The Political Economy of Black Abolitionists
The abolitionists were known for their quarrelsome behavior with one another almost as much as for their vigorous attacks on the establishment of their day. African American abolitionists were not exempt from such disputes. Indeed, their inability to get along with each other is sometimes cited as one reason for their failure to achieve more as leaders.(2) While not denying the corrosive effect of differences over strategy and tactics, this article focuses on a neglected factor which played a major role in exacerbating differences and causing disputes. That factor may be called the political economy of African American activists.(3)
Black abolitionists wanted to become a part of America's rising middle class.(4) They believed that elevation was the means to that end.(5) Elevation meant temperance, organized religion with moderate rather than enthusiastic worship services, moral living, education, attaining political rights, and non-menial employment. Elevation, they felt, would solve their personal problems, blaze the trail to improvement for the mass of northern blacks, and end slavery by destroying an important rationale for the subjugation of Americans of African descent. Unfortunately, the pursuit of elevation inflamed lower class whites, alienated the mass of northern blacks, and aggravated tensions that divided activist leaders. This article will examine the failings of elevation as a strategy in relation to its economic component.
From the 1820's through the Civil War, American society was undergoing dramatic change in its economic, social and political relationships. The increasing inroads of the market economy were creating a liberal society dominated by the middle class. The rise of the middle class brought changes in the relationships of parents and children as well as in gender roles as the home became a separate domestic sphere. The separation of home from work place undermined traditional methods of employer control over employees at the same time that increasingly democratic rhetoric eroded deferential politics and hierarchical relationships in general. In the realm of religion, a new emphasis on the ability of the individual to attain salvation went hand-in-hand with a new concern for Christian responsibility for their communities.(6)
Such changes brought a sense of economic opportunity that provided tremendous motivation for individual striving but also created great uncertainty. The dynamic economy of America that made possible the rise of the middle class was so erratic that downward as well as upward mobility was possible. The cushion of a more hierarchical society such as that of the eighteenth century was disappearing before the onrush of the market economy. The older hierarchical society had provided a divinely ordered, organic community in which even humble members played an essential role. Philanthropy was aimed at ameliorating the conditions of the most unfortunate, not at uplifting them. While conditions could be harsh, there was less psychological stress.
As the democratic, individualistic and market-oriented world grew, direct competition was less concealed. One's status in life was seen as the result of one's own ability or lack thereof rather than as the result of the wishes of Providence. White men felt such pressures acutely. The rising ideology of spheres assigned them prime responsibility as breadwinners. They were to prove their worth in the market. This placed a great deal of psychic strain on them, since males were seen as the ones who must carve out a place for themselves and their families in the market economy. If the race for success was open to all, then all must compete and run the risk of losing. Failure became personal and not, as for earlier generations, a result of the actions of providence. This rising tension was a propelling force in the opening up of politics and economic life usually referred to as the Jacksonian Era and was also a cause of increasing racial tensions in the North after 1819. …