Women, Slavery, and Politics

I’m still at the Vermont Historical Center this week, working my way through the diary of Augusta Merrill Bickford who, in 1848-1849, attended the Bradford Female Seminary in Bradford, MA. Her richly detailed account of daily life at a women’s school is a rare find, but in this season of presidential primaries, I am especially struck by Augusta’s interest in politics.

In 1848, Augusta was just 19 years old. She could not vote. Nobody really cared what she had to say. As a middle class white woman she might eventually have some pull in the community as a teacher, through a church, or within a women’s club, but at that moment in her life she barely existed before the law. Yet the fact that she cared about the future of her nation teaches us lessons both historical and practical.

1848 was an election year, with a contest between Zachary Taylor running as a Whig, Lewis Cass running as a Democrat, and Martin Van Buren on the Free Soil ticket. Much was at stake. The Mexican War, concluded in February 1848, brought vast territories into the United States including California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona. The possibilities for settlement ignited the American imagination while stoking the fires of conflict. Who would settle this land and when? Would new states allow slavery? Should the federal government respect the rights of Native Americans and Mexicans?

These seem like important questions for important men. You might remember I reflected on this very issue last August, wondering how women responded to the debate. One would not expect a 19-year-old female student in Massachusetts to care. But she did. And she was not alone.

Throughout the fall of 1848, just months after Elizabeth Cady Stanton hosted the Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, Augusta and her peers discussed whether women should be able to vote. Some believed they should unconditionally, others thought women should be made to wait until the age of 30. Only one, the lone Democrat at a school where “all the girls are whigs” (emphasis in original), thought women should stay out of politics. The teachers encouraged the discussion among young women. Augusta reported that a former principal, a Miss H–, was not only “well acquainted with the course of the political world,” but so devoted to the Whig party that “if she thought there was one drop of democratic blood in her little finger, she would have it cut off.”

Not content to simply talk politics, the women at the academy translated their interest into action. On November 6, the night before the presidential election, Augusta opened her “journal to write, under the influence of strong excitement which has pervaded the usually quiet town of Bradford. The excitement arises from — not murder, robbery, forgery, theft, or such like, but from politics which has even entered the school room, and persuaded the girls even to show the most extravagant demonstrations of party feeling.”

The Free Soil and Whig parties conducted processions through town and villagers showed their support by illuminating their homes, or placing candles in the windows. When the Free Soil party marched through, the women of Bradford extinguished their lights and refused to cheer, but an hour later, when the Whig procession approached, the young women lit up their boarding house as the marchers brought:

“…music, torches, rockets, flags flying, and men cheering…  Rockets were sent up and all colored lights, which presented an enchanting appearance… I, with others went to a house near which they were to pass, and stood with them in the yard. When they came by, cries of ‘Cheer the ladies,’ ‘Three cheers for the ladies,’ and deafening ‘hurrahs,’ rent the heavens concave and returned the echoing sound. But the funniest of the whole, was the ‘rearguard: of this miniature Mexican army, which was composed of little boys, scarcely the height of their mamma’s dressing tables, who echoed all of the ‘hurrahs’, and prolonged all the cheers, and although they have not yet learned to keep perfect time, yet it seems they can scream for ‘Taylor and Fillmore’ with something of the spirit of their fathers, who went before them. They are what their fathers are, having no principles of their own on which to act.”

August was not swept up in the reverie. As her sympathies lay with the Free Soil party, she criticized both the marchers and the women who supported them. She wrote, “My whole heart and soul should be carried away with this party, but if their candidate was not a slaveholder. General Taylor’s whig principles cannot outweigh that disgraceful fact, and the value of the slave territory he has helped acquire cannot fit him for the Presidency.” And with that, a bell rang signaling Augusta to set down her pen and go to bed. She could write no more.

Here is where I too paused in my note taking.

With our current presidential primaries unfolding with similar ostentatious displays, Augusta reminds us to stop and think about the qualities we truly need in a leader. Taylor, aka “Old Rough and Ready,” wasn’t even all that interested in politics. He ran on a vague platform that actually rejected many Whig ideologies and capitalized his reputation as war hero who realized the dream of Manifest Destiny. People liked the idea of him but they didn’t seem to think ahead to what Taylor’s policies might mean for the emerging sectional crisis.

Yet a 19-year-old woman thought it through. Perhaps not in an entirely sophisticated way, but she had an inkling. And she wasn’t thinking of slavery as a moral or religious issue, but a political one within the power of the government to control.

When discussing historical figures who either promoted racism or failed to challenge racial inequality I often hear, “Yeah, but everybody racist back then.” I reply, by “everybody” you mean white people, and by “back then” you imply that racism is a natural, organic part of our social evolution. That’s just wrong. Expressing racist ideas is a choice individuals make, no matter their upbringing or historical context. It’s also complicated. You may have noticed that Augusta thought the mock Mexican army made up of little boys was “funny.” She abhorred slavery but still participated in dehumanizing another group. At the very least she recognized that the children were simply mirroring the adults’ behaviors, without “principles of their own on which to act.”

We’re wrapping up Black History Month and moving into Women’s History Month, when we take the time to recognize that there were people back then who knew better. And Augusta shows us that such thinking was not reserved for great thinkers like Sojourner Truth or Susan B. Anthony (who are also complicated historical figures). In our current season of presidential primaries, it is important to challenge ourselves to see beyond the antics of candidates and really think through how we want our country to be.

wp-1456867489046.jpgWell, tomorrow is my last day with the Vermont History Center and on Friday I head home for some R&R. I am really going to miss the crew here in Barre (pronounced Barry), who have been so incredibly helpful and kind.

We’ll end with two tidbits that are too good to leave out.

First, we can be glad we live in an era of yard signs and twitter to express our support for candidates, as illuminations could be dangerous. The day after the parades, Augusta wrote: “It seems the illumination came very near doing some damage last night, for the curtains to Miss Hasseltine’s windows caught fire, and came near setting fire to the house itself, window sashes burnt, panes of glass cracked, and window frames tallow.” Yikes.

Second, I don’t want to give the impression that the political discussions around the dinner table at Bradford were always civil. On November 9, 1848, Augusta recounted a conversation about the fact that Northampton, MA had voted ‘Free Soil’ by a large majority. When someone pointed out that were 50 democrats in the town, one of the teachers quipped back “You mean fifty fools!” The one Democrat in the room “looked steadfastly on her plate, and went gravely on with her eating.”

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