Sympathy and the Subaltern in Postbellum America
In the years immediately following the conclusion of the Civil War, many Northern reformers redirected their efforts toward improving the lives of the beasts that had played such an important metaphorical role in abolitionist literature. Henry Bergh founded the ASPCA in 1866, and the MSPCA emerged two years later. State laws were passed, new literary organs came into being, and the battle to “raise consciousness” was on. What prompted this sudden flurry of activity, more than forty years after the RSPCA had inaugurated the same fight in Britain? Clearly, the demise of “the peculiar institution” was a key factor, but the foundation of “humane societies” was not an inevitable sequel to the antislavery movement, and the rapid transition between these two forms of agitation offers important insights into the nature of bourgeois-liberal social and aesthetic preoccupations during this period. As the country prepared itself to enter the new era of “freedom”–and as the problem of doing justice to the “freedpeople” began to seem more complicated than it ever had before–reformers longed for the simplicity of their former work, eliciting sympathy for the oppressed Southern masses. Of course, abolitionist tracts and poems had always lamented the fact that slavery reduced human beings to the status of animals, but it was the dramatization of the mistreatment of these “chattels” that scored the greatest propagandistic successes across a still-ethnocentric North. Reformers and their middle-class audiences wanted problems that could be dispelled by a change of heart (or, as Emerson would put it, a realignment of “the axis of vision”), not by a restructuring of the economy. In resurrecting the old images of noble beasts cruelly used by prideful masters–and draining these figures of their allegorical significance (and their associations with the vexing problem of full–human–enfranchisement)–the proponents of a humane society discovered the ultimate objects (because they were deemed incapable of manifesting subjectivity) of “sympathetic reform”.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of the Cruelty to Animals was a by-product of the political campaign–led by Anglo-Irish squire George “Humanity” Martin–to secure animal welfare (“The Cow’s Charter”) legislation in the 1820s. The Society proper was founded in 1824. Its broad mandate was to sensitize Britons “to the general lack of humanity in the treatment of animals in their society” (RSPCA). In England, the cause drew the support of many personages associated with international abolitionism–most notably William Wilberforce. However, in the decades which followed–and despite the explosion of reform movements of all sorts in the 1830s and 1840s–no comparable society arose on this side of the Atlantic.
It would appear that the development of animal welfare sentiment in America was impeded by the important metaphorical role that “degraded beasts” played in reform rhetoric during this period. Temperance pamphlets decried the “self-bestialization” which resulted from dependence upon alcohol. Advocates of vegetarianism and other dietary reforms likened the practices they wished to eradicate to animalistic urges. Most significantly, antislavery activists continually invoked the Southern regime’s inability to distinguish between human beings and mere livestock.
Nineteenth century American reformers tended to differ from their British comrades in the stridency of their egalitarian rhetoric. To be sure, the groups shared an emphatically Protestant and bourgeois worldview, but this was tempered, in England, by a strain of “Tory radicalism” (best exemplified by the writings of Thomas Carlyle) which had no real counterpart in the antebellum North. The custodial ideal of “humane treatment” of victims played much less of a role in American reform schemes–which tended to seek the eradication of “victimhood” itself.
Proponents of the “teetotal pledge” in mid-nineteenth century America conceived of their prescription as a shield against the dehumanizing effects of alcohol. Temperance literature often depicted the drunkard’s life cycle as a kind of devolution from bourgeois self-sufficiency toward ape-like shiftlessness. As Robert Abzug notes: “[the pledge gave] working-class people … the freedom to create a new ritual and symbolic life around the conversion from drunkenness to sobriety” (104) and offered a clear choice between responsible–fully human–citizenship and a soulless–bestial–existence. Temperance reformers had absolutely no stake in sentimentalizing the lives of animals. In fact, their appeal fairly depended upon an endless array of invidious comparisons between the lives of slum dwellers and the subhuman denizens of the forests and fields. Reformers of a more Dickensian cast of mind, inclined toward indulgence–and even a guarded approval–of the spontaneous (often alcohol-fueled) effusions of the lower classes, were far less prominent upon the American stage (although depictions of plantation life certainly contained an element of this type of portraiture).
