“The Better Angels of Our Nature”

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The historiography regarding the political contributions of white women and the African slave population (referred to as people of color in this paper), on the subject of human rights during the Civil War antebellum era, 1781-1860, is now vast, but it was at one time considered to be a less important subject as this group of people’s contributions were rarely if ever included in the official government records of their time, “the gap between national, political history, social history, described by Ellis in terms of subjects of kinds of people, becomes a rigid chronological barrier as well when self-described historians of the founding era define a brief,  Camelot-like early republic, when high politics ruled the day – a last bastion, apparently, of history as the interaction of great men.”[1]  It was not until the advent of poststructuralists and Marxist historians, newest political historians, looking into the importance of their contributions to history that the works of these grassroots activists began to be taken seriously, “in terms of people and in terms of time, lay struggles to demarcate the identity of the citizen, the modes of political action, and changing nature of the political itself.”[2] With regard to the women and people of color who contributed to the history of the era, this paper will focus on the historical perceptions of this group in the antebellum years, 1837-1854, prior to the Civil War. The coalescence of writers, speakers and people who took action during this era, such as Sojourner Truth, an activist for women’s rights and abolition of slavery; Harriet Beecher Stowe, a fiction writer and petitioner for abolition; the Grimké sisters, abolition and women’s right activists, and Frederick Douglass, former slave and self-educated speaker on the subject of equal rights, all helped focus the ideas and consolidate the moral and ethical messages behind the complaints that reached back to the founders with regard to freedom and equal rights for all people, and the historiography that brought their contributions to light. Stowe, Douglass, the Grimké sisters and Sojourner Truth’s lives all intersect in that they represented a portion of the population that had little to no political power in the conventional sense. They were politically underrepresented by their government and in society, they were tools for use as the society needed, but otherwise their role was to be seen and not heard. They could not vote, hold office, or even speak publicly in a political venue: “…the male delegates decided to permit the women to stay inside Freemasons’ Hall, where the convention would take place. But the women would be required to sit in the balcony, separate and apart from the men. The women must sit in silence. And to insure that their presence would not distract the men from the difficult questions they would debate, the women must sit silently in the balcony behind a curtain.”[3] Their history would have been forgotten if not for the writings of later historians with more diverse perspectives on what, and who, made up history.  The common thread that connected white women and the African slave population was a strong faith in the religious/moral beliefs that ran through the whole of the antebellum society at that time in history, and they used this common thread to make their voices heard. All had come to the same conclusion, that all humans should be treated equally and that through their words and actions they should be able to achieve this peacefully. While white women had social purpose and a degree of respect in society, their contribution to history was not fully appreciated by earlier historians who did not see them as having important political influence during this antebellum time frame. Earlier historians did not understand the power that white women and people of color had through the shared common thread with most people in the country: religious moral teachings. This general acceptance of white women and people of color (as defined above) as essentially physical and social tools whose writings, speeches and activism was not particularly important to the events leading up to the Civil War was brought into clear focus by the work of later historians whose scope of what elements might be considered history, gives these people greater consideration by encompassing not just the official records of the past, but also the less traditional records such as diaries, letters and the arts to give a better picture of their overall historical contribution.


Primary source analysis:

There were many activists, speaking and writing to affect the fight for human rights during the Civil War antebellum era, but few that made such an impact on the world as Harriet Beecher Stowe with her 1854 fictional book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Stowe was raised in “a prominent religious family” and following the tenets of faith, she felt it was her duty to speak out against slavery, “the heroic element was strong in me, having come down by ordinary generation from long line of Puritan ancestry, and just now it made me long to do something, I knew not what: to fight for my country, or to make some declaration on my own account.”[4] She wrote to politicians in an attempt to affect change through her words. Stowe’s fictional book is a tale of morality that might not have been considered significant in the events of history by historians interested in the political elites and official records, but in this book, she managed to find the pulse, or steer a direction among those in the grassroots equal rights and abolitionists movements. Her book with regard to white women and people of color had the effect of humanizing people of color and raising the awareness that women had moral power through religious equality with men. In her book, a man of color is the peaceful, thought-provoking and self-sacrificing hero whose faith—the common thread and equalizer of all humankind, and through a white woman with a vision of a better future through her faith, deliver Stowe’s message. Stowe’s message was a moral one, but it was also an indictment of the political system of government that claimed that all men were created equal, but then immorally enslaved some while claiming to protect them. Her book is about people seeking equality and justice under that law, which had been promised but not delivered, through peaceful means. The white women and people of color in her book are used and abused because an unjust system of laws and the social structure of the day sanction it. While her book was primarily one aimed at the abolition of slavery, it also showed women as being socially unequal to men in society, but having some power through the voice of morality related to the religious beliefs of their society.

