Sturdy historical account of the contributions of 19th-century radical thinkers to the present.
That most Americans, at least on paper, work an eight-hour day is a product of American labor activists who took on the cause as an extension of abolitionism. That women have the right to vote was an outgrowth of the feminism that similarly grew from abolitionism, while it was largely the labors of the son of socialist reformer Robert Owen “that made no-fault divorce accessible nationwide.” So writes Jackson (History/Univ. of Massachusetts, Boston; American Blood: The Ends of the Family in American Literature, 1850-1900, 2013) in this overview of labor, political, and social activism throughout the 19th century. At the center of her story is Owen Sr., a wealthy British industrialist who saw in early America and its people “free and easy manners, the ‘extreme equality’ across classes, and their universal, near-fanatical engagement in politics as a form of social engineering.” The author writes that the figures who populate her narrative, among them William Lloyd Garrison and Susan B. Anthony, “worked across three entwined fields: slavery and race; sex and gender; property and labor.” Some of them would have been easily confused with the hippies of the 1960s while others were straitlaced in affect but fiery in effect. The great firebrand John Brown was neither, and while his raid at Harpers Ferry failed to incite a Nat Turner–like slave rebellion across the South—on that note, writes Jackson, Turner was the subject of gruesome remembrance, his “severed head…passed around for decades”—it did result in a hastening of Southern secession and with it the Union victory that led to abolition. The author’s account moves swiftly and interestingly, though the argument is not entirely novel; Manisha Sinha gets at many of the same points in The Slave’s Cause (2016). Still, Jackson’s book merits attention as a study in what she calls “slow-release radicalism,” with seeming failures that eventually turned into successes.
A useful survey of American activism and its lasting repercussions.