Seeing Our Future in the Past? Flashbacks from the 1850s

I don’t believe in reincarnation.

But if I did, I’d be pretty sure that in a previous life, I shambled through the American 1850s. That might help explain why lately  I’ve been having vivid dreamlike flashbacks about them. A few acquaintances would nod knowingly at this admission, and murmur something about “past lives.”

What I think explains it is that in this current, 20th/21st century life, I spent several months studying the 1850s, from the perspective of Quakers who really did live through them.Sometimes, the wrinkled vintage letters and sepia-stained books I was working with seemed to meld into scenes from an extended private mini- or rather maxi-series; I often had a sense of spying on the Friends through some special binoculars that saw through time rather than distance.

Outwardly I was like a monk, an absent-minded antisocial drudge, mostly closeted in my small room at Pendle hill, poring through long-forgotten documents, pecking at the keyboard day and night.

But for me the work was gripping, not least because I knew what the characters in my scholarly maxi-series didn’t — that their idealistic dedication, their years of risky activism and pious devotion to achieving a nonviolent end to slavery — all were doomed.

Their story had epic moments, and the piecemeal narrative was utterly gripping, but the plot was remorselessly driven by the blind logic of bloodsoaked tragedy.

My studies went into two books, on the shelves for eight years now.

Angels of Progress:


Remaking Friends
I’ve since moved on; or tried to. But pieces of the saga have recently  been crowding back into my mind’s eye, uninvited. They’re more frequent now, especially when I find myself imagining American life post-Roe.

That might sound odd; abortion wasn’t really a public issue in the 1850s. But women were becoming one, along with their (lack of) rights — elbowing their way into public debates. Slavery, though, was the central polarizing issue, and conflicts about it and related issues intensified throughout the 1850s.

The debris of the decade culminated in Lincoln’s election, followed by southern secession, and Confederate cannon blasting Fort Sumter. We know, we think, what happened then; though historians keep discovering more — more that has been buried, or left unburied yet erased, haunting us all still.”

Are these flashbacks echoes from that decade I sojourned in for those months? Or maybe — I hope not, but fear — premonitions? If the leaked Supreme Court overthrow of Roe comes to pass, I expect their tempo to increase, and maybe become more like waking nightmares.

Their parallels with today were kickstarted as I read about September, 1850, when Congress passed a new Fugitive Slave Law. It was part of a “grand compromise” that was supposed to ease the growing social conflict over slavery.

That “compromise” failed. I’ll skip the why and how, except for one big element: that new Fugitive Slave Law. That federal statute affected more than the enslaved: it tore away from citizens in the non-slave states much of their ability to keep many of the most ugly aspects of slavery at a safe distance, out of sight, mostly out of mind.

No more: the law empowered slave hunters to pursue suspected escapees into any state or city anywhere in the country, drag them to jail aided by the federal courts, and earn bounties for returning them. Slave hunters now also could — and many did — kidnap free people of color, claim they were escapees, pocket the federal bounties, then profit again by selling them into bondage in the South. Further, the law made helping escaped people a federal crime, subject to jail and fines.

It’s easy, too easy, for today’s “enlightened” whites to sneer at this disruption of northern obliviousness as a deserved loss of “privilege.” Certainly it was deeply tainted by complicity with what was called “the slave power.” But such “unenumerated rights” can be, and by many were, clutched as tightly as the more nobly-described liberties scrawled in the official Constitution. Reaction against the Fugitive Slave Law was swift, varied and vehement.

This resistance did not begin as an organized campaign. But as it rapidly spread, it followed a recognizable trajectory. I count at least five distinct (but often overlapping) phases: evasion, defiance, political action;  infighting; and finally, war.

Evasion is the best-remembered. The 1850s were the heyday of the Underground Railroad. Harriet Tubman was busy, and  made frequent stops during her “rescue missions,” at the Delaware home of Friend Thomas Garrett, a public abolitionist in the small slave state.

Harriet Tubman, who was a fervent Christian, but not a pacifist.

Garrett aided her with funds and local protection. With a price on her head, Tubman made Canada her base between trips, and the terminus for her long and dangerous journeys.

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which appeared in 1852, helped: it became the best-selling book of its century, eclipsed only by the Bible, and made the abolition effort real for millions who never themselves aided an escapee.

Evasion plus the pursuit Stowe dramatized soon bred defiance.
Open defiance often leapt to the front pages (the social media of the day), as on September 11, 1851, when a slavehunting posse cornered four runaways, John Beard, Thomas Wilson, Alexander Scott, and Edward Thompson, on the farm of William Parker, a free man of color. Parker lived near the village of Christiana, in southeastern Pennsylvania. The posse, led by Edward Gorsuch, who claimed ownership, was confronted by Parker and a group of black and white neighbors, many armed, who were resolved to protect the four.

