Featuring more than 75 illustrations, Selling Antislavery offers a thorough case study of the role of reform movements in the rise of mass media and argues for abolition's central importance to the shaping of antebellum middle-class culture.
2020 | 344 pages | Cloth $55.00
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1. Antislavery Inc.
Part I. Antislavery Print Culture
Chapter 2. Summing Up Slavery: The Antislavery Almanac and the Production of Fact
Chapter 3. The African American Slave Narrative as Factual Compendium
Part II. Antislavery Material Culture
Chapter 4. Speaking Objects: Antislavery Fairs and Sentimental Consumerism
Chapter 5. Antislavery Fairs and the Culture of Class
Part III. Antislavery Visual Culture
Chapter 6. Antislavery's Panoramic Perspective
Chapter 7. Fugitive Sight: African American Panoramas of Slavery and Freedom
Conclusion. The American Anti-Slavery Society Celebrates Its Third Decade
A coin box (Figure 1), commissioned by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society (MASS) in 1839 as part of a fundraising plan, embodies the central tenets of this book: first, antislavery media emerged from specific institutional settings, and, second, they were multimodal, encompassing print, material, and visual forms. Although we are familiar with the robust media culture (songs, plays, pictures, games, dolls, plates, wallpaper) spawned by the success of antislavery's most iconic text, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), we know much less about the media artifacts produced by the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS) and its auxiliaries from the society's founding in 1833 to its dissolution in 1870. Selling Antislavery maps the vast media archive generated by institutional antislavery in the antebellum era. By paying particular attention to the movement's foundational phase in the 1830s—when the society was at the height of its organizational powers and before it splintered into warring factions in 1840—Selling Antislavery locates the emergence of abolitionist mass media in an earlier era and traces that period's influence on subsequent decades. In providing the prehistory of Uncle Tom's Cabin, it shows how Stowe's novel and related products mark the apex rather than the birth of antislavery mass media.
Created to accompany the MASS's Weekly Contribution Plan, which raised money for the cause by collecting small donations at regular weekly intervals, the coin box exemplifies many aspects of abolitionist media culture. It functioned as a treasury, an illustrated tract, and a domestic material object. As a depository, it fulfilled an important institutional role, providing funds for the MASS when the economic depression of the late 1830s forced large contributors to withhold their donations. Paying, according to their ability, one, two, or six cents a week, the movement's grassroots members raised substantial amounts without undue labor or sacrifice. By distributing across all abolitionists the responsibility of keeping the state society's treasury "constantly supplied" with funds to support lecturers and produce printed material, the plan's penny capitalism weathered market fluctuations and increased its members' personal investment in the cause. A miniature of the treasury to which it is dedicated—"TO THE MASS. A. S. SOCIETY"—the box served as a sign of the society's organizational strength and transformed its contributors into stakeholders every time they deposited a coin into its slot. The box compounded its cents, producing money for the cause as well as interest in it.
As a tract, the box solidified support for the society's aims by stimulating sympathy for enslaved people and converting that feeling into economic capital. Issued as an "edition" for six and a quarter cents or seventy-five cents for a dozen, the box was, according to The Liberator, "as useful as a tract, as it is convenient as a treasury." "Appropriate devices and inscriptions" cover every side as well as the top. The front features an image of a kneeling slave framed by rays of light, which melt the chains on the Corinthian columns in the foreground, promising her release. Emanating from an arc with the words "Remember Your Weekly Pledge," the light derives its power from contributors' steadfast donations. Contributors answer the kneeling woman's prayer when they drop a coin into the top of the box, directly above her imploring eyes. Located in the heavens and sanctified by the biblical injunctions that frame the deposit slot and speak of transforming faith into good works, the donations assume God's moral authority and power to lift the oppressed. Maria Weston Chapman's poem, "A Sabbath Morning Hymn," printed on one side of the box, further consecrates each contribution as a gift to freedom; the biblical injunctions on the other side remind readers of their duty to deliver the slave and show her mercy and compassion. The back, which lays out the objectives of the Weekly Contribution Plan along with step-by-step directions for conducting it, ties this sympathy for the slave to antislavery organization. Like many antislavery artifacts, the coin box speaks in several registers: sentimental and religious, organizational and instructional. The front image generates sympathy for the oppressed; the poetic hymn and quotations from scripture increase that sympathy and tie it explicitly to religious duty; and the back explains how good works for the slave are best performed through systematic donations to the antislavery cause. The box's coordinated message teaches contributors to turn their sympathy into cents. By gathering coins, abstract feeling is turned into concrete action and sympathy is made to speak.
