The Question of Black Politics in the Antebellum United States

Endorsed by the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR)

Saturday, April 4, 2020, 10:00 AM - 11:30 AM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: African American; Politics


Long before the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, black Americans argued for equal rights and citizenship alongside the abolition of slavery. Repeatedly over the course of the nineteenth century, African Americans contested the presumed boundaries of the body politic, advancing demands for emancipation, civil rights, and equality to the forefront of national political discussions. For these activists, calling attention to the injustice of slavery was one pillar of a much larger political project. Working both within and outside the conventional channels of electoral politics, and on both local and national scales, they aimed to combat the dual evils of slavery and racism that plagued nineteenth-century society, and they struggled to establish an equal voice for themselves in American politics. The power of black activists’ claims is reflected in the responses of their white opponents, ranging from elite advocates for colonization to fire-breathing planter-politicians, who argued that the granting of any such rights would threaten the very foundations of American society. In the minds of both white and black Americans, black political activism was inseparable from the issue of abolishing slavery, but it also encompassed other equally significant claims to civil and political equality.

Black Americans’ antebellum advocacy for equal rights, long overlooked, has recently gained prominence in scholarly discussions, which highlight the contributions of ordinary African Americans to nationwide legal and political debates. This panel will engage with recent scholarship, while also presenting new research strands in the field of antebellum black politics. The panel will bring together various approaches to the topic of nineteenth-century African American politics, ranging from suffrage, citizenship, and partisan politics, to more informal means of political action, as well as accounting for white reactions to black political mobilization. For a cohort of African Americans, antislavery and anti-racist activism went along with daily contests for justice, equity, and individual fulfillment. Together, the panel aims to contribute to the ongoing and vibrant conversation about the meaning of nineteenth-century politics and the various means of protest deployed by black Americans in their struggle for freedom and equal rights.

Papers Presented

Black Power in Antebellum America: The New Bedford Example

Drawing on my soon-to-be published book on antebellum black politics, this paper will examine how the black political class of New Bedford, Massachusetts, exerted more autonomous influence within the electoral arena than any comparable group of black men before the Civil War. It begins by noting that port city’s elevated status, as perhaps the richest city in the United States during this period, and its distinctly Quaker-Whig elite. From there it will focus on the annual electoral contests between 1837 and 1854 in which black men operated as an independent pressure group, offering endorsements to selected Whig and Democrats through 1848, and then becoming an important force in southeastern Massachusetts’ distinctly multiparty electoral environment after that year until the formation of the hegemonic Republican coalition in 1855.

Presented By
Van Gosse, Franklin & Marshall College

The Problem of Black Citizenship

Long before the 1857 Dred Scott decision, the question of black citizenship exposed deep divisions in the United States. During the Missouri Crisis of 1819–1821, southerners contended that black people could never be citizens of the American Republic. Why was black citizenship so threatening? I will argue that early national slaveholders promoted a racialized polity to protect slavery and suppress black politics. In the aftermath of Gabriel’s Rebellion, Virginia ordered that enslaved people emancipated after 1806 had to leave the state within a year. Upper South and lower North states subsequently adopted laws banning or hindering free black in-migration, likely inspiring Missouri’s proposed ban on free black migrants, which forced the citizenship question into Congress in 1820. While southern masters could use state-level powers to police black people, the Missouri debates revealed the difficulties slaveholders faced at the national level. Multiple northern legislators defended black citizenship in 1820 and 1821, documenting a long history of black political participation in the United States. Black claims to citizenship posed a practical challenge to slavery and an ideological challenge to the white supremacist polity slaveholders hoped to build. To defend free communities of color, northern blacks advanced a broad vision of American citizenship, by turns cosmopolitan and nationalist, that insisted on equality before the law. Looking at the Missouri Crisis and subsequent conflicts in the 1820s, this paper will explain how black citizenship politics threatened slaveholder power, setting the stage for the citizenship revolution of the Civil War era.

Presented By
Padraig Griffin Riley, Reed College

The Life and Times of Reuben Ruby, from Community Leader to National Activist

In September 1826 a group of six African American men addressed a letter “To the Public” on behalf of about six hundred of their “brethren” in Portland, Maine, in which they announced their intention to “erect a suitable house for public worship” to serve their community. Their plan came to fruition in the construction of the Abyssinian Meeting House, which became the epicenter of Maine abolitionism and African American politics. The meetinghouse campaign represents one of the most visible moments of activism for these black Mainers, but their activities and influence extended into almost every aspect of nineteenth-century American history and politics. This paper explores the political endeavors of one of the progenitors of the meetinghouse plan, Reuben Ruby, in the decades that followed its construction. Over the course of his adult life, Reuben Ruby held local political appointments, campaigned on behalf of national parties, and shaped political debates surrounding slavery and abolition in his home state. Maine was one of the few states that allowed black men to vote: universal male suffrage was embedded in the state’s founding constitution of 1820. Therefore, from Maine’s beginnings, African Americans were a significant, yet often-overlooked, political constituency. But Ruby’s activism extended beyond electoral politics when he and his wife served tea to groups of abolitionists in their parlor, aided fugitive slaves, baptized their children, and faced daily indignities of racist discrimination. Beyond Maine’s borders, Ruby agitated for suffrage rights in other states and contributed to national movements opposing slavery and racism. Ruby is an example of how, on both a local and national level, African Americans fought to end slavery and expand democracy.

Presented By
Mary Tibbetts Freeman, University of Maine

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Christopher James Bonner, University of Maryland, College Park

Presenter: Mary Tibbetts Freeman, University of Maine
Mary T. Freeman is an assistant professor of history at the University of Maine. She is a historian of the nineteenth-century United States, with a focus on slavery and abolition. She received her PhD from Columbia University. Her current book project examines letter writing in the nineteenth-century antislavery movement. She is also working on an article about abolitionism and nineteenth-century African American politics in Portland, Maine. Mary’s work has been supported by institutions including the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the American Philosophical Society, and the New England Regional Fellowship Consortium.

Presenter: Van Gosse, Franklin & Marshall College
Van Gosse is Professor of History at Franklin and Marshall, and the author of numerous books and articles, including the 2008 AHR article, “'As a Nation, the English are Our Friends’: African American Politics in the British Atlantic World, 1772-1861.” His book Native Sons: Black Politics in America, From the Revolution to the Civil War is forthcoming from the University of North Carolina Press. He has been a member of the Editorial Collective of the Radical History Review since 1990.

Presenter: Padraig Griffin Riley, Reed College
Padraig Riley is Visiting Associate Professor of History and Humanities at Reed College. He completed his Ph.D. at UC Berkeley and has taught at Eugene Lang College and Dalhousie University. He is the author of Slavery and the Democratic Conscience: Political Life in Jeffersonian America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).