Perfecting the Family: Antislavery Marriages in Nineteenth-Century America

Synopsis

Gender relations and family life among radical abolitionists in antebellum America

For three turbulent decades before the outbreak of the Civil War, radical abolitionists labored to reform American society. Some carried the struggle beyond the public crusade against slavery, extending it into the private realm of family relations. Appalled by the horrors inflicted on black families in the Southern slave states, and concerned about the precise meaning of freedom in the North, they sought to make their own marriages into models of affection and equality.

Chris Dixon creates a vivid portrait of these antislavery families, focusing on eight prominent couples. He examines the details of their domestic lives and reveals the relationship between their abolitionist and domestic ideologies, showing how they both confronted and conformed to the emergent bourgeois culture of nineteenth-century America.

While radical abolitionists held men accountable for many of the corruptions that they felt were poisoning American life, they did not believe men were beyond redemption. As Dixon shows, the abolitionists set out to redefine masculinity by renouncing power and oppression in favor of intimacy and cooperation.

Perfecting the Family examines the ways in which these reformers tried -- with mixed success -- to make those affectionate qualities the basis for a new, companionate type of marriage, in which women and men would go forward as equal partners.

"Very well researched, clearly argued, and well written". -- Anne M. Boylan, University of Delaware