Indiana University

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Monday, April 5, 2010

Last modified: Monday, April 5, 2010

History journal explores abolitionism, Freemasonry and feminism in 19th century

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April 5, 2010

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The radical abolitionist George Thompson was a minor celebrity in the mid-19th century. He was imprisoned for five years for a botched attempt to free slaves in Missouri, the author of several books and the head of the African mission established by the Amistad slave rebellion survivors.

"And yet he has been almost completely ignored by historians," writes Joseph Yannielli, who attributes the oversight to a tendency to see militant abolitionists as mentally deranged, along with a failure to engage the global dimensions of the anti-slavery movement. His article "George Thompson among the Africans: Empathy, Authority and Insanity in the Age of Abolition" is included in the March 2010 issue of the Journal of American History, published at Indiana University Bloomington by the Organization of American Historians.

Yannielli argues that dismissing Thompson and other militants as insane is "at best speculative and at worst irresponsible." He shows that Thompson's Christian ideals were tested when he headed the Mendi Mission in Sierra Leone from 1848 to 1856. His 6-year-old son died, his wife and infant son returned to America, and Thompson clashed with local chiefs and used harsh discipline against the native population, once administering 50 lashes to a pregnant woman accused of adultery.

"But his willingness to transgress conventional social, political and geographic barriers and identify with the oppressed and exploited was a crucial feature of the global battle over slavery, and we lose a great deal by erasing him from our history," Yannielli writes.

Also in the issue:

In the JAH Podcast for March 2010, editor Ed Linenthal speaks with contributing editor Scott E. Casper about the "Textbooks and Teaching" feature. The podcast and selected content from the journal are available online at

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