Twelve Undergraduate Students Rediscover Lost Anti-Slavery Texts From The Founding Era

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The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History has released a new book entitled, “Early American Abolitionists: A Collection of Anti-Slavery Writings 1760-1820” which restores to view some of the extensive anti-slavery literature that flourished in early America. The book reprints fifteen anti-slavery texts that, almost without exception, have been out of print for nearly two centuries.

The twelve students who each contributed one chapter to the book were the first ever to be named Gilder Lehrman History Scholars.

The Scholars program is designed to identify and cultivate the brightest undergraduate historians from across the country. They hailed from Harvard University, Texas Tech University, University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill, Columbia University, Princeton University, University of Maine, Stanford University, University of Notre Dame, Tennessee State University, Oregon State University, Johns Hopkins University and St. Olaf College. During the summer of 2003, the students, selected from an applicant pool that included more than 400 undergraduates from more than 200 colleges and universities, spent eight weeks living in New York City, researching anti-slavery documents in the Gilder Lehrman Collection, and studying with some of the top historians in the United States, including Christine Stansell, Thomas Bender, Steven Mintz, Kenneth Jackson, Catherine Clinton, and Sean Wilentz. [The work of the 2004 and 2005 Gilder Lehrman History Scholars will also result in published materials.]

“As the twenty-first century begins, it is easy to forget that slavery was not universally accepted during the Founding Era,” said James Basker, President of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and General Editor of the book. “Despite the failure of the founders to eradicate slavery at the national level, there were - as this literature attests - energetic and articulate opponents of slavery who attacked it relentlessly and achieved significant gains in many parts of the country.”

The editors’ goal was to distinguish important texts and documents written by early American abolitionists that were forgotten or lost and make them available again to students, teachers, librarians and the public. The texts are reprinted with short editorial introductions written by twelve undergraduate editors that place them in historic context, and with essential notes that clarify the most obscure references. In addition, each of the twelve chapters is being published in a separate pamphlet version, to enable teachers and students to acquire individual works from the larger collection.

“I’d challenge any reader to find these texts anywhere else,” said Basker. “These are very rare documents that do not appear in modern editions and, basically, are not available in college libraries. We set out to inform Americans about his important movement in our history. You cannot know a history that is not visible to you now. The texts and the astute analysis by these bright, young historians bring us closer to the ideas and sentiments of the early anti-slavery thinkers”

“In ‘Early American Abolitionists’ Professor James Basker has assembled a stunning array of documents authored by well known and scarcely known antislavery supporters during the post-Revolutionary

generation,” said James O. Horton, Benjamin Banneker Professor of American Studies and History at George Washington University. “Before the explosion of the radical abolition movement of the 1830s, these African American and white advocates for freedom formed antislavery organizations and spoke out against America’s tolerance of slavery, its most un-American institution. For those in search of our nation’s earliest voices for universal freedom, this is a treasure trove.”

“Every scholar interested in slavery will be grateful for the appearance of this book,” said Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University. “It brings together little-known and hard to find texts illustrating the depth and richness of anti-slavery thought in the late eighteenth-century and early republic. It forces us to think in new ways about the history of the crusade against slavery.”

“Early American Abolitionists: A Collection of Anti-Slavery Writings 1760-1820” is available free of charge to history teachers, professors and institutional libraries. To order a copy, educators and librarians should email name, title, school or library and address to Plans are underway to make the book available for commercial release in the future.

Publication was made possible by the generosity of the Julienne M. Michel Trust.

Founded in 1994, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History promotes the study and love of American history. Increasingly national and international in scope, the Institute targets audiences ranging from students to scholars to the general public. It creates history-centered schools and academic research centers, organizes seminars and enrichment programs for educators, partners with school districts to implement Teaching American History grants, produces print and electronic publications and traveling exhibitions, and sponsors lectures by eminent historians. The Institute also funds awards including the Lincoln, Frederick Douglass and George Washington Book Prizes and offers fellowships for scholars to work in history archives, including the Gilder Lehrman Collection. For more information, visit

The Gilder Lehrman Collection contains more than 60,000 documents detailing the political and social history of the United States. The collection's holdings include manuscript letters, diaries, maps, photographs, printed books and pamphlets ranging from 1493 through modern times. The Collection is particularly rich with materials in the Revolutionary, Antebellum, Civil War and Reconstruction periods. Highlights of the Collection include signed copies of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Thirteenth Amendment, a rare printed copy of the first draft of the Constitution, and thousands of unpublished Civil War soldiers' letters. Letters written by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass and others vividly record the issues and events of their day. The writings of such notable women as Lucy Knox, Mercy Otis Warren and Catherine Macaulay discuss a variety of military, political and social issues.

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