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Portrait of an Abolitionist: A Biography of George Luther Stearns, 1809-1867.

Drawing from widely scattered manuscript collections, Charles Heller reconstructs the public life of George Luther Steams, an influential Boston manufacturer, a generous philanthropist, and a radical reform organizer. Steams emerges as an articulate exponent of free labor ideology, particularly that aspect of it which insisted that the organizing principles of industrial capitalism created the means by which slavery could be destroyed, equal rights established, and Northern men and methods exalted in the land.

Stearns was eleven when his father died and fifteen when his family's financial needs required that he enter the world of business as a clerk. With a keen eye for business opportunities in New England's expanding economy, Steams soon emerged as a successful manufacturer, first of linseed oil and later of lead pipe. By the 1840s, Steams was one of the wealthiest men in New England. He also enjoyed social prominence and formed close personal relationships with reform-minded intellectuals, notably Ralph Waldo Emerson, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, and Lydia Maria Child (his wife's aunt). By 1859 Steams's circle of friends included the wealthy paper manufacturer Francis W. Bird and the politically powerful members of the "Bird Club." Steams gained entry into this elite group through his work with the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company, procuring supplies and weapons for free-state settlers in Kansas. This work also brought Steams into close and friendly contact with John Brown. With Howe and other friends, Steams became one of the "Secret Six" conspirators who helped to plan Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry.

During the Civil War Steams turned his organizing talents to the recruitment of black troops. He traveled across the North to find the men needed to fill the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the black regiment that fought with stunning heroism in the failed federal assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, in July 1863. Commissioned a major in the United States Army, Steams went on to recruit over thirteen thousand black men for the Union cause. For reasons that Heller does not explore, Steams's two draft-aged sons never entered military service.

With the destruction of slavery, Steams believed that the lessons and experiences of the free-state struggle in Kansas could be applied to the entire South. Northern capital would revive the cultivation of Southern cotton on free labor principles. Steams himself invested in a plantation near Murfreesboro, Tennessee. To promote a radical reconstruction of the South, Steams joined in the founding of the Nation (1865) as the largest single investor. When it became clear that the journal's editor, E. L. Godkin, opposed radical reform, Steams launched the Right Way to challenge him. By then, however, failing health and declining financial fortunes soon brought his reform career to an end.

Heller's biography is thorough, competent, and welcome. However, the author does little to connect his subject with the substantial body of secondary literature on antebellum reform and emancipation. Readers are left on their own to locate Steams in the larger antislavery cause.

LOUIS S. GERTEIS University of Missouri-St. Louis

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Author:Gerteis, Louis S.
Publication:Civil War History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1997
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