Political Abolitionism in Wisconsin, 1840-1861

By Field, Phyllis F. | The Journal of Southern History, May 2001 | Go to article overview
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Political Abolitionism in Wisconsin, 1840-1861


Field, Phyllis F., The Journal of Southern History


Political Abolitionism in Wisconsin, 1840-1861. By Michael J. McManus. (Kent, Ohio, and London: Kent State University Press, c. 1998. Pp. xiv, 288. $39.00, ISBN 0-87338-601-9.)

In this study of antebellum Wisconsin, Michael J. McManus reaffirms the contention of his mentor Richard H. Sewell, in Ballots for Freedom: Antislavery Politics in the United States, 1837-1860 (New York, 1976), that continuity rather than change characterized antislavery politics before the Civil War. The Republicans, like their Liberty Party and Free Soil predecessors, were morally committed to ending slavery and only secondarily concerned with other issues such as temperance, nativism, or free labor. McManus disputes one prevailing explanation of why men risked their lives so readily in the war and suggests that in Wisconsin the commitment to the Union itself was secondary to the dislike of slavery. Southern fire-eaters who claimed to see abolitionism and commitment to African American citizenship in the political agenda of the Republican Party, therefore, were basically correct. McManus attributes this to the origins of many antislavery Wisconsinites in New England or Yankee-settled western New York. He sees their apparent shifts from abolition to free soil as political maneuvers only.

McManus makes his case through a traditional narrative that describes Wisconsin politics from the state's territorial era through 1860. The story is principally reconstructed from newspaper editorials and political correspondence available at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. The author supplements literary sources with ecological regression analyses of elections and referenda on African American suffrage. His aim is to demonstrate a basically similar level of support for black suffrage by Liberty men, Free Soilers, and Republicans, and a higher level of voter turnout in elections involving slavery-related issues than in other elections.

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