Sunday, December 28, 2008

Retrospect of Western Travel / Harriet Martineau -- Daniel Feller, ed. -- Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2000.

I first heard of Harriet Martineau when reading Arthur Schlesinger's The Age of Jackson. Martineau was a British women who traveled to the United States from 1834, returning to England in 1836. After her return she wrote two three volume works describing the United States. The first, Society in America is an ambitious examination of how well the U.S. lived up to democratic, egalitarian principles. The second, Retrospect of Western Travel, provides a more direct report of her experiences. Daniel Feller's edition of Western Travel is an abridgment, presenting what Feller judges to be the more interesting sections.

At first, I had some difficulty with Martineau's style, but in time, her prose read easily and I became engrossed in her descriptions of social encounters, prison condition, stage coach rides, hotels, river boats, and public meetings as she traveled in New York, D.C., Virginia, Charleston, New Orleans Cincinati, Boston, and parts between. Martineau was well enough known as an author to be able to visit and speak with a number of important figures of the time, including James Madison, Henry Clay, and William Lloyd Garrison.

Prior to coming to the United States, Martineau had published criticisms of slavery. Consequently, she was engaged in frequent discussions about the issue. Her initial revulsion to seeing people enslaved made for interesting reading; however, her hosts in the South were invariably slave owners and she developed a personal appreciation for their hospitality. As she was critical of colonization which was the more acceptable path to ending slavery, she often found herself acknowledging her sympathies to abolition. Curiously, this put her in the most danger in Boston, where the high society was at pains to mollify Southern sensibilities by villifying Abolitionists. Indeed, her work is most informative as to how Abolitionists were repressed and, indeed, persecuted during these years.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Fanny Wright: Rebel in America / Celia Morris Eckhardt -- Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.

I first read about Fanny Wright (1795-1852) in Arthur Schlesinger's The Age of Jackson. Schlesinger's description of her was intriguing, but sketchy. His occasional references to her as a champion of the working class led me look for a more thorough biography which I found in Eckhardt's Fanny Wright.

Indeed, a champion of the working class, Wright also held many views that placed her easily a century ahead of her time. In a time when "respectable" women could not allow their names to be published with their own work, Fanny Wright became a well-known author, and well-received by prominent progressive figures of her time. She maintained a long and close relationship to Jeremy Bentham, Lafayette, and Robert Dale Owen. She was respected by Jefferson and other prominent American politicians. However, her radical views on marriage and education eventually left her personally and politically isolated.

Wright was born in Scotland, raised in England, and lived for some years in France. She later travelled three times to the United States and became an American citizen. Her first significant social enterprise was to form a community in Tennessee on a plantation she called Nashoba. The community was to be modeled roughly on Robert Owen's community at New Harmony, Indiana, but Nashoba was intended foremost to emancipate slaves and prepare them for colonization in Haiti or Africa. Wright believed slavery could be gradually and peacefully abolished by establishing plantations that would out-perform those based on slave labor. Nashoba and other plantations would be based on the indentured servitude of slaves purchased by or donated to these new plantations.

Nashoba turned out to be a financial failure, due in part to Wright and her partners' inexperience in running a plantation. Furthermore, scandals related to the treatment of the Nashoba slaves and the sexual relations on the plantation compounded the obstacles to success. Eventually, Wright took her slaves to Haiti where they were freed.

The vilification of Wright by the newspapers and journals of her time was stunning. It is hard to imagine anyone standing up to such criticism, and eventually it took its toll on Wright. While publicly rejecting marriage as oppressive to women, Fanny moved to France and was secretly married after she became pregnant. Eckhardt's portrait of this period in her life suggests that she was in a deep depression which lasted several years and resulted in the end of all of her previous friendships.

Wright did eventually return to public life, touring and speaking in the United States during the late 1840s and advocating the re-election of Martin Van Buren. Her reputation, however, had spoiled any real opportunity for her to be effective. As crowds dwindled and those attending were more curious than committed, Fanny eventually retired into a private life, struggling to retain her financial solvency in her conflicts with her husband. Suffering a nervous breakdown in her last years, she died estranged from her daughter and attended only by maids.

Eckhardt's portrait of Wright goes well beyond a factually reliable account and details Wright's inner life and motivations. While this make the book extremely interesting, it sometimes slips into speculative psychologizing. It isn't clear from the end notes how well founded this speculation is. Over all, the work is a sympathetic -- but not uncritical -- examination of an extremely interesting historical figure. Clearly, Wright's talents and determination to advance the cause of liberty everywhere allowed her to achieve more than women could ever hope during her lifetime. Her actions, while damaging to herself, broke seemingly impenetrable ground for women in Europe and the United States.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Age of Jackson / Adrthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. -- Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1953, c1945.

The Age of Jackson is a classic work on the decades preceding the Civil War. Schlesinger provides a brief account of U.S. politics from Jefferson through John Quincy Adams, but launches the main of his work with the presidency of Andrew Jackson. Much of the work examines "the Bank War," between Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, on the one hand, and Nicholas Biddle, President of the Bank of the United States, and various members of the Federalist-Whig establishment on the other hand. Schlesinger does not overlook other important issues of the time, e.g., tariffs, nulification, class warfare, the Mexican War, and slavery.

