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The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery

Garrisonian Abolitionists and Transatlantic Reform

Antislavery, Abolition, and the Atlantic World

376 pages / 6.00 x 9.00 inches / no illustrations

ebook available

American History | African-American History | Slavery Studies

  Hardcover / 9780807150184 / May 2013
  Paperback / 9780807162309 / July 2015

Winner of the SHEAR James Broussard First Book Prize

Winner of the OAH Merle Curti Prize

In The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery, W. Caleb McDaniel sets forth a new interpretation of the Garrisonian abolitionists, stressing their deep ties to reformers and liberal thinkers in Great Britain and Europe. The group of American reformers known as “Garrisonians” included, at various times, some of the most significant and familiar figures in the history of the antebellum struggle over slavery: Wendell Phillips, Frederick Douglass, and William Lloyd Garrison himself. Between 1830 and 1870, American abolitionists led by Garrison developed extensive networks of friendship, correspondence, and intellectual exchange with a wide range of European reformers—Chartists, free trade advocates, Irish nationalists, and European revolutionaries. Garrison signaled the importance of these ties to his movement with the well-known cosmopolitan motto he printed on every issue of his famous newspaper, The Liberator: “Our Country is the World—Our Countrymen are All Mankind.” That motto serves as an impetus for McDaniel’s study, which shows that Garrison and his movement must be placed squarely within the context of transatlantic mid-nineteenth-century reform. 

Through exposure to contemporary European thinkers—such as Alexis de Tocqueville, Giuseppe Mazzini, and John Stuart Mill—Garrisonian abolitionists came to understand their own movement not only as an effort to mold public opinion about slavery but also as a measure to defend democracy in an Atlantic World still dominated by aristocracy and monarchy. While convinced that democracy offered the best form of government, Garrisonians recognized that the persistence of slavery in the United States revealed problems with the political system. They identified the participation of minority agitators as part of the process in a healthy democratic society.
Ultimately, Garrisonians’ transatlantic activities reveal their deep patriotism, their interest in using public opinion to affect American politics, and their similarities to other antislavery groups. By following Garrisonian abolitionists across the Atlantic Ocean and exhaustively documenting their international networks, McDaniel challenges many of the timeworn stereotypes that still cling to their movement. He argues for a new image of Garrison’s band as politically savvy, intellectually sophisticated liberal reformers, who were well informed about transatlantic debates regarding the problem of democracy.

W. Caleb McDaniel is assistant professor of history at Rice University.

Praise for The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery

“This insightful study will be read profitably by seasoned scholars as well as those new to the field of abolitionist studies. . . . This reviewer learned a great deal from McDaniel’s careful, rich, and wide-ranging study, especially on the international dimensions of democratic and abolitionist reform.”—Civil War History

“This important volume brims with insights that are often delivered with unusually good turns of phrase. W. Caleb McDaniel’s ambitions include painting Garrisonians on a transatlantic canvas and stretching that canvas from the 1830s through the 1860s—both unusual moves within a distinguished and voluminous historiography. He is successful on both counts, and thereby sheds considerable light on both the abolitionist movement and William Lloyd Garrison himself.”—American Historical Review

“Thoughtful and provocative. . . . I enthusiastically recommend The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery to American intellectual historians. It is sophisticated in interpretation and broad in analysis, and is a reaffirmation that ideas really mattered in one of America’s most potent moments of history.”—Society for U.S. Intellectual History

“W. Caleb McDaniel’s excellent account of Garrisonian abolitionists presents the antislavery crusaders as they saw themselves.”—Journal of the Early Republic

“McDaniel has produced a well-written and engaging work that will undoubtedly enjoy a wide readership and spark debate.”—New England Quarterly

“McDaniel’s work will change the way scholars think about Garrison and his times. His book asks readers to understand the abolitionists as sophisticated intellectuals who refused to retreat from political problems. More importantly, it provides a broad transnational frame for understanding abolitionism, the origins of American antislavery, and, ultimately, the Civil War.”—Journal of American History

“McDaniel’s book breaks valuable new ground by portraying Garrisonians in a different light and by carefully mapping the transatlantic web of abolitionism that placed them in the vanguard of nineteenth-century reform. It offers a substantial contribution to the historiography of antebellum reform and politics, international studies of slavery and the Atlantic world, and even American political theory and intellectual history.”—Journal of Southern History

“Grounded in a thorough investigation of abolitionists’ public and private writings, this insightful monograph should find a wide audience among historians of abolition and reform, nineteenth-century political and intellectual historians, scholars of social movements, and historically minded democratic theorists.”—Journal of the Civil War Era

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