The Radical Lives of Abolitionists

Britt Rusert in The Boston Review:

American Radicals establishes the truly riotous nature of nineteenth-century activism, chronicling the central role that radical social movements played in shaping U.S. life, politics, and culture. Holly Jackson’s cast of characters includes everyone from millenarian militants and agrarian anarchists to abolitionist feminists espousing Free Love. Rather than rehearsing nineteenth-century reform as a history of bourgeois abolitionists having tea and organizing anti-slavery bazaars for their friends, Jackson offers electrifying accounts of Boston freedom fighters locking down courthouses and brawling with the police. We learn of preachers concealing guns in crates of Bibles and sending them off to abolitionists battling the expansion of slavery in the Midwest. We glimpse nominally free black communities forming secret mutual aid networks and arming themselves in preparation for a coming confrontation with the state. And we find that antebellum activists were also free lovers who experimented with unconventional and queer relationships while fighting against the institution of marriage and gendered subjugation. Traversing the nineteenth-century history of countless “strikes, raids, rallies, boycotts, secret councils, [and] hidden weapons,” American Radicals is a study of highly organized attempts to bring down a racist, heteropatriarchal settler state—and of winning, for a time.

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