“Slavery Annihilates the Matrimonial Institution: Abolitionists and the Threat to the American Family

Friday, January 6, 2017: 9:10 AM
Governor's Square 14 (Sheraton Denver Downtown)
Paula Hunt, University of Missouri–Columbia
The American Anti-Slavery Society produced and distributed almost three million pieces of literature between 1833 and 1840, an impressive propaganda campaign that played a central role in bringing slavery and abolition to the attention of Americans, making the South’s “peculiar institution” a truly national issue.  My paper examines how the American Anti-Slavery Society used the concept of the family to frame arguments about slavery in its literature, and how the press responded to its claims.  Family and domestic life were at the heart of the American Anti-Slavery Society’s concerns over slavery and permeated its outlook and approach to social change. Its members’ lived experience linked it to widely held ideals about appropriate gender roles in the early years of the nineteenth century.  Fathers were sober, hardworking protectors and providers who were representative of public authority. Mothers dominated the home, where they prepared children to be good citizens by educating them, offering spiritual guidance, and instilling discipline and self control.  Slavery not only denied slave parents from fulfilling their natural roles, it had a corrosive effect on white Southern families as well.  While the abolitionists’ concept of family was congruent with mainstream ideas about gender relations and the domestic sphere, their extension of this concept to slaves enraged its antagonists, who interpreted it as a different kind of threat to the family by promoting “amalgamation.”  My paper will hopefully yield new insights into the family in the antebellum as well as provide a deeper understanding of the often rancorous opposition abolitionists faced when they used the concept of the family in their campaigns for emancipation.
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