- Their Right to Speak: Women's Activism in the Indian and Slave Debates
Alisse Portnoy's Their Right to Speak examines the debates about women's right to petition that arose during the Indian removal and slavery controversies of the 1830s. Some of Portnoy's ideas will be familiar to readers of this journal, since she published elements of this book here in 2003. Nevertheless, an overview of her findings is in order.
Portnoy's story starts in January 1830, when sixty-one women in Hallowell, Maine, signed and sent to Congress a petition protesting the government's removal of the Cherokee nation from Georgia. Portnoy has found that some 1,500 other women sent similar petitions to Congress over the next two years, in a campaign that, surprisingly, Catharine Beecher secretly helped to orchestrate. Beecher's role is especially noteworthy given her later public opposition to similar efforts by abolitionist women, especially her war of words with Angelina Grimké in 1837.
Much of Portnoy's book attempts to explain the contradiction between [End Page 502] Beecher's early leadership of a women's petition drive and her condemnation only a few years later of abolitionist attempts to use the same tactic. Looking for consistency in Beecher's arguments during the 1830s, Portnoy dismisses the usual argument that the conservative Beecher condemned the radical Grimké as a result of differences in their beliefs respecting gender roles. This seems like a solid start, especially as Beecher's intellect commands respect (if not agreement), and because the antiremoval petitions unearthed by Portnoy prove that Beecher was open to some women's public involvement as early as 1830.
Portnoy explains Beecher's change by examining the differences between antiremoval and abolition, with particular attention to how much support each of the causes enjoyed in Whig reform circles. Native Americans, she finds, enjoyed more favorable press than African Americans throughout this period, and this influenced the degree to which Beecher and other middle-class reformers felt they could properly embark on petitioning activities. As Portnoy writes, "the ways European Americans imagined African and Native Americans more significantly influenced women's early national, collective political activism than conventional gender constraints of the period" (9). After two chapters detailing how white society depicted Native and African Americans in novels and newspapers (particularly the National Intelligencer), Portnoy concludes that reformers like Beecher regarded the Cherokees as a sovereign nation with legitimate treaty rights. In addition, individual Native Americans could be bright, brave, honorable, and Christian. In contrast, African American characters in novels such as James Fennimore Cooper's were less than fully human, and the nation's newspapers ran frequent advertisements that depicted African Americans as fugitive slaves and as merchandise to be bought and sold. Portnoy argues that in the print culture of the 1830s, the term Negro was synonymous with enslavement, and that this made immediate abolition an undesirable goal for Beecher and other like-minded reformers. These racial assumptions underpinned the American Colonization Society (ACS) and its work. Potentially Christian and noble natives should not be removed, but African Americans should be removed from American soil because their racial marker as property would forever limit their potential in the United States.
Portnoy's explanation for Beecher's inconsistency has many merits, including taking Beecher, the antiremovalists, and the ACS seriously. While Portnoy eventually bows to the inevitable and admits that "it was Beecher's prejudice that made possible her acceptance of gradual rather [End Page 503] than immediate emancipation" (223), Portnoy's full description of ACS logic and Beecher's reform ideologies makes conservative Christian reformers more understandable than they often are in today's literature. Guided by Portnoy, we can see that Beecher denounced women's petitioning in 1837 not because it was done by women, but because it was on behalf of the American Anti-Slavery Society, a group that she regarded as worse than misguided.
But we do not have to accept Portnoy's thesis, although many...