Final Public Oral Exam: Bryan LaPointe

Once Enslaved: Formerly Enslaved People and Antislavery Politics in Nineteenth-Century America
Monday, May 1, 2023, 2:00 pm4:00 pm


Event Description


Sean Wilentz, co-adviser
Matthew Karp, co-adviser
Tera Hunter
Peter Wirzbicki
Kate Masur, Northwestern University


This dissertation offers a history of antislavery politics in the nineteenth century United States focusing on formerly enslaved people. It argues that their experiences and political activism were central to political abolitionism’s growth. From the early Republic to the eve of the Civil War, the struggles of those who had lived under slavery became increasingly tied to political ideas and organizing designed to undermine the institution. Former slaves – prominent and obscure, men, women, and children alike – used their enslaved experiences not only to convince white Americans of slavery’s evils. They invoked those pasts to rally audiences to support the political movement against slavery, especially in the 1840s and 1850s with the advent of antislavery political parties. Formerly enslaved people’s white political allies also openly invoked their backgrounds in slavery as an important political tactic. Antebellum antislavery politics and its growth consequently became predicated in large part on recognizing the humanity of enslaved people and the importance of their political participation.

Overall, this project explores the close relationship between experiences of slavery, former and runaway slaves’ political activism, and the rise of antislavery politics to offer new ways of understanding those topics. Through direct electoral interventions, public and private political relationships with white political activists, and fugitive slave cases, formerly and runaway enslaved people infused their experiences and activism into antislavery politics. In the process, they transformed political abolitionism and redefined antebellum politics. Exploring former slaves’ politics demonstrates how visceral and intimate perspectives of slavery, rather than abstract discussions of its existential threat or westward expansion, helped define the antislavery political world of the nineteenth century. For formerly enslaved people, the personal was always political and vice-versa. They portrayed slavery as a political system deserving of destruction through political means, using their sufferings and struggles for significant political effect and staking claims to political power. By 1860, formerly enslaved people’s politics reached national proportions as the antislavery political cause to which they contributed captured the presidency – eventually sparking the Civil War and emancipation itself.

A copy of the dissertation will be available for review two weeks before the exam. Contact Lee Horinko for a copy of the dissertation and the Zoom meeting link and password.

All are welcome and encouraged to attend.

Area of Interest
African American
Foreign Relations
Intellectual History
Political History
Social History
19th Century
American South
North America
United States
Scholarly Series
Dissertation Defense