Abolition, temperance, women's rights, utopian experiments, religious revivalism, prison, asylum, and even diet reform: Readers of this list know right away that they have been transported to the 1830s and '40s, America's first great "age of reform." The impulse to improve society, perhaps to perfect it, drew upon a variety of sources, from religion to the socialist theories of men like Fourier and Noyes. Whatever the wellspring of their activities, reformers brought remarkable energy and commitment to their projects. Some of their movements are only oddities to us today; nothing remains of Sylvester Graham's diet regimen, for example, except the graham cracker. Others, like the campaign against alcohol consumption, raised difficult issues of individual rights that we still grapple with in modern society. Still others, like the women's rights campaign, began a long battle for equality that continues into our own lifetimes. Ironically, the most successful of these early nineteenth-century movements, abolitionism, seemed the least likely to achieve its goals when the age of reform began. This issue of HISTORY NOW focuses on this remarkable campaign to end slavery, examining its origins, its goals, its principles, and the women and men who devoted their lives to the cause.
As Sylvia Frey reminds us in her essay, the roots of abolitionism lay in the eighteenth century, as the Revolutionary generation debated the place of slavery in a society based on principles of liberty and equality. The vocabulary of emancipation and the defense of slavery emerged out of this early debate. Ronald Walters offers a valuable overview of the antebellum era and places abolitionism in the context of the cluster of reforms that defined these decades. Robert Abzug focuses our attention on the relationship between religious beliefs and movements and the abolitionist movement, while Margaret Washington shows us how gender shaped the African American struggle for emancipation. Steven Mintz and I offer portraits of well-known figures of the abolitionist cause, Angelina and Sarah Grimke of South Carolina, and John Brown. These two essays demonstrate the impact that committed individuals can have on history.
Historians have long recognized that the campaign to end slavery in America, begun in the eighteenth century and revived and reinvigorated in the nineteenth century, is one of the most important reform movements in our national history. Abolitionists like Angelina Grimke, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Theodore Weld, and William Lloyd Garrison - and the hundreds of less well-known but equally committed advocates of African American freedom -- deserve our attention in the classroom as we narrate the story of our nation's path to equality. This issue of HISTORY NOW is designed to help you bring that story alive. But, we should not forget that, in examining the quest for freedom, the past meets the present: slavery is part of our history, but it is still part of contemporary life in other parts of the world.
Along with the essays, you will find our usual special features. Mary-Jo Kline provides a wealth of Internet and library sources for you on the issue's theme, and Cecelia Hartsell, Karina Gaige, and Sabina Daley have produced an interactive feature, this time asking the reader to choose the path a runaway slave may have taken from South Carolina to Canada. As always, we welcome your comments and questions.
Editor, History Now
Carol Berkin is Professor of History at Baruch College and The Graduate Center, City University of New York. She is the author of several books including Jonathan Sewall: Odyssey of an American Conservative, First Generations: Women in Colonial America, A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution, and Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America's Independence.