Abolitionists Remember: Antislavery Autobiographies & the Unfinished Work of Emancipation

Abolitionists Remember: Antislavery Autobiographies & the Unfinished Work of Emancipation

Abolitionists Remember: Antislavery Autobiographies & the Unfinished Work of Emancipation

Abolitionists Remember: Antislavery Autobiographies & the Unfinished Work of Emancipation


In Abolitionists Remember, Julie Roy Jeffrey illuminates a second, little-noted antislavery struggle as abolitionists in the postwar period attempted to counter the nation's growing inclination to forget why the war was fought, what slavery was really like, and why the abolitionist cause was so important.

In the rush to mend fences after the Civil War, the memory of the past faded and turned romanticslaves became quaint, owners kindly, and the war itself a noble struggle for the Union. Jeffrey examines the autobiographical writings of former abolitionists such as Laura Haviland, Frederick Douglass, Parker Pillsbury, and Samuel J. May, revealing that they wrote not only to counter the popular image of themselves as fanatics, but also to remind readers of the harsh reality of slavery and to advocate equal rights for African Americans in an era of growing racism, Jim Crow, and the Ku Klux Klan. These abolitionists, who went to great lengths to get their accounts published, challenged every important point of the reconciliation narrative, trying to salvage the nobility of their work for emancipation and African Americans and defending their own participation in the great events of their day.


In our cause, of all others, we cannot
afford to dispense with any means of
getting the truth before even a limited
audience. No one can calculate how
fast or how widely a great truth will
spread, although at first told to but two
or three.—This is the entire secret of
the progress of the Anti-Slavery Cause
in this Country.

SAMUEL J. MAT, 1858, quoted
in Taylor, ed., British and American
, 430

In 1874, John Greenleaf Whittier, one of the poets of the abolitionist movement, contributed an article to the Atlantic Monthly in which he recalled the founding of the American Anti-Slavery Society (AAS) forty-one years earlier. The small group forming this organization, one of the most important bodies committed to eliminating American slavery, realized that it was probably undertaking what Whittier called a “life-long struggle.” The idea of ending slavery, of course, threatened existing political, social, and economic arrangements, and it would take three decades of agitation and four years of war before the AAS’S goals of providing freedom to the enslaved and political rights to freed black men would be realized.

Such a vast transformation of social, political, and racial realities left some northerners convinced that the nation would never forget the abolitionists. As George W. Curtis, the editor of Harper’s Monthly Magazine, declared, “Neither you, indeed, nor any sensible man will expect that we shall forget the causes or circumstances of the struggle. They must of necessity be remembered that they may be of use.” Whittier shared these general sentiments and, in particular, the conviction that the abolitionists’ participation in the struggle would be remembered. He confidently predicted that “their memories… will be cherished when pyramids and monuments shall have crumbled to dust”.

Such confidence in national memory was misplaced. Indeed, in 1874, the very year in which Whittier’s piece appeared, Josiah Holland, editor of Scribner’s, the most widely read and perhaps most influential of the monthly magazines, declared that it was time to end the process of reconstructing the South. Without referring to emancipation, Holland insisted that the . . .

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