Dietary reformers, including the many vegetarians amongst them, generally premised their arguments not upon the grounds that animals had “rights”, but rather upon the supposition that carnivorousness depended upon a level of violence that was unbecoming to human beings. In this, as in very little else, Bronson Alcott was typical of the zeitgesist. Taylor Stoehr argues that:
Everything about Alcott’s vegetarianism was flavored with moral enterprise, a decisive renunciation for the sake of diminishing evil and promoting good in the world–with the emphasis upon diminishing. “Man’s victory over nature and himself is to overcome the brute beast in him.” Thus he spoke at various times of the “virtues of plants” and the “vice of intemperance,” which could be remedied by “a more chaste and salutory diet” (126).
Animals were not “chaste”. Moreover, unlike humans, they could never even aspire to that exalted status. This distinction between the human and the non-human was at the heart of the antislavery appeal.
The original masthead (see fig. 1) of William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator featured an auction scene at a horsemarket in which no horses are present. Instead, the items up for bidding are enslaved Black Americans–and, in order to drive home the point, the artist has affixed a sign which reads “Slaves, Horses and Other Cattle to be sold at 12:00” to the auctioneer’s podium. The slaves are not undergoing any sort of corporal punishment. The mere fact that they occupy a position generally reserved for animals is deemed outrageous enough by the newspaper’s editor. This was to remain the vanguard position upon slavery amongst abolitionists throughout the antebellum period, although far more graphic–and less ideologically pure–images would later seep into the literature, a fact which would bear interesting fruit in the post-emancipation era.
In the 1850s, anti-racist Garrisonians (very much in the minority) and white supremacist “free soilers” united under the banner of what Eric Foner–in Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men–calls the “free labor ideology”:
This concept involved not merely an attitude toward work, but a justification of ante-bellum northern society, and it led northern Republicans to an extensive critique of southern society, which appeared both different from and inferior to their own (9).
According to Foner, the consolidation of this ideology furnished northerners with the resolve to challenge the “Slave Power conspiracy” and prosecute a successful war upon the chief obstacle to the creation of a truly republican America. The majority of these partisans were more interested in punishing a flagrant violation of the Protestant work ethic than in relieving suffering. To be fair, Foner’s ideologues would have had great difficulty in discerning any separation between these two concepts. To be deprived of the opportunity to work hard for one’s own betterment was to suffer. Slaves and their masters were an abomination upon the face of America–and the institution which sustained them both had to be eradicated.
Foner’s interpretation is persuasive, and yet it fails to account for the general sentiment, voiced most famously by Abraham Lincoln, that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin had played a major role in fomenting the clash between freedom and slavery. Stowe’s novel certainly contains passages which contribute to the “free labor” gestalt (George’s industrious struggles to “get ahead”, St. Clare’s lack of “manly”–economic–purpose), but the central relationship of the book (between Tom and Little Eva) makes a very different appeal to the reader.
Jane Tompkins argues that the mid-nineteenth-century sentimental novel (of which Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the preeminent example)
represents a monumental effort to reorganize the culture from the woman’s point of view; that this body of work is remarkable for its intellectual complexity, ambition, and resourcefulness; and that, in certain cases, it offers a critique of American society far more devastating than any delivered by better-known critics such as Hawthorne and Melville. Finally, [this essay] suggests that the enormous popularity of these novels, which has been cause for suspicion bordering on disgust, is a reason for paying close attention to them. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was, in almost any terms one can think of, the most important book of the century (503-4).
Tompkins presents an emphatically “feminine” counter-eschatology which privileges sentiment over self-reliance; a gospel of sympathetic aid, rather than a call to self-reformation. The importance of appeals to sentiment in the evolution of the antislavery movement became apparent with the early popularity Theodore Dwight Weld, Angelina Grimke, and Sarah Grimke’s American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses, published in 1839. This book, which garnished its reiterations of abstract moral principles with images and descriptions of horrific abuse, was far more widely read than Garrison’s paper. Of course, the Christlike sufferings of Uncle Tom himself at the hands of Simon Legree (and the parallel descriptions of Tom’s fellow captives as abused/distempered animals) brought this aspect of antislavery discourse to even greater prominence a decade later.
