The Problem of Prejudice: Confronting Slavery’s Bulwark in Early United States Emancipation

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 10:30 AM
Thurgood Marshall South (Marriott Wardman Park)
Paul J. Polgar, University of Mississippi
If the institution of slavery seemed to contradict the founding principles of newly independent America, slaves themselves seemed to embody the exact opposite of every quality needed in the body politic of the young republic. Lacking self-mastery and bodily independence, a chattel slave was denied the very virtue necessary for maintaining a self-governing society. The same natural rights Revolutionary ideology that fueled the abolition movement and gave it wider currency, also presented slaves themselves as the very antithesis of the independent, virtuous citizenry necessary to uphold representative government and maintain the fragile American experiment in republicanism, making emancipation a problematic process. The solution to this confounding dilemma, according to black abolitionists and their white allies, was to fashion former slaves and free persons of color into republican citizens whose virtuous behavior would put to rest any doubts about the feasibility of black liberty. Premised on the educational and moral uplift of black Americans and their civic incorporation, this ideology of antislavery reform sought to topple both human bondage and the widespread problem of white prejudice that these reformers believed buttressed slavery in America.

This paper will reconstruct the shared commitment of black and white American abolitionists to civic incorporation for persons of color during the “first emancipation” of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; depicting this commitment as a strategic antislavery program aimed at solving the problem of prejudice in early U.S. emancipatory efforts. The extent to which emancipation’s opponents in the early U.S. relied on claims of black incapacity for freedom, this paper will argue, necessitated that abolitionists focus on overturning white prejudice and black inequality to a greater degree than their fellow antislavery advocates throughout the Americas.

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