While her intended audience was local citizens in the North and the South, the book became a worldwide phenomenon that shaped the course of the discussion about the immorality of slavery. “Not the novel spur the sale of Bibles throughout the world, but it was widely seen as a new Bible, with its ideal expression of religion for the era.”[5] It changed the tide of political opinion and gave white women and people of color the power to speak up on the subject of human rights as the book showed that it was their moral imperative to do so. It made women and people of color no longer just powerless tools. As President Lincoln said of her, when Stowe visited him in the White House to urge him to sign the Emancipation Proclamation “Is this the little woman who made this great war!”[6]

Stowe had tapped into a common thread among people who believed in equal justice for all and who believed that slavery was immoral. She was speaking out on behalf of all people affected by political powerlessness, such as people of color and white women. Her book is a few from the perspective of the common people and in fact makes them the heroes against unjust laws. The power of her book to affect the lives of so many people and to change minds on the subject of slavery is the reason why voices such as hers, even though they are from the realm of fiction, must be considered by historians, as fiction writers are the people of their times and their works are accepted by the populace because in some way they are able to tap into the pulse of people of their times, or into the pulse of human nature more generally.

Historically, Stowe book echoed the speeches and writings of many who came before her in this same decade such as Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass and the Grimke sisters. She wrote her book during the time when enslavement of Africans was legal in the Southern states and there was a worldwide evangelical crusade. “Uncle Thom’s Cabin was central to redefining American democracy on a more egalitarian basis. It helped rectify social injustice by affirming fairness and empowerment for marginalized or oppressed groups.”[7]  Sojourner Truth, an emancipated slave, women’s rights activist, was convinced God had called her to speak against slavery. Marius Robinson, who attended her 1851 speech, at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio printed the speech as he transcribed it June 21, 1851, and printed it in an issue of the Anti-Slavery Bugle. In this short but powerful speech (sometimes titled “Ain’t I a Woman?”), she compares herself to a useful tool stating “I am a woman’s rights. [sic] I have heard much about the sexes being equal. I can carry as much as any man, and I am as strong as any man that is now….You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much.”[8]

Grimke sisters were brought up in a prominent religious family whose writings are also echoed in Stowe’s book. Again, there is a religious connection to their cause. The sisters began publishing letters on abolition of slavery in 1837 and letters on the equality of the sexes. They were not women to let the status of women as social tools stand unchallenged, even after members of the Congressional General Association denounced women like them “who strayed outside of societal gender roles.”[9] Stowe’s book not only echoes Frederick Douglass’ speech on the 4th of July 1852 at Corinthian Hall, it even references Beecher’s brother, Henry Ward Beecher. In the speech, Douglass states that Americans “pride yourselves on your Democratic institutions, while you yourselves consent to be the mere tools and body-guards of the tyrants of Virginia and Carolina.” While he is not referring to white women specifically or to people of color, he is connecting the lack of motivation on the part of the religious community to act, just as Stowe does in her book. He states it, consistent with the evangelical crusade, by quoting Albert Barnes who put it best, “There is no power out of the church that could sustain slavery an hour, if it were not sustained in it.”[10]


Secondary sources –state of historical writing on the subject:

In histories such as Beyond the Founders, and in biographies and autobiographies written or transcribed by others (as in Thrut’s case as she was illiterate), and even works written by non-historians such as English professor David S. Reynolds in his biography Mightier than the Sword that explores in great depth the religious character of Stowe’s life that led her write Uncle Tom’s Cabin, would add tremendously to tracking from the grassroots level, the underlying trends and movements within the general non-elite population that came from the bottom up and changed the face of history despite the machinations of the political class and the cultural elites best efforts.

