From Abolition to Rights for All: The Making of a Reform Community in the Nineteenth Century

From Abolition to Rights for All: The Making of a Reform Community in the Nineteenth Century

From Abolition to Rights for All: The Making of a Reform Community in the Nineteenth Century

From Abolition to Rights for All: The Making of a Reform Community in the Nineteenth Century

Synopsis

The Civil War was not the end, as is often thought, of reformist activism among abolitionists. After emancipation was achieved, they broadened their struggle to pursue equal rights for women, state medicine, workers' rights, fair wages, immigrants' rights, care of the poor, and a right to decent housing and a healthy environment. Focusing on the work of a key group of activists from 1835 to the dawn of the twentieth century, From Abolition to Rights for All investigates how reformers, linked together and radicalized by their shared experiences in the abolitionist struggle, articulated a core natural rights ideology and molded it into a rationale for successive reform movements.

The book follows the abolitionists' struggles and successes in organizing a social movement. For a time after the Civil War these reformers occupied major positions of power, only to be rebuffed in the later years of the nineteenth century as the larger society rejected their inclusive understanding of natural rights. The narrative of perseverance among this small group would be a continuing source of inspiration for reform. The pattern they established--local organization, expansive vision, and eventual challenge by powerful business interests and individuals--would be mirrored shortly thereafter by Progressives.

Excerpt

I began this project as an investigation into the life of Henry Ingersoll Bowditch, father of American public health and long-time radical reformer. Bowditch’s radicalism began with abolition, so I soon expanded my scope of research to the broader reform community beginning with the abolitionists. in their personal papers many of these reformers, whether in public health, tenement house reform, immigrant rights, or women’s rights, talked about having been educated in reform through their struggle against slavery. For me their stories struck a chord of familiarity. Like many of them, I was bred “in an old … reform”—in my case, civil rights. And, like these reformers, I took from that involvement lessons and a worldview that informed me not just about civil rights but of a larger social justice vision. in the middle of the voter registration campaign, I went south to Mississippi as a young undergraduate to become a civil rights worker as part of the cofo voter registration project. When I returned to the University of Wisconsin I continued working for civil rights, marching for open housing in Milwaukee, but I also joined sds, worked for Indian and worker rights, and became involved in the antiwar movement. When women began to organize and push for women’s rights, my friends and wife made sure I understood that the struggle for women’s equality was an equal part in the campaign for social justice. It was never clear to me what impulses brought me to civil rights and social activism, but it is clear to me now that my initial involvement in that community had a fundamental formative influence on my life and world outlook. When the environmental and gay rights movement spread across the world, I understood where I had to stand on those issues. and if I had questions about where I should stand, I had plenty of friends to help me find my way.

My involvement in the social justice community has been as central to my understanding of myself as my role as a parent or a historian. My history as an activist informs my worldview, and the people I know and . . .

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