Ultimately, “sentimental power” even made significant inroads into The Liberator itself, as the revised masthead of the 1850s demonstrates (see Fig. 2). The dignified Black Americans (most of whom are standing upright, and whose greatest misfortune is to have been misidentified as livestock) of the 1831 image have been replaced by prostrate sufferers who offer the man or woman of enlarged sympathies an opportunity to express his or her humanity. However, the victory of the sentimental appeal over “free labor” ideology was by no means a complete one, even in abolitionist circles. In fact, it is closer to the truth to say that these two seemingly incompatible strains of thought–one of which throve upon the existence of suffering, and the other of which led inescapably to the facile conclusion that the elimination of slavery would usher in a glorious era in which all men (black as well as white) could be judged upon the merits of their individual contributions to the economy–somehow fused into the dynamo of the Northern war effort.
Unfortunately, while this unlikely hybrideology could supply the energy to subdue the rebellion, and even pave the way toward emancipation, it could not survive the rigors of Reconstruction. Even in theory, the “free labor ideology” proved unable to accommodate the majority of freed slaves, who failed to emerge from slavery prepared to assume a role in the “natural” competitive order. In practice, even unaccountably adaptable individuals–such as Frederick Douglass or Stowe’s George Harris–encountered difficulties due to the intransigence of white prejudice (even amongst antislavery activists). On the other hand, “sympathetic reform”–which offered far greater prospects for securing legislation that would aid emancipated slaves–evaporated with the advent of de jure equality. As soon as African-Americans were declared “human”–and given a (nominal) voice in national affairs–they became unacceptable as objects of sympathy, and invisible to free labor ideologues, who had been ignoring economically disadvantaged northerners throughout the century.
This insensitivity to the developing urban underclass had been a mainstay of the southern counter-critique of bourgeois society, as exemplified by the writings of George Fitzhugh, who declared that slaves were better off under the paternalistic care of their owners than the European masses were, and even advocated the enslavement of the “mudsill classes” everywhere. That northerners were aware of–and even capable of registering some of the implications of–this critique is supported by the text of Uncle Tom’s Cabin itself. In Chapter 18, St. Clare, hardly a pro-slavery ideologue, nonetheless gives expression to very Fitzhughsian thoughts:
Look at the high and the low, all the world over, and it’s the same story, – the lower class used up, body, soul and spirit, for the good of the upper. It is so in England; it is so everywhere; and yet all Christendom stands aghast, with virtuous indignation, because we do the thing in a little different shape from what they do it (185).
When Ophelia objects that “it isn’t so in Vermont”, St. Clare adopts the confident (and authorially-sanctioned) tone of a Fonerian Republican: “Ah, well, in New England, and in the free States, you have the better of us, I grant”(185).
The upshot of emancipation was the extension of this same blithe unconcern for the northern losers of the capitalist game–in a “free and equal” society–to their counterparts in a South now shorn of its institutional defect. “Free labor” ideologues threw themselves into the project of creating a new–and far more business-friendly–republic. Meanwhile, the impulse toward sympathetic reform–which required a subaltern object upon which to cathect itself–was redirected toward a concern for the plight of Our Dumb Animals (the name of the MSPCA’s monthly journal). The transition obeys a kind of literary logic. Animals had served abolitionists well as stand-ins for patiently suffering slaves, and once the earlier battle had been “won”, these figures were free to stand for themselves. Moreover, these new objects of charity lacked the Trojan Horse quality which had spoiled abolitionism for some activists. Unlike slaves, animals did not harbor within themselves an inherent claim (based upon the Enlightenment philosophy of “natural rights” which most northerners professed to believe in) to equality before the law–they were free to remain the wards of “humane societies” in perpetuity.