The alchemy by which this artifact transformed feeling into money was augmented by its companion tract, the Monthly Offering (Figure 2), which converted the box's cents back into sentiment through the mediation of print. Edited by J. A. Collins, the MASS's general agent, and published monthly (with some irregularity) from July 1840 until November/December 1842, the Monthly Offering was the official organ of the Weekly Contribution Plan. Contributors were asked to buy the box as well as subscribe to the tract for thirty-seven and a half cents a year. The synergy between the box and its companion text is evident in the tract's title, which transforms contributions into a religious offering and reinforces the plan's monthly collection schedule (agents visited once a month to gather the weekly contributions). The tract is also a visual replica of the box: it not only reduplicates the box's image on its cover but also, in framing that picture with an ornate border, depicts itself as a box. If the depository is a tract, its companion tract is also a treasury, packed with print instead of money. Moreover, its print calls on readers to fill their boxes. Designed to "aid and encourage" contributors in their work of "love and mercy," the Monthly Offering worked like the box to "enlist sympathy for the cause, by holding up to view the suffering and benighted slave" (1:2) and remind contributors through its regular arrival to be punctual in their payments.
Maria Weston Chapman's tale, "Pinda," published in the tract, also does both. Pinda, a fugitive slave, not only gains the reader's admiration for her loyal affection for her husband and industrious self-sufficiency in freedom but also models how to convert sympathy into antislavery action. At the climax of the tale, just before Pinda flees from Boston with her fugitive husband from Boston, she becomes a subscriber to the Weekly Contribution Plan with such a large donation that the box must be opened, since her Mexican dollar will not fit into its small slot. "Rich in the possession of liberty," Pinda donates her savings to extend freedom to others, with an "effusion of heart, so lovely and so rare" (1:28). Like Pinda, contributors could express their feelings and perform their own freedom by giving money to the enslaved woman on the coin box.
The Monthly Offering supplemented the box in several key ways. As in Pinda's story, it reinforced the box's message that sympathy is most properly expressed through cents. Its regular monthly arrival prompted the collection of cents and aided their increase by producing more compassion for the enslaved. It also served as a concrete emblem of what those cents were meant to fund: more print. The box and its tract enacted the circuit of sentiment, cents, and print that the antislavery movement more broadly propelled on a larger scale: print creating sympathy, sympathy generating cents, and cents producing more print.
Finally, as a decorative domestic object embedded in parlor culture, the box was a commodity that generated cultural capital for its contributors as well as the cause. Described as "beautiful" and designed to be placed on a chimney mantle or table in the most public room of the house, the box translated antislavery principles into household knowledge and attached them to middle-class values. Located near (and sometimes over) the hearth, alongside the parlor's other ornaments, the box reflected and augmented the ideals of middle-class domesticity. Visually, its burning rays of truth extended the warming light of the domestic hearth upward, turning the parlor mantle into an altar of freedom. Discursively, it communicated the middle-class values of piety and charity, punctuality and thrift. As a savings bank, it instilled the habit of self-denial even as it emblematized prosperity. It taught contributors to perform "generous thrift"—to save in order to give. As a religious shrine, "a little treasury of the Lord," whose ritual donation occurred every Sabbath morning, the box sanctified its cents by transforming them into a gift for the slave. In following the apostolic injunctions and preparing for worship by placing a gift to freedom in the box, contributors became one of God's disciples, a ray of his light. By displaying the power of benevolence, the box made an accounting of its contributors' moral virtue and magnified its meaningfulness.