In Beyond the Founders, Zaggari, the author of “Women and Party Conflict in the Early Republic,” explains that past historians saw the non-voting groups of Americans as powerless and without influence in the affairs of politics and government. They appeared to see politics as the purview of the white men. However, Zaggari notes that over time, with the inclusions of, and understanding about, the social order of that society, women and those engaged in entrepreneurship had more political influence than it had been previously thought: “through a variety of informal notes, processes, and symbolic actions can be considered genuinely ‘political’ in the sense that they influenced the structure of political power or the dynamic of political action”[11] Poststructuralist historical writers such as Zaggari who examine the cultural, social, political and economic history, allow readers to see the contributions to history of women and people of color from this the era that is not as apparent in the writings of empiricist historians. In Beyond the Founders, and in Slavery’s Capitalism, one of the primary questions/debates brought by numerous historical authors is the consequences of the choices of material selected and rejected by historians and how this gives an incomplete picture of this early pre-civil war era. Empiricist historians, for example, tended to not include how people of color (in this instance, referring to the African slave population) and the white women, (one of the non-voting and thus unrepresented portion of the population), influenced politics in their histories, according to these poststructuralist authors. Thus, they missed the opportunity to examine all aspects of the interconnectedness that economic development and social order had in this era, explaining how the empiricist historians appear to have simply ignored the power and influence of these historically underrepresented groups, and thus, important facets in the sphere of political influence they had.

Also, Steve Edwards, article titled “A Symposium on the American Civil War” not only compares the writings of numerous historians, authors, but he also argues with them about their view of the War and how their theories relate to Marxist theory. Edward is showing where these writers ideas originated and explains how it either relates to or does not relate to, Marx’s work. These historians have done a great deal of research connecting the social class structure to the economy of the capitalist world market and its connection to the North and South pre-war problems to produce records of what led to the Civil War. They recognize the underlying power of society from the “bottom up” (much of which is not found in objectives facts) research had as great effect leading to the Civil War as did the economics of capitalism and slave labor. Edwards looks at Marx’s writings and how these were at the core of the Civil War and the elements of the bottom up revolution can be seen in the writing of these historians even though it is not pointed out.

Morality may have been used to justify the economic conflict that led to the Civil War, but the underlying causes and the justifications for continuing slavery of both the black population and white women and children were bound more tightly to economics than to morality that dominated these recent historiographers/historians’ attentions. Whereas historiography of empiricists whose writings were based on formal documents and the writings of the political elites from the era indicate that they were primarily interested in the history discoverable through government records, the writings of politicians and the observations of those they considered to be the cultural elites. Consequently, they were not substantially interested in the workings of the church or in the minds of those influencing it. Their ideas of historically appropriate material did not come from the grassroots, common people. It was only later on that poststructuralists discovered the writings of the non-elite class and began incorporating their contributions into the historical record, via unofficial documents, autobiographies, diaries and letters, and oral records that included some material indicating the religious rational in the fight against slavery and for equal rights for women. However, the underlying religious component does not seem to be of great interest to this group of historians either. This could be due to a bias that religion, possibly not that important in their own lives, was also not that important in the past actions of the average person. On behalf of the poststructuralists, they did bring forward the previously unconsidered works of writers such as Douglass, and the narratives of ex-slaves such as Sojourner Truth. Reynolds’ biography on Stowe, Mightier than the Sword, is a great example of the broader history approach that poststructuralist style historical work, and newest historians could be favored by the style and analyses of Stowe’s life, genealogy, and the impact of her book through the book itself and through the letters by and to her, as well as accounts of events in her life by others who lived at the time.  Probably due to the author’s background as an English professor, not only does Reynolds discusses all aspects of Stowe’s life, but he also supplies an analysis of the languages she uses and its impact on present day life in the form of films that contain themes from her book. He further notes the connections from Stowe’s book to the more recent history—continuing the idea that her writing affected lives even beyond her own time—in that Martin Luther King’s died a martyr, as did the characters of Stowe’s book, for a vision of America that duplicates Stowe’s religious and philosophical ideals formed around the evangelical ideas proposed by such as Garrison, Wesley, Finney and Alcott who advocated perfectionism and postmillennialism leading to Stowe describing her own “visions” which are also pivotal sections in her book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin Parables and fictions have not only been a tradition that hands ideas down in history, it acknowledges so many aspects of human nature that may have a greater impact on the human psyche than all of the words of politicians and elites. It is apparent in the writings of the ancient Greeks, the Bible, and Shakespeare. There are universal themes that when given a voice, have the power to drown out facts and reason. Great words that inspire don’t always come from the top down; they are in fact more likely to come from the bottom up.

