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"Moses married a colored woman".

The Fight for Interracial Marriage Rights in Antebellum Massachusetts

By Amber D. Moulton

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015, 280 pp., $45.00, hardcover

The history of racial mixing, whether called amalgamationism or miscegenation, has long been fraught with the kind of neglect associated with cultural taboos. Neglect does not indicate a lack of interest or importance. In the past, a myriad of subjects--many of them sex-related--have been perceived to be out of bounds, indecent, not fit for public disclosure, particularly among ladies. In the nineteenth century, those topics included contraception, the appearance and function of women's bodily parts, extreme sexual pleasure, rape or varieties of harassment, homosexuality, and experiences of or yearnings for interracial sex. Social psychologists and others speculate endlessly about the origins and cultural function of this apparent obsession with intimacy. But, however explained, for much of American history, sexual exchanges between members of different races, North or South, particularly but not only between whites and blacks, topped the list of forbidden topics. In the 1830s, when a Connecticut school teacher named Prudence Crandall was criticized harshly for daring to open an academy for African American girls (who critics feared might seduce white boys), she met her opponents with the single most outrageous and defiant comment she could muster: "Moses married a colored woman."

In all of these areas of inquiry, scholars confront peculiar, often crippling evidentiary problems. We write from utterances, whether in the form of letters or newspaper articles or statutes or paintings; where evidence is scarce, incomplete, or circumstantial, the record permits only speculation. Full, adequately supported accounts of the history of race mixing have emerged only recently. One thinks, to give a signal example, of Peggy Pascoe's stunning book, What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America (2010), which encompassed the American scene from Reconstruction into the twenty-first century, challenging dozens of old chestnuts--such as the idea that formal, legal equality fixes everything, or that securing the right to marry necessarily trickles down into other realms of civil society. She also laid bare the insidious naturalization of white supremacy and heterosexuality, alone and in combination, and unflinchingly addressed their capacity for survival, reproduction, or (most insidious of all) mutation.

Now, Amber Moulton's heroic labor in New England's archives (especially private collections, where participant-observers typically break silence more readily about sensitive matters) and public prints (notably newspapers) sheds more light on these important topics. Notes comprise one-fifth of the published book; Moulton will never be accused of speaking without evidence. It will be difficult henceforth for historians to assume that the antebellum period was devoted to moral reform (including abolitionism), and that antimiscegenation movements appeared only after the emancipation of the vast majority of blacks, for whom, before the Civil War, the very idea of legal marriage was moot. We now have a worm's-eye account of the many ways in which interracial marriage entered public conversations well before the War. More interesting, we begin to see how antebellum Massachusetts reformers conceived of racial mixing and marriage, as they struggled to eliminate slavery, lower-class illiteracy, alcoholism, domestic cruelty, prostitution, imprisonment for debt, and other examples of seemingly antirepublican injustice or immorality.

At the heart of Moulton's useful book is the discovery that, contrary to what Pascoe and others assumed from their post-Civil War vantage point, the terms "amalgamationism" and "miscegenation" were not interchangeable. To be sure, a scientist in 1864 did urge his colleagues to talk about "miscegenation" in place of the older concept of "amalgamationism" (a term borrowed from metallurgy), the better to distinguish between organic and inorganic mixtures. But in early Massachusetts, activists distinguished between the two words. As decades advanced, they slowly came to think of laws against mixed-race marriage (miscegenation) as an impediment to the general elimination of interracial promiscuity (amalgamationism)--a distinction entirely in keeping with antebellum reformers' devotion to social uplift and moral regeneration. To engage in physical sex within marriage, even across race lines, gave respectability to such intimacies; otherwise, public policy effectively fanned the flames of illicit, immoral, and demeaning behavior. Families--even disreputable ones--contributed tax revenue and promoted social peace; men and women sneaking into the woods at night aided no one and destabilized the republic.

Moulton notes as well that the right to marry did not carry--and for many reformers could not carry--the promise of political or social equality. One could be a proponent of interracial marriage and not believe in perfect, race-blind equality. Prudence Crandall could remind her critics that Moses had married a black woman without believing in or recommending the elimination of all racial distinctions--a phenomenon that seems to me to mirror the fact that many opponents of slavery also held fast to a belief in black inferiority and even white supremacy.

