I’m revising my earlier statement about the SHEAR program this year. I thought that there wouldn’t be much of interest to me, but all of the panels that I attended were exceptionally well done and provoked much thought. Never underestimate those Early Republic historians!
Two panels that I attended dealt with different aspects of abolitionism. The Friday panel had papers by Joseph Yannielli (Yale University) and Albrecht Koschnik (independent scholar). Yannielli’s paper addressed anti-abolitionism in New England, a topic that seems almost antithetical with what most people think of the antebellum North. Yet, as Yannielli argued convincingly, many white northerners were no more in favor of emancipation than most white southerners. Koschnik’s paper argued that white southerners appealed to international law in their arguments against abolitionism. James Brewer Stewart (Macalester College) and Robert P. Forbes (University of Connecticut, Torrington) commented on the papers. Stewart observed that anti-abolitionism deserved a place in the discussion with other “anti-” movements of the period: anti-Sabbatarianism, anti-Masonry, etc. He also suggested that there needs to be more analysis of Connecticut’s pro-slavery, anti-abolition sentiments. Both Stewart and Forbes, as well as audience member Sean Wilentz (Princeton University), noted the modern parallels between the “anti-” movements of the Early Republic period and today’s hot-button political issues, namely, gay marriage, immigration, and the nullification and secession rhetoric used by some Republican politicians.
The Saturday roundtable on Graham Hodges’ new biography of David Ruggles was very interesting. I didn’t know much about Ruggles (1810-1849), a black abolitionist who was very outspoken in his advocacy of racial equality at a time when such activism could be dangerous. Although the audience discussion went mostly in other directions, I found the comments of Leigh Fought (Montgomery College) about the role of gender and sexuality in Ruggles’ life fascinating. She wondered if Ruggles, who had no apparent romantic or sexual relationships in his lifetime, made a monastic choice to pursue abolitionism. Richard S. Newman (Rochester Institute of Technology) described Ruggles as a “secular prophet” who had no compunction about mixing religion and politics to achieve racial equality. Panel chair Doug Egerton (Le Moyne College) made an important observation that is worth repeating. Too many times, the story of abolitionism has been popularized as a dramatic, heroic struggle. Certainly, there was drama and heroism involved. But, as Egerton noted, abolitionism was ultimately successful because of men and women such as Ruggles, who worked in the trenches to bring about success. In Ruggles’ case, his support of abolitionism cost him his health, his sight, and, finally, his life.