The most active abolitionist period in American history, approximately 1830-1865, has been extensively examined by historians, but not in relation to children’s literature. There are two parts of that history that have particular relevance to books for the young: the religious background of the movement and the political concerns that gave focus to abolitionist goals. These have meaning for the children’s book historian because authors writing for young people during this period were typically explicit about their religious and democratic aims. Children were to come away from their story hours with rekindled godliness and patriotic fervor.
The religious and political contexts of the era shed light upon why children’s books contained ambivalent messages about slaves and emancipation. This chapter focuses on these contexts, as well as upon the narrative conventions that influenced the shape of the messages. The overall theme that emerges is that spiritual and human concerns produced a unique antislavery dynamism; however, the egalitarian commitment was undercut by condescension toward people of color. Moreover, that conviction of superiority had an impact upon what the stories were like in a formalistic sense.
To a present-day reader, the early-nineteenth-century literature appears exceedingly superficial, perhaps because the themes were presented more as preachments than as part of lived experience. Black emancipation was handled without sufficient depth. The ambivalence of the message was due in part to the White abolitionists’ social agenda, and to historic religious changes in particular. According to Anne C. Loveland, the new, nineteenth-century intellectual mix was primarily the result of a shift in religious thought. 1 The