Book Review: Liberty to the Downtrodden

By March 3, 2009

Grow, Matthew H. “Liberty to the Downtrodden”: Thomas L. Kane, Romantic Reformer. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

Matt Grow’s impressive new biography, “Liberty to the Downtrodden”: Thomas L. Kane, Romantic Reformer, captures the life of a little-known nineteenth-century reformer and, in the process, illuminates understudied and misunderstood aspects of nineteenth-century America. Grow organized his work, now the definitive text on Kane, both chronologically and thematically, emphasizing Kane’s reform efforts while providing enough information about less relevant aspects to offer a complete narrative.  Kane’s reform activities, from pursuing women’s rights to defending polygamous Mormons, reveal the antebellum anti-evangelical reform culture which developed within the Democratic Party.  Grow, following Kane himself, placed Kane within the categories of romantic hero and gentleman of honor.  Ultimately, Grow’s study depicts Kane as both a type and an original in nineteenth-century American reform.

Raised in an upper-class and influential Philadelphia family, Kane benefited from his upbringing as evidenced in his trips to Europe during the early 1840s for health reasons.  Europe sparked Kane’s interest in reform.  In France, August Comte and positivism “fueled both [Kane’s] humanitarian drive and his religious unorthodoxy” (p. 22).   Upon returning to America Kane launched into educational reform, battling the anti-Catholic reform attempts of the evangelicals.  Soon, as Grow noted, “Kane’s own religious unorthodoxy and antipathy toward evangelicalism allowed him to find value in Mormon religion” (p. 68).

In 1846 Kane met the Mormons who became the featured group of Kane’s reform activities during the remainder of his life.  Kane, who eventually joined efforts with his wife Elizabeth, actively engaged in multitudinous reform movements, including peace reform, antislavery, temperance, women’s rights, and marriage reform, among others.  Yet, Kane’s extended efforts in behalf of the Mormons, and in particular his labors from 1846 through 1858, reveal his place in nineteenth-century anti-evangelical reform and reflect his roles as romantic hero and gentleman of honor.  Though Kane engaged in other activities during this period, he frequently served as the Latter-day Saints greatest non-Mormon ally.  Kane used his family’s powerful standing to encourage the federal government’s support of their move west.  After meeting with President Polk and visiting Mormon camps Kane knew the opportunity to mediate between the Federal Government and the belittled Latter-day Saints offered him a unique chance to battle evangelical reformers.

During the period between 1846 and 1852, when the LDS Church officially announced its practice of polygamy, Kane successfully reshaped the Mormon image.  Through important media organs, including Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, and the publication of his pamphlet, The Truth of the Mormons, Kane weaved a narrative which emphasized the Latter-day Saints’ suffering and drew national sympathy.  As Grow explained, this represented the only period from the 1850s to the 1890s “when the Mormons prevailed in the halls of Congress and in the press” (p. 91).   This, as Grow noted, complicates the traditional historical account of unhindered anti-Mormonism during the last half of the nineteenth-century.  Yet, Kane’s narrative strengthened Mormonism’s separatist tendencies, encouraging further separation from the American mainstream.

After the Mormons surprised Kane with the truth about polygamy, Kane encouraged a public announcement and continued to defend the Latter-day Saints.  Yet, the admission reversed the Mormon’s public image and the consequent increase in national antipathy toward Mormonism paved the way for the Utah War.  Grow shrewdly noted that Mormonism provided a cause that temporarily united a dividing nation.  As Grow highlighted, the resulting Utah War evidenced the limits of American tolerance and religious liberty.  Fighting this intolerance, Kane again constructed a powerful narrative, which described Brigham Young as the leader of a peace party in opposition to a Mormon war party, and consequently, Kane argued, a peaceful resolution necessarily involved the Mormon leader’s help.  Kane’s manipulation of events and mediating efforts “proved crucial in avoiding a military clash between the Mormons and the federal army and in keeping the peace in the succeeding years” (p. 174).

