There is an adage that historians write with (at least) one eye fixed on the present. So it is not surprising that scholars have lately been drawn to the 1850s, a time, much like our own, of intense social and political polarization. Kellie Carter Jackson’s recent study of black abolitionists, Force and Freedom, focuses on their increasingly vocal calls for slave rebellion. Joanne B. Freeman’s The Field of Blood relates how nearly every session of Congress from the mid-1830s to the outbreak of civil war in 1861 witnessed members exchanging punches or drawing knives and pistols. In The War Before the War, his study of the response to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Andrew Delbanco suggests that armed conflict over slavery began years before the attack on Fort Sumter.
Today, political combat is mostly angry rhetoric, not violent deeds, even if our president galvanizes his supporters with thinly veiled invitations to take action against “enemies of the people.” But parallels certainly exist between the decade before the Civil War and our time. Then as now, states and localities declared themselves unwilling to cooperate with the federal government’s draconian policies for dealing with fugitives seeking to escape oppression (runaway slaves in the 1850s, migrants and refugees today). The current xenophobic claims that immigrants are responsible for illness, crime, and unemployment recall the Know-Nothing Party’s similar complaints about Roman Catholics fleeing the Irish famine. Today, as in the past, the Supreme Court has handed down decisions that reflect indifference or out-and-out hostility to the rights of black Americans—Dred Scott in 1857, Shelby County v. Holder in 2013. Today’s rallies calling for “reopening” the country, at which participants menacingly display their weapons, bring to mind the 1860 presidential election, when the Republican Party mobilized armed Wide Awake clubs, whose participants paraded through major cities dressed in quasimilitary uniforms. And as Richard Kreitner discusses in his forthcoming Break It Up, secessionist movements are today proliferating in many parts of the country.
LeeAnna Keith’s new book, When It Was Grand, also returns to the mid–19th century, this time to consider the history of Radical Republicanism. In doing so, it adds to our understanding of how a rising tide of violence in the 1850s served as a harbinger of the Civil War, a conflict that culminated in the most radical act in American history: the uncompensated abolition of slavery. The author of The Colfax Massacre, a highly praised study of the bloodiest act of carnage against African Americans during Reconstruction, Keith makes an important contribution by placing Radicals at the center of these transformative events.
Contemporaries regularly referred to the Radical Republicans as a distinct group in the spectrum of Civil War–era politics. While by the 1850s most Northerners opposed the westward expansion of slavery, the Radicals went further, insisting that antislavery action should take precedence over all other political questions and vehemently opposing any talk of compromise with the South. When the Civil War began, they proclaimed that the Union would not emerge victorious without emancipating and arming the slaves. By the time it ended, they helped put equal civil and political rights for black Americans on the national agenda and then took the lead in enshrining them in laws and the Constitution during Reconstruction.
Scholarly assessments of the Radicals have changed over time, reflecting the evolution of historical interpretation of their era and the changing face of American politics and race relations. Repelled by the mass slaughter of World War I and invested in reconciliation between white Northerners and Southerners, many historians in the 1920s and ’30s blamed the Radicals—sometimes called the Jacobins or Vindictives—for whipping up the sectional hostility that produced a “needless” conflict and for foisting black suffrage on the South during Reconstruction, supposedly leading to an orgy of corruption and misgovernment. To the followers of Charles Beard, who taught that political ideologies serve as masks for the interests of powerful economic groups, the Radicals were the shock troops of a new industrial order. In his influential 1941 book Lincoln and the Radicals, the historian T. Harry Williams wrote that “they loved the Negro less for himself than as an instrument with which they might fasten Republican political and economic control upon the South.” In Williams’s view, Abraham Lincoln was a well-meaning but ineffectual leader, outmaneuvered time and again by scheming Radicals.
By the middle of the 20th century, as the modern civil rights revolution swept across the country, historians began to upend this interpretation and take the Radicals’ advocacy of abolition and racial equality at face value. The Radicals, they insisted, were idealists in the best 19th century reform tradition. In The Radical Republicans (1969), the first book-length study of the group, Hans L. Trefousse hailed them as “Lincoln’s Vanguard for Racial Justice.” In her more recent and authoritative history of abolitionism, The Slave’s Cause, Manisha Sinha goes further. Abolitionists and Radicals Republicans were not simply adjuncts of the Great Emancipator, she argues; they were an independent force whose lofty ideals helped shape the era’s history.
In When It Was Grand, Keith offers a capacious, if not entirely coherent, definition of the Civil War–era Radicals. Despite the book’s title (an allusion to the Republicans’ longtime identification as the Grand Old Party), she does not confine her account to individuals working within the political system. Her subjects include not only Radical Republicans but also abolitionists, who refused to participate in politics under a Constitution they deemed irreparably proslavery; Transcendentalists, for whom the abolition of slavery was as much a path to intellectual self-realization as a form of political action; and black activists, who campaigned during the war for racial equality in post-slavery America.
