Ohio History Journal

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
  • 11
  • 12
  • 13
  • 14
  • 15
  • 16
  • 17
  • 18
  • 19
  • 20




Joshua Giddings

and the Ohio Abolitionists:

a Study in Radical Politics



Much recent scholarship on American abolitionism emphasizes its role

as part of a general antebellum reform movement.' Perceptive and valuable

though this work is, its broad focus necessarily blurs important distinctions

within and among different factions of abolitionism. In spite of recent

contrary opinion, there is still much to learn by studying the diversity of

abolitionism. Identifying the "social and cultural matrix" of reform and

learning "what abolitionists shared" are significant projects, and Ronald

Walters' recent book handles them well.2 Still, even a clear understanding

of the context of abolitionism does not satisfy our obligation specifically to

understand its content. As Aileen S. Kraditor has argued, a full explana-

tion of the historical behavior of reformers, including the abolitionists,

demands that we refine our understanding of the "ways in which past

movements devised their strategies and tactics to meet specific circumstan-


Of necessity, historians who have tried to explain the content of

abolitionism have studied the movement's factions, but frequently they

have utilized categories of limited usefulness. For instance, dividing

abolitionists primarily according to their participation in electoral politics

obscures the fact that all abolitionists were political insofar as they worked

and hoped to change public policy about slavery; more importantly, the

"political" and "non-political" typology implies a clear division in goals and

motivation between Garrisonian "moral suasionists" and those men who


Douglas A. Gamble is Research Associate in the Department of History at the University of

Tennessee, Knoxville, and works for The Highlander Research and Education Center in New

Market, Tennessee. He thanks Merton Dillon, Janet Gamble, Gary Reichard, Andy Rotter.

and Joanne Meyerowitz for their help with this article.


I. See especially l ewis Perry, Radical Abolitionism: Anarchy' and the Government of God

in Ani.sla'verv Thought (Ithaca, 1973) and Ronald Walters, The Antislavery Appeal:

A /merican A holitioni.sn A/ler 1830 (Baltimore, 1976).

2. Walters argues that "there is little meaningful left to say" about antislavery diversity;

Walters. Anli.slaverv Appeal, 188.

3. Kraditor, "American Radical Historians on their Heritage," Past and Present, 56(Aug.

1972). 146.