Book Review: “American Radicals” — Unrecognized Champions of 19th-Century Protest

By Blake Maddux

American Radicals is as revealing, riveting, and well-researched as any work of history that I have read in recent years.

American Radicals: How Nineteenth-Century Protest Shaped the Nation by Holly Jackson. Crown Publishing, 400 pages, $28.

In 1978, John Hopkins University history professor Ronald G. Walters wrote a book that chronicled American history from the so-called Era of Good Feelings through the eve of the Civil War. On its pages, Walters addressed topics such as abolitionism, communitarianism, women’s rights, and sexuality. He titled his book American Reformers: 1815-1860 in reference to the individuals who were practitioners of and/or commenters on such matters

Last year, UMass Boston English professor Holly Jackson published a volume bookended by America’s golden jubilee (1826) and centennial (1876) celebrations. Among the foci of Jackson’s book are abolitionism, communitarianism, women’s rights, and sexuality. In reference to the individuals who were practitioners of and/or commenters on such matters, she titled her book American Radicals: How Nineteenth-Century Protest Shaped the Nation.

A passage in Walters’s book explains the difference between the authors’ choice of nouns: “By radicals I mean those who wish to change the structure of society. By reformers I mean those who wish to improve individuals or existing social, economic, and political arrangements.… Radicals seek to overturn the present order while successful reformers may actually strengthen it by making it work better.”

Although Walters acknowledged that “in practice the distinction frequently breaks down,” he maintained that “no other words serve as well to make the necessary, if fuzzy, discrimination between people who want total change and those who want a better version of what they have.” In other words, a reformer is a milder – if not necessarily more tepid – form of activist than a radical.

Given the similarities of the terse titles, it would seem that Jackson intentionally sought to dispute Walters’s assessment that the main players of these movements sought to simply ameliorate the status quo. Interestingly, American Radicals includes only a single mention of American Reformers. It is buried in an endnote as one of two recommended “histories of middle-class reform that posit the roots of social activism in religious revivalism.” Thus, although Jackson may not deliberately be operating within the parameters established by Walters, it would be fair to say that she sees the goal of 19th-century activism to be more than just reform.

And that makes American Radicals exactly the kind of history that I have sought out in recent years. It is a narrative in which Emerson, Fuller, Thoreau, and Lincoln have walk-on parts or cameos rather leading roles. In their steads, readers learn  — perhaps for the first time in their otherwise well-educated lives – about Frances “Fanny” Wright (“the female Tom Paine”), Robert Owen, Charles Fourier, Victoria Woodhull, and others. (Comparatively familiar figures such as Susan B. Anthony, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton also figure prominently in the action.)

Although I am not an expert in any of the myriad subjects that Jackson explicates, I found her coverage of the interrelated issues of Free Love and the questioning of marital norms to be particularly engrossing.

The press was scandalized by Frances Wright: “This woman ought to get into pantaloons immediately, she is a disgrace to the fairer part of creation.”

Most Americans living today think of these ideas as having developed as recently as the ’70s. Jackson disabuses readers of this notion by demonstrating that by that point they had been at least a century old. Moreover, the debate over the meaning and value of so-called traditional marriage didn’t become part of the public discourse only when same-sex couples proposed that they should also be permitted to marry.

For example, Jackson describes a newspaper (The Free Enquirer) that published its first issue in 1828 as “a leading organ for free thought, Free Love, women’s rights, birth control, worker’s rights, and socialism.” John Humphrey Noyes, head of Vermont’s Putney Bible School, wrote in 1837 that  —  in Jackson’s words  —  “the scriptures advocated sexual freedom rather than monogamous marriage.” It is statements such as this that lead Jackson to credit Noyes as being “the man who likely coined the term ‘Free Love.’”

Lest Free Love be dismissed as an unobtrusive fringe movement, Jackson notes that highly respected and widely read sources felt compelled to push back against the momentum that it had garnered. An 1857 issue of the New York Times included a “massive article” that described “the ‘disgusting and detestable’ anti-marriage movement … ‘of which the ultimate aim is to subvert the present organization of society — destroy the institution of Marriage, as recognized by the religion and laws of Christendom, and substitute for it a Free Love System.’”

