The Transformation of American Abolitionism: Fighting Slavery in the Early Republic

The Transformation of American Abolitionism: Fighting Slavery in the Early Republic

The Transformation of American Abolitionism: Fighting Slavery in the Early Republic

The Transformation of American Abolitionism: Fighting Slavery in the Early Republic


Most accounts date the birth of American abolitionism to 1831, when William Lloyd Garrison began publishing his radical antislavery newspaper, The Liberator. In fact, however, the abolition movement had been born with the American Republic. In the decades following the Revolution, abolitionists worked steadily to eliminate slavery and racial injustice, and their tactics and strategies constantly evolved. Tracing the development of the abolitionist movement from the 1770s to the 1830s, Richard Newman focuses particularly on its transformation from a conservative lobbying effort into a fiery grassroots reform cause.

What began in late-eighteenth-century Pennsylvania as an elite movement espousing gradual legal reform began to change in the 1820s as black activists, female reformers, and nonelite whites pushed their way into the antislavery movement. Located primarily in Massachusetts, these new reformers demanded immediate emancipation, and they revolutionized abolitionist strategies and tactics--lecturing extensively, publishing gripping accounts of life in bondage, and organizing on a grassroots level. Their attitudes and actions made the abolition movement the radical cause we view it as today.


History is the study of change over time. While my undergraduate and graduate mentors constantly drummed this historian’s axiom into my head, I began this project to study the continuity of the American abolitionist movement between the American Revolution and the 1830s. Although abolitionism is a well-studied topic, I wanted to examine the less-wellknown pre-Garrisonian phase as a prelude to movements of the 1830s. An abolitionist was always an abolitionist, I thought.

Yet as I researched the tactics and strategies of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, the world’s first and now oldest such group, I discovered that early abolitionism differed almost completely from later movements to end slavery—in terms of racial and gender composition, day-to-day tactics, and overall strategies. in the middle of the project, then, and with some critical mentoring, I realized that I had to talk about change: the transformation of abolitionism during the early republic. the task thus became one of explaining how the abolition movement started in one place, ended in another, and completely altered its public face to become the well-known movement we still remember today.

I am one of those people who turns first to the acknowledgments section of any book I pick up. Did the author go it alone or surf on a wave of help—and did he or she thank properly those renderers of aid? I could not imagine finishing this book without the incredible support of dozens of generous people. It is a pleasure to thank them now in print. I will start with those institutions that provided funding at various stages of the dissertation on which this work is based. At the State University of New York at Buffalo, I received support from the Mark Diamond Foundation (in the form of extended travel grants), the Department of History (in the form of a critical Plesur fifth-year dissertation fellowship), and both the Graduate Student Association and the Graduate History Association (for supporting shorter research trips). the Library Company of Philadelphia and the Mas-

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