It is interesting to note that some of the patterns which had developed during the abolition crusade reasserted themselves when “Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals” at long last made their appearance upon the American stage. As had occurred in the 1830s, two main organizations rose to prominence–one centered in New York and exerting more national influence (the ASPCA) and one centered in Boston, which tended to prosecute its mission in a more radical fashion (the MSPCA). A difficulty in parsing out “reform as sign of conversion” from “reform as a vehicle for social change” (similar to that which had bedeviled abolitionists who subscribed to the biblical–and undeniably quietist–maxim: “resist not evil”) became manifest in the rhetoric of the fledgling movement. A pledge of “total abstinence” from cruelty was developed to serve as the backbone of local humane society conclaves across the nation:
Each “Loyal Legion” in the United States can organize its members – or as many as care to join – as a “Band of Mercy” and Branch of our “Parent American Band of Mercy,” from which have been formed already over five thousand seven hundred branches in the United States, with probably over 400,000 members, by simply sending to me their signatures, either signed, or authorized to be signed to this pledge:
PLEDGE. “I will try to be kind to all harmless living creatures, and try to protect them cruel usage.” [When preferred, the word harmless can be crossed out.] (Our Dumb Animals, 20:3)
In every particular, these reformers adhered to the strategy of “moral suasion” preferred by most abolitionists–although in this case there was no real conflict, because workhorses and livestock could hardly be incited to rebellion. No matter how strident the protest, the emphasis remained upon an exhortation to individual change reminiscent of the early Emerson:
Build, therefore, your own world. As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions. A correspondent revolution in things will attend the influx of the spirit. So fast will disagreeable appearances, swine, spiders, snakes, pests, madhouses, prisons, enemies, vanish; they are temporary and shall be no more seen. The sordor and filths of nature, the sun shall dry up, and the wind exhale (“Nature”, 42).
In this case, it was the “sordor” and “filth” of human nature–and of the postbellum capitalist order–which the proponents of a humane society wished to dispel. In the aftermath of emancipation, humans could no longer play the role of “victim” in this scheme–their task was to strive for self-renovation. And so the beasts which had carried the heaviest burden of representing man’s inhumanity to man during the literary campaign against slavery came into their own as synecdochal objects of concern.
To argue that this reform impulse was, to a large extent, shepherded into being by the combination of a refusal to think systematically about economic issues and the quirks of literary signification is not, however, to imply that this concern was therefore “false”–or that it furthered some hidden economic agenda. Many scholars have examined the nature of the relationship between capitalism and humanitarianism–most notably in the “Davis-Haskell-Ashworth debate” (see Bender)–and the one thing that seems certain is that, while there is no question of a link between the two concepts, the matter is far too complicated to be reduced to a simple base-superstructure model. This is especially evident in the case of the rise of humane societies. One might be tempted to conclude that this concern for the welfare of animals arose at the precise moment at which these creatures had ceased to play an important role in the economy. In fact, as Clay McShane argues, in “Gelded Age Boston”, American cities were actually growing more dependent upon horsepower throughout the nineteenth century:
In 1840, 370 Bostonians earned their living driving horses. By 1860, this number had grown to 4501 and, by 1900, to 11 321 (277).
The ASPCA and MSPCA were not driven by self-interested motives. These organizations merely helped to focus the malaise generated by the manifest persistence of injustice in the postbellum world upon acceptable targets.
The fact that so much of the work done by these societies centered upon the mistreatment of horses helps to shed light upon the workings of this relationship between cultural anxiety and humanitarianism. Unable to accept the Fitzhughsian critique of the capitalist order at face value, reformers like Henry Bergh and George Thorndike Angell transmuted it into a set of prescriptions which could more easily coexist with their other ideological commitments. The urban proletariat and emancipated slaves might be “on their own”, free to rise or fall to the level indicated by their “character”, but human beings still owed certain duties to those who had no voice at all in society–especially the creatures whose efforts were just as essential to any northern city as slave labor had been to a plantation.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Bell of Atri” demonstrates this logic of humanitarian displacement in action. This short narrative poem, written in 1863, tells the story of an old and overworked Italian horse, neglected by his owner (a stingy knight), who, while foraging for food, gnaws at a vine attached to the bell cord in the marketplace–sending up an alarm which alerts the townspeople (and the king) to his plight. Upon further review, the assembled body pass a sentence upon the knight which, by the logic of the free labor ideology, could never have been brought to bear against a textile manufacturer:
And thereupon the Syndic gravely read
The proclamation of the King; then said:
“Pride goeth forth on horseback grand and gay,
But cometh back on foot, and begs its way;
Fame is the fragrance of heroic deeds,
Of flowers of chivalry and not of weeds!
