Free Hearts and Free Homes: Gender and American Antislavery Politics

Free Hearts and Free Homes: Gender and American Antislavery Politics

by Michael D. Pierson

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By exploring the intersection of gender and politics in the antebellum North, Michael Pierson examines how antislavery political parties capitalized on the emerging family practices and ideologies that accompanied the market revolution.

From the birth of the Liberty party in 1840 through the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln in 1860, antislavery parties


By exploring the intersection of gender and politics in the antebellum North, Michael Pierson examines how antislavery political parties capitalized on the emerging family practices and ideologies that accompanied the market revolution.

From the birth of the Liberty party in 1840 through the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln in 1860, antislavery parties celebrated the social practices of modernizing northern families. In an era of social transformations, they attacked their Democratic foes as defenders of an older, less egalitarian patriarchal world. In ways rarely before seen in American politics, Pierson says, antebellum voters could choose between parties that articulated different visions of proper family life and gender roles.

By exploring the ways John and Jessie Benton Fremont and Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln were presented to voters as prospective First Families, and by examining the writings of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lydia Maria Child, and other antislavery women, Free Hearts and Free Homes rediscovers how crucial gender ideologies were to American politics on the eve of the Civil War.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"[A] beautifully written volume. . . . Meticulous attention to detail. . . . Insightful readings of antislavery fiction"
NC Historical Review

"Pierson's argument that political affiliation was not only based on ethnic and religious beliefs but also on conceptions of family and gender is a very important one. This book will interest those who are interested in antebellum America as well as those who are seeking new ways of thinking abut politics and party loyalty.
(Julie Roy Jeffrey, author of The Great Silent Army of Abolitionism: Ordinary Women in the Antislavery Movement)"

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The University of North Carolina Press
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Gender and American Culture
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Free Hearts and Free Homes

Gender and American Antislavery Politics
By Michael D. Pierson

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2003 University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8078-2782-6


October 16, 1856, was a beautiful fall day in the Hudson River Valley. The air was light and chilly and the foliage a golden brown. From the top of Forbus Hill on the outskirts of Poughkeepsie, people could scan the valley until the landscape dissolved into a shroud of blue haze that obscured the horizon line. Picturesque sailboats decorated the Hudson. To the North and East of Forbus Hill, there were still-green fields and groves, thriving villages, and a rolling countryside.

At least 15,000 people convened on Forbus Hill that afternoon to hear speakers during the Republican Party's Mass Meeting of the River Counties. Starting at 2:30, the crowd listened to speeches about what legislative steps the Republicans would take if the party won the election. For three hours the speakers, led by United States Senator Henry Wilson and including German-speaking orators, entertained an audience jammed before them on a six-acre plot of land. Widely disseminated by speakers and by partisan newspapers, the legislative positions of Republican politicians such as the ones who spoke at Poughkeepsie have been studied extensively by historians. Typically, scholars have explained what the Republican Party stood for by looking at political platforms, editorials, and speeches; they have focused on issues such as the extension of slavery, immigration, tariffs, the rights of free blacks, and other matters before Congress and the courts. The high voter turnouts of the antebellum period stemmed, they have argued, from the importance of these issues and the clear choices that the parties offered on them.

But the Mass Meeting of the River Counties and other similar affairs included much more than just the policy statements of the official speakers. By 9 a.m., families began to convene in downtown Poughkeepsie, answering the Republicans' call that the day be "not only a party affair but a holiday and festival for the entire people." Soon, ordinary Republicans paraded through the downtown to the riverfront, where they met steamboats bearing delegations from New York City, Brooklyn, and Albany. Winding their way back through the city, the parade, now accompanied by glee clubs and bands, reached Forbus Hill only just in time for the scheduled start of the speeches. Throughout the town, streamers, flags, and banners hung from windows and stretched across Poughkeepsie's streets. From doors and balconies, women and children cheered the parade's marching men, wagonloads of women, and men on horseback. There was, the New York Daily Times reported, "an indescribable melange of sounds indicative of serious purpose and popular rejoicing."

