Editor’s Note: June 2018 Issue

Editor’s Note: June 2018 Issue

When Judy Giesberg asked me to guest edit a special issue on abolition and solicit essays that would showcase new directions in abolition studies, I welcomed the opportunity. For a field that has been ploughed thoroughly—from global syntheses of the transition from slavery to freedom in the western world by some of the most eminent historians of slavery and abolition such as Robin Blackburn, Seymour Drescher, and David Brion Davis to numerous finely grained studies of African Americans, women, Garrisonian, political, and evangelical abolitionists in the last few decades—it might seem that we have nothing new left to say about abolition. In fact, as the original essays in this issue illustrate, we have barely begun to uncover the long, diverse, and multifaceted history of the abolition movement that goes well beyond old caricatures of irresponsible religious fanatics on the one hand and the simple portrayal of heroic freedom fighters on the other. More importantly, individually and collectively, they challenge the oft repeated, virtually reflexive, received historical wisdom on abolition by both broadening our conception of what constitutes abolition and deeply engaging abolitionist archives.

Joseph Yannielli’s article on the abolitionist town Mo Tappan in West Africa exemplifies this simultaneous broadening and deepening of our understanding of abolition. Much of the recent work on transnational abolition has concentrated mainly on the Anglo-American connection. Even those who have sought to include West Africa in the story of abolition, including myself, have done so mainly through the lens of the debates over colonization and emigration. In his nuanced article on the founding of an abolitionist town in West Africa as part of the American Missionary Association’s Mendi mission composed of the returning Amistad rebels, African participants, and American abolitionists, Yannielli recovers the lost history of Mo Tappan. Eschewing ahistorical equations of abolition with western imperialism—while remaining mindful of the racial, economic, and gendered fault lines in this interracial abolitionist community—Yannielli’s article reveals not only the course of American abolition in Africa but also the Africanization of American abolition.

Similarly, Natalie Joy expands and deepens our understanding of abolition by showing how the Indian’s cause was tightly braided with the slave’s cause in antebellum America. Joy uncovers the crucial impact of opposition to Indian dispossession, or what she terms “antiremovalism,” in influencing black and white abolitionists’ opposition to colonization and shaping its anti-imperialist nature. Abolitionists further linked the ongoing violations of Indian treaties and sovereignty with the expansion of slavery into western territories, making “Indian wrongs” an important part of their argument against slavery. Indeed, the very notion of an aggressive and expansive Slave Power attributed to later political abolitionists actually emerged from the abolitionist critique of U.S.-Indian relations. Native American spokesmen as well as antislavery politicians such as Joshua Giddings ensured that Indian rights occupied a conspicuous place in the abolitionist program well into the 1860s. Unlike recent attempts to equate the emergence of the antislavery state during the Civil War and Reconstruction with Indian dispossession in western history, Joy recounts a different history of the relationship between abolition and Indian sovereignty.

Like Joy’s, Sean Griffin’s article, on the overlap between communitarian labor reform and abolition, qualifies longstanding generalizations on the divisions between the early labor and abolition movements. It also points toward a reevaluation of the relationship between abolition and the emergence of capitalism, a paradigm shift that compliments the revived interest in the relationship between slavery and capitalism. Griffin recovers the history of the forgotten abolitionist communitarian experiment led by the freethinking Frances Wright, an advocate of women’s rights, workingmen’s rights, and abolition. While most historians have emphasized the early friction between Fourierist labor leaders and abolitionists, Griffin shows that they moved closer to each other on the eve of the Civil War. Rather than just a capitulation to free labor ideology, this convergence laid the foundation of the postwar labor movement. Griffin’s essay underscores the importance of not subsuming the more radical positions of abolitionists on labor and market society under the free labor umbrella of the antislavery Republican Party described by Eric Foner a long time ago.

As Corey Brooks argues in the concluding historiographical essay, much of the recent work on American abolition has centered on African Americans, including the enslaved, but with very different evaluations of the nature of black abolitionism. David Brion Davis, for instance, questions the radical nature of black abolitionism emphasizing and subsuming notions of uplift and elevation within his broader, now contested, understanding of abolition’s hegemonic role in legitimizing the rise of early capitalism. Peter Wirzbicki’s essay on William Cooper Nell and the black abolitionist intellectual tradition unearths an unknown aspect of black transcendentalism that qualifies this argument. Nell’s Adelphic Union brought together African Americans, abolitionists, and transcendentalist intellectuals; hosted the leading lights of the day for lectures; and created a space for the cross-fertilization of abolitionist activism with transcendentalist ideas. Wirzbicki’s close reading of the union’s activities allows him to reconstruct a vibrant black abolitionist intellectual culture virtually ignored by previous historians.

I regret that events conspired against our including an article on women abolitionists, many of them pioneers of the first women’s rights movement. But as Brooks points out in his essay, the study of women abolitionists is an established and growing one. Promising work by young scholars such as Kabria Baumgartner, whom Brooks mentions, and Johanna Ortner, who has just recovered an early collection of poems by Frances Harper, are poised to deepen our understanding of female abolitionism and further highlight the role of black women abolitionists in the making of the movement.[1]

Corey Brooks concludes this issue with an essay that emphasizes the relationship between abolition and political antislavery, one that would bear fruit during the Civil War and Reconstruction. The future of abolitionist studies lies in its ongoing reevaluation as a radical, interracial, social movement, which the essays in this volume amply illustrate. It also lies in the progress of what W. E. B. Du Bois called “abolition democracy” during Reconstruction. My own book on abolition stops at 1860, with the election of Abraham Lincoln. Exploring more fully what happened to the abolitionist political project with emancipation during the Civil War and Reconstruction when the realm of movement politics intersected with high politics is indeed the next frontier in abolition studies.


[1] Johanna Ortner, “Lost No More: Recovering Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s Forest Leaves,” Common-place 15, no. 4 (Summer 2015): http://common-place.org/book/lost-no-more-recovering-frances-ellen-watkins-harpers-forest-leaves/.

Manisha Sinha

Manisha Sinha is professor and the James L. and Shirley A. Draper Chair in American History at the University of Connecticut. Sinha’s research interests lie in United States history, especially the transnational histories of slavery and abolition and the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Her award winning book, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition, was published by Yale University Press in 2016.

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