The work is rich in detailed portraits of the eras most important figures and provides a careful guide through the kaleidascopic constellations of political alliances. The reader is emersed a time when national political parties were weak in comparison to state political parties, and when the county's leading politicians could (and would) split political parties and form new ones in pursuit of personal political gain. Along with the familiar "Democrats," "Whigs," and "Republicans," Schlesinger distinguishes such groupings as the "Cotton Whigs," the "Conscience Whigs," "Hunkers," "Barnburners," "Locofocos," "Free Soilers," the "Liberty Party," "Northern Democrats," "Southern Democrats," and the "Know Nothing Party." He is especially good at identifying the role of newspapers in promoting the views of one or another candidate, politician or political party.

What was most surprising to me was how much many of the leading figures of the time sounded like Marx. At least in their rhetoric, many politicians recognized the exploitation of the working class by newly rising corporate interests. Schlesinger quotes numerous politicians as dividing American society into the working class that produces wealth and the capitalist class that lives off of that production. For mainstream politicians of the time, wealth is a product of labor and its maldistribution is the measure of exploitation. In this respect, I am left wondering if Martin Van Buren was not our country's most radical president, and whether the power of corporations might not have been nipped in the bud had he been re-elected in 1840. Schlesinger attributes his defeat to the shrewd Whig strategy to paint William Henry Harrison as a commoner and the power of the Whig campaign treasury.

The last third of the book turns away from economic issues and recounts the struggle over slavery leading up to the Civil War. While interesting, the narrative is well known. I am not so well read as to say how much The Age of Jackson is responsible for that narrative, but surely much of it is in line with previous work on the Civil War.

Two figures stand out in Schlesinger's account that get well-deserved attention. One is David Wilmot, the radical Democrat responsible for introducing a bill to abolish slavery in the territories. The significance of this bill can not be understated. It, perhaps more than anything, was responsible for moving the issue of slavery from a matter for compromise to a nation-splitting controversy. The second figure is Frances Wright, a Scottish immigrant who was the darling of the working class, an early opponant of slavery, and an outspoken feminist. Schlesinger's picture of her is one of a late 20th century woman mysteriously born in 1795. For a fuller picture of this amazing personality, see Fanny Wright: Rebel in America.

I have wanted to read The Age of Jackson for many years. Having read it, I deeply regret waiting so long.

The Life of Charles Sumner: The Scholar in Politics / Archibald H. Grimke -- NY: Funk and Wagnalls, 1892.

Charles Sumner is probably best known as the Senator who was bludgeoned on the Senate floor by Rep. Preston S. Brooks in 1856. The attack followed Sumner's speech, "Crime against Kansas," in which Sumner criticized assaults on free soil settlers by proponents of slavery. In the course of the speech, Sumner attacked South Carolina and its senator, Arthur P. Butler. This prompted Brooks, a relative of Butler and also from South Carolina, to attack Sumner unawares, beating him with a heavy walking stick until Sumner was unconscious. The attack was a landmark event in the years preceding the Civil War and spurred Northern hostility toward the South and slavery.

But Sumner's career is memorable for more than his victimization. Grimke's biography of Sumner, in the style of the times, is a glowing account of the Senator's career. Sumner is described as the most vocal and effective political opponant of "the Slave Power," comparable to William Lloyd Garrison's effectiveness as a moral critic of slavery. Nonetheless, Grimke rightly makes the bludgeoning of Sumner the climax of the biography.

Sumner is portrayed as a reluctant politician, who is drawn to office by his passion to end slavery. His contribution to Abolition is well recorded in the biography. I was, however, left wondering if Sumner was ever occupied with other issues than what brought him to be a leader of the Massachusettes's "Consceince Whigs." Grimke does indicate that Sumner was an early proponent of women's sufferage, but he says little about Sumner's attitudes toward economic questions that were significant prior to the War. Sumner's Whig background and close relationship to Joseph Story would indicate that he was no friend of the Northern working class, but instead an aristocratic Massachusettes politician, defending the intersts of the incipient power of corporations. However, Grimke does point out that Sumner was not sympathetic to the Whig position on banking and tarrifs. Furthermore, Sumner's undogmatic relationship to the Whigs made him acceptable to the faction of Democratic Party that joined the Free Soil Party.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Grimke's work is his descriptions of the potential for violence that lay just below the surface in the halls of Congress. Besides a detailed description of the attack on Sumner, Grimke quotes a paragraph from Henry Wilson's History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America illustrating the climate in Congress. According to Wilson, in 1845, during an anti-slavery speech by Rep. Joshua R. Giddings of Ohio, Rep. E.J. Black of Georgia, "approaching Mr. Giddings with an uplifted cane, said: 'If you repeat those words I will knock you down.' The latter repeating them, the former was seized by his friends and borne from the hall. Mr. Dawson, of Louisiana, who on a previous occasion had attempted to assault him, approching him, and, cocking his pistol, profanely exclaimed: 'I'll shoot him; by G-d I'll shoot him!' At the same moment, Mr. Causin, of Maryland, placed himself in front of Mr. Dawson, with his right hand upon his weapon concealed in his bosom. At this juncture, four members from the Democratic side took their position by the side of the member from Louisiana, each man putting his hand in his pocket and apparently grasping his weapon. At the same moment Mr. Raynor, of North Carolina, Mr. Hudson, of Massachusetts, and Mr. Foot, of Vermont, came to Mr. Gidding's rescue, who, thus confronted and thus supported, continued his speech. Dawson stood fronting him till its close, and Causin remained facing the latter until he returned to the Democratic side." A near gun battle on the floor of the House of Representatives puts our present "partisanship" in perspective.

In all, Grmike's Sumner is a wise and selfless paragon of justice, but such sympathy for the subject of a biography is typical of 19th century writing. Grimke's portrait of Sumner is engaging and entertaining, but should be augmented by more recent critical scholarship.