End the duopoly

Holly Jackson on the History Lessons of American Radicals

Holly Jackson is an associate professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Her writing on U.S. cultural history has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe, as well as a number of scholarly venues. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Why was this a peak moment of protest in American history?

American Radicals focuses on the period from around 1820 through the end of Reconstruction in 1877, and I’ve tried to show that social justice movements did not simply respond to the volatile political conditions of this time, but played an important role in shaping them. In the antebellum period, the federal government brokered a string of compromises over slavery, aiming to preserve the union between the sections. A critical mass of ordinary Americans taking active measures in opposition to slavery, and this certainly included enslaved people themselves, helped to push the country to its ultimate reckoning with this issue in the Civil War and also intervened in the period of social re-engineering that followed. This was a golden age for multi-issue activists who wanted to interrogate and overturn not only slavery, but also other longstanding forms of oppression that many Americans considered natural, even divinely ordained, including women’s subordination in marriage, prisons, economic inequality, and so on. There were also two major depressions in this period that catalyzed people to think about critically about capitalism and consider alternatives.

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