Review of Literature
Abolitionists have inspired a great quantity of scholarly study and debate. Historians have hotly disputed the abolitionistsí motivation for undertaking their crusade in the 1830s, arguing for the primacy of economic, religious, ideological, or psychological forces. A substantial body of literature, drawing on a wide range of disciplines, has analyzed the personality of the American abolitionists both individually and collectively. In recent years, historians have attempted to rehabilitate the abolitionists from long-standing accusations of mental instability.
In addition, historians have studied the evolution of abolitionist tactics but still strongly disagree about their effectiveness. Similar disputes mark scholarly evaluation of the factionalization that occurred in the 1840s and 1850s as a consequence of tactical disagreements. Perhaps the most current of these disputes concerns the dynamics leading some abolitionists, such as John Brown, to turn to violent means to pursue emancipation.
Another significant area of antislavery studies concerns the interaction of white abolitionists and Northern free blacks. There is an on-going quarrel among scholars over whether racial tensions deeply troubled abolitionist activities. A parallel series of research has demonstrated that gender-role issues likewise generated conflict in the abolitionist ranks.
Questions concerning the abolitionistsí relation with more moderate antislavery groups in both the North and South has stimulated an insightful examination of inter-group dynamics in reform movements. For example, a considerable volume of literature debates the degree to which the nationís churches condemned or condoned the institution of slavery. Another body of scholarship concerns the legal disputes occurring over the constitutional standing of slavery and the obligations on the government and private citizens to uphold that institution.
Finally, there is an important body of scholarship that evaluates the abolitionistsí impact on the coming of the Civil War, the emancipation of American slaves, post-war Reconstruction of the nation, and modern race relations. Given the unsettled state of many issues raised by the abolitionists, scholarly debate on their historical influence continues unabated. As this brief survey indicates, few fields of modern historical scholarship have proven more fruitful or relevant to modern-day concerns than the study of the American Abolitionist Movement.
John R. McKivigan
Mary O'Brien Gibson Professor of History
Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis