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Neoabolitionist (or neo-abolitionist or new abolitionism) is a term used by some historians to refer to the heightened activity of the civil rights movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Later the term began to be used among historians for those who led a re-evaluation of Reconstruction and its aftermath that focused on the significance of full citizenship and suffrage for African Americans.

Abolition refers to the moral and political position that advocated the abolition of slavery and granting of citizenship to African Americans in the United States. Following the American Revolution with its proposition of human equality, a number of slaveholders freed their slaves, or provided for their freedom in wills, in the early Republic period, 1783-1818. Slaveholders became alarmed about the existence of free Negroes in their societies and passed legislation in most Southern states to make it more difficult for owners to free slaves. In addition, states restricted residency, and sometimes work and other living conditions of free Negroes. Some states extended suffrage to free Negroes but withdrew it in decades before the Civil War.

Later in the 19th century, from 1840 through 1865, American proponents of abolition became more active. They condemned slavery as a sin and offense against human dignity. They demanded an end to plantation owners' profiting from slavery. Despite opponents' attempts to suppress individuals, the abolitionist movement became quite influential in the North. The abolitionist movement thus contributed to the Northern anti-slavery sentiment that was one of the factors involved in the Civil War.[1]

Early 20th century: Dunning School historians hostile to abolition[]

Early 20th century historical treatments of the abolitionists and of the era of Reconstruction were negative. Historians like James G. Randall and Avery Craven labeled abolitionists as fanatics who caused a "needless war" that they argued should have been resolved by compromise. Most textbooks in the first half of the 20th century followed the early 20th century Dunning School narrative, later in the 20th century widely condemned by contemporary historians as deeply racist. It endorsed former white southern Confederates who called themselves "Redeemers". To regain political power, whites murdered and terrorized thousands of African Americans,[2] [1] [2] favored White Power after the Civil War ended to stop African Americans from voting, and to keep African-American people in inferior and unequal status.

After the Civil War, former abolitionists, especially African-American historians, such as Frederick Douglass, and much later, Harvard-trained historian W. E. B. Du Bois, presented positive views of the achievements of Reconstruction: for its advocacy of civil rights for African Americans and expanded suffrage to include poor whites. They held that the desire of Southern slave states to preserve the long-term future of slavery was the primary cause of Southern secession and the Civil War, and that the nation had a moral debt to abolish slavery, and to guarantee equal rights for former slaves, especially to guarantee voting rights.

W.E.B. Du Bois, a founder of the NAACP, observed that economic equality among black and white people would lead to equality for all. Fisk University historian Alrutheus Taylor described the period of Reconstruction in North Carolina and Tennessee in several books and articles. The Dunning School of white historians discounted the memoirs of John R. Lynch, one of the first African-American members of Congress during Reconstruction, in favor of their own narratives that claimed African Americans were incompetent to vote or to participate in government.

In the mid-1870s, the Redeemers (the Southern wing of the Democratic Party) overthrew the Republican coalition that had controlled the southern states for a brief period after 1867. The Redeemers replaced the civil rights reforms of Reconstruction with Jim Crow laws that legalized racial segregation in public places. Through murder, terror and procedural barriers, [3], the Redeemers curtailed or eliminated African-American voting rights. They replaced the short period when African Americans enjoyed some legal rights with segregation laws that reduced African-Americans civil rights socially, politically, and economically for the next 80 years or more. Public opinion, among northern whites, and most opinion by white scholars, accepted or applauded the Redeemers, but some clung to the abolitionist viewpoint. James McPherson[4] reports that 15 of 24 ex-abolitionists who wrote about Reconstruction called it a "qualified success."

Civil Rights Movement as "new abolitionists"[]

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s had a major impact on historians. Howard Zinn identified the movement as a revival of the old in SNCC: The New Abolitionists[5]. Zinn popularized the term as it applied to civil rights activists, but he does not refer to historians as "neoabolitionist."

Beginning in the 1960s and strongly influenced by the Civil Rights movement, historians writing about slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction, emphasized the human advancement achieved by the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of those who had been enslaved. Eric Foner dated his major survey of Reconstruction from 1863 to emphasize the success of abolition (via the Emancipation Proclamation). Foner's Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (1988) emphasized the "unfinished" theme in its subtitle, explicitly connecting the 1860s to the second half of the 20th century when the issues of civil rights gained passage of federal legislation to overturn state discrimination. At no point in his many books and articles does Foner refer to himself or other historians as "neoabolitionists."

Many 20th century historians admired the original abolitionists and wrote about them (as did James McPherson and Martin Duberman[6]), echoing their moral values. Contemporary historians, including David W. Blight[7], Michael Les Benedict[8], James McPherson, John Hope Franklin[9], and Steven Hahn[10] rejected the Dunning School notion that Reconstruction was overwhelmingly corrupt. They evaluated the postwar period as not more corrupt than many times of social change and turmoil in American history. They argued that Reconstruction had positive elements: most significantly, the enfranchisement of African Americans, both free men and former slaves; the extension of citizenship and civil rights to four million African Americans; and the introduction of public schools for both blacks and poor whites throughout the South where such schools generally had not existed. Franklin, for example, points to the founding of historically black universities Howard and Fisk as two major successes of Reconstruction.

Contemporary historians observed that depriving African Americans of suffrage and civil rights was a terrible form of corruption and violation of tenets of representative government.

Usage history[]

  • The NAACP in 1910 called itself a "New Abolition Movement." Du Bois often used the term, as did newspapers.[11]
  • In 1952 Kenneth Stampp, discussing the revisionist historians of slavery (including himself), called them "scholarly descendants of the northern abolitionists." [12]
  • In 1964, historian George B. Tindall said that in the 1920s H. L. Mencken was the "guiding genius" behind "the neoabolitionist myth of the Savage South." That is, Mencken was breaking with the "lost cause" heroic image of the South and sharply criticizing it, as did the abolitionists.[13]
  • In the 1960s, the term was popularized by the young radical historian Howard Zinn, who in 1964 called the activists in the Civil Rights Movement who fought to overturn Jim Crow segregation the "new abolitionists." Zinn did not use the term "neoabolitionist" nor did he apply the term to contemporary historians.
  • In 1969, Stanford historian Don Fehrenbacher in the American Historical Review wrote about, "today's neoabolitionist historians, whose own social roles often intensify their sense of identity with the antislavery radicals."
  • In 1974 C. Vann Woodward noted that, "by the 1950s a neoabolitionist mood prevailed among historians of slavery.[14]
  • In 1975 Princeton professor James McPherson's Abolitionist Legacy used "neo-abolitionist" more than 50 times to characterize 20th century activists and historians.
  • Yale professor David W. Blight writes the following: "In the end this is a story of how the forces of reconciliation overwhelmed the emancipationist vision in the national culture, how the inexorable drive for reunion both used and trumped race. But the story does not merely dead-end in the bleakness of the age of segregation; so much of the emancipationist vision persisted in American culture during the early twentieth century, upheld by blacks and a fledgling neo-abolitionist tradition, that it never died a permanent death on the landscape of Civil War memory. That persistence made the revival of the emancipationist memory of the war and the transformation of American society possible in the last third of the twentieth century."[7]
  • The conservative National Review commented in 2003 that "This general perspective on the sectional conflict is already well represented by the Neoabolitionist school of Early American historians, and informs important works by scholars such as Paul Finkelman, Leonard Richards, Donald Robinson, and William Wiecek."[3]
  • The following appeared in the (Feb 2005 issue of The American Historical Review p 215: ("the iconoclastic historian Stanley M. Elkins reinterpreted the rebellious slave as a neoabolitionist fantasy.")
  • In 2006 one popular Civil Rights magazine calls itself The Journal of the Neoabolitionist Movement of the 21st Century.[4]

The term Neoabolition or neo-abolitionist is considered by the historian Harvard Sitkoff to sometimes be a derisive term.[15]

  • Michael Fellman in 2006 wrote: "Starting in the late 1950s and continuing through the next decade, in tandem with the rise of the civil rights movement, many progressive historians reevaluated the abolitionists, even referring to the contemporary movement for change in America's perception of race as the 'new abolitionism.'"[16]

See also[]


  • W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America (Free Press: 1998) with introduction by David Levering Lewis ISBN 0-684-85657-3.
  • Michael Fellman and Lewis Perry, eds., Antislavery Reconsidered, Louisiana State University Press: 1981.
  • Michael Fellman, Prophets of Protests, New Press, 2006.
  • Timothy Patrick McCarthy and John Stauffer, eds., Prophets of Protest: Reconsidering the History of American Abolitionism, The New Press, 2006.
  • Lewis Perry. "Psychology and the Abolitionists: Reflections on Martin Duberman and the Neoabolitionism of the 1960s" Reviews in American History Vol. 2, No. 3 (Sep., 1974), pp. 309–322
  • Taylor, Alrutheus A., Negro in Tennessee 1865-1880 (Reprint Co, June 1, 1974) ISBN 0-87152-165-2
  • Taylor, Alrutheus, Negro in South Carolina During the Reconstruction (Ams Press: June 1924) ISBN 0-404-00216-1
  • Taylor, Alrutheus, The Negro In The Reconstruction Of Virginia (Washington, DC: The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History: 1926)
  1. Hugh Tulloch, The Debate on the Civil War Era, (1999) ch. 3, esp. p. 98
  2. Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War by Nicholas Lemann (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2006
  3. Lemann
  4. McPherson, Abolitionist Legacy page 5, 114, 317–385, 390
  5. Howard Zinn, SNCC: The New Abolitionists 1964
  6. Martin Duberman, ed. The Antislavery Vanguard: New Essays on the Abolitionists 1966
  7. 7.0 7.1 David W. Blight (2001). Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Belknap Press;. pp. 2–3. ISBN 0-674-00819-7. 
  8. Michael Les Benedict (1974). A Compromise of Principle: Congressional Republicans and Reconstruction, 1863-1869. Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.. ISBN 0-393-05524-8. 
  9. John Hope Franklin with Alfred Moss (2001). From Slavery to Freedom. A History of African Americans (8th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill Education. ISBN 0-07-112058-0. 
  10. Steven Hahn (2004). A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration. Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-01765. 
  11. McPherson 1975
  12. Stampp, "The Historian and Southern Negro Slavery", American Historical Review, Vol. 57, No. 3. (Apr., 1952), pp. 613-624
  13. Tindall, "Mythology: A New Frontier in Southern History," in Frank E. Vandiver, ed., The Idea of the South: Pursuit of a Central Theme, 1964 pp 5–6
  14. American Historical Review (April 1974) p. 471
  15. Template:Cite magazine
  16. Fellman, Prophets of Protests (2006) pp ix-x

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