Abolitionists Remember: Antislavery Autobiographies & the Unfinished Work of Emancipation

By Julie Roy Jeffrey | Go to book overview

RITUAL REMEMBRANCES I
The Dissolution of the
Antislavery Societies

In 1865, only weeks after the Civil War’s end, reform, religious, and benevolent organizations held their annual meetings in New York City. Long one of the high points of the benevolent and reform calendar, Anniversary Week, as it was called, had traditionally drawn throngs of outsiders to the city. Conversations and debates with old and new acquaintances, the transaction of society business, and attendance at one or more society meetings provided fellowship, information, direction, and excitement for supporters of benevolent causes. In the aftermath of war, Anniversary Week in 1865 was “celebrated with unusual vigor,” although the editor of Harper’s Monthly Magazine, George W. Curtis, who was reporting on some of the week’s events, sensed that the prewar benevolent and reform world that Anniversary Week represented was changing and its importance “declining”.1

Of all the meetings that took place, Curtis regarded the American AntiSlavery Society’s gathering as the most interesting. For decades, abolitionists had gathered not only for national and local antislavery society meetings but also for antislavery meetings of all kinds, ranging from sewing circles to political and religious conventions and antislavery fairs. There, with others who agreed upon the necessity of ending slavery, abolitionists discussed current events, debated strategy, devised projects, and assessed progress in the cause. These gatherings, repeated often enough to take on a ritualistic quality, had served the vital purpose of sustaining and renewing loyalty to the movement and creating a sense of community among reformers. They had also publicized the antislavery understanding of events and presented a picture of collective commitment to reform. Now that emancipation had become a reality, however, those organizational structures were in danger of collapsing.2

Indeed, the discussion over the possibility of dissolution among members of the AAS was one reason why Harper’s editor had found the proceedings of interest. Abolitionists had failed to come to an agreement. William Lloyd Garrison argued that the society had achieved its goal and that work for the freed people could now become a joint effort between abolitionists and the rest of the country, which was “thoroughly alive to the question.”

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