Furthermore, author Harriett Beecher Stowe penned an “anti-Free Love novel” (My Wife and I) in 1871, 19 years after she wrote the best-selling fictional work of the century.

So much for the idea of the Summer of Love and swinging ’70s as the manifestations of a revolutionary new concept in the United States.

The questioning of marital norms went hand-in-hand with Free Love. Some of the former’s critique will be viewed as common sense by today’s standards. Calls for easier access to divorce were heard in the 1850s, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote of the need for “nothing short of unlimited freedom of divorce” in 1870. This may sound far from radical to 21st-century ears, but it was not until 1969 that California became the first of the 50 states to recognize no-fault divorce.

Some more virulent critics deemed marriage to be “the prolific mother of disease and crime” and “a system of rape” while another claimed — and others agreed — that “the same evils which exist under the Institutions of Despotism and Slavery exist likewise under the Institution of Marriage and the Family.” The claim that being married was the crueler of the two fates was less frequent but not unheard of. Solutions proposed by those who thought along these lines included disregarding monogamy within wedlock and the complete abolishment of the practice altogether. (In 1855, one couple’s ceremony included the statement, “We deem it a duty to declare that this act on our part implies no sanction of, nor promise of voluntary obedience to such of the present laws of marriage, as refuse to recognize the wife as an independent, rational being, while they confer upon the husband an injurious and unnatural superiority.”)

However, Jackson concludes, “Dispensing with the private family, and monogamy in the bargain, continued to be a bridge too far for most Americans.” Legislative action was unlikely, but the idea was sufficiently mainstream to lead President Rutherford B. Hayes to proclaim that “it is no crime by the laws of the United States to advocate the abolition of marriage” in 1878. Furthermore, the declaration of the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention emphasized marriage reform and other priorities far more strongly than it did women’s suffrage, which is what it is most commonly associated with.

Author Holly Jackson. Photo: Elizabeth Clark Libert.

Given how thoroughly American Radicals imparts the specifics of Free Love, the demerits of marriage, and the questioning of gender roles, one topic is conspicuously absent: homosexuality. In fact, Jackson herself does not even use that word, though she references it in a single sentence, “Some even ventured beyond heterosexuality, affirming that ‘adhesiveness between the same sex can be, sometimes, stronger than death.’” Perhaps the concept of genuine heartfelt passion between two men or two women was not merely a bridge too far, but one not yet even under construction, even for those who counted themselves among the most radical Americans.

In the conclusion, Jackson asks, “As statues commemorating the Confederacy are taken down all over the country, family names removed from university buildings as their ties to slavery are acknowledged, would we lift up these activists as the period’s heroes instead?” Wright, the main subject of the book’s first two chapters, “is remembered today on a historical marker in a highway median…between a Taco Bell and a Dollar General store.” The biographical information that it includes gives Harvard’s Statue of the Three Lies a run for its money.

Perhaps these heroes go unrecognized because the victories of 19th-century protest were the result of group efforts that don’t lend themselves easily to an association with specific individuals. Or maybe it is because, as Jackson speculates, “We have so completely metabolized the wild ideas of nineteenth-century America that succeeded … that their original implausibility is lost. Success carries with it a feeling of inevitability, as though it represents merely the inexorable march of history, not a stray Hail Mary pass miraculously, just barely caught.”

Allow me to repeat before I close that Jackson is an English professor. Of course, doctoral-level training in either English or history hardly precludes the ability to engage intelligently in the other area. However, it generally means that one is not capable of doing so equally well in each. That said, American Radicals is as revealing, riveting, and well-researched as any work of history that I have read in recent years. In fact, it may have been my favorite book of 2019.

Blake Maddux is a freelance journalist who regularly contributes to the Arts Fuse, the Somerville Times, and the Beverly Citizen. He has also written for DigBoston, the ARTery, Lynn Happens, the Providence Journal, The Onion’s A.V. Club, and the Columbus Dispatch. A native Ohioan, he moved to Boston in 2002 and currently lives with his wife and one-year-old twins–Elliot Samuel and Xander Jackson–in Salem, Massachusetts.

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