Racialized relations do not follow an inevitable course in any historical period. There are always choices, alternatives, issues that can be resolved in a variety of ways. During a period of active abolitionist agitation, from about 1830 until the conclusion of the Civil War, the movement was splintered because its adherents were making different choices.
The conviction that so-called Caucasians constituted a superior group did not originate in the 1830s, but it was increasingly systematized to counter the growing attacks of abolitionists. As the antislavery forces expanded and spread their message, slavery advocates were forced into a more defensive posture and became more vocal on behalf of their cause. Ironically, abolitionists seldom opposed the idea of white superiority, even when presenting strong challenges to the proslavery forces in the South. An examination of antebellum children’s books provides clues as to how the radical abolitionists differed from the conservatives and why neither faction succeeded in sowing the seeds of a continuing egalitarian movement. Neither the Christian “brotherhood” argument against slavery nor the democratic “principles” argument could mitigate ongoing oppression unless these arguments encompassed an antiprejudice theme. That theme did not materialize in many abolitionist narratives.
A disjuncture between theory and practice in the antebellum period had a certain ludicrous slant. Both proslavery and antislavery forces found it convenient to invoke biblical teachings and American constitutional principles in support of their causes. By neatly canceling each other out, it became possible for the Northern antislavery argument to take the lead only when a range of sectional