Gunfire erupted, and when the smoke cleared, Gorsuch was dead, his son wounded, and the posse in retreat. But soon it returned, reinforced by Marines, and 41 people, including four Quakers, were charged with treason, their defense of escapees deemed “making war on the United States.”

Christiana PA defiance, 1851

Quaker Castner Hanway was the first defendant. His two-week trial in November-December 1851 was national news: many southern advocates demanded that he and the others be hanged. But on December 11, the jury deliberated only fifteen minutes before pronouncing Hanway not guilty.

The prosecutors then dropped the other charges. Parker and most of the blacks involved had already escaped to Canada. Southern militants were outraged, while abolitionists exulted.

A series of such high-profile, divisive cases followed, each one ripping more holes in the social fabric. One in Boston, in 1854, saw hundreds of federal troops occupy downtown Boston and serve as an armed corridor from the federal courthouse to the harbor. They were holding off angry crowds lining the street, to make sure that Anthony Burns, a captured escapee, was not rescued before he was marched onto a ship headed back to the South. (Abolitionists later bought his freedom, and Burns moved to Canada.)

Joshua Glover, another escapee seized in 1854 in Racine, Wisconsin, fared better: on March 18, an abolitionist crowd broke into the Milwaukee jail where he was being held, and spirited him away to Canada and safety.

The Glover case moved the Wisconsin state government to declare the Fugitive Slave Law unconstitutional and unenforceable in the state. Several other northern states passed “personal liberty laws” similarly meant to obstruct federally-sponsored slavehunting. Court fights over these laws went on until 1859, when the U. S. Supreme Court ruled in Ableman v. Booth that the Fugitive Slave Law was constitutional, and struck them down.

Courts and laws mean politics, and while political advocacy for (or against) civil rights might seem a no-brainer to most of us today, it was deeply controversial and divisive among the 1850s social reformers. One major political party, the Whigs, collapsed due largely to internal division over slavery. When the Republican Party was organized in 1854 as the Whigs’ rival and successor, opposition to slavery was a central plank. By 1856, when the party mounted its first national campaign (and lost), most Quakers who voted joined it. (Some Quaker [males] who could vote declined, as they still regarded all politics as vain and corrupt.)

Quakers weren’t alone in this disdain. Infighting over political action had already split the abolitionist movement. Founders like William Lloyd Garrison rejected the entire U. S. Constitution as irredeemably corrupted by its protections of slavery (a critique heard again in our time). Garrison wanted it completely rewritten. These quarrels continued until other matters intervened in 1861.

Parallel divisions and infighting tore at many American churches; and Quakerism was not spared. While Friends had long since banned slaveholding and slave trading as great evils, beyond that they agreed on almost nothing about it, especially: how, when, and by whom slavery should be ended.

At one pole, the powerful “Quaker Establishment” insisted that Friends should fervently but quietly pray and wait for God to end it; any public agitation, they warned, would backfire into bloodshed. (History suggests they were not entirely mistaken in this.) At the other, many Friends found themselves being pushed by events toward more and more public, organized and militant action, which soon strained even their longtime refusal to carry arms.

Thus for Quakers, these tensions made the 1850s a long season of division and schism. The powerful Quietist elders moved to squash abolitionist sentiment wherever they could, disowning (i.e., expelling) abolition sympathizers in large numbers. Further, many prominent abolitionist Friends quit before they could be disowned. Several local meetings were “laid down” (abolished) by their hierarchies, and two yearly meetings (autonomous regional associations) split apart, all due to infighting about how, when, why and by whom the common goal of ending slavery should be pursued. The coming of war would find U. S. Quakers in deep internal disarray,  such that their vaunted “testimonies” against slaveowning and military service proved woefully unable to insulate them from the war’s pervasive, corrosive impact.

Outside, secular politics degenerated from occasional courthouse riots into guerilla war after Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act in May of 1854.

The question was, would these new territories enter the Union as slave states, or free?

Surprise: Congress fudged. The Act said the question would be answered by “popular sovereignty,” i.e. a vote of the residents.

The result was that opposed bands of settlers rushed in —proslavery “Border Ruffians” from nearby slave state Missouri, and militant “free stater” abolitionists from the east — and most on each side carried not only their convictions, but also their guns.

A bloody Northern Ireland-type struggle soon broke out, with pitched battles that left hundreds dead or wounded, and repeatedly dominated the headlines. That conflict didn’t end until the 1860s changed everything.

John Brown, from a mural in the Kansas state capitol.

One of the most notorious of the “free stater” combatants was “Captain” John Brown, who was certain he had been “raised up” by God to destroy slavery.

Brown wasn’t afraid to die trying; nor was he afraid to kill. He killed slavery supporters in Kansas. Killed another in MIssouri. And skirmished with many more. In this dress rehearsal combat, he hatched a plan to kill more by setting off a major slave rebellion, starting in Virginia.

