Slavery and Antislavery in the Antebellum North

AHA Session 117
Saturday, January 3, 2015: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Mercury Ballroom (New York Hilton, Third Floor)
Sean Wilentz, Princeton University
Corey Brooks, York College of Pennsylvania
James Gigantino, University of Arkansas
Sarah L.H. Gronningsater, McNeil Center for Early American Studies and California Institute of Technology
Joseph Murphy, City University of New York, Graduate Center

Session Abstract

This roundtable considers the ways in which lawmakers and antislavery activists in the American North interpreted and influenced the politics of slavery in the decades before the Civil War. It traces the parallel development of the sectional balance between “free” and “slave” states and the long-term political calculations of pro- and antislavery groups inside the free states. By exploring the relationship between state and national politics on the slavery issue, we hope to recover some important but overlooked premises about slavery and abolition in the United States. These premises (political, legal, and constitutional) are often sidelined in the literature on abolitionism and the coming of the Civil War; though many works analyze the impact that events in Congress and the Supreme Court had on Northern courts and legislatures (and vice versa), few examine the intricate connections between the long-term politics of slavery in these two arenas. The roundtable addresses such connections in several ways. Sarah Levine-Gronningsater’s paper considers the links between proposals for gradual emancipation in the national political arena and “successful” examples of state-based gradual abolition in the early republican North. National leaders took note of the successes and failures of the “first emancipation” in the North, which showed them that universal abolition was not only possible, but could be accomplished in concrete ways. Corey Brooks examines the tactics and rhetoric of Liberty Party activists in Massachusetts and Vermont, arguing that their Slave Power argument was first and foremost a political argument attacking the Whig and Democratic parties as structurally inherently complicit in slaveowners’ control over federal policymaking. Jim Gigantino explains how New Jersey’s unique experience with slavery and abolition shaped that state’s response to sectional issues, such as free soil and fugitive slaves. Gigantino argues that white New Jerseyans embraced their state’s slave past and used their previous experience with slavery to align themselves with the South on national interstate comity issues in opposition to the rest of the North. Joe Murphy discusses the origins and development of the principal antislavery policy of the 1840s, “denationalization,” or “divorce.” Murphy focuses on Ohio, where the “Cincinnati clique” of the Liberty Party refashioned the abolitionists’ agenda into an aggressive and politically-viable “containment” policy based on legal precedents from the state and national levels. By examining how the politics of slavery played out in several Northern states, these papers shed new light on the antislavery movement and the origins of the Civil War.

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