Moral Power: Rethinking Children’s Activism in North American History

Solicited by the OAH International Committee

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Politics; Religion; Science, Medicine, and Public Health


The last two years have seen the meteoric rise of two unlikely teenagersone rallying youth to stop global climate change, the other leading the charge against gun violence in the United States. Greta Thunberg and Emma Gonzalez have received their share of adulation, with Thunberg becoming TIME Magazine’s youngest-ever Person of the Year in 2019, at just 16. At the same time, critics see in their brand of activism a troubling anomaly, and many of the misogynistic and ageist slurs hurled at the young females reflect a deep-seated belief: that children should stay out of politics because of their alleged immaturity; and that childhood should align with the private, not the public sphere. This panel begs to disagree. Historians of youth and childhood have already made big strides toward debunking such faulty assumptions, showing how young people engaged in various forms of political laborfrom marching in demonstrations and staging boycotts to petitioning adult leaders and practicing diplomacy. Building on their trailblazing work, this panel features some of the latest scholarship from Europe and North America that looks at how underage U.S.-Americans and Canadians in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries devoted their time, bodies, and enthusiasm to key social movements in North American history. Individual presentations explore the social and symbolic importance of children in the temperance campaigns before and after the U.S. Civil War (Weiß); investigate the emerging cross-generational alliance of anti-civil rights youths with adult segregationists in the 1960s (Eckelmann); and uncover how Canadian teenagers have simulated international conflict and bridge-building in the Model United Nations movement since the 1950s (Alexander & Llewellyn). A concluding commentary (Honeck) will revisit central arguments and tease out connections. In proposing this panel, we seek to advance the historiography on children’s activism both topically and conceptually. Whereas much of the previous work focused on young people throwing their support behind leftist causes, our panel chooses a more balanced approach. Conservative and reactionary youth activism warrant historical analysis as well, if only to correct the popular view that children are somehow “naturally” progressive. Bridging the conservative-progressive divide might also call for a new theoretical framework. Our suggestion, therefore, is to use this panel to test the analytical efficacy of the concept of “moral power.” Since moral power can be assigned and exercised across partisan lines, it pulls together two dominant strands in childhood studies (childhood as symbol vs. children as actors). Moreover, it goes beyond rather simplistic constructions of “innocence” or “purity” that unwittingly reify notions of young people as hapless victims. Moral power can bring into sharp relief political actors who, depending on shifting historical constellations of class, gender, race, and age, were capable of developing and projecting powerful visions of collective morality. Such an undertaking, we believe, is worthwhile because it inserts a longue-durée perspective into recent discussions of youth activism. In addition, it makes a compelling case for how studying children and youth can enrich broader inquiries into social, cultural, and political history.

Papers Presented

“We, Cold Water Girls and Boys Freely Renounce the Treacherous Joys of Brandy, Whiskey, Rum and Gin": The Children’s Crusade against Demon Rum

During the nineteenth-century the temperance movement evolved into one of the most influential social movements in U.S. history. In the crusade against King Alcohol, temperance (and subsequently total abstinence) became a moral (and later also legal) imperativea message spread throughout the nation by prominent political and religious leaders as well as women organizations, targeting men and children. In the 1830s temperance reformers began enlisting children for their cause as various juvenile organizations such as the Cold Water Army and the Band of Hope sprang up and gained influence over the next 70 years (their impact began to fade when the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union made “Scientific Temperance Instruction” mandatory in all states by 1901). The paper seeks to analyze the inextricably linked social and political roles that children played: (1) as innocent victims of the violent, poverty-stricken drunkard that needed protection from the lure of spirits; (2) as the reformers’ hopes for the future, i.e. as a new, educated generation that would lead the nation to sobriety; (3) as activists and participants in temperance parades and rallies, marching, carrying banners, and singing temperance songs. Numerous children’s books, juvenile newspapers and periodicals urged their young readers with impassionate pleas to join the fight. In songs, poetry, and moral tales, children were educated against the use of spirits through a mix of instruction and entertainment. At the same time, they were also encouraged to see themselves as agents who had the power to influence adult behavior. Hence, the paper examines how children became instruments of change that went beyond mere symbolism in the “moral revolution” against alcohol.

Presented By
Jana Weiss, University of Muenster, Germany

“It’s People Like You We Need in the White House": Anti–Civil Rights Youth, George Wallace, and 1960s Campaign Activism

This paper chronicles white children’s and teenagers’ anti–civil rights correspondence with public leaders including Governor George Wallace of Alabama and Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson during the 1960s. Embracing the rhetoric of Governor Wallace, anti-civil rights youth saw property rights and personal freedoms undermined following legislative changes during the 1960s civil rights era. The United States’ changing racial and political landscape caused anxiety among children and teenagers like seventeen-year-old Jerry Drewry of Arkansas, who, in a letter to Wallace, lamented, “Will the colored race ever be satisfied?” Although Wallace’s young sympathizers often struggled as a self-perceived political “minority” in forging effective political alliances with peers, I argue that the written manifestations of their worldviews evidenced their success in building political connections with adult leaders and promoting anti–civil rights rhetoric and values. Their written critiques of civil rights press coverage and, what they viewed as, liberal “dictatorship” show the awakening of a new generation that would oversee the transformation of media culture and political power in later decades. Drawing on sources from presidential and state archives, this paper illuminates how anti-civil rights teenagers across the United States transformed classroom debates into political campaigns against civil rights. Wallace’s presidential run (though unsuccessful) bolstered anti-civil rights youth’s political identities as future conservative voters. Their contributions highlight a shift from (what these youth regarded as) liberals’ political monopoly toward a more robust, integrated, and lasting conservative agenda.