To give credit to the power of fictions such as Stowe’s book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Reynolds cites in the Playboy interviews given by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King to Alex Haley, (author of Roots) espousing polar opposite views on the subject of Christianity. Haley, in his own novel, captures these two dissenting viewpoints of his era and uses them to depict the views of a past era Haley’s novel, although it has “anti-Christian anti-white, black-separatists fury of Malcolm X” states Reynolds, also includes the Christian, integrationist vision similar to Martin Luther King” stating that it is “…close in spirit to Uncle Tom’s Cabin with which it comes to share an integrationist Christian perspective”[12]

Reynolds’ biographical history on Stowe and her consider the book’s growing popularity that sparked plays, advertising, cartoon, silent film, and newspaper commentary, “a writer from the Richmond Enquirer wonted in 1857 that not long ago few would have bothered to apologize for slavery, but now long paeans to it appeared in all kinds of writings…we have indeed a pro-slavery literature” but that the South had “produced no romance quite equal to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Reynolds acknowledges that through her writing, Stowe was able to connect with John Fremont running on the anti-slavery Republican ticket in 1854. Fremont wrote of her book, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin, thundering along the pathway of reform, is doing a magnificent work on the public mind. Wherever if goes, prejudice is disarmed, opposition is removed, and the hearts of all are touched with a new and strange feeling, to which they before were strangers.”[13] He shows the power of her fiction over the words of the elites who tried and were successful for a while, to drone out voices such as hers.

One of the few historians who discussed the grassroots bottom up movement in the history leading up to the Civil War, was Karl Marx. His focus was more on the grassroots movement, associated with discontented workers than on the religious aspects of the abolition movement. His discussion of the historical events during this era disregards religions’ role in society, and while he personally wrote about the need to abolish slavery, his own writing on the subject of this era discusses the structure of capitalism and how slavery fits into that system in an analytical rather than in a social way. It is a different perspective from that of the other poststructuralists, as Marxist historical writing sought to look at the structures of society and the responses by the populace to these structures more than at the cultural and social aspects that influenced history.

Political philosopher, David Hume, on the philosophical theory of government, argues that public is the enormous power that can make changes. He points out, “nothing more surprising” than “to see the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and to observe the implicit submission with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we enquire by what means this wonder is brought about, we shall find, that as force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. This therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular,”  cited and studied in Noam Chomsky work, which relates to Marxist historians view that there was substantial historical information that can be gleaned from the general population that may not be evident in the writings of the political elites or found in their documents, yet these relatively underrepresented people do have a profound effect on history and clearly did so in the voices of women like Stowe, Truth, and former slaves such as Douglass.

Where the field needs to go:

Inequalities led the common person, like Stowe and the Grimke sisters and Douglass to voice opinions and act. Several authors picked up on these themes and exploited them in their writings. It is possible that there are indications of these opinions and concerns in, for instance, in what passages are marked in family Bibles by those in the era under consideration. Seeing the differences in what is marked by readers from the North versus the South, for example, could be quite revealing. Maybe studying genealogies that could trace families and confirm historical events and people’s influence on history plus using the 6 degree of separation would be a useful strategy as well.

