Race and Rights: Fighting Slavery and Prejudice in the Old Northwest, 1830-1870

By McDonald, Jeanne Gillespie | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Summer 2014 | Go to article overview

Race and Rights: Fighting Slavery and Prejudice in the Old Northwest, 1830-1870


McDonald, Jeanne Gillespie, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


Race and Rights: Fighting Slavery and Prejudice in the Old Northwest, 18301870. By Dana Elizabeth Weiner. (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2013. Pp. xiii, 327, appendix, notes, index. Cloth, $38.00.)

The Old Northwest as a defined region in American history has been largely overlooked in the study of the formation and reform of race relations and rights in civil society. Dana Elizabeth Weiner seeks to rectify this omission by using this space to draw a distinction between efforts to abolish slavery and prejudice elsewhere in the United States and most particularly the East.

This study quickly defines its scope by examining Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan because, as Weiner explains, they had more evidence of antislavery activity than Wisconsin and Minnesota. Weiner argues in her introduction: "Old Northwest activists claimed they deserved freedom from the violence their activities, including violations of gender and racial norms, elicited. In the process, they developed innovative strategies that pitted state and federal rights against one another" (p. 4). As she later discusses at length: "Even as activists' opponents sought to destroy them, they found solace in their ideals of transcendent morality and universal human rights" (p. 11). If one is looking for a full-throated explanation of how religious faith motivated some of these reformers, one must look elsewhere. Also, she does not give much notice to the major benefactors of antislavery organizations, colleges, lyceums, postal restraints, or how economic conditions in the country affected the dissemination of message and literature. However, within these limits, she presents a cogent focus on the means and methods of the reformers use of and assault on laws and mores of gender and race rather than socio-economic factors.

The book is organized around the struggle for human rights in fighting against the Black Laws and the contests for freedoms of assembly, the press, and free speech. Weiner provides a foundation for these discussions in her first chapter entitled "Activist Taproots: Place, Reform, and the Quest for Unity," which argues that the Old Northwest was constantly evolving and filled with conflicts over who would gain power, prestige, and full citizenship amid nascent community organizations, such as political parties, church structures, and reform movements. She says that the quest for unity was a saving strategy as divisiveness in eastern organizations and churches did not play out as stridently in the Old Northwest. …

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