In addition to espousing the middle-class values of domesticity and discipline, blessings and benevolence, the box reflected its contributors' refinement and social status. Made for display—the Monthly Offering recommends that the box be given "a conspicuous place in the most public room" in the house (1:8)—it was an external sign of their sincerity and compassion, as well as their gentility. Chapman's hymn, which tells of "swelling heart[s]" and "gracious deed[s]," links contributors' moral sympathy to their refinement. Similarly, the Monthly Offering, containing the prose and poetry of the movement's "best writers" (1:3) and advertised as an attractive gift book suitable for a "Christmas and New Year's present" (1:161), represented, both discursively and materially, its readers' antislavery sentiment as a sign of their good taste. As a conversation piece, the box encouraged both sociability and proper social affiliation; as a sign of economic capital, spiritual goodness, and cultural refinement, it compounded its contents by associating antislavery with a specific class consciousness. By packaging antislavery as a socially desirable enterprise as well as a holy cause, the box branded the movement as respectable.
The coin box offers a glimpse into institutional antislavery's larger workings: its modes of organization, its production of novel media artifacts, and its creation of compelling cultural messages. It shows how antislavery leaders were at once institution builders, media innovators, and cultural entrepreneurs. By embedding their media within systematized organizational structures, they produced a mass media ahead of the mainstream. Moreover, by constructing their media as a cultural commodity, they installed antislavery at the heart of middle-class consciousness. Through a persuasive and persistent multimodal message, they transformed a marginalized cause into a mass social movement by the end of the 1830s. Antislavery succeeded not because it stood outside antebellum America's emerging mass consumer culture but because, like the coin box, it compounded its growth.
Selling Antislavery develops these argumentative threads. First, it details the organizational structures and publication strategies through which institutional antislavery produced some of the antebellum era's earliest mass media. Building on the influential model of evangelicalism and developing alongside the growth of the temperance movement, the AASS provides an important case study for the role of reform movements in driving the rise of mass media in the United States. While there are detailed studies of evangelical mass media—David Paul Nord on religious publishing, Peter Wosh on the Bible business, and David Morgan on the American Tract Society—studies of the AASS's media are lacking. Trish Loughran's explication of the material practices of organized abolition is an exception and, hence, serves as the foundation upon which this book builds. Selling Antislavery describes the distinctive set of business and publishing practices that the AASS developed in the 1830s to mobilize its media. Through the creation of an alternative publication system, the AASS was able to gain mass circulation for many of its products. By showing how the 1830s AASS built and ran its media machine, I make the case for antislavery's centrality to nineteenth-century media history.
Second, this book expands our understanding of the range of popular forms that the antislavery movement produced. The AASS generated a wide array of print, material, and visual media: almanacs and slave narratives, domestic objects and gift books, broadsides and panoramas. Although the movement's literary forms have garnered critical attention, its ephemeral and popular productions remain underexamined. Moreover, in focusing on the movement's rhetorical appeal, critics have overlooked how the materiality of the antislavery artifact—its physical form and modes of circulation—helped to construct its message. Working at the intersections of literary criticism, book history, and media studies, I attend to the close connections between the media object's discursive, material, distributional, and marketing modes. The dual meaning of "selling" in my title—"to persuade" as well as "to vend"—captures my focus on how the movement's rhetorical approaches were consolidated by its material practices. I also foreground the dynamic intersections between print, material, and visual media. Rather than studying each in isolation, I show how they forged a larger media ecology. By synergizing these media forms, institutional antislavery popularized its message for a mass audience.
Third, this book demonstrates institutional abolition's centrality to the formation of the northern white middle class by explicating how antislavery media promoted specific regional, racial, and class identities. Reform has long been seen as a key architect of nineteenth-century middle-class culture. Antislavery in particular became the engine that allowed the northern middle class to construct itself as white. Along with respectability and refinement, moral virtue and market aspiration, race was an important attribute of northern middle-class sensibility. By espousing the liberation of black bodies by white subjects, institutional antislavery crystallized class consciousness as racial superiority. Operating at the forefront of a new middle-class culture industry, abolition not only allied itself with the values and subjectivities of an emerging middle class but also worked to coalesce and extend them. Speaking its culture's core discourses of class and consumerism and packaging its beliefs in material forms that appealed to the rising middle class, it both manufactured itself as a marketable commodity and married middle-class identity to antislavery ideology. A cultural as well as a political project, institutional antislavery wove itself into the fabric of middle-class culture.
