Book Review on “Abolitionizing Missouri”

Cross-posted from: H-TGS

Sarah Panter, Review of: Kristen Layne Anderson. Abolitionizing Missouri: German Immigrants and Racial Ideology in Nineteenth-Century America. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2016. 272 pp. $48.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8071-6196-8.

Reviewed by Sarah Panter (Leibniz Institute of European History)
Published on H-TGS (September, 2016)
Commissioned by Alison C. Efford

Until a decade ago, it seemed that almost everything had been said about the experiences of nineteenth-century German immigrants in the United States. In recent years, however, historians have provided fresh perspectives on broader aspects of the social, political, and cultural history of the German-speaking diaspora in the United States. This is especially true of the second half of the nineteenth century and becomes visible, for example, in the claims for a “transnational turn in Civil War history.”[1] As a result, younger scholars have adapted new methodological approaches and started to open up the international potential of this research field by emphasizing the need to contextualize the attitudes of German-speaking immigrants and how they negotiated social, cultural, and racial differences in an entangled transatlantic space.[2]

In this larger context, Kristen Layne Anderson provides a valuable and well-written study. Anderson aims to question the image of German immigrants as idealistic fighters for humanity and as indisputably radical abolitionists in the border state of Missouri, particularly in St. Louis. In so doing, the author shows convincingly that “the racial ideology of the majority of German Americans in St. Louis was quite pragmatic, in that they shifted their position on slavery and the place of African Americans in American society when it benefited their own community to do so” (p. 3). Correspondingly, German Missourians took different stands on questions of race, gender, class, and religion between 1848 and 1870. The study’s arguments are supported by drawing on a broad range of sources, including the German- and English-language press representing different political orientations, statistical material from census documents, and personal and family papers. The six chapters are arranged chronologically and mainly follow political events and dynamics with regard to the questions of slavery and racial equality.

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Special journal issue on solidarity and transnational activism

Some blog readers may be interested in a recent themed issue of the European Review of History, dedicated to ‘Transnational Solidarities and the Politics of the Left, 1890-1990’ and jointly edited by Charlotte Alston and Daniel Laqua (the author of this post). You can access the contributions via this link. While the emphasis is neither on humanitarianism nor on human rights as such, many of the articles address issues that are connected to these phenomena. As a whole, the contributions raise a number of questions that are highly relevant when analysing humanitarian efforts and human rights campaigns within their wider historical context.

  • How do groups, organisations and individuals frame their transnational campaigns? As many of the contributors to this journal issue show, actors often adopted a language that evoked specific rights or liberties, for instance when denouncing ‘despotism’ abroad. In some instances activists stressed their solidarity with a specific cause while also casting their actions as humanitarian (e.g. West German activists who undertook practical work in the Sandinistas’ Nicaragua).
  • What kind of mechanisms can activists draw upon when seeking to mobilise people and organise efforts across national borders? What communication channels do they use? The contributions cover a repertoire – from pamphlets and letter campaigns to broadcasts – that will be familiar to anyone studying humanitarianism or human rights activism.
  • To what extent was the construction of a specific cause as ‘transnational’ or ‘global’ a constituent element of specific campaigns? In many cases, it is necessary to juxtapose the rhetoric of a ‘solidarity beyond borders’ with their limitations and constraints. For instance, several authors shed light on the ways in which transnational campaigns were tied to local aspirations and desires. Continue reading

Journal of Modern European History (themed issue on humanitarianism)

The latest issue (vol. 12, no. 2) of the Journal of Modern European History is dedicated to ‘Ideas, Practices and Histories of Humanitarianism’.  It comprises seven articles and is guest-edited by Charlotte Alston and Daniel Laqua (the author of this blog post).

If your institution subscribes to the journal, you can access the articles online via this link. As you may gather, the first and final pieces on the site are separate articles – i.e. they are not part of our ‘humanitarian’ cluster.

For the benefit of the HHR blog’s readers, I shall offer a few comments on the content. You are also welcome to download our flyer (JMEH – Humanitarianism issue), which provides you with a handy overview. Although the pieces cover a considerable time span – from the early nineteenth century to the 1970s – they address overarching issues and questions. A particular focus is on European actors and the motivations that underpinned the adoption of specific causes.

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