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The Kevin Bacon of the Nineteenth Century?

Confronting SlaveryConfronting Slavery: Edward Coles and the Rise of Antislavery Politics in Nineteenth-Century America

Robert Haywood Morrison Associate Professor of History Suzanne Cooper Guasco takes on antislavery activist Edward Coles in a new biography that traces his connections and influence.

You may not have heard of him, but Dr. Suzanne Cooper Guasco likes to joke that antislavery activist Edward Coles was the Kevin Bacon of 19th-century America. 

Think of a famous person of the era, and Coles likely knew him, was at the same place, or did something very similar, the associate history professor says.  But it wasn't only his connections to people such as neighbor Thomas Jefferson or boss James Madison that interested her.

Her newly published book, Confronting Slavery: Edward Coles and the Rise of Antislavery Politics in Nineteenth-Century America, focuses on Coles' unpopular decision to free his family's slaves, and his fight against slavery as Illinois' second governor. 

What makes the work most unique though, is her focus on Coles' "anti-slavery nationalism," built on the ideas that Americans share an anti-slavery past (in Jeffersonian principles), free labor is economically productive, and emancipation of blacks should coincide with American colonization. Cooper Guasco argues in the book that Coles was someone who saw politics as "a very useful way of ending slavery." 

The book is also a biography.  It is, in fact, the biography she wanted to write in graduate school but didn't.  She was told writing biographies was career suicide, and she did not yet have a rich enough understanding of historical context to do biography well.

Now tenured faculty at Queens, Cooper Guasco admits she may be "going up against conventional wisdom," but today she's confident enough to take the chance.

The book is "an amazing accomplishment," said Dr. Lynn Morton, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Having a book published with an academic press "is the gold standard for scholarship in history."

Writing the book gave Cooper Guasco plenty of insight to bring to the classroom.  "I tell my students that studying history is a nice combination of science and art," she says. "You have to have evidence to support the conclusion you are offering," but also have to be "creative and artistic in that you are telling a story."

With the Coles project now (ahem) history, the newly self-affirmed biographer must only decide whose story to tell next.
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