Free Soil, Free Labor, Free… Women?

A page from the notebook of Eliza Smith, JFA '1847, with detailed class notes from a lecture on

Evidence of women thinking: a page from the notebook of Eliza Smith, JFA ‘1847, with detailed class notes from a lecture on “Moral Philosophy.” From the Khalaf Al Habtoor Archives.

I’ve been doing a bit of reading on the development of the political and economic thought of nineteenth century Illinois residents, where diverse peoples from New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the upcountry South came together with very different ways of thinking about family, work, agriculture, land use, and politics. For all the usefulness of these books, however, I keep wondering, “Where are the women?”

Finding the women in these debates is not easy. We’re reaching the 50-year mark on the advent of women’s history as a field and its easy to feel satisfied with the riches we’ve gleaned, but every now and again I’m reminded of the fact that as a historian I’m still talking about how women shaped their world as women. Very few people stop to think about how men shaped their world as men. In particular, I’m thinking about men’s decisions that shaped the frontier in the antebellum period.

Most recently, I finished James L. Huston’s, The British Gentry, the Southern Planter, and the Northern Family Farmer: Agriculture and Sectional Antagonism in North America (Louisiana State University Press, 2015), in which he presents a compelling new argument that the Free Labor ideology so accepted by US Historians had little to do with an industrializing, urban North. Rather, the roots of the sectional crisis were largely rural. Huston takes to task historian Eric Foner’s Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1995), by arguing that:

“Free labor ideals worked in rural America; they only partially applied to urban areas and in some cases, did not apply at all. The values of independence, individualism, hard work, and self-control had one outcome in the countryside – the survival of the family farm… Family farmers wanted land carved into small plots while plantation owners wanted – insisted – that they be able to procure large holdings. One or the other had to triumph; both could not. So if the question of slavery’s expansion ever came into the political realm, there would be conflict. And that of course is precisely what happened.”

– Huston, p. 205, 212 

Okay, let’s back up and start by defining Free Labor ideology. The basic idea is that individuals have the right to the fruits of their labor, including one’s dignity as well as wages that allow an individual to save, purchase private property, and eventually achieve independence as a property owner. This ideology played an important role in the development of the Republican Party in the late 1850s as politicians debated whether slavery should be permitted in the West. Eric Foner (and many others) emphasized the free labor of wage earners and industrialists, arguing that the industrial North had outpaced a backwards, agrarian South. Huston, on the other hand, tells us that Free Labor is more usefully applied to a framework wherein agrarian systems (family farms vs. plantations) were incompatible because one prized free labor while the other depended on slavery. In other words, the Civil War was born from Americans’ rurality and desire to own land, not from their impulse to industrialize.

Huston argued his point well with a careful reading of historiography and fascinating quantitative research. Even if I take issue with his conclusions here and there, it was an excellent read. In his descriptions of Northern family farming systems, he was careful to include cursory discussions of women’s roles, but I was still struck by the startling absence of women in of the issues adding up to the sectional crisis. This was a man’s debate, shaped by concepts that benefitted men and supported male supremacy. As I finished up the book I was reminded of Deborah Fink’s book Agrarian Women: Wives and Mothers in Rural Nebraska, 1880-1940 (University of North Carolina Press, 1992), in which she asserted that women had no place in the agrarian ideologies that shaped America. Much like Free Labor, romantic agrarianism, as contrived by Thomas Jefferson and applied by generations of reformers and politicians, identified men as independent actors, active citizens, agricultural producers, and heads of households. When women took on roles as reformers, they gained notoriety and spoke in public but never challenged the gendered divisions of labor. Women’s roles as activists were “devoted to establishing the rightful supremacy of the male farmer” (p.21-29).

Fink hit the nail on the head. In romantic agrarianism and Free Labor ideologies, women are identified as dependents. Women’s rights as individuals don’t matter in this context because men’s independence depended on their ability to serve as a head of household, with power over their wives and children. Furthermore, women had no place as agrarians or free laborers because their labors bore no fruit (except for food, clothing, and children, but that’s beside the point). Before mid-century, the law prohibited married women from owning property, keeping their wages, or acting on their own behalf. In other words, under the law women could aspire to very little.

This is a big question I’d like to tackle in American Athena. Women’s lives in the antebellum period were dictated by a separate framework: Republican Motherhood. The idea here that as mothers in a private sphere, women upheld democracy by being obedient wives and educated mothers to the next generation of democratic citizens. But once again, I’m not so sure there wasn’t a covert intention among the teachers at the Jacksonville Female Academy and the other institutions. As Mary Kelley points out in Learning to Stand and Speak: Women, Education, and Public Life in America’s Republic (2008), educated women had options to earn a living through teaching, writing,and publishing. Education was the one and only path for women to earn their own piece of the pie that is the American Dream (Free Labor). I’ll not draw any conclusions yet, but primary sources tell us that even on the frontier, white settlers were highly literate. In the Northwest Ordinances of the 1780s, Thomas Jefferson required every township to make room for a public school, and most small villages at least had a subscription school that taught rudimentary reading and arithmetic. Teaching didn’t become a feminine profession until later in the century, but the roots of that movement sprouted well before the Civil War.

In 1861, British observer Anthony Trollope (son of Frances, quoted in previous posts) noted the power of education in easing class barriers and instilling in the American people a sense of equality. In Wisconsin, he met a farmer who, though poor, read newspapers and could chat at ease about British politics. Trollope wrote:

“He astonishes you by the extent of his knowledge… He is dirty and perhaps squalid. His children are sick and life is without comforts. His wife is pale, and you think you see shortness of life written in the faces of all the family. But over and above it all there is an independence which sits gracefully on their shoulders, and teaches you at the first glance that the man has a right to assume himself to be your equal.”

– From North America (Bernhard Tauchnitz, 1862), 1: 203-204.

Trollope said nothing of the farmer’s wife, but she must have been in the room. She must have had an opinion on this British invader. In fact, women were often better read than their husbands because unlike boys whose physical strength was needed on the farm, girls spent time in school at the family’s expense. The women in American Athena certainly had opinions on slavery, abolition, the sectional crisis, and a host of political, social, and economic issues. Unlike men, their debates took place behind closed doors. They were rarely written down. Giving speeches in public was not only improper, but scandalous. Yet even if the doors were closed, that had to have talked (for example, in the previous post we have the governor’s wife swapping ginger snap recipes with the president of the state abolition society). They built institutions, schools, and clubs to facilitate those discussions. So what did they say?

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