Selling Antislavery tracks the emergence of mass media in the antebellum United States through the lens of a specific reform movement. By providing a material account of the AASS's media products and publishing techniques, it reveals that the conditions for mass media—both in terms of variety and amount—were present as early as the 1830s. It investigates antislavery's discursive forms as well as its material and visual practices to show how the antislavery movement disseminated its appeal and propelled middle-class culture. Although I foreground print, material, and visual media respectively, the book as a whole shows how these categories overlap and inform each other. Given the breadth of the antislavery archive, Selling Antislavery focuses on key discourses—facticity, consumerism, nationalism—and genres to reveal institutional antislavery's wider expanse and to telescope its larger arguments. I trace patterns and survey genres instead of emphasizing individual works. When I do focus on a single text, I select less well-known works—American Slavery as It Is (1839) rather than Uncle Tom's Cabin, for instance, or the Narrative of James Williams (1838) rather than the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845)—in order to highlight gaps in our knowledge of the antislavery canon. For the same reason, I concentrate on the long foreground of abolitionist mass media rather than the breakthrough forms of the 1850s. After focusing on the AASS's largely white-authored works, the book concludes by attending to the cultural productions of black activists. By charting the institutional center that black abolitionists learned to work within and against, Selling Antislavery lays the groundwork for a more nuanced understanding of how these two media cultures overlapped and influenced each other.
The first chapter opens with an institutional history of the 1830s AASS. It provides an overview of the AASS's organizational structures and its media products to show how each shaped and advanced the other. It focuses on the society's business-minded branch centered in New York City, rather than its more radical voices (white or black), to show how the 1830s AASS's institutional formation was integral to the movement's larger influence. An investigation of antislavery's popular media forms—printed texts, material artifacts, and visual representations—follows. Each part is anchored in the foundational period of the 1830s and then moves chronologically through the antebellum period to trace the historical development of a particular medium.
Part I surveys the 1830s AASS's rationalized print system. It focuses on the discourse of fact to show how institutional antislavery used new modes of evidence to render slavery visible and present its own knowledge system as credible. In delineating how the cause collected and diffused information through a coordinated and corroborative print system, this section foregrounds its rational appeal. It investigates two genres that lay at the core of the AASS's knowledge and print systems: the almanac and the slave narrative.
Part II deals with the material artifacts that the AASS's female auxiliaries produced for their Christmastime fairs as well as the fairs' business structure. Running from the 1830s through the late 1860s and operating as the society's key fundraiser, the fairs show how an army of women workers used consumer culture to sell antislavery as an exemplar of sociability, refinement, and good taste. The fairs marketed antislavery as middle class, creating cultural as well as commercial capital. "Speaking" objects sold at fairs—domestic goods emblazoned with antislavery mottos—formulated white liberal subjectivity while foreign and fashionable items created a culture of class. This section examines the discourses of sentiment and refinement that made up antislavery's appeal to the heart.
Part III analyzes the AASS's extensive visual culture, highlighting the mass visual medium of the panorama. Through panoramic landscape pictures and broadsides that resembled miniature panoramas, institutional antislavery detailed slavery's cruel operations and visualized the North's superiority over the South. For northern viewers the antislavery panorama communicated a message of nationalism and political power. This section examines organized antislavery's appeal to the eye, showing how the movement's panoramic pictures—specifically their commanding perspective—catalyzed new points of view. This part also brings black abolition to the foreground, attending to African American activists' countervisual appeals. Through word and image, African American activists painted panoramas of slavery that also envisioned black freedom. The final chapter details their adaptations of the AASS's visual iconography, revealing how black cultural producers looked back. Institutional antislavery expanded the field for black media even as it shaped—and often limited—the contours of that field.
The conclusion discusses the AASS's Third Decade celebration, held in 1863 after emancipation was proclaimed, to reflect on the end(s) of antislavery mass media and the durability of institutional antislavery's cultural project.