The interesting and relatively unexplored direction to look in order to discover the roots of the abolition movement as well as the struggle by women for equal rights, would be inside the philosophical changes or differences among the Christian churches, and individual genealogies. There is an agreement among historians that prior to and after the Civil War, an evangelical crusade had begun within some Christian churches that led to a call for the abolition of slavery, but there is no real analysis of what philosophical changes occurred within the churches that caused some Christian churches to challenge the status quo with regard to slavery and other Christian churches to use the same faith based teachings to explain away the evils of slavery. This would be a fascinating path to explore further for a deeper understanding of how one faith became led to such divisiveness.

Also, there is a tremendous untapped wealth of knowledge that can be gleaned from the writings of the fiction authors who seemed to have their fingers on the pulse of society in a way that the politicians did not, such as Stowe, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain or Hawthorne. They all pointed out the shortcomings of religion as a dogmatic practice as opposed to religion as an internal mechanism that led to doing good in the world. There is some information on the subject of dogmatic practices in some churches versus other and which churches were more liberal-minded and why. It is fairly well documented that Quakers and Methodists were instrumental in the Underground Railroad, and that Southern churches were not.

There are four outlets for acquiring knowledge about previously underdeveloped areas in the historical sphere, and specifically about discovering the initial root source of religious trends: religious histories, works of fiction that deal with matters of religion, and undiscovered family histories in the form of diaries, journals, family Bibles, and medical records that might be accessed through the Internet. The Internet can become a source of historical documentation in the philosophical and a religious sphere that was is a non-traditional source.



There are three views sampled in this paper. Among earlier empiricist style historians, there is little consideration of white women people of color (as defined in this paper) or of their contributions to history except in a broad sense as they tended to focus more heavily on the writings and official documents of the political elites. It is later historians, such as poststructuralists and Marxists historians who bring into focus the contributions of lesser known contributors to history such as activist women and people of color through diaries, journals, letters, and speeches, acknowledging the power of arts and grassroots movements to affect history through alternative means of communication.

It is possible, also that the separation of church and state, and its development within this country helps to promote the idea that religious philosophy is separate from the rest of our history, and it is somewhat ignored in the description. Despite the fact, that many of the founders were here due to religious/political clashes, others were here for the purpose of profit. Through personal writings of the literate, it might be possible to connect the Biblical passages, they noted, to the differences between the North and South that ended in the collapse of their ability to live cooperatively. This could explain to some extent how religious views, which were the religious and political impetus for some but not all people to come to this country to begin with, ended up being omitted from its history.




[1] Jeffrey L. Pasley, Andre W. Robertson, and David Waldstreicher, eds. Beyond the Founders: New Approaches to the Political History of the Early American Republic. North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004, 2.

[2] Ibid., 3.

[3] Jim R. McClellan, Changing Interpratations of America’s Past: The Pre-Colonial Period Through the Civil War, Volume 1, Dushkin/MacGraw-   Hill, 2000, 286.

[4] Jeffrey L. Pasley, Andre W. Robertson, and David Waldstreicher, eds. Beyond the Founders: New Approaches to the Political History of the Early American Republic. North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004, 5.

[5] David S. Reynolds, Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America. New York: W.W. Norton &Company. 2011, 1.

[6]David S. Reynolds, Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America. New York: W.W. Norton &Company. 2011,  X.

[7] Ibid., XI.

[8] “Amazing Life page”. Sojourner Truth Institute site. Archived from the original on 30 December 2006. Retrieved 28 December 2006, accessed December 16, 2016.

[9] http://www.biography.com/people/sarah-moore-grimk-9321349#abolitinist-and-feminist, accessed December 16, 2016.

[10] http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/bnb.html, accessed December 16, 2016.

[11] Jeffrey L. Pasley, Andre W. Robertson, and David Waldstreicher, eds. Beyond the Founders: New Approaches to the Political History of the Early American Republic. North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004, 108.

[12] David S. Reynolds, Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America. New York: W.W. Norton &Company. 2011, 266-             268.

[13] [13] David S. Reynolds, Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America. New York: W.W. Norton &Company. 2011,     150.




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