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Any Connection Between the Abolitionists and Anti-Colonial Movements?

6/23/2015 • Ask Mr. History

Okay, Mr. History—

It seems to me there is a parallel between the abolitionist movement and the anti-imperial/anti-war movement here in the US. But I don’t see much conscious recognition of that parallel when it comes to talking about the great anti-Vietnam War movement, which persons of my age (77) vigorously participated in and dearly remember. Seems to me this is simply another instance of whitewashing history. Yet, I see a marvelous parallel between the abolitionist movement and the anti-imperial/anti-war movement. Do you?

Mike Murphy

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Dear Mr. Murphy,

As someone who lived those same times as well as a history major in college, I may be in some position to seek out a parallel to the abolitionist movement of the Civil War era and the antiwar and anti-imperialist movements of the Vietnam War era … but I cannot.

Anti-imperialism in the 1960s was largely Marxist-inspired. Abolitionism was more religiously inspired and there was no significant anti-imperialist movement in the United States during the 1860s—only concerns that the spread of American “manifest destiny” might expand slavery into new western territories. The anti-war movement in the 1960s tended to be pacifist in nature. Abolitionists preferred a peaceful solution, but were not necessarily against promulgating their agenda by force, as John Brown demonstrated. Abolitionism did not spread with anything near the speed and comprehensiveness that the antiwar movement did, partly due to slower-moving media, but also because it had fewer sympathizers, even in the north. There was, nevertheless, a peace movement in the north during the Civil War, but its agenda centered around negotiation with Richmond—a resort that President Abraham Lincoln sought to avoid at all costs, since he regarded it as tacit recognition of the Confederacy. Here, though, I can glean a slim parallel: while there was a conservative backlash against the anti-Vietnam War movement that virtually declared them traitors, the Union laid a similar charge on northern pacifists with its term for them: “Copperheads,” referring to the only venomous snake in the United States that can strike without warning.

My conclusion is that you are describing three separate entities, with a century of separation to further distinguish one from the other two.

 

Sincerely,

 

Jon Guttman
Research Director
World History Group
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