Equality for Whom? Abolition and Radical "isms" of the Nineteenth Century

Endorsed by the Labor and Working-Class History Association (LAWCHA)

Thursday, April 2, 2020, 2:30 PM - 4:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Labor and Working-Class; Nationalism and Transnationalism; Slavery


This panel examines the exchange of radical ideas in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, and how these ideas concerning equality and the rights of men influenced the way that Americans understood the plight of slaves, laborers, and oppressed people in foreign lands. The theme that unites this panel is abolition. The first paper explores the relationship between former abolitionists and Russian terrorists and argues that the similarities in John Brown’s infamous raid in 1859 and the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881—both committed, ostensibly, to spark the uprising of an oppressed people—caused many former abolitionists to defend regicide in Russia. The second paper investigates how abolitionists’ connection with the failed revolutions of 1848 increased southern nativism and the region’s hostility toward ideas of “universal equality,” seeing them as radical, foreign imports. The final paper also shows how foreign connections strengthened anti-abolitionist arguments in the United States and traces the “white slavery” discourse of British Chartists and how it fueled anti-abolitionism in northern labor groups. This panel therefore investigates the different ways that a diverse group of Americans debated the twin questions of equality and freedom. Southerners rejected abolition’s dedication to “universal equality” and northern laborers concerned themselves only with the plight of “white slaves” in ways that carefully excluded African-Americans from full equality. In contrast, former abolitionist’s dedication to those very same slaves made them sympathetic to the plight of 100 million Russian subjects who were bound and gagged by Tsarist autocracy. Taken together, this research offers new insights into the ways that Americans embraced and/or rejected transatlantic ideas, and how these foreign theories shaped an age-old question in the United States—who deserves equality?

Papers Presented

The John Browns of St. Petersburg: Former Abolitionists and Russian Terrorism in the Late 19th Century

In recent decades, scholars have revisited the activism of abolitionists following the American Civil War, demonstrating how the same principles of government by consent and the equality of man that drove abolition was later translated into anti-imperialism, women’s suffrage, labor activism, and other reform efforts in the late nineteenth century. This paper examines the role of former Boston abolitionists in another emancipatory cause—that of the Russian people—in the 1880s-1890s.

In 1881 a member of the Russian terrorist organization, the People’s Will, arrived in the United States months after the group successfully assassinated Tsar Alexander II. In his appeal to the American people, he declared that Russian revolutionaries were the “abolitionists” of Russia. That same year, Wendell Phillips, in an oration to Harvard University, celebrated the terrorists as the “George Washingtons” and “John Browns of St. Petersburg.” Ten years later, the Russian revolutionary Sergei Stepniak-Kravchinskii visited Boston, to enlist former abolitionists in the revolutionary cause; the organization that came out of this effort, the Friends of Russian Freedom, counted three members of John Brown’s Secret Six.

This paper compares the terrorism of the Russian regicides with that of John Brown, and argues that Boston abolitionists understood the cause of the Russian people as one and the same with that of the oppressed slave. In an era overshadowed by the assassination of President James A. Garfield and the Haymarket bombing, abolitionists provided essential support for Russian terrorists that helped distinguish them from other radical isms of the era.

Presented By
Chelsea Gibson, Binghamton University, State University of New York

“It Must Be the Ultraisms”: John Bell, Conservatism, and Foreign Radicalism, 1852

Historians have long argued that the nativist Know-Nothings were “essentially a Northern Party.” They have generally accepted W. Darrell Overdyke’s argument in The Know-Nothing Party in the South (1950)—that southern nativism was never more than “lukewarm” and that southerners seized upon the issue primarily as an “opportunity to avoid the long-debated and touchy issues of slavery and state rights.” It was unionism rather than nativism that motivated Know-Nothings in the immigrant-poor South.

This paper argues that such a characterization draws a false dichotomy between southern nativism and unionism in the 1850s. In an 1852 speech that would be remembered as something like a “prophecy” of the upheavals that followed, John Bell of Tennessee issued a powerful warning about the dangers of immigrants and their radical ideas to the Union. Years before he joined the Know-Nothings, Bell’s spotlighted in his speech the interconnectedness of southern nativism, unionism, and conservatism in the 1850s.

The “great American question of the times,” Bell warned, was whether the “ultraisms” that animated (and, he was sure, doomed) the European revolutions of 1848 would destroy the institutions and traditions of the American republic. The proliferation of radical isms was evidence of the spread of these foreign ideas about “universal equality,” the most alarming of which was abolitionism. He saw it as a bellwether of radicalism more generally, and the dangers he associated with it—anarchy, chaos, and violence—portended the destruction that awaited if the advance of such wild, foreign ideas continued unabated.