Casting this wide net allows Keith to include a variety of antislavery activists in her narrative. But it remains unclear at times what unites these “culture warriors,” as she calls them, or why particular individuals were chosen for in-depth treatment while others were neglected or ignored. The New England philosophers Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and the Rev. Theodore Parker (the last surprisingly described as a Republican “party boss”) all receive considerably more attention, for example, than Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens, the leading Radical Republicans in Congress, or less familiar ones such as George W. Julian. Stevens is described as “a wisecracking lawyer said to be secretly married to his black housekeeper”—hardly an adequate description of one of the 19th century’s great egalitarians. Along with Stevens, Julian was a leading advocate of confiscating Southern plantations and distributing the land to former slaves, yet he doesn’t appear at all. Keith also devotes little attention to the Radicals’ ideology and seems unable to decide how much political power they actually enjoyed. At the outset, she claims they “dominated the Republican party,” a considerable exaggeration; elsewhere she makes them seem like political fringe dwellers.
Despite these weaknesses, Keith’s capacious definition of the Radicals enables her to center her story outside the Beltway, which yields significant benefits. Her book is more interested in action than in ideology, more concerned with battles in the streets over fugitive slaves than with election campaigns and congressional legislation. She includes Radical women in her account of how the nation was torn asunder. For example, she devotes considerable attention to Jessie Frémont, a daughter of Senator Thomas Hart Benton and the wife of John C. Frémont, the Republican Party’s first presidential candidate. Jessie Frémont was the political equivalent of a gambler who makes the most of a weak hand. She did her best to defend her husband against (all too accurate) charges of military incompetence when he commanded Union troops in Missouri, and she helped mobilize support for his quixotic effort, in 1864, to replace Lincoln at the head of the Republican ticket.
The first part of When It Was Grand deals with the 1850s, when, Keith writes, “a state of war with slavery” already existed. As she points out, in this war before the war, the Radicals utilized whatever weapons they had at their disposal. In response to the Fugitive Slave Act, they defied the Constitution and laws through violent resistance to the capture of runaways. At the same time, they borrowed the states’ rights doctrine usually associated with John C. Calhoun and the South in an attempt to nullify national policy through legal action. Radical judges issued writs of habeas corpus to liberate captured fugitives. Wisconsin’s highest court declared the law unconstitutional, a ruling overturned by the US Supreme Court. The fugitive issue, Keith argues, led many Northerners to insist that what Senator William H. Seward of New York called a “higher law” justified resistance to man-made statutes.
In 1854 the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act opened most of the old Louisiana Purchase to slavery, from which it had been prohibited for more than 30 years by the Missouri Compromise. The law proved to be the catalyst for the creation of the Republican Party, which was dedicated to halting slavery’s westward expansion, and it led directly to Bleeding Kansas, the battle over whether the territory would become a slave or free state.
Keith has a talent for storytelling, and she captures the drama of how the Massachusetts educator Eli Thayer and a group of Eastern Radicals organized the Emigrant Aid Company to assist antislavery settlers with the cost of travel to the Kansas territory and to provide them with supplies—including rifles. Those were certainly needed, since the territory was racked by violence. In 1856 proslavery forces there sacked the antislavery town of Lawrence, whereupon the abolitionist John Brown murdered several proslavery settlers. Two years later, he led a raid into neighboring Missouri that rescued a group of slaves, transporting them to freedom in Canada. Violence in Kansas fed into armed conflict elsewhere. In 1859, Brown and 21 followers temporarily seized the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, hoping to spark a slave revolution.
Keith claims that the Radical Republicans “bore responsibility for Harpers Ferry” because of their “incendiary language” against slavery and the fact that a number of New Englanders—including Emerson, Parker, and Bronson Alcott (the father of Louisa May Alcott, the author of Little Women)—participated in Brown’s planning or funding. “Our best people listen to his words,” Alcott wrote when Brown lectured in Massachusetts. These men, however, were hardly among the leading Radical Republicans, most of whom condemned Brown’s raid. So did Lincoln in his Cooper Union address of early 1860, although Keith unconvincingly suggests that Lincoln considered Brown and the Radicals “brothers under the skin” since they all hated slavery.
Keith’s conclusion that Brown was the “idol of Republican Radicals” also seems untenable, given the widespread Republican condemnation of his private war against the slaveholding South. But she is correct that by 1860, many Republicans, Radical or not, had embraced the legitimacy of violence. In this way, the Civil War “had already begun,” she writes. The experience of the 1850s “quickened” the Radicals’ “sensitivity to mass suffering…and heroic sacrifice,” leading them to conclude that when full-scale war did break out, it must be “a fight unto the death.”
