Last modified on December 22, 2021, at 03:11


Neoabolitionist (or neo-abolitionist or new abolitionism) is a term used by historians to refer to the rebirth of the civil rights movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and to the late 20th century historiographic tradition by historians who re-evaluated periods of slavery, the role of the Slave Power, the Civil War and Reconstruction.

The term "abolition" refers to the moral and political position that advocated the abolition of slavery in the United States, especially by activists known as abolitionists in the pre-Civil War period from 1840 through 1865. The abolitionists condemned slavery as a sin and demanded immediate reforms. Many historians in the 20th century blamed the abolitionists for inflaming the passions that led to the Civil War.[1]

Late 19th century

In the 1870s one by one, white congressional abolitionists abandoned the cause, typified by Charles Sumner who switched to the Liberal Republicans in 1872. In the mid-1870s the Redeemers (the Southern wing of the Bourbon Democrats in the Democratic Party) overthrew the Republican coalition that had controlled the southern states during "Black Reconstruction" after 1867. The Redeemers replaced the civil rights reforms of Reconstruction with Jim Crow laws that legalized racial segregation in public places. The Redeemers eliminated or curtailed African-American voting rights. In effect they replaced the short period after slavery when African Americans enjoyed some legal rights with segregation laws that impacted African-Americans socially, politically, and economically for the next 80 years.

Public opinion, among northern whites, and most opinion by white scholars, accepted or applauded the Redeemers, but some clung to the abolitionist viewpoint. McPherson[2] reports that 15 of 24 ex-abolitionists who wrote about Reconstruction called it a "qualified success." However others, including Frederick Douglass, said Reconstruction had, "carried the colored voter to an altitude unsuited to his attainments."[3]

In the 1880s nationalist historians like James Ford Rhodes held that secession over the issue of slavery was a primary cause of the Civil War. Neoabolitionists in the 1960s added that nation had a moral debt to abolish the abomination that was slavery, and to guarantee equal rights for Blacks, especially to guarantee voting rights.

Early 20th century

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 before 1970 followed the early 20th century Dunning School narrative which depicted Reconstruction as a failure because blacks were manipulated by evil Carpetbaggers, who engaged in massive financial and political corruption. Neoabolitionists rejected the Dunning School as implicitly racist, particularly for assuming the Blacks were a childlike people who were easily manipulated by Carpetbaggers.

In the 1930s a minority view by W.E.B. Du Bois presented positive views of the achievements of Reconstruction for its advocacy of civil rights for African Americans, including ensuring, for a brief period, the right to vote.

Du Bois, a founder of the NAACP, argued from a Marxist perspective that economic equality among black and white people would lead to equality for all.

Civil Rights Movement as "new abolitionists"

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s had a major impact on historians—as one young historian Howard Zinn identified the movement as a revival of the old in SNCC: The New Abolitionists.[4] Zinn popularized the term as it applied to civil rights activists.

Beginning in the 1960s, the generation of historians, strongly influenced by the Civil Rights movement, portrayed slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction in terms of the advancement achieved by the abolition of slavery and the coming of emancipation to those who had been enslaved for centuries.

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) explicitly put the "unfinished" theme in its subtitle, explicitly connecting the 1860s to the second half of the 20th century when the issues of civil rights were taken up anew. Neoabolitionists reappraised the original abolitionists as heroes, even John Brown,[5] and echoed their moral values. Contemporary historians, including David W. Blight, Eric Foner, Michael Les Benedict reject the Dunning School notion that Reconstruction was inherently corrupt because it gave the vote to illiterate blacks who lacked a political education. They argue that Reconstruction had many positive elements, beginning with the enfranchisement of African-Americans, and the introduction of public schools in the South where they had not previously existed. They emphasize that racism itself is the worst form of corruption and violation of republicanism.

Usage history

  • The NAACP in 1910 called itself a "New Abolition Movement." DuBois often used the term, as did newspapers.[6]
  • In 1952 Kenneth Stampp discussing the revisionist historians of slavery (including himself), called them "scholarly descendants of the northern abolitionists." [7]
  • 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.[8]
  • 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, however, did not use the term neoabolitionist and he did not apply the term to contemporary historians.
  • In the mid-1960s The term appeared in several articles in scholarly journals including Journal of Southern History Vol. 31, No. 4 (Nov., 1965), p. 461; also ibid. Vol. 32 (Feb., 1966), (p 67) although it is not clear that those references referred to historians themselves or to the activists in the civil rights movement.
  • 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.[9]
  • In 1975 Princeton professor James McPherson's Abolitionist Legacy used "neo-abolitionist" over 50 times to characterize 20th century historians and activists.
  • Yale professor David W. Blight explains:[10]
"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."

  • Winthrop Jordan concluded that Dwight Dumond, Antislavery: The Crusade for Freedom in America (1961) "is a sweeping neoabolitionist survey which permits moral righteousness to rewrite history in its own image."[11]
  • Pulitzer Prize winner Joseph Ellis noted that Gary Nash "offers the most robust neoabolitionist interpretation of the revolutionary era."[12]
  • 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."[13]
  • The premier history journal commented on how "the iconoclastic historian Stanley M. Elkins reinterpreted the rebellious slave as a neoabolitionist fantasy."[14]
  • In 2006 one popular Civil Rights magazine calls itself The Journal of the Neoabolitionist Movement of the 21st Century.[1]
  • 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]


  • W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America (1935) (1998). DuBois was the leading Marxist historian in the U.S. and a very prominent black intellectual
  • Blight, David W. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2001), esp. p. 2; excerpt and text search
  • Fellman, Michael, and Lewis Perry, eds., Antislavery Reconsidered, (1981).
  • Fellman, Michael, et al., Prophets of Protest: Reconsidering the History of American Abolitionism, (2006).
  • Friedman, Lawrence J. "Review: Abolitionist Historiography 1965-1979: An Assessment," Reviews in American History, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Jun., 1980), pp. 200-205 in JSTOR
  • Perry, Lewis. "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 in JSTOR
  • Stampp, Kenneth. "The Historian and Southern Negro Slavery," American Historical Review, Vol. 57, No. 3. (Apr., 1952), pp. 613-624 in JSTOR
  • Taylor, Alrutheus, The Negro in the Reconstruction Of Virginia (1926), by a black historian
  • Hugh Tulloch, The Debate on the Civil War Era, (1999)

External links


  1. Hugh Tulloch, The Debate on the Civil War Era, (1999) ch. 3, esp. p. 98
  2. McPherson, Abolitionist Legacy page 5, 114, 317–385, 390
  3. McPherson 1975
  4. Howard Zinn, SNCC: The New Abolitionists 1964
  5. Martin Duberman, ed. The Antislavery Vanguard: New Essays on the Abolitionists 1966
  6. McPherson 1975
  7. Stampp, (1952),
  8. 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
  9. American Historical review (April 1974) p. 471
  10. Blight (2001)
  11. Winthrop D. Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812, (1968) p. 602; Jordan's book won the Bancroft Prize in history.
  12. Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (2002) p. 259
  13. See National Review
  14. The American Historical Review Feb 2005 p 215:
  15. Harvard Sitkoff, "Segregation, Desegregation, Resegregation: African American Education, A Guide to the Literature," Organization of American Historians 2001
  16. Fellman, Prophets of Protests (2006) pp ix-x