These are familiar proverbs; but I fear
They never yet have reached your knightly ear.
What fair renown, what honor, what repute
Can come to you from starving this poor brute?
He who serves well and speaks not, merits more
Than they who clamor loudest at the door.
Therefore the law decrees that as this steed
Served you in youth, henceforth you shall take heed
To comfort his old age, and to provide
Shelter in stall an food and field beside.”
This poem, the recitation of which would become a fixture at MSPCA meetings for the rest of the century, reverses the polarity of antebellum animal imagery by recasting the tortured steed as an abused industrial worker (albeit a worker owned by a knight, which carries Southern connotations). “The Bell of Atri” tacitly acknowledges the justice of Fitzhugh’s critique of capitalism, while insisting that the central figure is, of course, exactly what he appears to be–a horse.
The crusade to secure the humane treatment of animals, a product of the “demetaphorization” of certain abolitionist tropes, supplied the remedy for the historical disappointment of Reconstruction. The cumulative impact of the disasters of the late 1860s and 1870s, culminating in the withdrawal of the occupying federal army from the South in 1877, tarnished the appeal of social justice initiatives in the eyes of most activists during this period. Rather than continue to campaign against the resurgence of white supremacist power in the South, and the manifest inability of the capitalist system to provide for the Northern poor, the spiritual descendants of the abolitionists turned their backs upon the sham of emancipation and rededicated their lives to the quest for individual moral perfection–a quest which now included the duty to extend their sympathies beyond the confines of a human sphere abandoned to ceaseless conflict.
Works Cited and Consulted
Abzug, Robert H. Cosmos Crumbling: American Reform and the Religious Imagination. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1994.
Bender, Thomas, ed. The Antislavery Debate: Capitalism and Abolitionism as a Problem in Historical Interpretation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.
Buell, Lawrence. Writing For an Endangered World: Literature, Culture, and the Environment in the U.S. and Beyond. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 2001.
Capper, Charles and Conrad Edick Wright, eds. Transient and the Permanent: The Transcendentalist Movement and Its Contexts. Boston: Northwestern UP, 1999.
Cranch, Christopher Pearse. Collected Poems of Christopher Pearse Cranch. Ed. Joseph M. DeFalco. Gainesville, FL: Scholars’ Facsimiles and Reprints, 1971.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Complete Essays and Other Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. Brooks Atkinson. New York: The Modern Library, 1940.
Foner, Eric. Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1970.
Fox, Michael V. Returning to Eden: Animal Rights and Human Responsibility. New York: Viking Press, 1980.
Hollander, John, ed. American Poetry: The Nineteenth-Century, Volume One. New York: library of America, 1993.
Howe, Daniel Walker. The Unitarian Conscience: Harvard Moral Philosophy 1805-1861. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1970.
Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. “The Bell of Atri.”
MSPCA. “History of the MSPCA-ANGELL.”
—-. Our Dumb Animals, volume 20: 3 (1887).
McShane, Clay. “Gelded Age Boston.” New England Quarterly 74.2 (June, 2001): 274-302.
Miller, Perry, ed. The Transcendentalists: An Anthology. New York: MJF Books, 1978.
Paterson, David and Richard Ryder, eds. Animals’ Rights: A Symposium. Bristol: Centaur Press, 1979.
Richardson, Robert D. Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
Society For the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “Founding of the SPCA.”
Stoehr, Taylor. Nay-Saying in Concord: Emerson, Alcott, and Thoreau. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1978.
Tompkins, Jane P. “Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Politics of Literary History.” Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Authoritative Text Backgrounds and Contexts Criticism. Ed. Elizabeth Ammons. New York: W.W. Norton, 1994. 495-522.