An Emancipation of the Mind

Radical Philosophy, the War over Slavery, and the Refounding of America

How a band of antislavery leaders recovered the radical philosophical inspirations of the first American Revolution to defeat the slaveholders’ oligarchy in the Civil War.

This is a story about a dangerous idea―that all men are created equal―which ignited revolutions in America, France, and Haiti; burst across Europe in the revolutions of 1848; and returned to inflame a new generation of intellectuals to lead the abolition movement.

Frederick Douglass’s unusual interest in radical German philosophers and Abraham Lincoln’s odd, buried allusions to the same rationalist, secularist, and essentially atheist thinkers are but a few of the clues that underlie this propulsive philosophical detective story. With fresh takes on forgotten thinkers like Theodore Parker (a minister too radical even for the Unitarians, whose work provided some of Lincoln’s most famous lines) and a feisty band of German refugees, Matthew Stewart’s vivid storytelling and piercing insights forge a significant revision in our understanding of the origins and meaning of the struggle over slavery in America―and offer a fresh perspective on struggles between democracy and elite power today.

Praise for An Emancipation of the Mind

“Stewart consistently presents a lively and compelling march through the history of American slavery—revealing both its barbarity and its own supposedly philosophical and scriptural justifications… [a] bracingly original book..”Wall Street Journal

“Engaging and often surprising.”New York Times Book Review

“Enthralling and muscular … a vital reassessment of what underpins American democracy.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Deeply researched… A sweeping, penetrating historical narrative.”—Kirkus Review, starred review

“Enthralling, illuminating, and timely. A beautifully written, myth-busting, and eye-opening uncovering of the radical, humanistic roots of America’ best impulses towards justice and equality. A must read for anyone who wants to fully understand not only the abolitionist movement and the nation’s struggle over slavery, but also America’s on-going conflicts related to religion, nationalism, theology, and democracy. By delving into the lives and Enlightenment thinking of Frederick Douglass, Theodore Parker, Abraham Lincoln, and Ottilie Assing, Matthew Stewart shines a much-needed light on some of the most compelling – and yet under-appreciated – emancipatory values that flow through our history and society.”
—Phil Zuckerman, Ph.D. Associate Dean Pitzer College, Author of Society Without God

“Matthew Stewart’s brilliant new book is a timely and inspiring intervention in the ongoing struggle over our history and collective identity. Focusing on the philosophical principles that animated the abolitionist careers of Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Parker, An Emancipation of the Mind illuminates the enduring and transformative legacy of the radical Enlightenment for the American experiment in republican self-government.”
—Peter S, Onuf, Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor of History, Emeritus, University of Virginia

“Stewart’s philosophical odyssey of the secular roots of America’s second founding is cerebral, eloquent, and highly readable. I couldn’t stop highlighting the historical connections, stories, and quotations. Stewart leaves readers sated, but somehow wanting to learn more about the fascinating heretical America of this era. A brilliant book exploring America’s secular refounding.”
—Andrew L. Seidel, Author of The Founding Myth and American Crusade: How the Supreme Weaponizing Religious Freedom

“Matthew Stewart renders the radical philosophy of Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and John Brown with analytical precision and intellectual rigor. Stewart’s notion of ‘philosophy-in-action’ as foundational to radical abolition is a fascinating account of ideas in action, anticipating contemporary arguments over the role of philosophy and ideas in the fight for racial equality.”
—Kerri Greenidge, Professor at Tufts University, Author of The Grimkes: The Legacy of Slavery in an American Family

“The author of Nature’s God on the intellectual origins of the American republic has carried his story forward to give us an equally riveting history of the philosophical foundations of the abolitionist war against slavery. In this gem of a book, Mathew Stewart innovatively uses nineteenth century German philosophy to illustrate the fundamentally radical and emancipatory nature of American abolitionism.”
—Manisha Sinha,author of The Rise and Fall of the Second American Republic: Reconstruction, 1860-1920