The second half of When It Was Grand deals with Radicalism during the Civil War. As the stakes become higher—the fate of slavery, the rights of emancipated African Americans, the future of the postwar South—the cast of characters expands enormously. Black Americans for the first time become major actors in the narrative. We encounter figures little known even among historians, such as John Jones, a black activist in Chicago who in January 1865 spearheaded the movement that led Illinois to repeal the state’s notoriously discriminatory Black Laws. African American soldiers also become an important part of the story. Their battle for the same pay as whites produced the first national legislation mandating equal treatment regardless of race.
Keith emphasizes how the actions of Radical military officers helped propel the Lincoln administration down the road to Emancipation and at least a partial recognition of black rights. Determined to retain control of the policy regarding slavery, Lincoln overturned John C. Frémont’s 1861 order freeing the slaves in Missouri and a similar one the following year by Gen. David Hunter in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. But their actions helped push the fate of slavery to the center of political discussion, and at ground level, these abolitionist generals also forwarded the war’s revolutionary dynamic. “Much of the truly radical policy of the Civil War years,” Keith writes, “took place in military settings.” In Louisiana, Gen. John W. Phelps organized units of black soldiers without authorization from higher-ups and flatly refused to carry out an order to put runaway slaves to work reinforcing levees on the Mississippi River. The “crimes of their masters,” he declared, were responsible for wartime damage to the levee system, and therefore slave owners—not slaves—should take on the burden of repairs.
Encountering female refugees from enslavement in Union-occupied North Carolina, their backs scarred from whippings, Gen. Edward A. Wild invited the women to apply the lash to their former owners. The “ladies” eagerly did so, another officer reported, “not forgetting to remind the gentleman of days gone by.” Wild allowed Abraham Galloway, who escaped from slavery in 1857, to return to North Carolina, where he served as a spy for the Union Army and delivered speeches advocating political equality for former slaves—a demand he took directly to Lincoln when he led a black delegation that visited the White House in 1864.
Although Keith does not mention it, Galloway went on to serve in the North Carolina Senate during Reconstruction. There he demonstrated how the abolition of slavery inspired claims for new rights, introducing bills to protect women against violence by their husbands, to establish 10 hours as a legal day’s work, and to allow black people accused of crimes to be tried before all-black juries. She notes that many of the black leaders of Reconstruction shared the wartime experience of “engagement” with the “Radicalized United States government” via military service, political organizing, and teaching in schools established for freed people. She makes the telling point that demands for black voting rights “tended to trickle up toward the party leadership from activists in the field.”
Keith deserves praise for shifting the center of gravity of wartime Radicalism away from Washington to military encampments and upstart black gatherings in the Union-occupied South. But in so doing, When It Was Grand seriously neglects some of the political dimensions of Radical Republicanism. In a recent article in Catalyst, a new left- oriented scholarly journal, the Princeton historian Matthew Karp convincingly portrays the rise of the Republican Party in the 1850s and the destruction of slavery during the war as revolutionary outcomes achieved on “the field of democratic mass politics.”
The Radicals were central actors on this terrain. Before the war, they played a large role in the creation of an antislavery majority in the North. It was a development that made possible the election of Lincoln, a moderate Republican who worked closely with Radicals because he understood that they formed a crucial element of what would today be called the party’s base. The Radicals also pushed key pieces of wartime legislation through Congress, among them a measure early in the conflict barring the army from returning fugitive slaves, as well as the first and second Confiscation Acts—key steps on the road to Emancipation.
When It Was Grand stops when the war ends, at the very moment the Radicals begin to achieve their greatest influence and farthest-reaching successes. During Reconstruction, they spearheaded the rewriting of the Constitution to abolish slavery, enfranchise black men, and guarantee birthright citizenship and equal protection under the law regardless of race, bringing into being (if only temporarily) genuine interracial democracy in the United States. Despite the book’s many insights into the Radicals’ actions leading up to and during the war, one wishes Keith had followed their story into the Reconstruction years, linking the struggles for freedom on the plains of Kansas and battlefields of the Civil War with the postwar era’s congressional and presidential initiatives and constitutional changes.
While aware of the Radicals’ accomplishments, Keith ends on a less than celebratory note. In an echo of an earlier era of historiography, she writes that, in her view, “their aims were not pure” and they too often succumbed to the “love of power.” Trying to explain how the Republican Party eventually abandoned its commitment to equality, she claims that only abolitionists like John Brown and Gerrit Smith developed truly “collegial relations” with black activists—a judgment quite unfair to the many Radicals who worked closely with black colleagues in the struggle for equality.
These days, the Republican Party is far from grand. And the nation, Keith writes, has yet to “redeem the promise” of Radical Republicanism. For those engaged in that ongoing struggle, the Radicals offer compelling lessons on how to operate simultaneously inside and outside a political system, how to function as a wing of a party without being beholden to it, and how to achieve success as an ideological vanguard, putting forward a coherent plan for radical change and compromising when necessary, though without ever losing sight of one’s principles and long-term goals.