Fobare on Postel, 'Equality: An American Dilemma, 1866-1896'

Charles Postel
Chris Fobare

Charles Postel. Equality: An American Dilemma, 1866-1896. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2019. 400 pp. $30.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8090-7963-6

Reviewed by Chris Fobare (Worcester State University) Published on H-Slavery (June, 2020) Commissioned by David M. Prior (University of New Mexico)

Printable Version:

In Equality: An American Dilemma, 1866-1896, historian Charles Postel offers a timely follow-up to his award-winning 2007 monograph, The Populist Vision (2009). Postel sets out to examine the various ways in which “the great social movements” of the late nineteenth century grappled with the elusive concept of equality (p. 4). Focusing on farmers, workers, and women’s rights activists, he posits that the millions of men and women who united under the banner of the Patrons of Husbandry (the Grange), the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), and the Knights of Labor functioned as a modern example of “the power of association” that Alexis de Tocqueville defined as an essential element to understanding American life (pp. 10-11). All three organizations initially committed themselves to building an egalitarian, nonpartisan democracy, but the “fractious, messy, and hard-fought conflict” over “a variety of sentiments and principles” led them to descend into a decades-long struggle over which groups of Americans would have access to an equality of opportunity (p. 10). A tightly woven narrative traces the tensions that erupted within each movement, as solidarity based on egalitarian ideals fell victim to political compromises centered on white supremacy or nativism. Collectively, the Grange, the WCTU, and the Knights of Labor “shaped and reshaped the meanings of equality and solidarity” in reacting to the ways industrialization reordered American life in the three decades following the Civil War (p. 12).  

Turning first to the Grange, Postel complicates the commonly repeated claim that the movement was decentralized and local in nature to prevent the Civil War alliance between business and government from spilling over into the postwar years.[1]  Drawing on new archival research, he complicates these “tales of declension” by tracing the roots of the Patrons of Husbandry back to six government employees in Washington, DC, all of whom intended to pursue farmers’ interests “through bureaucratic and centralized means” (pp. 18-19). Yet for one of the movement’s founders, Oliver Kelley, the creation of a rural democracy was only possible through sectional reconciliation and the preservation of white supremacy. The combination of the two, Kelley believed, would unite midwestern farmers, planters, and southern yeoman, irrespective of gender, under the umbrella of a benevolent association dedicated to “the agricultural interest” (p. 19). Nowhere was this more prevalent than the Grange’s focus on antimonopoly politics during the economic crisis of the 1870s.  

Postel’s explication of antimonopoly politics adds to a growing body of scholarship that builds on historian Richard White’s corrective to business histories.[2] Instead of bringing stability to the nation’s economy through the introduction of new systems of management and hierarchy, the explosion of railroad construction in the postwar years fostered destructive competitive practices and economic chaos in the form of a multidecade boom-bust cycle. Readers familiar with this period will recognize Postel’s description of the Grange’s efforts to restore some semblance of equality between corporate middlemen—railroads, grain elevators, and warehouses—and producers by championing cooperative ventures; however, he adds to our understanding of the great lengths the Grange employed to sever the alliance between businessmen and politicians. Most notably, the National Grange looked beyond American borders to strike a relationship with the British Cooperative Union and European farmers with the hope of crafting a system of “direct trade.” By shifting a sizeable percentage of the nation's trade to water routes, they hoped to lessen the influence railroads wielded over the nation’s political economy.    

After the Granger Laws failed to bring rational order and economic stability to farmers, the National Grange turned their attention to national politics.   Their efforts to create an agrarian alliance among the nation’s white farmers positioned the National Grange squarely against the increasingly egalitarian nature of Reconstruction. As a result, the southern Grange provided planters with a newfound sense of legitimacy and an avenue back to power that played a crucial role in undermining Reconstruction. Yet once Redemption was complete, Bourbon Democrats formed new alliances with northern business and political elites to check the emerging power of farmers and industrial laborers who demanded “class legislation” that called for regulatory checks on corporate power (p. 105). The Grange’s inability to provide such a check led to new debates and new movements that would continue to struggle for an evolving concept of equality. 

In part 2, Postel interrogates the question of gender equality through the lens of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Although the movement’s “Do Everything” strategy produced a far more malleable organization than the Grange, it followed a similar course in transitioning from an early vision of nonpartisanship to a political force that embraced a white nationalist vision of sectional reconciliation. Yet the WCTU did not initially embrace the Grange’s unwavering commitment to white supremacy. The organization enlisted black women, albeit in segregated chapters, to push for an eight-hour workday, the abolition of child labor, women’s suffrage, and temperance. In their efforts to mobilize a wide cross-section of Americans, the Grange and WCTU inspired widespread support for “broader equal rights demands against monopoly” (p. 127). All of that changed when the WCTU shifted its attention to the South.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Postel lavishes a great deal of attention on the WCTU’s brilliant and enigmatic president, Francis Willard. Growing up in the home of abolitionists, and initially committed to the egalitarian trajectory of Reconstruction, Willard’s widely heralded tour of the South in 1881 elevated sectional reconciliation and white nationalism to the forefront of the organization’s agenda. Forming both professional relationships and personal friendships with the likes of Varina Davis and Sallie Chapin, both of whom were former plantation mistresses, Willard embraced a distorted vision of southern race relations that became an essential element of the WCTU’s broader objective of “home protection.” Southern white families, the organization demanded, needed protection from drunken black men who preyed on white mothers and daughters, while their northern counterparts required similar protections from any husband who wasted their wages at the saloon, engaged in spousal abuse, and allowed their family to fall into abject poverty. For the WCTU, home protection was not possible without the abolition of “the liquor trust.”