Presented By
Jesse George-Nichol, University of Virginia

“Those Who Are Greater Slaves Than Themselves”: The Transatlantic Origins of Anti-Abolitionism in Radical Labor Movement Ideology

This paper explores the origins of antiabolitionist thought among northern labor reformers in the antebellum United States and locates them in a strain of argument largely developed by British radicals between the Age of Revolution and the Chartist period. First articulated by slaveholders in the British Caribbean in the 1780s, comparisons between slaves and working-class Britons became ubiquitous during the advent of industrialization. As British abolitionists sought to distance themselves from radical causes following the Napoleonic Wars and the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, working-class perceptions of the conservatism of wealthy abolitionists such as William Wilberforce dovetailed with abolitionists’ tactic of emphasizing the condition of West Indian slaves— an approach that inevitably begged comparisons to impoverished British factory workers. British radicals such as William Cobbett, Richard Carlile, and John Cartwright capitalized on these perceptions by linking such “white slavery” comparisons to conceptions of racial nationalism and an emerging pseudoscience of race. By the time of West Indian emancipation and the passage of the Factory Act in 1833, “white slavery” rhetoric was well-established within British radical discourse, and in subsequent decades it was transported across the Atlantic by the spread of print culture and by political expatriates such as the Chartist émigrés John Campbell and Thomas Devyr. While the anti-abolitionist strain of labor ideology was never dominant in either Britain or America, it served to stymie cooperation between labor reformers and abolitionists and provided part of the foundation for long-standing barriers to solidarity among white and black workers.

Presented By
Sean Griffin, Lehman College

Session Participants

Chair: Nicole M. Phelps, University of Vermont
Nicole Phelps is Associate Professor of History at the University of Vermont and the author of U.S.-Habsburg Relations from 1815 to the Paris Peace Conference (Cambridge, 2013; paperback in 2015). She received her BA summa cum laude in International Affairs from The George Washington University and her MA and PhD in American and European history from the University of Minnesota. Her dissertation on US-Habsburg relations won the Austrian Cultural Forum Dissertation Prize and the University of Minnesota’s Best Dissertation Prize in the Arts in Humanities; it also received an honorable mention for the Unterberger Dissertation Prize from the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR). Her current project is a study of the US Consular Service from 1789 to 1924 (http://blog.uvm.edu/nphelps/). She is also working on a textbook on US diplomatic history from 1776 to 1945 and was the contributing editor for the chapter on “Expansion and Diplomacy, 1865-1914” in the most recent edition of the annotated bibliography The SHAFR Guide Online. Her teaching includes introductory US history surveys; intermediate and advanced courses on US diplomacy, the history of the federal government, race relations, and the Gilded Age and Progressive Era; and undergraduate and graduate courses on historical methodology. She has served on numerous professional committees for SHAFR and the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, as well as serving as the AHA Program Committee assistant for the 2007 conference in Atlanta. She is also the register of the Alpha of Vermont chapter of Phi Beta Kappa and the inaugural winner of the University of Vermont College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Faculty Service Award.

Presenter: Jesse George-Nichol, University of Virginia
Jesse George-Nichol is a PhD candidate at the University of Virginia studying with Gary
Gallagher, Elizabeth Varon, and Caroline Janney. Originally from North Carolina, she graduated
with a B.A. in History from Princeton University in 2010. Her areas of interest include
secession, the Civil War, and gender history.

Her dissertation traces the history of the Constitutional Union Party in Kentucky,
Tennessee, and Virginia. It follows former Whigs in these states as they attempted to rally a
conservative party against the forces of radicalism North and South: first in the guise of the
Know Nothing or American Party, then in the Constitutional Union Party in 1860, and finally in
the Union movement during the secession crisis of 1860-1861. She argues that these former
Whigs were motivated by a conviction that the institutions which constituted their republic were
under assault by radical isms. From abolitionism to socialism, atheism, and “women’s
rightsism,” these isms embraced a commitment to freedom that bordered on anarchy—one
which these conservatives thought incompatible with their republic and thus inherently foreign
and unAmerican. They battled to unite fellow conservatives against the onslaught of these
ideas, determined that this was the only way to preserve the hope of free government on earth.
Jesse’s publications include “‘Certain Ill-Considered Phrases’: Edward Bates and the
Disunionist Dangers of Radical Rhetoric,” which will appear in New Perspectives on the Union
War, forthcoming from Fordham University Press in June 2019. She also published an article
entitled “‘It Is Yet to Be Hoped’: North Carolina Unionists, Lincoln’s Proclamation, and Hope’s
Last Stand” in The Southern Historian’s spring 2014 issue. She has also written book reviews
for Nineteenth Century Studies and Louisiana History.

