotal and crucial elements in shaping the United States, the intertwined themes in One Nation Divided By Slavery provide a new lens through which to view American history and national identity.
To Plead Our Own Cause: African Americans in Massachusetts and the Making of the Antislavery Movement
The antislavery movement entered an important new phase when William Lloyd Garrison began publishing the Liberator in 1831—a phase marked by massive petition campaigns, the extraordinary mobilization of female activists, and the creation of organizations such as the American Anti-Slavery Society. While the period from 1831 to 1865 is known as the heyday of radical abolitionism, the work of Garrison’s predecessors in Massachusetts was critical in laying the foundation for antebellum abolitionism. To Plead Our Own Cause explores the significant contributions of African Americans in the Bay State to both local and nationwide antislavery activity before 1831 and demonstrates that their efforts represent nothing less than the beginning of organized abolitionist activity in America.
Fleshing out the important links between Reformed theology, the institution of slavery, and the rise of the antislavery movement, author Christopher Cameron argues that African Americans in Massachusetts initiated organized abolitionism in America and that their antislavery ideology had its origins in Puritan thought and the particular system of slavery that this religious ideology shaped in Massachusetts. The political activity of black abolitionists was central in effecting the abolition of slavery and the slave trade within the Bay State, and it was likewise key in building a national antislavery movement in the years of the early republic. Even while abolitionist strategies were evolving, much of the rhetoric and tactics that well-known abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass employed in the mid-nineteenth century had their origins among blacks in Massachusetts during the eighteenth century.
John Lofton and Peter C. Hoffer
New edition of a classic social history
In 1822, Denmark Vesey was found guilty of plotting an insurrection—what would have been the biggest slave uprising in U.S. history. A free man of color, he was hanged along with 34 other African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina, in what historians agree was probably the largest civil execution in U.S. history. At the time of Vesey’s conviction, Charleston was America’s chief slave port and one of its most racially tense cities. Whites were outnumbered by slaves three to one, and they were haunted by memories of the 1791 slave rebellion in Haiti.
In Denmark Vesey’s Revolt, John Lofton draws upon primary sources to examine the trial and provide, as Peter Hoffer says in his new introduction, “one of the most sensible and measured” accounts of the subject. This classic book was originally published in 1964 as Insurrection in South Carolina: The Turbulent World of Denmark Vesey, and then reissued by the Kent State University Press in 1983 as Denmark Vesey’s Revolt: The Slave Plot That Lit a Fuse to Fort Sumter.
A Self-Evident Lie explores and underscores the fear and complex meaning of “slavery” to northerners before the Civil War. Many northerners asked: If slavery was the beneficent and paternalistic institution that southerners claimed, could it not be applied with equal morality to whites as well as blacks? Republicans repeatedly expressed concern that proslavery arguments were not inherently racial. Irrespective of race, anyone could fall victim to the argument that they were “inferior,” that they would be better off enslaved, that their enslavement served the interests of society, or that their subjugation was justified by history and religion.
In trenchant and graceful prose, Jeremy Tewell argues that some Republicans, most notably Abraham Lincoln, held that the only effective safeguard of individual liberty was universal liberty, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence. As long as Americans believed that “all men” were endowed with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, everyone’s liberty would be self-evident, regardless of circumstance.
Conversely, the justifications meant to exclude a segment of society from the rights of man worked to destroy the self-evidence of those very rights. Therefore, by failing to repudiate slavery—thus rejecting the universality of human liberty—northerners made themselves vulnerable to proslavery rationales, especially when they happened to occupy a position of political, social, or economic weakness. Black skin had been stigmatized as a badge of servitude, but there was nothing to guarantee that white skin would always serve as an unimpeachable badge of freedom.
This was a major theme in Lincoln’s campaign against Stephen A. Douglas and was a key argument against the use of popular sovereignty as the method for determining slavery’s status in the territories. According to Tewell, Lincoln’s greatest challenge was to convince northern audiences that simple indifference to slavery was itself inimical to the liberty of whites.
A Self-Evident Lie will intrigue anyone interested in issues related to Lincoln, slavery and antislavery, the Civil War, and American intellectual history.
Gripping re-examination of the rendition of Anthony Burns
On June 2, 1854, crowds lined the streets of Boston, hissing and shouting at federal authorities as they escorted the fugitive slave Anthony Burns to the ship that would return him to his slaveholders in Virginia. Days earlier, handbills had littered the streets decrying Burns’s arrest, and abolitionists, intent on freeing Burns, had attacked with a battering ram the courthouse in which he was detained, leaving one dead, several wounded, and thirteen in custody. In the end it would take federal officials nearly 2,000 troops and $40,000 to send Burns back to Virginia. No fugitive slave would be captured in Boston again.
Carried out under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which permitted slaveholders to seize runaway slaves across state lines by merely testifying ownership, Burns’s arrest and Boston’s subsequent campaign to free him is generally regarded by scholars as the impetus that spurred the adoption of outright confrontational tactics by abolitionists across the North—an impetus that led, ultimately, to war. Such interpretations, however, gloss over the confusion and chaos many midcentury Bostonians felt over abolition.
Author Gordon Barker challenges the traditionally held notion that the rendition of Anthony Burns fueled an antislavery groundswell in the North. He exposes the diverse beliefs—many of which were less than noble—held by Bostonians struggling to make sense of the racial, class, and ethnic conflicts arising in the city. Drawing on newspaper accounts, cutting-edge scholarship, and Burns’s own writings, Barker shows how antislavery sentiments competed with a wide range of other opinions, including the desire to preserve the Union as it was, concerns about law and order, mistrust of whites by their black neighbors, and racism.
A much-needed addition to the study of abolition and antislavery,The Imperfect Revolution will be of value to historians and students.