Abolition's Public Sphere

Abolition's Public Sphere

Abolition's Public Sphere

Abolition's Public Sphere

Synopsis

Echoes of Thomas Paine and Enlightenment thought resonate throughout the abolitionist movement and in the efforts of its leaders to create an anti-slavery reading public. In Abolition's Public Sphere Robert Fanuzzi critically examines the writings of William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Henry David Thoreau, and Sarah and Angelina Grimke and their massive abolition publicity campaign--pamphlets, newspapers, petitions, and public gatherings--geared to an audience of white male citizens, free black noncitizens, women, and the enslaved. Including provocative readings of Thoreau's Walden and of the symbolic space of Boston's Faneuil Hall, Abolition's Public Sphere demonstrates how abolitionist public discourse sought to reenact eighteenth-century scenarios of revolution and democracy in the antebellum era. Fanuzzi illustrates how the dissemination of abolitionist tracts served to create an "imaginary public" that promoted and provoked the discussion of slavery. However, by embracing Enlightenment abstractions of liberty, reason, and progress, Fanuzzi argues, abolitionist strategy introduced aesthetic concerns that challenged political institutions of the public sphere and prevailing notions of citizenship. Insightful and thought-provoking, Abolition's Public Sphere questions standard versions of abolitionist history and, in the process, our understanding of democracy itself.

Excerpt

William Lloyd Garrison operated literally in the forefront of the American abolition movement, soliciting subscribers and readers for his newspaper before there were organized, nonsectarian abolition societies. Inspired by the mass pamphleteering campaign of the English emancipation movement, he published the first issue of The Liberator in 1831 and thereafter linked the progress of the cause to the circulation of the newspaper and other printed articles. When the first national gathering of abolitionists did occur in 1833, he wrote a Declaration of Sentiments for the American Anti-Slavery Society that committed the abolitionist agenda to the publicity campaign he was already pursuing. “We shall circulate, unsparingly and extensively, antislavery tracts and periodicals,” Garrison’s manifesto promised, and the national society and the regional but no less aggressive Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society followed suit, sending annually almost a million newspapers, pamphlets, and tracts into national circulation by the year 1837. the effect of this initiative was to instigate the discussion of the slavery question among an often hostile populace and to bring the issue of abolition to the forefront of reform, developments that left Garrison declaring victory for the cause. a “multitude of journals,” he crowed to the abolitionist lecturer Wendell Philips in 1837, together with a number of pamphlets “that is impossible to calculate…[are] scattered over the land, thicker than rain-drops, and as nourishing to the soil of freedom.”

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