Dodging pursuers in late 1856, Brown and a small band of supporters left Kansas and rode into Iowa, and took refuge in the mostly Quaker village of Springdale.

There Brown set up what would now be called a “terrorist training camp,” where his followers worked to learn combat skills to prepare for the Captain’s coming apocalypse. Some area Quakers even quietly backed him.

Brown went east to New England to raise money and weapons. When he was ready, in the fall of 1859, he called for the band to gather in the Virginia woods, near his target, the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry. He planned to distribute its store of weapons to legions of the restless enslaved who would, he was sure, rally to his standard of rebellion.

He proved mistaken about the uprising; but among the Iowans who answered his call were two young Springdale Quakers, Barclay and Edwin Coppoc. Neither brother would long survive Brown’s doomed raid or its later, bloodier aftermath.

Less than a year after John Brown was captured at Harpers Ferry and hanged for treason against the state of Virginia, New England poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote a campaign ditty. Whittier was one of the early Quaker Republicans, And he celebrated the voter turnout around Philadelphia, which he believed would seal the party’s victory in the 1860 presidential race. Somehow omitted from his collected works, it was called, “The Quakers Are Out”:

The Quakers Are Out

NOT vainly we waited and counted the hours,
The buds of our hope have all burst into flowers.
No room for misgiving—no loop-hole of doubt,—
We’ve heard from the Keystone! The Quakers are out.

The plot has exploded—we’ve found out the trick,
The bribe goes a-begging; the fusion won’t stick
When the Wide-awake lanterns are shining about,
The rogues stay at home, and the true men are out!

The good State has broken the cords for her spun;
Her oil-springs and water won’t fuse into one;
The Dutchman has seasoned with Freedom his kraut,
And slow, late, but certain, the Quakers are out!

Give the flags to the winds! set the hills all aflame!
Make way for the man with the Patriarch’s name!
Away with misgiving—away with all doubt,
For Lincoln goes in, when the Quakers are out!

And so Lincoln did go in, though the rejoicing was soon drowned out by war drums and cannon fire. The 1850s witches’ brew of evasion, defiance, politics and infighting was set to congeal into a several decade-long serving of war, official til 1865, unofficial thereafter.

For me, when the flashbacks come, I see the word “slavery” replaced with “abortion,” and then the past looks like the present, and maybe a dim augury of the near future:

Again the powers that be, this time the Supreme Court, seem poised to snatch away public complacence, and loose a new round of hunters and catchers, determined to reach into every corner for their prey.

Already evasion and defiance are in evidence: the “underground” revival this time may be as much about a clandestine trade in pills as covert trips across state lines.

Clashes among states also seem all but certain: this week I heard J. B. Pritzker, the governor of Illinois, trumpeting his declaration that Illinois, which is nearly surrounded by strongly anti-abortion states, will remain a “haven” for the practice. His colleagues from California and New York seem just as determined.

What will happen as anti-abortion jurisdictions move to cut off this interstate access? Drones, helicopters, and cell phone tracking along the Indiana line? Checkpoints at bridges over the Mississippi river? Rival groups of state troopers facing off at contested borders?

Then again, how long will it be before show trials begin? The more rabid anti-abortion militants have long been thirsting to lock up (or worse) abortion doctors and clinic staff, and now even volunteers (some even include those who are pregnant), all of whom they see as conspiring at mass murder. How long after Roe’s fall til they get their chance? Not long, I suspect.

For that matter, what happens to the abortion supporters, if their political efforts fall short, this year and in 2024? Will they all just be good sports, settling in to pray and wait stoically for divine intervention, doing what the elders told 1850s Quakers to do? (By 1859, the elders thought they had won that struggle; but in 1861, they gaped and gasped as much or most — the few numbers are fuzzy, but not reassuring —  of their young men signed up, shouldered arms, ignored the long-feared broadbrim hierarchy, and marched to their fate at Bull Run and Gettysburg, leaving their pacifism on the corner shelf, to gather dust with other family heirlooms.)

Or are there John (or Jane) Browns among Roe diehards, feeling as if they have been “raised up” to act decisively against this rollback of rights, in some manner yet unimaginable?

History has an advantage because it actually happened. That doesn’t give any key to seeing the future. I strive to avoid predictions, and don’t yet foresee the Confederacy being exhumed. But the flashbacks often bring a sense of foreshadowing. We’ve been through something like this movie before, and to say it ended badly is gross understatement.

The worst case scenario looks more to me like “The Troubles” in northern Ireland, a plague of fitful, protracted violence and national decline with little prospect for a “Good Friday” truce to (maybe) begin draining the purulence. Bad enough at that.

But these musing again remind me of reincarnation. I was actually born in Kansas, in 1942.

Yet suppose I had previously been born in what became Kansas — a century earlier, in 1842, maybe among Quakers?

