- Seeking the One Great Remedy: Francis George Shaw and Nineteenth-Century Reform
Although Francis George Shaw was a prominent American reformer in the nineteenth century, his life has been overshadowed by his famous son, Robert Gould Shaw. The younger Shaw, as commander of the racially integrated 54th Massachusetts regiment, became a Civil War legend after his ill-fated charge on Fort Wagner in July 1863. In this engaging biography, Lorien Foote rescues Robert's father, Francis Shaw, from the shadow of his son's martyrdom. The book also intervenes more generally in the history of American reform. It challenges narratives of nineteenth-century reform that sharply divide the utopian movements of the antebellum period from the scientific philanthropy of the postbellum era. Foote contends that the relationship between Shaw's reform activities before and after the Civil War was one of continuity rather than rupture.
Born in 1809, Frank Shaw inherited a highbrow New England pedigree and a sizable fortune. Yet like some other Boston Brahmins in the 1830s, he disliked his commercial career and was drawn to Transcendentalism. After marrying his likeminded cousin, Sarah Blake Sturgis, in 1835, Shaw drifted farther from the orthodoxies of elite Boston, eventually falling in with radical Unitarians and [End Page 178] Garrisonian abolitionists like Lydia Maria Child, who remained a lifelong friend. In the 1840s, Shaw converted to Fourierism, publicly championed its association, and invested in the utopian community at Brook Farm. After Brook Farm's failure, Shaw moved his family to Staten Island, but his devotion to radical reform persisted. He translated novels by European feminist George Sand and oversaw the publication of French socialist tracts in New York. His friends included such literary celebrities as James Russell Lowell and George William Curtis, both of whom became related to the Shaws by marriage.
Shaw's family and friends loom large in the book, which reads almost like a collective biography. Much like Harriet Hyman Alonso's recent study of William Lloyd Garrison's family, Growing Up Abolitionist (2002), Foote takes all of the Shaws as her subjects. She helps illuminate how the children of antebellum reformers assimilated and modified the radicalism of their parents, especially with her sensitive portrayals of Robert Shaw and Josephine Shaw Lowell. Shaw's wife, Sarah, is a protagonist in her own right, especially in the middle chapters of the book. Also central to Foote's story is the Shaws' extended web of relatives and friends. After Robert's death at Fort Wagner, the family's celebrated connections helped them popularize martyrlike myths about their son, publishing numerous hagiographies that often glossed over Robert's equivocal views on emancipation and racial equality.
The last three chapters discuss Francis Shaw's reform activities after the Civil War. As a lobbyist for Radical Reconstruction and president of the National Freedman's Relief Association (NFRA), he pushed for the creation of the Freedmen's Bureau. Shaw's positions on Reconstruction, according to Foote, were consistently egalitarian, a radicalism she attributes to his antebellum background. She suggests, for instance, that Shaw's early Fourierism explains his later commitment to land redistribution and his skepticism about "free labor" ideology. When Foote discusses the differences between the NFRA and other aid organizations like the American Missionary Association, she explains Shaw's opposition to evangelical common schools in the South by recalling that he was "an old-time Transcendentalist" (139). This attention to Shaw's antebellum background is fruitful, but it also limits the interpretations available to the author. Despite the vast political and social changes wrought by the Civil War, Foote insists on a nearly seamless integration between Shaw's antebellum and postbellum ideals. In a final chapter, she even connects his antebellum views to his support for Henry George's "single tax" theories. Fourierism and abolitionism paved the way for Shaw's last reform enthusiasm before his death in 1882.
This biography complicates simple generalizations about the course of postbellum reform, which focus on the steady retreat of "mugwumps" from antislavery radicalism. In...