Still, Moulton's research design invites questions about geographic or cultural reach. I think of urbanist Sam Bass Warner Jr.'s classic article, "If All the World Were Philadelphia: A Scaffolding for Urban History, 1774-1930" (American Historical Review, October 1968). What if the rest of the nation, or even the rest of the eastern seaboard, concluded differently from Massachusetts? The Commonwealth, we know, had always been sui generis, beginning with its penchant for annoying, and even filing suit against, the English, well before 1776; in the early nineteenth century, only upstate New Yorkers challenged the Massachusetts leadership in social-reform movements. More important, what are we to make of Moulton's contention that "advancing interracialism" (a useful term) resembles or parallels the recent trend of Americans once opposed to same-sex marriage moving toward its support? As she puts it, "bans on same-sex marriage offer a revealing parallel to laws against interracial marriage."

The idea that the defeat of miscegenation policies might shed light on the fate of legislation designed to forestall same-sex equality is understandable and the construction of parallels perhaps irresistible. As Moulton points out repeatedly, gay-marriage supporters have been both "empowered and constrained" by the "language of morality and ... legal equality" employed over many decades to gain traction in public debate. She likely is right, too, about the similarities in the curious failure of both varieties of marital equality to secure freedom and equity in other areas of daily life. One can be married and still experience abject workplace discrimination or inadequate police protection. The social-peace imperative can be powerful enough to win the day, but not to overcome persistent racial animosity or homophobia. To make things worse, the achievement of marriage equality strongly suggests that the hard work is done, when in fact it has just begun--a lesson black people learned the hard way.

But the parallels are far from exact. To offer one example, and as Pascoe pointed out some time ago, interracial marriage undermines white supremacy, with its deep-seated fears of genetic tainting and racial sabotage, whereas gay marriage treads on the equally sacred but different ground of heterosexuality. While opponents of gay marriage regularly issue warnings about the imminent ruination of the adopted or artificially inseminated children of LGBT partners, these ring hollow compared to the shrill Jeremiads that surrounded (and, in some quarters, still surround) black-white liaisons. In the case of miscegenation, the integrity and purity of the race itself was at issue whenever mixed-race couples bore children; with gay marriage, offspring are neither guaranteed nor "amalgamated." Antigay-marriage sentiment among whites surely has to do in part with the fear that their own kind might fail to reproduce "naturally," hastening the moment when whites lose place to what Americans used to call "tawny" people. Nineteenth-century reformers prepared to tolerate racial mixing could say, as one did, "We love our opposites." In the case of gay marriage, even this supposedly "natural" maxim has been violated. In other words, while antigay-marriage sentiments therefore implicate white supremacy and the race's reproduction, those sentiments do not lie at the heart of, and surely do not exactly track or replicate, the moralizing discourses mounted in antebellum Massachusetts.

Still, this is a valuable book, not least for its modest but rigorous research design and the author's careful excavation of elusive archival records. Nineteenth-century Americans did not intend to make the job easy; when the subject was naughty or illicit, silences multiplied. But, as this book makes clear, observers couldn't help leaving markers and bread crumbs. Sometimes testimony was public and offensive, as when the anti-amalgamationist reformer Frances Drake decided that she still could be an abolitionist and "not treat niggers so familiarly." Elsewhere, it was private, coded, shrouded. We need a groaning shelf of close-to-the ground accounts of developments in the West, the Midwest, the Southwest, and the Pacific Northwest (where subjects would include Asians and Indians) modeled after this one, the better to know whether reformers everywhere occupied the same discourse and imagined the same racial and sexual hierarchies. Meanwhile, I welcome Moulton's substantial contribution.

Sandra F. VanBurkleo, a member of the Department of History at Wayne State University, teaches and writes at the intersection of legal-constitutional history and race/gender studies. Her newest book, Gender Remade: Citizenship, Suffrage, and Public Power in the New Northwest, 1879-1912 is forthcoming.
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Title Annotation:The Fight for Interracial Marriage Rights in Antebellum Massachusetts
Author:VanBurkleo, Sandra F.
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2016
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