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Historian to Lecture on the ‘Triumph of Abolitionism’

James Oakes

A leading historian of 19th century America speaks Sept. 12 at the University of Mississippi on “The Triumph of Abolitionism” as part of the Gilder-Jordan Lecture in Southern Cultural History.

James Oakes, distinguished professor and chair of humanities at the City University of New York, has an international reputation for path-breaking scholarship. In a series of influential books and essays, he tackled the history of the United States from the Revolution through the Civil War. His early work focused on the South, examining slavery as an economic and social system that shaped Southern life.

His lecture, set for 7 p.m. in Nutt Auditorium, is free and open to the public.

By studying abolitionism, Oakes aims to clarify exactly what was at stake in the Civil War. The title of his lecture highlights his main point.

“Generally, historians consider abolitionism a failure, in part because they assume that what the abolitionists wanted was very different from what Lincoln and the Republicans wanted,” Oakes said. “But if you look carefully at what abolitionists actually hoped to do about slavery, it was not that different from what mainstream antislavery politicians actually did.”

According to Oakes, that meant the result over time was a shift in the sectional balance of power, as the number of free states steadily increased while the number of slave states hardly changed.

“The Civil War accelerated the shift, to the point where there were enough free states to ratify the 13th Amendment in 1865, hence the ‘triumph of abolitionism,'” Oakes said.

His pioneering books include “The Ruling Race” (1982), “Slavery and Freedom: An Interpretation of the Old South” (1990), “The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics” (2007) and “Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865” (2012). The latter two garnered the 2008 and 2013 Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize, an annual award for the finest scholarly work in English on Abraham Lincoln or the American Civil War era.

His most recent book is “The Scorpion’s Sting: Antislavery and the Coming of the Civil War” (2015).

Oakes not only will give the Gilder-Jordan Lecture, but will meet with Southern studies and history students. His visit comes as the university holds several campuswide events in recognition of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first recorded persons of African descent in British North America.

“In asking his listeners to reconsider the history of how American slavery was abolished, Oakes will provide a new interpretation of American abolitionism’s triumph,” said Paul Polgar, UM assistant professor of history. “As our nation continues to grapple with the legacies of slavery, racism and inequality, the topic of his lecture will reveal how earlier generations of Americans confronted human bondage and formed agendas to battle the peculiar institution.” 

This is not Oakes’ first visit to Oxford, as he attended a conference here two decades ago, organized by Winthrop Jordan, who was the William F. Winter Professor of History and Afro-American Studies for more than 20 years.

“It was a terrific experience,” Oakes said. “I enjoyed reconnecting with Professor Jordan, meeting a number of fine historians for the first time and getting to see Oxford, which I thought was a lovely college town.”

An alumnus of Baruch College, Oakes holds master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of California at Berkeley. He has been on the faculty of the CUNY Graduate Center since 1997 and the holder of the Graduate School humanities chair since 1998. Before joining the CUNY faculty, he taught at Princeton and Northwestern universities.

Previous Gilder-Jordan lecturers include Barbara Field of Columbia University, David Blight of Yale University, Grace Hale of the University of Virginia, Walter Johnson of Harvard University, Jacquelyn Dowd Hall of the University of North Carolina, Theda Perdue of UNC, Edward Ayers of the University of Virginia, and Rhonda Y. Williams of Vanderbilt University.

Organized through the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, the African American studies program, Center for Civil War Research and the Arch Dalrymple III Department of History, the Gilder-Jordan Speaker Series is made possible through the generosity of the Gilder Foundation. The series honors Richard Gilder, of New York, and his family, as well as his friends Dan and Lou Jordan, of Virginia.

By Rebecca Lauck Cleary

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