Jesse has been awarded a variety of fellowships, including the Lynne and Harry Bradley
Foundation Fellowship, the Filson Fellowship from Filson Historical Society, the W.M. Keck
Foundation Fellowship from the Huntington Library, the Lord Baltimore Fellowship from the
Maryland Historical Society, the Archie K. Davis Fellowship from the North Caroliniana Society,
the Mellon Research Fellowship from the Virginia Historical Society, and a research grant from
the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies at Virginia Tech.

Jesse has also presented her work at a number of conferences. In 2018 she gave a
paper entitled “‘They Were Honored With the Smiles of the Ladies’: Gender and the Origins of
the Union Movement in the Election of 1860” at the Virginia History Forum. In 2017 she
presented a paper entitled “‘The Certainess of Right & the Knowledge That Good Men Must
Respect You’: Edward Bates, Political Moderation, and Restrained Manhood” at the Conference
on the Civil War at the University of Mississippi, as well as a paper entitled “‘Certain Ill-
Considered Phrases’: Edward Bates, Restrained Manhood, and the Disunionist Dangers of
Radical Rhetoric” at the Legal Studies Graduate Student Conference at Brown University. In
2015 she presented a paper entitled “‘They Have Denationalized Their Party’: How Edward
Bates Lost the Republican Nomination in 1860” at UNC Charlotte’s Graduate History

Presenter: Chelsea Gibson, Binghamton University, State University of New York
Dr. Chelsea Gibson is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor in U.S. History at Binghamton University. Her dissertation, “Russia’s Martyr-Heroines: Women, Violence, and America’s Progressive Campaign for a Free Russia, 1878-1920,” examines the interplay between female Russian revolutionaries and American reform efforts in the decades before the 1917 Russian revolutions. It focuses specifically on how stories of women’s violent revolutionary acts captivated American progressives, fostered American investment in the cause of “Russian freedom,” and ultimately sustained a powerful backlash against Bolshevism in the form of the First Red Scare.
Her research has been supported by several fellowships, including the Institute for the Advanced Studies of the Humanities Fellowship and Wheeler/Nieman Research Grant for the Study of the History of Women, Gender, and Sexuality, both at Binghamton University. She has also received a Graduate Student Excellence Award in Teaching and Council Foundation Award, which celebrates a graduate student who has served Binghamton University’s campus and provided exemplary service and leadership. She has received numerous grants for her Russian study, including a Critical Language Scholarship to Vladimir, Russia, a Title VIII grant for Research and Training in Eastern Europe and Asia, and a Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship. She has also received a Summer Research Lab Associateship from the REEEC at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Chelsea is currently the Editor-in-Chief of H-SHGAPE and serves on the Board of Trustees at the Phelps Mansion Museum, located in Binghamton, NY. In addition to publishing several book reviews, she has a document collection recently published in Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600 to 2000, edited by Rebecca Plant and Judy Tzu-Chun Wu. You can follow her on Twitter @gibsoche or visit her website at http://chelseacgibson.com/. 

Presenter: Sean Griffin, Lehman College
Sean Griffin received his Ph.D. from the City University of New York Graduate Center. His current book project, Labor, Land, and Freedom: Antebellum Labor Reform and the Rise of Antislavery Politics, offers a critical reevaluation of the relationship between antislavery and labor reform, and argues that labor activists, land reformers, and transatlantic radicals made a critical contribution to the ideological foundations and mass appeal of political antislavery. His broader research interests include transnational histories of slavery and antislavery, nineteenth-century political and economic history, and African-American history, and his work has recently appeared in the Journal of the Civil War Era. He currently works as an Assistant Professor in the History Department at Lehman College in the Bronx.

Commentator: William Caleb McDaniel, Rice University
W. Caleb McDaniel (Ph.D, Johns Hopkins University, 2006) is associate professor of
history at Rice University. He is the author of The Problem of Democracy in the Age of
Slavery: Garrisonian Abolitionists and Transatlantic Reform (Louisiana State University
Press, 2013), which won the Merle Curti award for intellectual history from the
Organization of American Historians and the James Broussard Prize from the Society for
Historians of the Early American Republic. He is also the recipient of a Public Scholar
grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and author of numerous articles
and book chapters on abolitionism, slavery, and the Civil War Era in the Journal of the
Civil War Era, The Journal of the Early Republic, Slavery and Abolition, and elsewhere.
His second book, Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in
America, will be published by Oxford University Press in Fall 2019.