The political culture of Northern African-American activists, 1830-1859

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




J. Roger Sharp

Second Advisor

J. Roger Sharp


Activism, African-Americans, Abolitionists, Manhood, Womanhood

Subject Categories



This is a study of the African American men and women who were active in efforts to improve the position of their people and in ending slavery. Its major contributions are the insights that flow from the use of the concept of manhood to explain African Americans' sense of themselves. The argument is made that activists used statements like "We are Men!" and referred to their manhood so frequently because such terms expressed their sense of identity. Much of the dissertation is devoted to teasing out the meanings of manhood by examining the contexts in which the term is used. This leads to an important finding: the male activists' understanding of manhood differed sharply from that of the mass of Northern African American males. This discovery, it is suggested, goes a long way towards explaining the failure of the activists to mobilize a following.

The roles of African American women are also examined. Activist women are found to have had two modes of womanhood, one of which matched closely that of the mass of Northern African American women and the other more closely related to the manhood ideal of activist men. For women, however, womanhood was not the key concept in their self-definition. Reasons why this may have been so are traced back to the different experience of men and women in slavery. Finally, the problematic nature of male-female relationships under the constraints of these various modes of self-identification is suggested.

This study provides a way of understanding the values of African American activists. It helps explains their efforts and sheds light on their limitations as leaders. While many historians have commented on this failure and have tied it to the economic standing of the activists or their powerlessness in society or to inter-personal squabbling or a combination of these factors, this dissertation significantly modifies their conclusions.

In addition to a close reading of the literary remains of black activists, this study performs a content analysis of 1004 resolutions adopted by local and state meetings of African Americans held between 1831 and 1859.


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