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American Abolitionism

Its Direct Political Impact from Colonial Times into Reconstruction
Stanley Harrold

BUY Cloth · 296 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813942292 · $39.50 · Apr 2019
BUY Ebook · 296 pp. · ISBN 9780813942308 · $39.50 · Apr 2019

This ambitious book provides the only systematic examination of the American abolition movement’s direct impacts on antislavery politics from colonial times to the Civil War and after. As opposed to indirect methods such as propaganda, sermons, and speeches at protest meetings, Stanley Harrold focuses on abolitionists’ political tactics—petitioning, lobbying, establishing bonds with sympathetic politicians—and on their disruptions of slavery itself.

Harrold begins with the abolition movement’s relationship to politics and government in the northern American colonies and goes on to evaluate its effect in a number of crucial contexts--the U.S. Congress during the 1790s, the Missouri Compromise, the struggle over slavery in Illinois during the 1820s, and abolitionist petitioning of Congress during that same decade. He shows how the rise of "immediate" abolitionism, with its emphasis on moral suasion, did not diminish direct abolitionists’ impact on Congress during the 1830s and 1840s. The book also addresses abolitionists’ direct actions against slavery itself, aiding escaped or kidnapped slaves, which led southern politicians to demand the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, a major flashpoint of antebellum politics. Finally, Harrold investigates the relationship between abolitionists and the Republican Party through the Civil War and Reconstruction.


"There are numerous volumes, both recent and classic, on American abolitionism, but not one, until now, dedicated solely to the entire movement’s direct impact on politics, and among the many virtues of this book is its vast scope. The research is remarkable, and Harrold’s prose is clear and straightforward and wonderfully free of jargon."

Douglas R. Egerton, LeMoyne University, author of The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era

In this exhaustively researched yet compact and lucidly written volume, Stanley Harrold has delivered an incisive account of the antislavery movement's struggle to effect concrete political change in the United States. He masterfully navigates the generations-long and not always successful efforts of its diverse and often combative constituencies -- men and women, white and black, secular and evangelical -- to bridge the fault lines between pragmatism and radical idealism.

Fergus M. Bordewich, author of The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government

In this welcome addition to abolitionist scholarship, Stanley Harrold tackles the problem of the relationship of "immediatist" abolitionists—not those simply antislavery—to politics and convincingly reveals how politically active the immediatists were for over one and one-half centuries. In a broader sense, this is a marvelous story of the collision between purists and politics, between the desire to keep a standard unsullied and an equal desire to be effective in this earthly realm. The resulting battle between purity and practicality leaves, as Harrold concludes, a legacy difficult to untangle.

James L. Huston, Oklahoma State University, author of The British Gentry, the Southern Planter, and the Northern Family FarmerAgriculture and Sectional Antagonism in North America

This tightly written political history of abolitionism begins with a concise but sweeping contextualization of the historiography.... Fleshing out this important study, the author situates abolitionists’ motives and sensitivities, ranging from Enlightenment ideals about natural liberty to evangelicals’ egalitarian beliefs inspired by the First Great Awakening. Summing Up: Highly recommended.


In American Abolitionism: Its Direct Political Impact from Colonial Times into Reconstruction, Stanley Harrold presents a cogent, concise argument stressing the "direct abolitionist impact on colonial, state, and national [End Page 459] governments" using "such tactics as petitioning, lobbying, and personal contacts with politicians."... This book’s broad sweep, brevity, and forceful... argumentation make it an important contribution to the historiography and a highly assignable text.

Journal of Southern History

o what extent did the abolitionist movement bring about the end of slavery in the United States? For a century a half historians have debated this question.... American Abolitionism takes a new approach to answering this complicated question by examining the direct political influence of the abolitionist movement from the colonial era to Reconstruction. Harrold is not the first historian to do this, but the chronological scope of the book and its laser focus on politics sets it apart.

Civil War Monitor

Harrold’s robust examination of the multi-century struggle to end slavery makes iteminently clear that there was never a time when that vile practice was not threatening toexplode into a general disaster.

Civil War Book Review

About the Author(s): 

Stanley Harrold is Professor of History at South Carolina State University and the author, most recently, of Lincoln and the Abolitionists and Border War: Fighting over Slavery before the Civil War.

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