Theses Doctoral

The Politics of Correspondence: Letter Writing in the Campaign Against Slavery in the United States

Freeman, Mary Tibbetts

The abolitionists were a community of wordsmiths whose political movement took shape in a sea of printed and handwritten words. These words enabled opponents of slavery in the nineteenth-century United States to exert political power, even though many of them were excluded from mainstream politics. Women and most African Americans could not vote, and they faced violent reprisals for speaking publicly. White men involved in the antislavery cause frequently spurned party politics, using writing as a key site of political engagement. Reading and writing allowed people from different backgrounds to see themselves as part of a political collective against slavery. “The Politics of Correspondence” examines how abolitionists harnessed the power of the written word to further their political aims, arguing that letter writing enabled a disparate and politically marginal assortment of people to take shape as a coherent and powerful movement.
“The Politics of Correspondence” expands the definition of politics, demonstrating that private correspondence, not just public action, can be a significant form of political participation. The antislavery movement’s body of shared political ideas and principles emerged out of contest and debate carried on largely through the exchange of letters. People on the political fringes and disfranchised persons, especially African Americans and women, harnessed the medium of letters to assert themselves as legitimate political agents, claiming entitlements hitherto denied them. In doing so, they contested the presumed boundaries of the body politic and played key roles in advancing demands for immediate emancipation, civil rights, and equality to the forefront of national political discussions. “The Politics of Correspondence” argues that correspondence was a flexible medium that abolitionists used throughout this period in efforts to both shape and respond to the changing conditions of national politics.
A vast and dispersed archive documents the antislavery movement and serves as the basis of research for the dissertation. Scholars of antislavery have used the extensive manuscript collections of prominent abolitionists and print archives of antislavery newspapers, pamphlets, and circulars to investigate the movement’s ideas and organization. But this is the first project to focus on letter writing itself and its role in the movement. Rather than view letters as transparent windows into the past, “The Politics of Correspondence” examines them as tools that ordinary people and unexpected political agents used to advance the antislavery cause. Abolitionists relied upon conventions associated with handwritten letters, which they creatively manipulated to achieve political ends. Writing a letter was an act of composition that involved self-reflection, imagined discussion, and staking a claim to one’s beliefs. Correspondents drew upon shared cultural understandings, ranging from the anonymity of the postal system to the sense of physical intimacy associated with handwritten letters. They inventively employed these understandings to make political statements that simultaneously relied upon and subverted letter-writing conventions.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Fields, Barbara J.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 22, 2018