The planned "grand cavalcade" through the streets helped shape Republican Party political culture long before Senator Wilson was announced to speak. During the hours of prespeech events, the Republican rank and file fashioned their own political culture, one that integrated the shared social and cultural beliefs of antislavery voters. These social and cultural underpinnings of antislavery politics-including its ideas about proper gender roles-have been less thoroughly investigated by historians than the party's positions on congressional legislation.

Undoubtedly, many voters responded to party positions on the issues. For example, Republicans went to great lengths to explain their formulas for blocking the expansion of slavery into Kansas and other western territories. However, some nineteenth-century voters took the label of Republican or Democrat as part of their personal identity, as a lifelong commitment to, and identification with, that party. They often maintained their party identity even in the face of changing candidates, new issues, and occasional policy reversals. This voter behavior suggests that antebellum political parties may have succeeded in identifying themselves with a larger constellation of cultural identities or values that complemented or even transcended the issues or candidates directly before the voters in any given election. For example, historians have shown that certain religious and ethnic groups overwhelmingly supported one specific party. While such partisan allegiance may have had legislative roots-Catholics might have voted Democratic because that party adopted stands on religious freedom and the public school system that Catholics generally approved of-a voter would also reinforce his cultural identity by belonging to a party that incorporated his ethnic or religious group. In this way, parties became linked to certain ethnic identities in ways that included issue-oriented politics but also went beyond that to encompass personal identity. Gender functioned in similar ways; as the antebellum parties expressed opinions about their gender beliefs, voters came to identify themselves with those broad cultural positions in ways that reinforced legislative priorities but also spoke to voters about core issues of identity. This book argues that antebellum Republicans and Democrats articulated cogent, diverse stands on gender roles and family practices, and that many people who assumed a partisan identity did so in part because they understood the party's gender culture and identified themselves with that worldview.

Sex and sex roles were on the minds, for example, of Poughkeepsie Republicans that fine fall day in 1856. Republican women (and the male editors who recorded their views) politicized sex on the signs they carried that day. One group of women demanded "Equal Rights and Free Discussion," an ambiguous statement that could have meant either equal rights for women or for blacks. Either way, this sign associated the Republican Party with women who publicly demanded a more egalitarian society. By reporting favorably on women taking a political stand, the newspapers that included this sign in their coverage recommended a public role for women that was more advanced than that advocated by their Democratic opponents. Another banner carried by women read "Yes, on the 4th of November." "Yes" implied a promise that the women would favorably receive marriage proposals from Republican voters, a linkage of sex and politics that editors especially found irresistible. A final banner was displayed by fourteen women from the town of La Grange. Reporters from all four major New York City Republican newspapers quoted the banner, which read:

no bachelors for us. jessie, free hearts and free homes

By declaring "no bachelors for us," the women repudiated the unmarried Democratic presidential candidate, James Buchanan. Having rejected the bachelor Buchanan, in the second line of the banner the women celebrated Jessie Benton Frémont, the assertive wife of the Republican candidate, John Frémont. The banner's third line, however, goes beyond candidates and into the ideological meaning of the early Republican Party. In a campaign during which the Republicans supported "Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, and Free Speech," these women endorsed "Free Hearts and Free Homes." Their slogan, alluding as it does to aspects of the American gender system ranging from courtship and romance ("Free Hearts") to the power dynamics of families in and out of slavery ("Free Homes"), raised the question of how antislavery politics would reorder the American household. By focusing narrowly on the legislative and economic elements of antislavery politics, historians have missed an important part of the party's meaning. In their rallies, speeches, and campaign documents, the Republicans sought changes in the sex roles of men and women. The Republican ideology of free hearts and free homes constituted an important aspect of the broader antislavery political culture.

