Quakers Living in the Lion’s Mouth: The Society of Friends in Northern Virginia, 1730–1865 by A. Glenn Crothers (review)
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Southern history, Quakers, U.S Civil War, Slavery

Quakers Living in the Lion’s Mouth: The Society of Friends in Northern Virginia, 1730–1865. By A. Glenn Crothers. (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2012. Pp. 372. Cloth, $69.95; paper, $31.95.)

This newest volume in Stanley Harrold and Randall M. Miller’s Southern Dissent series deserves a wide readership. Prodigiously researched and expertly situated in the social, cultural, and military historiography, Crothers’s study of Quakers on the borderlands provides a revealing window into early American and southern history. Crothers makes a compelling case both for the Friends’ uniqueness and for their influence.

Crothers’s story begins in the mid seventeenth century, as Quaker settlers from the Mid-Atlantic states moved south into Virginia, establishing meetings designed to embody their core conviction of the spiritual equality of all human beings. While their emphasis on simplicity was at odds with the ostentation of planter culture, Quakers thrived economically, thanks in part to their methods of mixed-grain crop farming. Even [End Page 128] as they achieved respectability, however, the Friends’ pacifism marked them as outsiders. Suspected of disloyalty and of aiding the British and fugitive slaves during the American Revolution and again during the War of 1812, Quakers chose not to retreat from their principles but acted instead to shore them up. State-led wartime repression sparked calls among Quakers for renewed discipline and doctrinal purity, and gave an added impetus to the nascent antislavery movement in their ranks.

During the antebellum decades, the Quaker community in northern Virginia initially prospered but then faced the daunting challenge of maintaining its cohesion in the face of economic hard times, outmigration, and doctrinal schism. Professing a deep attachment to the Old Dominion, those who remained in Virginia sought to forge a reputation “as civic-minded southerners committed to the prosperity of the region” (239). The achievements of the Friends were considerable: They promoted infrastructure and agricultural improvements; they acted as civic boosters, sponsoring schools and literary and cultural institutions. In so doing, they helped to establish a southern middle class. But the shadow of slavery clouded their efforts. Quaker leaders such as Samuel Janney, Crothers explains, walked a fine line as antislavery southerners. They chose conservative tactics as the means to advance radical ideas: They envisioned a future in which blacks and whites would live together as equals in Virginia, yet espoused gradualism as the means to that end. They hoped to effect a change of heart among their proslavery neighbors by doggedly but calmly making the case for public education as an antidote to prejudice, and modernization as an antidote to northern Virginia’s economic decline.

Tolerance for such arguments among slaveholders declined dramatically in the 1840s and 1850s, but Samuel Janney kept up his campaign, writing articles as “A Virginian” so as to emphasize his southernness, while touting the benefits of free labor over slave labor. Tellingly, one of Janney’s initiatives was to seek repeal of the 1806 law that required manumitted blacks to leave the state within their first year of freedom; Janney held that every person had the right to live in his or her native place, and he thereby recognized slaves as fellow Virginians.

Activists such as Janney drew aid and inspiration from Quaker women, whose public authority was amplified over the course of the antebellum period. Crothers notes that Quakers were pioneers in advancing the doctrine of female moral superiority that was at the heart of domesticity; and pioneers, too, in drawing out the radical implications [End Page 129] of that doctrine. The rigorous education available to women at Friends’ schools instilled confidence, which Quaker women then translated into their own work as teachers of whites and of African Americans, as elders in meetings, and as ministers on the traveling circuit. Women were at the forefront of the Friends’ campaign against slavery, and female Quakers in Virginia, Crothers argues, rejected the “hierarchical social vision of white southerners, who identified racial and gender inequalities as interlocked pillars of southern life” (189). But for women no less than men, their very ethos of tolerance served to restrain their activism. Radicalism...