In order to achieve its objectives, the WCTU followed the same route as the Grange in making the transition from a nonpartisan social movement into the world of partisan politics. By the mid-1880s, Willard refocused the WCTU’s goals on building a political alliance with the Knights of Labor through a shared vision of cooperation. In doing so, she recognized that “the labor movement and the women’s movement pursued their own egalitarian demands,” but “points where they intersected created synergies of mutual reinforcement” (p. 167). Here, Postel masterfully traces the constantly shifting boundaries of social movements as they reacted to the intricate ways industrialization reordered American life. The Grange and the WCTU mobilized millions of Americans and achieved important victories at the state level, but these regulatory measures represented little more than building blocks for a broader politics of reform that sought to harness federal power and protect the class interests of specific constituencies.   

Part 3 focuses on the Knights of Labor as an example of late nineteenth-century associationalism. Readers familiar with labor histories of Reconstruction and the Gilded Age will recognize Postel’s narrative of the crucial role Ira Steward’s eight-hour movement and the National Labor Union played in shaping the Knights’ commitment to industrial unionism. Following Terrence Powderly’s election as grand master workman in 1879, the organization’s explosion married the principles of a benevolent association with union organizing. The Knights won over a wide cross-section of Americans whose calls for currency reform (the Greenback Party), regulated markets (the Grange), or temperance and women’s rights (the WCTU) intersected with Powderly’s monumental effort to organize trade assemblies. When Powderly turned his organizing efforts south in the mid-1880s, the Knights adopted their own unique vision of white nationalism to achieve the same type of sectional reconciliation undertaken by the Grange and the WCTU. The Knights continued to embrace racial equality rhetorically and welcomed black recruits into their organization, but the long-term consequences of this shift eventually ensured that compromises built around sectional reconciliation and white nationalism were not limited to the South. Seeking to extend the Knights's reach into the West, Powderly embraced the widespread movement for Chinese exclusion. He sugarcoated his support for nativist measures as an egalitarian move to eliminate all systems of unfree and unequal labor; the Knights opposed the convict labor system for the same reason. However, when the Knights of Labor and the WCTU joined with the National Farmers’ Alliance to form the Populist Party, Powderly abandoned any question of his motivations in professing that “the Southern people are capable of managing the negro” (p. 304). The WCTU moved in the same direction by ending support for the creation of any future black chapters while their white counterparts rallied behind disenfranchising black voters. 

The Supreme Court joined farmers, women’s rights activists, and organized labor in abandoning the concepts of political and social equality. Postel’s efforts to situate Judge Stephen J. Field at the center of the Court’s shift away from the original intent of the Reconstruction Amendments is a particularly important addition to the historiography of Reconstruction and the Gilded Age. Tracing Field’s dissenting opinions in various cases, including the famous Slaughterhouse Cases (1873) and Munn v. Illinois (1876), Postel exposes an active effort on the jurist’s part to place corporations on an equal footing with “natural persons” (p. 277). His efforts finally came to fruition in 1886, when the concept of “artificial” or “corporate” personhood made its debut. In the end, the fight for equality led the great social movements of the late nineteenth century to veer into the realm of politics and embrace white nationalism to broaden their base while corporations wielded the often undemocratic power of the courts to win a place in the fluid debates over equality.  

Equality: An American Dilemma is a thought-provoking and meticulously researched study revealing the crucial role white nationalism and xenophobia played in undermining egalitarian ideals during the late nineteenth century. Additionally, Postel’s brilliant narrative provides a lens into the Supreme Court’s role in overturning the intent of those who framed the Reconstruction Amendments, thus placing even further limitations on the ability to achieve political and economic democracy. Graduate students and scholars of Reconstruction and the Gilded Age will appreciate the surprising connections Postel unearths between the three social movements explored in this study, but they will also take note of his ability to blur the boundaries between political and social history. Finally, popular audiences will appreciate the author’s clear attention to detail in tracing the roots of current debates swirling around questions of social justice, racial and gender inequality, and the role of the courts in restricting and equality of opportunity.    


[1]. The author references two influential works that are representative of these histories: Grant McConnell, The Decline of Agrarian Democracy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1953); and Elisabeth S. Clemens, The People’s Lobby: Organizational innovation and the Rise of Interest Group Politics in the United States, 1890-1925 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997). 

[2]. Richard White, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011). For the most recent scholarship on this topic, see R. Scott Huffard Jr., Engines of Redemption: Railroads and the Reconstruction of Capitalism in the New South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

Citation: Chris Fobare. Review of Postel, Charles, Equality: An American Dilemma, 1866-1896. H-Slavery, H-Net Reviews. June, 2020. URL:

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