Presented By
Susan Eckelmann Berghel, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Youth Politics as Performance and Play: The Model United Nations Movement in Canada from the 1950s to Today

This paper takes as its subject the Model United Nations movement, a surprisingly understudied citizenship education program through which ambitious high school and university students gather to act out simulations of international crises and diplomacy. Originating in Britain and the U.S. in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the Model UN now includes thousands of young participants on every continent. Supervised by adults but largely organized by young people, the Model UNwith its formal dress codes, focus on commanding oratory, and strict adherence to policy and procedure is markedly different from the various anti-authoritarian youth cultures that have flourished over the past half-century. This project, which focuses on Model UN groups in Canada from the early 1950s to today, uses oral history interviews and textual records like newspapers and school yearbooks to better understand this particular type of youth culture and its relationship to internationalism, racial-national hierarchies, andmost recentlyneoliberalism. Our paper will open up new questions about a number of issues, including participants’ occasional use of the movement to formulate moral critiques of the “adult” world of high politics and diplomacy, how experiences were shaped by gender, class, region, and race, and politics as performance and play.

Presented By
Kristine Alexander, University of LethbridgeKristina Llewellyn, University of Waterloo

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Mischa Honeck, Humboldt University, Berlin
Mischa Honeck is a historian of the United States who works at the intersection of national and global history. His contributions to this burgeoning “America and the World” scholarship engage with the histories of race, ethnicity, gender, childhood, youth, and empire. His first book, We Are the Revolutionists: Germans-Speaking Immigrants and American Abolitionists after 1848 (University of Georgia Press, 2011) maps encounters between black and white antislavery activists and exiled European radicals in the Civil-War era United States. His second book, Our Frontier Is the World: The Boy Scouts in the Age of American Ascendancy (Cornell University Press, 2018) details how the scouting movement aided and abetted US global expansion in the twentieth century. He also edited two collections of essays: Germany and the Black Diaspora: Points of Contact, 1250-1914 (Berghahn Books, 2013) and War and Childhood in the Era of the Two World Wars (Cambridge University Press, 2019). 

Presenter: Kristine Alexander, University of Lethbridge
Kristine Alexander is Associate Professor of History at the University of Lethbridge Canada, the Director of the U of L's Institute for Child and Youth Studies (I-CYS), and a co-editor of the peer-reviewed journal Jeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures. She is the author of Guiding Modern Girls: Girlhood, Empire and Internationalism in the 1920s and 1930s (University of British Columbia Press, 2017) and co-editor of the volume A Cultural History of Youth in the Modern Age, forthcoming with Bloomsbury. Kristina Llewellyn is Associate Professor at the Department of Social Development Studies at the University of Waterloo, Canada. She is the author of Democracy’s Angels: The Work of Women Teachers (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012). The Canadian Oral History Reader, which she co-edited and published in 2015, is the first primer on oral history scholarship ever produced in Canada. 

Presenter: Susan Eckelmann Berghel, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
Susan Eckelmann Berghel is Assistant Professor of History and Director of Africana Studies at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga. She is the coeditor of Growing Up America: Youth and Politics since 1945 with Paul Renfro and Sara Fieldston (UGA, 2019). Eckelmann Berghel’s writing has also appeared in the Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth, The Public Historian, and other publications. Her current book manuscript, Freedom’s Little Lights: Children and Teenagers in the US and Abroad during the Civil Rights Era features children and teenage youth from the United States and abroad to present new understandings about the US civil rights struggle, Cold War politics, and American culture. Her research has been funded by the Lyndon B. Johnson Foundation’s Moody Research Grant and the North American History Fellowship at the German Historical Institute in Washing¬ton, DC. She received her PhD in history from Indiana University, Bloomington.

Presenter: Kristina Llewellyn, University of Waterloo

Presenter: Jana Weiss, University of Muenster, Germany
Jana Weiß is Assistant Professor at the University of Münster (Germany), North American History Department, where she also received her PhD. Her current project (“Habilitation”) focuses on the lager beer revolution in pre-Prohibition USA. It analyzes the cultural and technological transfer of the “German art of brewing” to the United States, understood as a (re)invention of ethnicity, knowledge, and consumption. Besides, her research interests include U.S. religious history, transatlantic relations, and race. Her research has been funded by the German Research Foundation, the German Academic Exchange Service, and the German Historical Institute in Washing­ton, D.C.