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  • No Fool’s Errand
  • Michael Thomas Smith (bio)
Mark Elliott. Color-Blind Justice: Albion Tourgée and the Quest for Racial Equality from the Civil War to Plessy v. Ferguson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. viii + 388 pp. Illustrations, notes, and index. $30.00.

One northern newspaper, in its 1905 obituary for Albion W. Tourgée, sadly wrote, "Happy are the people who have no history" (p. 24). Indeed, the Reconstruction Era in which Tourgée played a prominent and heroic part as a politician, lawyer, judge, and author is one that it is difficult for Americans, including historians, to recall with much pleasure. As white supremacy was murderously and illegally re-imposed throughout the South, and to a large degree the Civil War's "new birth of freedom" denied and revoked, Tourgée's life's work seemed wasted—certainly he feared that it had been, as he spent his last years in exile, holding a minor diplomatic position in Europe, afraid that he would anger his political patrons and lose his post if he continued to speak out on the issues that meant so much to him, and for which he has striven so vigorously. And yet how much poorer the nation's past, present, and future would be had the valiant, idealistic work of Reconstruction not been undertaken by activists like Albion Tourgée, though its fulfillment would be long—very long—in coming.

This new study of Tourgée by Mark Elliott does not attempt to supplant Otto H. Olsen's classic 1965 biography Carpetbagger's Crusade as the standard account of the Ohioan's political career. Olsen's book remains the fullest, most comprehensive study of his involvement in Reconstruction politics, and one of the key works (along with roughly contemporaneous books by Richard Current and William C. Harris) in overturning the negative, caricatured view of "carpetbaggers" like Tourgée as corrupt opportunists—a key component of the now discredited racist Dunning school interpretation of Reconstruction as an unjust attempt by wild-eyed and impractical northern and southern Republicans to degrade the temporarily prostrated ex-Confederate southern whites. Elliott instead profitably moves beyond this vital but essentially settled historiographical debate and focuses more narrowly on Tourgée's groundbreaking, influential advocacy of "color-blind" racial justice.

The author argues that Tourgée's racial views were most fundamentally [End Page 393] shaped by his youth in Ohio's Western Reserve region, particularly by encountering its abolitionist movement, and more specifically that movement's "radical individualism," which as Elliott presents it represents a blend of Christian Perfectionism, Garrisonian militancy, and perhaps a touch of Emersonian Transcendentalism (p. 7). In their efforts to purify society and rid it of sin and injustice, these idealists came to believe that Americans had to look into their hearts, and there perceive the truth that all people were equally capable of moral understanding and improvement. Interestingly though, and perhaps a bit troublingly for this interpretation, as late as 1860 Tourgée, then a college student in Rochester, not only did not identify himself with abolitionism, but found even the more moderate opposition to slavery expansionism of the Republican Party uncongenial. His fiancée and later wife Emma preceded him into both of these camps, which at the time the young man found, it seems, more than a bit disconcerting.

Fascinatingly, Tourgée had apparently made up his mind to stay home and enjoy married life instead of joining the Union Army following the outbreak of war the next year, until he received a letter from Emma praising him for his bravery and unselfishness in enlisting, which she mistakenly thought that he had done. He quickly and shamefacedly enlisted in a New York regiment upon receipt of this letter, presumably unwilling to have friends, family, and even his significant other view him as a coward. A few days later he received Emma's belated letter announcing that she would still respect him regardless of what decision he made about going to war. His feelings upon receiving this letter were never recorded. The social pressures and expected gender roles that drove so many men, both North and South, into the military during...


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