Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Liberal Visions of Reconstruction: Lydia Maria Child's a Romance of the Republic and George Washington Cable's the Grandissimes

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Liberal Visions of Reconstruction: Lydia Maria Child's a Romance of the Republic and George Washington Cable's the Grandissimes

Article excerpt

You ought to ... make some other arrangement, or presently you, too, will be ... under the shadow of the Ethiopian.

--The Grandissimes

When Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 8, 1865, what has since been labeled the first "modern war" had come to a sobering conclusion. At a cost much higher than expected by either of the warring parties, some old and tenacious issues were finally resolved. As the historian David Potter puts it, "slavery was dead, secession was dead, and six hundred thousand men were dead." (1) Yet, despite Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, and the Supreme Court's subsequent affirmation of "an indestructible Union," what would prove to be the most volatile issue gripping postwar America had been left unresolved. (2) Observed Philadelphia lawyer Sidney George Fisher in 1866: "It seems our fate never to get rid of the Negro question. No sooner have we abolished slavery than a party, which seems [to] be growing in power, proposes Negro suffrage, so that the problem--What shall we do with the Negro--seems as far from being settled as ever." (3)

While Lincoln's inaugural admonition "to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves" seemed to have been embraced almost universally, profound disagreement prevailed as to the precise nature of this "just peace" and the practical means by which "nationalization" could or should be accomplished. Where white supremacists such as Thomas Nelson Page contended that the "disfranchisement" of the "Negro" was "for the permanent good of both races," radical black activists such as Frederick Douglass demanded the unrestricted inclusion of "the Negro in the body politic," warning that "if black men have no rights in the eyes of the white men, of course the whites cannot have any in the eyes of the blacks. The result is a war of the races, and the annihilation of all proper human relations." (4)

Amidst this polarized debate between old-school white supremacists and newly energized black activists, white authors writing in the Anglo-American humanist tradition, with its deep roots in the abolitionist movement, found themselves in an uneasy double bind. On the one hand, they clearly recognized the legitimacy of the demands for "unrestricted" racial equality and a truly egalitarian society. On the other hand, however, they also perceived the necessity of asserting the undiminished moral and political leadership of their own liberal white middle class. Tarnished by the dehumanizing experience of slavery, "bourgeois humanism," to apply Georg Lukacs' analysis, had to reaffirm itself as both the source and the standard bearer of social progress. (5)

Prior to the Civil War, bourgeois liberals had habitually professed social progressiveness through their embrace of more or less radical abolitionist tenets and a firm commitment to the free market economy, which was said to reveal a fundamental "harmony of interests" across class and race lines. Of course, in light of growing labor unrest in the industrialized North, such outspoken agitation against chattel slavery and ringing endorsements of the free market were hardly void of self-interest. As David Brion Davis has shown within the British context, liberal denunciations of slavery "opened new sources of moral prestige for the dominant social class, helped to define a participatory role for middle class activism, and looked forward to the universal goal of compliant, loyal, and self-disciplined workers." (6) Still, the white abolitionists' rejection of racialist thinking and allegiance to democratic universalism certainly boded well for the four million blacks who escaped bondage after the war. In the fall of 1865, George William Curtis, former abolitionist circuit speaker and since 1863 editor-in-chief of Harper's Weekly, augured that America's "Good Fight" would soon result in "the total overthrow of the spirit of caste" by reminding his readers that the "Government of the United States was made by men of all races and all colors, not for white men, but for the refuge and defense of men. …

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