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Excellence is the highest form of resistance: African American reformers in the pre -Civil War *North

Germaine Etienne, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation departs from current literature that treats moral reform as a conservative force in American history by focusing on the political intent of black reform activity. My overall goal is to dissociate black reform efforts from “middle-class” thinking by describing how free blacks in Philadelphia and New York City sought political change through moral improvement. In chapters on literary societies, educated ministers, Sunday schools and apprenticeships, I demonstrate the relationship between moral reform and political action. My premise is that lacking political rights and access to more direct means of protest, free blacks embraced moral reform to achieve racial advancement, refusing to accept their inferior status. However, most historians do not regard moral reform as being a legitimate form of protest. In fact, antebellum black leaders often have been unfairly disparaged in the historical record for their nonviolent reform methods. This dissertation calls for a new paradigm that merges moral reform with violent “political” action without assigning worth to either approach. It ultimately reflects the need for historians to allow for less explicitly “political” forms of protest, especially among relatively powerless groups who were precluded from directly confronting authority. This dissertation also joins with a growing body of literature that questions the presumed conservatism of “middle-class” America. Since all social classes are historically constructed, they do not possess a predetermined or fixed politics.

Subject Area

Black history|American history|Black studies|African American Studies

Recommended Citation

Etienne, Germaine, "Excellence is the highest form of resistance: African American reformers in the pre -Civil War *North" (2004). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3152692.