In such a scenario, I would have been seventeen in 1859, old enough to do something as rash as head out through the woods with the Coppoc brothers to join John Brown.

Or maybe I would have held back, for fear or Quaker loyalty.

If so, within two years, the chance would come again: in 1861, John Brown and Edwin Coppoc were dead, hanged in Virginia. But Barclay Coppoc had escaped, and was back home, where he joined the Third Kansas Infantry, and was recruiting for the actual war John Brown had helped to bring about.

Would I have joined then? Temptation and idealism would have been strong. Quaker preachments failed to hold back many.

If so, our service would not have lasted long: in September, 1861,  the train taking Lieutenant Coppoc and his unit east to join the war was sabotaged and fell into the Platte river, killing him and more than a dozen others.

Maybe that’s why I’ve had no flashbacks to being an old man there.

Sprindale Iowa, where John Brown had his training camp, and the Coppoc brothers rest.

6 thoughts on “Seeing Our Future in the Past? Flashbacks from the 1850s”

  1. There is a future Quaker out there who will read your books and occasionally dream that they are you, in your now distant time. And they will wish that they too were a weighty Quaker.

  2. Dear Chuck,
    I found myself tearing up on this one for some reason. I feel like have been waiting for the Quakers to “come out” for a long time. During the fight about how AIDS was going to be responded to, which had so much salience in my sad life—Quakers were helpful and said all the right things and raised some money—- but were somehow not really there, if you take my meaning. And I don’t at all resent that, really. Somehow Meetings were not led to radical action of my type and that’s OK. Left me feeling a bit lonely however. I guess I wanted them all —mostly in their retirements, to start knocking some heads together and” come out” and save me and my friends. Somebody better start “coming out” and right fucking quick or we are all fucked. I continue to love you and your wonderful reporting and analysis. Love Ben.

    1. Thanks for your kind words Ben. I too hope there will be some “coming out” soon, before it’s too late.

  3. JGW: “Slow, late, but certain, the Quakers are out!”

    May we Quakers make good on that certainty part again.

  4. Hi Chuck,

    Were the Quakers ever “there” for workers unions?

    With laudable exceptions (such as you noted) my sense of the matter is the Quakers were (and are) middle class first and Quakers second. Spirit moves us, as much as our middle class sensibility allows.


    1. Hank, Quakers started out as mostly farmers. They were kept out of British universities til the mid-1800s, so many also became small skilled craftspeople, and personal scientists when labs could be in the back room. They did a lot of inventing, and some went into business and prospered, and some of those families became quite wealthy, in the U.K. and a few places in the U.S. Once they got into higher ed, some of the sons got weird notions, and joined the Socialists. Some of that happened in the USA too, when the big depression hit, because lots of old money vanished. There were some in unions, but no leaders I can think of.
      Among the liberals, outside the really old settlements like Philly and some other east coast spots, the 20th century meetings were concentrated in college towns or government capitals. Berea is one near-perfect example. College culture is one of the most uniformly bubble-encased across the USA, and among the most parochial, with NPR providing the connective tissue for more than half a century now; I’ve been in meetings from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and the public radio bumpersticker and totebags are among the surest signs of a nearby Meeting. Some leftie coined a phrase a decade or so ago, The PMC=the Professional Managerial Class, which seems to me encompasses most of us. A large meeting nearby seems divided down the middle into two PMC subgroups: the ones with “tenure,” which can be academic, lawyers/docs, or entrenched civil servants; they’re not really “rich” by 2022 standards, but they do well, lots of their kids go to the Quaker schools, and then to “good” or sometimes genuinely elite colleges, and the expected jobs. The other half are the librarians, teachers, social workers, and adjuncts–part of the ever-growing “precariat.” Some of them do have union connections;I once did. But mostly they’re squeezed –their jobs are shrinking, their fields are targeted by unionbusters, and they cling to a shabby-genteel version of the PMC; a few of their kids get scholarships to the Quaker schools, but community colleges, instate schools, and for a lot of them student loan debt penury looms; NPR enables them to talk like they live in a world that’s really pretty much beyond their reach. Among the elders in this segment, I’m lucky: I own my little house, have so far been able to live on Social Security, and am very close to a big medical center. Now maybe the inflation bandits will soon be putting the squeeze on me too. But I remember how to eat beans, I’ve switched out NPR for podcasts, and as long as I can blog and write, I can keep busy. The next generation though (I can line up four generations in my living room a few times a year), what will they do? They don’t want my junk, there won’t be much of an estate; they’ll be on their own in what looks like tough times. I wish them the best. As for the meetings around here? The colleges seem under pressure; if they merge and purge some more, the PMC Quakers will be hard-pressed to support meetinghouses. Once Quakers were known for being inventive and enterprising. Can they be again, in their own communal interest?

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