Equality: An American Dilemma, 1866-1896
by Charles Postel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019
During the American Civil War, the raw power of Union nationalism came to the fore to both win the war and emancipate the slaves. As society began to pick up the charred pieces of itself in the postbellum years, the perceived power of the government to right wrongs and equalize playing fields began to attract activists from across a broad spectrum of interests and vocations. These experiments in collective action illustrated a grassroots American desire for equality and solidarity; but these notions were often contradictory and rested upon division and exclusion in the late 19th century.
This is the dilemma at the heart of Charles Postel’s deeply considered new book, Equality: An American Dilemma, 1866-1896. Postel is a professor of history at San Francisco State University and the author of The Populist Vision, which received the 2008 Bancroft Prize. In this new study, he synthesizes America’s early attempts at equality as manifested in three distinct reform movements: The Farmers’ Grange, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and the Knights of Labor. The progressive spirit of these movements—which sought equal rights for farmers, factory hands, and women—was often burdened by the ugly weight of racism, sexism, and xenophobia. As Postel describes it:
Decades that brought forth herculean efforts to overcome the economic inequality of corporate capitalism and the sexual inequality of the late Victorian social order also witnessed the extreme iniquities of Indian dispossession, Chinese exclusion, Jim Crow, disenfranchisement, and lynch law.
The narrative begins with the fraternal order of The Farmers’ Grange (also known as the Patrons of Husbandry), began in 1867 to advance farming methods and to promote the economic and social needs of farmers in the newly reconstituted United States. Its main claim to fame was its staunch anti-monopoly stance against railroad barons and grain elevator operators, who regularly charged exorbitant rates for the transport of crops to market. While it fought the good fight against all forms of monopolies, the organization began to move away from its pledged nonpartisan position. Indeed, by the early 1870s, the Grange became entangled in politics to the extent of supporting the creation of third parties and politicians who supported agricultural positions. Unfortunately, many southern Grange chapters were taken over by aggrieved former Confederates and white supremacists to advance policies that would ensure their “superior” place in the New South—to the detriment, exclusion, and systematic violence against the nation’s African American citizens. The fig leaf of Granger solidarity first held across the sectional divide thus grew into a toxic branch of political and societal racism, leaving the African American farmer and his family unable to enjoy the fruits of the “equality” so recently bequeathed by the nation.
The Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the other major movement Postel examines, was founded in 1873 and held a wide range of activist interests important to women, regardless of race or station. The WCTU advocated prohibition, voting rights, prison reform, and redressing legal inequities between the sexes. Over time, and perhaps influenced by the example of the Farmers’ Grange (of which many WCTU members belonged to), the allure of becoming a national and political presence proved too seductive for WCTU leadership.
Postel deftly exhibits the similar path the WCTU took as it organized across the former Confederacy with the now-familiar message of sectional reconciliation, enlisting the membership and involvement of Southern women. A large number of Southern WCTU members resisted racial equality, and even more disturbingly, suffrage. Here, again, the influence of Southern cultural mores and political persuasion corrupted a movement ostensibly based on egalitarian principles into an equivocating and confused mess of contradictions and alliances. Postel does yeoman’s work breaking down the ways in which the WCTU betrayed its own ideals in its quest for “equal rights.”
The book closes with a detailed account of the Knights of Labor, by the far the most influential and powerful of the three movements—and probably the most egalitarian. Founded in 1869, it was America’s first labor organization, rallying skilled and unskilled workers, white and black, men and women, to its banner. But the inclusion stopped there, as the organization was firmly anti-immigrant, especially toward Chinese miners. The collective and cooperative efforts between farmers, women’s rights activists, and laborers of the late 19th century left much to be desired.
In a gloomy postscript, Postel sees the specter of inequality raising its ugly head again in 21st century America. “A multisided crisis of inequality has taken on proportions unseen since the 1920s,” he warns, and yet the problem of association—the dilemma, if you will—remains as to how to unify, link, and mutually reinforce “egalitarian movements that pursue a range of interwoven yet at times divergent claims.” This exhaustively researched study tells the story of equality’s early, albeit imperfect, iterations to help champion the efforts of men and women continuing to seek an equal and just society. In this endeavor, Postel has made an academic and worthy contribution.
—Peggy Kurkowski holds a BA in History from American Public University and is a copywriter living in Denver, Colorado