Blogs > Cliopatria > Abolitionists and Blogging, Nineteenth Century Style

Apr 16, 2005 6:43 am

Abolitionists and Blogging, Nineteenth Century Style

The historian from whom I received my graduate training in early American history was Merton Dillon, now a professor emeritus at The Ohio State University. Merton has written a number of books on the antislavery movement, among them Slavery Attacked: Southern Slaves and their Allies, 1619-1865 (Baton Rouge, 1990), one of the standard works in the field.

A couple of months ago, when I first really became aware of blogging, something about the medium niggled at the back of my mind, and finally I sent Merton an email with a question and some links for him to follow. Here is Merton's response:

Dear Mark,

I have succeeded in hooking up with your blog(s) and web sites and thus have access to the other sites you favored me with. I have to confess, though, that I haven't yet learned, and probaby never will learn, to enjoy this exercise or diversion. [But be that as it may, your basic observation about the resemblance between blogs and abolitionist newspapers is correct.]

A few words about analogizing bloggers and abolitionists: The earliest white persons of antislavery conviction sought to find others of kindred persuasion. Quakers were apparently the first to accomplish this, within the narrow boundaries of their own fellowship, by giving testimony at Quaker Meetings and Meetings of Sufferings. In the 18th century individual Friends traveled the colonies spreading the antislavery message among fellow Friends as thought it were the Gospel. A few of them wrote pamphlets or tracts which they distributed to likely converts.

The problem, then, in an age lacking popular print or other conduits of information, was how to reach like-minded people. How can such people find each other? How can random and inchoate ideas be gathered from these sympathetic but disparate people and molded into an acceptable, rationally consistent program? Interchange of thought must be the process. What shall be the agency?

Beginning around 1820 small, shoestring newspapers began the process. [Benjamin] Lundy's [The Genius of Universal] Emancipation was one of the first and most long-lasting. Lundy sent his paper where he thought it might be welcomed. He printed exposes of the slave systen and proposed remedies. He invited readers to contribute their ideas. Later, [William Lloyd] Garrison did the same. The remedies were as varied as the critiques.

It took a while before antislavery advocates found each other and developed something like a community. It took still longer for them to forge a program. It is not ungenerous to conclude that, despite all their writing, all their speaking, all their conferring, they never were able to set forth a program for abolitionism that all opponents of slavery found acceptable, but they did create a society or community. The process was similar to that experienced more recently by the founders of feminism, gay communities, etc.

How do people find each other? Bloggers in quite systematic and lightning-speed fashion are taking advantage of the opportunities technology has given them to speed and share ideas and, potentially, to create societies all with a facility Abolitionists could not have dreamed of.



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Caleb McDaniel - 4/16/2005

Thanks for sharing this. I like the way that it stresses the communal aspects of publishing and reading. When most people think of analogues to bloggers, they focus on the lone printer who sets out to change the world -- the Lundy or the Garrison. But those printers succeeded in effecting change only because they found others and built communities of readers and reformers. This community-building aspect of blogging is, I think, generally neglected.

I'm wary, though, of comparing abolitionists and bloggers if only because it gives blog triumphalists another ace in the hole. Blogging can be about community creating, just as publishing can. But not all antebellum printers used their superpowers for good, and it stacks the deck in blogging's favor to say that its analogues are reform printers, rather than (say) the printers of wildly popular racist broadsides. My point is not to repeat the old canard that the Internet is a haven for kooks as well as intellectuals, but it is to say that whether blogging is a good form of community-building or not depends on what we talk about more than it depends on how we are talking and finding each other.

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