The ideas of free hearts and free homes, however, remained controversial both within the antislavery community itself and between antislavery political parties and the rival Democratic Party. In an era when family structures and gender roles were in flux, people debated how much change was desirable or whether any alteration was necessary at all. Within the antislavery reform community, people agreed that changes had to be made but questioned the degree of family reform required. Outside the antislavery community, however, the Democratic Party upheld traditional family ideologies and regarded any reforms as threats to the social order.

While the main focus of this study will be the antislavery political parties and their use of gender ideologies to demarcate themselves from their electoral rivals, it is important to note that they did so even as a group of radicals formulated an egalitarian vision of gender relations that far surpassed the antislavery parties' ideas about the extent of desirable reforms. The broad coalition of antislavery reformers, in fact, often disagreed with each other over a wide range of issues, including gender reform. Historians have labeled the radicals who pressed for the most sweeping social changes the abolitionists while calling the moderates antislavery. While this study focuses upon the development of gender ideologies within the antislavery group, the abolitionists established the parameters of the debate on most topics. Abolitionists sought to expand the Revolutionary generation's egalitarian ideal to include African Americans, and they campaigned for an immediate end to slavery because it was sinful and a direct affront to God. Abolitionists also usually dismissed politics, hoping instead to persuade individuals to voluntarily give up slavery as a means to religious and personal redemption. Because abolitionists saw the renunciation of slavery as a voluntary personal act to be undertaken for one's own salvation, no financial compensation would be given to slaveholders (though some might be given to former slaves). In contrast, antislavery people sought only to halt slavery's growth in the hopes that it would then die out gradually. They formed the political parties that this work examines in order to change government policy on slavery; their members were also generally less receptive to claims of universal racial equality, and they often entertained plans for compensating slaveholders or settling freed blacks in colonies outside the United States. Hardly a united coalition, the opponents of slavery often seemed to spend as much time debating with each other about the proper course of the movement as they did fighting slavery.

The split between abolitionists and antislavery moderates carried over to differences of opinion about gender reform. Many abolitionists supported a radical women's rights position, while antislavery politicians endorsed more limited reforms. During the 1830s, the first decade of organized white abolitionist activity aimed at the South, abolitionist women began to occupy prominent places in the movement. Women circulated petitions, delivered speeches, organized women's antislavery societies, and wrote books and pamphlets. In 1840 many abolitionists, led by William L. Garrison, wanted to elect Abby Kelley to a seat on the Business Committee of the American Anti-Slavery Society (AAS) in recognition for her tireless fund-raising and speaking efforts and also to illustrate their willingness to trust women with leadership positions. Not all abolitionists, however, were ready to take this step, and Kelley's nomination splintered the convention and the movement. Abolitionists unhappy with Kelley's nomination and subsequent election left the AAS and formed a rival, and more conservative, group, the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society.

After the 1840 split, Garrisonian abolitionists continued their loud condemnations of patriarchy, whether found in northern households or on southern plantations. For abolitionists such as Henry Clarke Wright, Sarah Grimké, Stephen Pearl Andrews, George Luther Stearns, James Caleb Jackson, and a host of female abolitionists who also worked for the women's rights movement, American families needed drastic reform. In their eyes, men in the North and the South enjoyed far too much power and had proven themselves unable to withstand the temptation to wield it. Since the legal system denied wives control over their incomes, their property, and even their bodies, husbands too often robbed them of their wages or inheritances. Worse still, husbands could beat or rape their wives with virtual impunity. In the South, this situation was compounded by a master's control over not only his female relatives but also the people he owned. Often attacking slavery as "the Patriarchal Institution," abolitionists condemned the South's forced labor system for its familial and sexual aspects as much as for its economic and religious ramifications. Abolitionists argued that wherever absolute power was held, men were sure to abuse their privileged status over their dependents. As Henry Wright phrased it, "Husbands! Husbands! the guilt is mainly yours; and the damnation is just." One obvious solution was to abolish slavery; other solutions were persuading northern men to exercise greater sexual restraint and empowering women to make decisions about everything from household finances to the frequency and timing of sexual relations. Northern households would function as God wished only if women gained authority within the home and if, as Stephen Pearl Andrews wrote, the male sex drive "crouch[ed] like the whipped spaniels at the feet of divine love."

