With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

The Radical Lives of Abolitionists

American Radicals establishes the truly riotous nature of nineteenth-century activism, chronicling the central role that radical social movements played in shaping U.S. life, politics, and culture. Holly Jackson’s cast of characters includes everyone from millenarian militants and agrarian anarchists to abolitionist feminists espousing Free Love. Rather than rehearsing nineteenth-century reform as a history of bourgeois abolitionists having tea and organizing anti-slavery bazaars for their friends, Jackson offers electrifying accounts of Boston freedom fighters locking down courthouses and brawling with the police. We learn of preachers concealing guns in crates of Bibles and sending them off to abolitionists battling the expansion of slavery in the Midwest. We glimpse nominally free black communities forming secret mutual aid networks and arming themselves in preparation for a coming confrontation with the state. And we find that antebellum activists were also free lovers who experimented with unconventional and queer relationships while fighting against the institution of marriage and gendered subjugation. Traversing the nineteenth-century history of countless “strikes, raids, rallies, boycotts, secret councils, [and] hidden weapons,” American Radicals is a study of highly organized attempts to bring down a racist, heteropatriarchal settler state—and of winning, for a time.

Jackson illuminates how the creative and performative qualities of nineteenth-century public protest sought to interrupt the status quo. When, in 1854, 50,000 people showed up in Boston to protest the return of fugitive slave Anthony Burns back to slavery, an act authorized by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, protestors staged an elaborate funeral for democracy: black crepe adorned the street, a huge U.S. flag was hung upside down, and a coffin labeled “Liberty” was hung out of a building while the crowd below shouted “Shame!” at federal troops deployed to transport Burns back to the South. Then, as now, the threatening spectacle of both police and military were marshalled as a “bellicose display” intended to intimidate the massive political—and creative—energy of protestors who dared to question the nation’s daily acts of anti-democratic violence and violation of its own founding documents.

The antebellum United States was a deeply unstable formation, suffused with the symbolic and physical traces of the Revolutionary War and, government officials feared, teetering on the verge of anarchy. Reframing the nineteenth-century United States as a war society, Jackson helps us to see social movements—from abolitionism and labor to feminism and early environmental activism—as a continuation of the Revolutionary War by other means. In other words, the militancy of the American Revolution lived on in the many factions and revolts that fomented among the nation’s multitude.

Read entire article at Boston Review