The Day of Sainthood Has Passed: Abolitionists and the Golden Moment of the Civil War, 1861-1865

Cirillo, Frank, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Cirillo, Frank, Arts & Sciences Graduate-casg, University of Virginia

My dissertation examines the divisions among ten abolitionists from across the radical antislavery movement, from prominent figures such as William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass to lesser known reformers like Moncure Conway and George Cheever, over the Union war effort during the Civil War. I argue that abolitionists were moral nationalists fighting for a “moral Union” that lived up to the promise of the Declaration of Independence. The exigencies of war exposed the ambiguities of that vision of moral Union, leading to a series of realignments as the war progressed: over whether to back the Union war as their “golden moment”—their crucible for moral progress—in 1861, whether to support the re-election of Lincoln in 1864, and whether to disband the antislavery movement in 1865. I divide the abolitionist camp into interventionists, who sided with the Union and Lincoln, and moral purists, who refused to do so. These distinctions had little to do with the traditional divide between moral suasionists and political abolitionists that marred antebellum abolitionism.

My dissertation also connects the behavior of wartime abolitionists to the arc of the Civil War as a whole. I argue that reformers’ actions help to explain why the war achieved both so much and so little in terms of black rights. Interventionists, working in an increasingly formal alliance with Republican politicians, pushed the notion of expedient emancipation onto center stage in the North, helping ensure that there would be an Emancipation Proclamation. At the same time, through their alliances to promote expediency, these reformers lost sight of their more radical goals over time. Only a weakened remnant, bereft of much influence, remained to fight for black rights beyond emancipation by the time that the war ended.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Abolitionism, American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, Emancipation, Slavery, Antislavery
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