Abolitionists failed to achieve the more radical parts of their sex reform agenda, but they succeeded in publicizing their concerns through speaking engagements, books, and the constantly overlapping attendance of abolitionists and women's rights activists at one another's conventions. By calling people's attention to gender issues and the question of sexual rights, they instigated public debates on these topics. As a result, abolitionist attacks on patriarchy became one of the intellectual parameters within which the more moderate antislavery parties created their own gender ideologies in the years after 1840. Unable to ignore either the debates themselves or the spirited positions enunciated by their radical associates, the antislavery parties confronted issues such as the right of women to public influence, the rights of women in a new economy and in the workplace, and most controversial of all, the right of wives to deny their husbands sexual access.

While the antislavery reform community held different opinions about the extent to which American gender roles needed to be altered, another large rift over gender occurred between the antislavery parties and the Democratic Party. The Democrats, who after 1848 usually stood united in their support of white supremacy and slavery (though not always slavery's western expansion), also agreed on the necessity of maintaining the status quo in gender roles. Viewed broadly, Democrats upheld a traditional, patriarchal vision of masculine rights and feminine submission. Appealing to the experiences of generations of European and American subsistence farmers according to which men ruled their self-contained households by means of their rights to property, the vote, and public speech, the Democratic Party in the North and in the South called for the continuation of traditional structures and alarmed voters about the consequences of change. Democratic fears about social change resonated with many people because northern family structures were in a state of flux. With the spread of canals and railroads and the growth of urban areas, many antebellum northerners lived in an economic world that bore little relation to the subsistence farms of their parents (or of their own youth). Tied to national and international markets and caught up in a cash economy, they found that familial strategies and gender ideologies were evolving with their changing economic circumstances. For commercial farmers and urban professionals, what historians call the "new middle class," the large families and patriarchal control that exemplified subsistence farm families made little economic or social sense. With antislavery politicians endorsing this social trend, Democrats steadfastly held to the patriarchal subsistence farm life that was falling, very slowly, by the wayside. In short, Democrats and Republicans positioned themselves within a larger cultural debate then being waged over the wisdom of the changes their constituents were making (or resisting) in their own family practices and gender roles. By the 1850s, then, three groups had taken positions on the gender roles with which northerners were experimenting. Democrats occupied the conservative position, antislavery parties sought some degree of reform, and radical abolitionists called for changes that would put men and women on much more equal footings.


Excerpted from Free Hearts and Free Homes by Michael D. Pierson Copyright © 2003 by University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
Pierson's argument that political affiliation was not only based on ethnic and religious beliefs but also on conceptions of family and gender is a very important one. This book will interest those who are interested in antebellum America as well as those who are seeking new ways of thinking about politics and party loyalty.—Julie Roy Jeffrey, Goucher College

[A] beautifully written volume. . . . Meticulous attention to detail. . . . Insightful readings of antislavery fiction—NC Historical Review

By examining how gender influenced political style, rhetoric, and partisan appeal, Michael Pierson also helps to contextualize the ongoing conflicts over family, marriage, and gender that shape American democracy to the present day.—H-SHEAR

Pierson's marvelous analysis of [the 1856 and 1860 presidential campaigns] is a real strength of his study. . . . A valuable contribution to our understandings of the relationship among abolitionism, gender reform, and the cultural and political debates that underpinned the Civil War.—American Historical Review

Pierson's book is an important addition to this growing literature [of women in party politics].—Journal of Illinois History

Meet the Author

Michael D. Pierson is associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.

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