- Beyond Garrison: Antislavery and Social Reform
In Beyond Garrison, Bruce Laurie acknowledges the profound influence the Bay State's famous native son had on shaping the abolitionist movement in New England. However, Laurie urges us to push through Garrison's apolitical "moral dead end" (5) and accept the claim that "Politics had meaning and significance extending beyond Garrison" (9). Laurie's detailed study of the roots and multiple manifestations of antislavery politics in Massachusetts offers historians a fresh interpretation of the demographic and ideological base of the antislavery movement. Perhaps most importantly, however, he demonstrates how Bay State politicians linked antislavery concerns with other social reforms, like the ten-hour movement and temperance, and thus strengthened, rather than weakened, the effectiveness of antislavery politics. Ultimately Laurie argues that "political action was an effective strategy consistent with moral rectitude and not a naïve plunge into a smarmy world of compromise and accommodation" (5).
One consequence of the study is to expand the focus from only Garrison and his followers when asking why Massachusetts integrated its common schools in 1855 or why state legislators supported personal liberty laws as early as 1843. Instead, Laurie points to men like Elizur Wright and Lewis Hayden and the "ordinary" men and women who fueled political abolitionism as the most successful leaders of Bay State antislavery activism.
Laurie charts the evolution of antislavery politics from its origins in evangelical Protestantism and Garrisonian abolitionism to the rise and fall of the Liberty Party, the creation of the Free Soil party and its coalition with Democrats, and [End Page 100] the beginnings of the Republican party. Through biographical narratives and a thorough examination of voting behavior and demographics, Laurie demonstrates the importance of men "of the country" from "middling families" who embraced the utility of political action. He also highlights the importance of free blacks in pressing white reformers to enact civil rights legislation; he claims that "black activists were emphatically more combative" than white ones in their resistance to segregation and the fugitive slave law and applauds their courage and leadership in their rejection of the "non-resistance" abolitionism touted by most Garrisonians and politicos (253–54).
In addition, Laurie makes the trenchant observation that some of the most effective antislavery politicians opposed "all kinds of slavery, wherever it exist[ed]," referring specifically to labor reform in the textile mills but also referencing the efforts of many Bay Staters to liberate their peers from the liquor bottle (147). Laurie shows that by supporting the ten-hour movement in the 1840s and the Maine Law in 1852, the supposed single-issue antislavery parties actually gained support and widened their political base. He also eschews the predominant view that abolitionism's strength was grounded in middle-class urbanites who lived in Boston. Instead, he finds some of the movement's most radical champions in industrial centers like Lowell, where working women like Sarah Bagley participated in the "cross-fertilization of abolitionism and labor reform" (145).
Laurie, however, reveals one of the weaknesses of his study by highlighting Bagley. Her story reminds us that women played meaningful roles in the political sphere, even if they could not cast their own ballots. Laurie gives Bagley her historical due as he illustrates her courageous leadership of the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association. But Bagley and her Lowell cohorts are only a few of the numerous reform-minded women who undoubtedly influenced political abolitionism in the 1840s and 1850s. If Bagley could encourage voters to link wage slavery with plantation slavery, then other women like Abby Kelley and Lydia Maria Child certainly held sway with Liberty and Free Soil men in their home state. Laurie almost wholly neglects women's antislavery activism, an oversight that could have been forgiven if recent studies by Julie Roy Jeffrey (1998), Melanie Gustafson (2001), and Susan Zaeske (2003) had not provided numerous examples of how women participated in sectional politics. While it is true that many political abolitionists eschewed the "woman question," believing it to be outside the...