Friday, June 26, 2009

Grow: " "Liberty to the Downtrodden": Thomas L. Kane, Romantic Reformer "

[ "Liberty to the Downtrodden": Thomas L. Kane, Romantic Reformer by Matthew J. Grow (Yale University Press, 2009). Hardcover, illustrations, notes, appendix, index. Pages main/total: 306/368. ISBN: 9780300136104 $40 ]

An upper class Pennsylvanian raised in a strict Presbyterian household, Thomas L. Kane was nevertheless an iconoclast and an important figure in the social reform movements of mid-19th century America. He went through an atheistic period before reconversion to nondenominational Christianity. Kane was an abolitionist and an anti-evangelical, at the same time campaigning for women's rights and religious freedom for minority groups (such as the Mormons). Founded on research into previously untapped sources, Matthew J. Grow's "Liberty to the Downtrodden" is first full, scholarly biography of Thomas Kane.

The vast majority of the book deals with Kane's personal life and the public crusades mentioned above, especially his defense of and intimate involvement with the Mormons. Serving in an unofficial capacity, Kane successfully negotiated a peaceful settlement between the U.S. government and Brigham Young during the 1857-58 "Utah War". Grow's coverage of this period is a highlight of his study. The Pennsylvanian later became a personal friend and adviser to the Mormon leader.

A brief chapter is devoted to Kane's Civil War career. With the outbreak of war, Kane cast away his pacifism, serving as the first lieutenant colonel of the famous "Bucktail" regiment. Wounded at Dranesville in 1861, he recovered only to be wounded again during the 1862 Shenandoah Valley Campaign. Promoted to brigadier general, Kane fought at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, before finally resigning in November 1862 due to ill health and the lingering effects from his wounds. At least in terms of the military aspects of Kane's involvement in the 1861-1863 campaigns and battles, the author's treatment of this period is fairly cursory in nature.

His work founded on a large cache of archival material [although I wish author and publisher had elected to include a bibliography], Grow has crafted an insightful and original biography of a Civil War general and prominent advocate of a number of 19th Century progressive movements. The author's acknowledgment of Kane's involvement in the substantial reform wing of the Democratic party (although he did switch to the Republicans in 1861) also serves as a useful reminder that the stereotypical popular view of antebellum Democrats as a reactionary political force is an overly simplistic and inaccurate one. Finally, given the importance of the long standing and beneficial relationship between Kane and the Mormon church leadership, historians and students of LDS history will find the volume an essential library addition.

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