Grow’s work, much more than this review suggests, engages Kane in the context of nineteenth-century reform, and beyond his advocacy of the Mormons, Kane’s reform activities shed light on nineteenth-century America.  Although Kane found his way from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, with various stops in between, his antebellum reform efforts illuminate the anti-evangelical reform movement aligned with the Democratic Party.  As Grow noted, Kane’s antislavery activities reveal Democrats in the center of the movement to restrict and end slavery, which historians have largely ignored.  Kane eventually joined the Free Soil Party, and during the Civil War period transferred political loyalties from the antislavery Democrats to an abolitionist Republicans. Serving as an officer in the Civil War, Kane, as Grow explained, “examined the war through the lens of honor and chivalry, but he initially tried to avoid war altogether” (p. 211).  Following the War, Kane’s activities in charities, educational reform, and communitarian building reveal the post-War shift from gentlemen reformers to governmental reform during the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era.  His final efforts with Elizabeth in behalf of the Mormons and against anti-polygamy legislation further reveal Kane’s role as romantic reformer and heroic gentlemen battling in behalf of the downtrodden against evangelical reform.  Grow correctly noted that Kane’s life “makes him an ideal window onto this culture of reformers” (p. xvi).   This brief analysis incapably suggests the capability of Grow’s achievement.  Liberty to the Downtrodden successfully provides an interesting, illuminating, and comprehensive study of Thomas Kane, romantic reformer and gentleman of honor.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Thanks for the review, Jordan. I’ve got a couple of questions about how this book fits historiographically. First, how does Matt change our understandings of Mormon history during the 1840s, ’50s, and ’60s? Second, and more broadly, how do you think Matt’s treatment will change how American historians of the antebellum period understand Mormonism? I realize these are big questions, but I’d like to hear your thoughts, however underdeveloped they are at this point.

    Comment by David G. — March 3, 2009 @ 3:28 pm

  2. Thanks for the review, Jordan. I definitely need to make time to sit down and read the book.

    Comment by Christopher — March 3, 2009 @ 3:38 pm

  3. Jordan-

    Thanks for the review.

    Comment by Brandon — March 3, 2009 @ 3:44 pm

  4. Thanks for the review, Jordan; the book is on my bookshelf, but I probably won’t be able to give it any in-depth look until summer.

    I also echo David’s questions in #1.

    Comment by Ben — March 3, 2009 @ 3:47 pm

  5. David, great questions. I think Matt’s work offers a more nuanced understanding of the Mormon’s image on a national scale during the period you mentioned. Grow evidences that during the period from 1848-1852 in particular, Kane’s use of print fostered a widespread sympathetic view of Mormonism. The public announcement of plural marriage largely reversed this view, but it marks a break in anti-Mormon sentiment which, until Matt’s publication, had been overlooked.

    In a similar vein, I think Matt’s work highlights the impact of the Civil War on the Mormon image in America. Grow’s insight that the Mormon Question brought a dividing nation together before the outbreak of the Civil War reveals the impact of national crises on the Mormon’s public image. Further, I think that following the Civil War the Mormon Problem fostered reunion, in line with Blight’s argument in Race and Reunion.

    Your second question, I think, is more difficult to address. Perhaps those who have read Matt’s work can chime in. I think it’s possible Matt’s work will help American historians understand the salience of the Mormon Question in the antebellum period. Matt’s work certainly highlights the evangelical nature of anti-Mormonism during this period, which carries into the twentieth century.

    Just a few thoughts, but I’ll keep thinking about your questions.

    Comment by Jordan W. — March 3, 2009 @ 3:50 pm

  6. Thanks for the review, Jordan.

    Comment by Jared T. — March 3, 2009 @ 4:02 pm

  7. Thanks, Jordan. I agree with your assessment. These types of questions are always a bit difficult, since we have to first ask what are the major themes that dominate contemporary Mormon historiography from ca. 1847 through the mid-1860s. The problem is exacerbated by the paucity of synthetic works that deal with the period (aside from Campbell’s Establishing Zion I can’t think of many works that use that rough periodization). But I’d agree that the Matt’s book should make historians who deal with the interconnections between Utah and the U.S. rethink their assumptions.

    Comment by David G. — March 3, 2009 @ 4:24 pm

  8. I didn’t know Kane was so responsible for the reverse. Kind of interesting. I wonder how things would have played out had that not happened? I suspect it would only have delayed things by a few years…

    Comment by Clark — March 3, 2009 @ 10:55 pm

  9. Thanks for the generous review of the book. I appreciate the close and thoughtful reading.

    Comment by Matt Grow — March 6, 2009 @ 2:53 pm


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