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Antislavery history and antislavery activism converge in Philadelphia

By W. Caleb McDaniel

This past weekend, the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic held its thirty-sixth annual meeting in Philadelphia. Members attended conference sessions, browsed the book exhibit, and met up with colleagues old and new. But one group of SHEAR members also caught up with supporters and officers of Historians Against Slavery (HAS), a non-profit antislavery organization whose Board held its semi-annual meeting on Friday.

The coincidence of these two meetings is fitting, since HAS traces some of its intellectual and organizational roots to the 2005 annual meeting of SHEAR, also held in Philadelphia. On that occasion, James Brewer Stewart, the distinguished historian of American abolitionism and then president of SHEAR, delivered a presidential address entitled, “Reconsidering the Abolitionists in an Age of Fundamentalist Politics.” Stewart’s lecture, later published in the Journal of the Early Republic, urged historians in attendance to pay more attention to the role of evangelical abolitionists in the coming of the Civil War, citing the political success of present-day evangelical activists as evidence that grassroots movements can affect electoral and party politics.

Yet the address also had two larger questions in view: what is the legacy of nineteenth-century American antislavery in the present, and which present-day activists (if any) can rightly claim to wear the abolitionists’ mantle? While contemporary evangelicals on the Religious Right often claim to be descended from the abolitionists, Stewart challenged that pedigree, pointing to significant theological and political differences between the two movements. In 2005, Stewart left unanswered the question of which, if any, contemporary activists were the rightful heirs to the antislavery movement. He focused instead on the historiography of the sectional crisis. But from its opening lines, Stewart’s appeal to historians of the early republic to think about the intersection between their work and the present rang out like a clarion call: “Consider for a moment our own time.”

Iron mask, collar, leg shackles and spurs used to restrict slaves. Illus. in: The penitential tyrant / Thomas Branagan. New York : Samuel Wood, 1807. Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division
Iron mask, collar, leg shackles and spurs used to restrict slaves. Illus. in: The penitential tyrant / Thomas Branagan. New York : Samuel Wood, 1807. Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division

In the years that followed, Stewart continued to consider “our own time” in relationship to his historical work. One result was Historians Against Slavery, which he founded in January 2011 after attending a large anti-trafficking conference the previous year. At that meeting, Stewart found a new group of activists claiming to be “modern-day abolitionists.” Some, but not all, hailed from the same circles of evangelical politics he had alluded to in his 2005 SHEAR address. As before, Stewart found that these would-be heirs were often ignorant of what earlier abolitionists believed, what they were up against, and what actions had contributed to their success. But if Stewart found that he had things to teach “modern-day abolitionists,” these activists also taught him much about the present. As Stewart learned more about the scale of contemporary forms of enslavement and human trafficking, he began to envision HAS as a vehicle for productive conversations between historians of slavery and abolitionism and contemporary antislavery activists—an organization that could help use history to make slavery history.

In the few short years since that vision took shape, Historians Against Slavery has become much more than a one-man show. When Stewart retires from the Board later this year, he will return to the ranks of a thriving organization now led by co-directors Randall Miller and Stacey Robertson, along with a seven-person Board. The Society now oversees a speakers bureau, a book series, a platform for organizing student antislavery groups called The Free Project, and a blog, Twitter feed, and Facebook page, which offer intellectual and practical resources for scholars, activists, and teachers. Plans are also underway for the Society’s second national conference in 2015, which will build on the success of a 2013 Conference held at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

Historians Against Slavery has also recently expanded its reach overseas, following in the footsteps of early transatlantic abolitionists. But SHEAR also continues to serve as a natural base for the collaborations between scholars and students that HAS seeks to foster. At last year’s meeting in St. Louis, historians packed the room for an HAS-sponsored session to hear Yale historian Edward Rugemer and others discuss how to teach the “long history of slavery.” And many of the new society’s Board Members, speakers, and supporters also hail from SHEAR.

This overlap in membership can be explained partly by the fact that some of the most influential scholarship on American abolitionism and slavery in the last thirty years got its start at SHEAR meetings or in SHEAR publications. That tradition continued this weekend in Philadelphia where, as the Junto blog pointed out in a preview, there were sessions on “the emancipation process,” antislavery petitions, and the politics of slavery. (The complete program is available online.)

Meanwhile, in the audience, on the panels, and gathered at post-session watering-holes around the City of Brotherly Love, Historians Against Slavery also heeded James Brewer Stewart’s original call to “consider for a moment our own time.”

Consider, for example, questions like this: How might we reconsider the abolitionists or early emancipation efforts in the antebellum North in an age when, according to one reputable, recent estimate, nearly 30 million people remain enslaved? To quote from the final pages of the final volume of David Brion Davis’s magisterial study of the problem of slavery, published just this year, what do the “shocking estimates of the number of women and men held today in different kinds of bondage” tell us about the history of slaveries that came before, and vice versa? How might activist work against slavery in all its forms illuminate historical scholarship, and how might historical expertise better inform activism in the present?

Those, among others, are the kinds of questions Historians Against Slavery are eager to ask and answer. Hopefully, by the time the thirty-sixth annual meeting of HAS rolls around, the organization will have followed in the footsteps of SHEAR in more ways than one, growing as SHEAR did from the vision of a few into an organization that embraces hundreds of dedicated citizen-scholars. Even more hopefully, however, in thirty-six years time, antislavery historians will be able to look back on decades of significant progress in the fight against human bondage.

As historians, though, we know from the past that such progress will hardly be inevitable. For, as David Brion Davis again reminds us, if the history of slavery abolition teaches any lesson, it is that moral progress, when it comes, must be “willed.”

W. Caleb McDaniel is the author of The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery: Garrisonian Abolitionists and Transatlantic Reform (LSU Press, 2013), which won a Merle Curti Award from the Organization of American Historians. He is assistant professor of history at Rice University and a Board Member for Historians Against Slavery. He tweets at @wcaleb.

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