- Free Spirits: Spiritualism, Republicanism, and Radicalism in the Civil War Era by Mark A. Lause
In 1848, sisters Katie and Maggie Fox claimed that their house was chased by ghosts. The public reaction initiated the spiritualist movement, which quickly spread and became a curiosity of mid-nineteenth-century America. Spiritualists believed in the ability of ordinary people to contact the spirits of the dead in the afterlife, thus challenging orthodox Christian faith. In Free Spirits, Mark A. Lause examines "the impact of spiritualism as a movement on the social and political course of the nation in a particularly critical period of American history" (2). He argues that the movement's popularity reflected a growing support for political and social equality in Civil War era North: "A generation before Karl Marx's socialism presented itself as a scientific approach to human affairs, spiritualism offered a strangely rational intellectual challenge to the fundamental hierarchies of civilization" (90). Spiritualists opposed slavery and the "slave power," racial and gender inequality, and the rise of capitalism. [End Page 431] They continued Thomas Paine's deism as well as the early socialist theories of British Robert Owen and French Charles Fourier. The book examines the connection between spiritualism and northern political culture from 1848 to the Civil War's end.
Throughout the book, Lause argues that the spiritualist movement reflected radically egalitarian assumptions. In addition, he also suggests that the movement influenced the rise of radicalism in the North. He contends that the movement's growth was inextricably linked with the rise of the Republican Party. Spiritualism began to flower in 1854, when the party was established, and both movements continued to grow simultaneously and in the same regions, namely "places where people sought answers to the questions raised by the Kansas crisis and the Dred Scott decision." The spiritualist belief in determinism found an "almost messianic expression in the rapid emergence of a mass party movement and its aftermath" (43). Lause's analysis establishes that spiritualism contained radically egalitarian assumptions, which intensified in the 1850s and 1860s. After the war's outbreak spiritualists embraced the Union's cause as mystical. As the war progressed, spiritualists developed a "radical new egalitarian sensibility," which would manifest itself in a governmental protection of its citizens' equal rights (106). In the war's aftermath spiritualists came to hope that "war for liberty … would further foster the equality of nonwhites, women, and working people" (124). Lause notes that wartime radicalism influenced Republicans as well, but while they quickly backed away from radical movements, "the spiritualists persisted" (123).
However, Lause's argument for spiritualist influence on northern radicalism is less persuasive. Discussing the Republican Party's formation, he writes, "Spiritualism provided the third-party insurgency that became the Republican Party, a deeper open-ended theology of 'free labor,' and a deep faith in the national rebirth of the second American Revolution" (37). He devotes an entire chapter to Lincoln's ties to spiritualism. Elsewhere, he argues that some of the leading critics of the Kansas-Nebraska Act "included senators with ties to spiritualism themselves or through their families." Lause lists several senators, but the corresponding endnote references a speech by only one of these, Charles Sumner, which a spiritualist journal reprinted in 1853 (37, 176). However, Sumner originally gave the speech in 1848, and the journal merely offered excerpts. As Lause explains in the prologue, spiritualism's promoters sought to portray it as a national movement. This might explain why they wanted to appropriate national political leaders as supporters (16–18). Lause's other examples mainly consist of local Republican leaders, such as Portland politician Joseph Blake Hall (123–24).
If spiritualists wanted to create the appearance of a large movement, we might ask whether their own reports are a reliable indicator of their actual growth. In his discussion of the subject, Lause mainly relies on contemporary reports in spiritualist journals. When he suggests that there was a causation between the rise of spiritualism and the...