Commentary from the Bookshelves— Lucretia Mott’s Heresy: Abolition and Women’s Rights in the Nineteenth Century by Carol Faulkner

Emerging Civil War welcomes back guest author Mark Harnitchek

Reading Carol Faulkner’s introduction to Lucretia Mott’s Heresy took me back to Mr. Carlson’s 8th grade American History class in 1967.  Before I begin my reflection on Lucretia Mott’s Heresy, a short personal reflection on Lucretia Mott is in order.  I grew up in Philadelphia close to a neighborhood called La Mott.   Everybody knew that La Mott had been a Civil War training camp for United States Colored Troops (USCT), called Camp William Penn.  As I remember the story, local Philly businessmen and bankers helped Free African Americans and Freedman build homes and businesses on the site of the old camp after the war.   Some of the houses even used timber from the camp’s original buildings.  The new residents called the neighborhood Camptown in honor of the USCT soldiers.   When Camptown grew large enough for a post office, the residents learned they would need a new name since a Camptown Post Office already existed in Pennsylvania.  In 1885, they chose the name La Mott after Lucretia Mott whose home, Roadside, was next to the camp.

So, when Mr. Carlson assigned a book report on a famous American, my mother suggested Lucretia Mott – renowned and long-time 19th century abolitionist, women’s rights activist and Philly “home girl.” The next day, I was in the school library determined to find a biography of Lucretia Mott, hopefully a short one.  I struck out – no books on Lucretia Mott.   The librarian suggested I look in the much larger city library.  I was soon on my bike headed to the Northeast Philadelphia Public Library.  Again, I had no luck.  I cannot recall who I wrote the report on, but it was not Mrs. Mott.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago, I read that, to author Carol Faulkner’s surprise, there have only been two scholarly biographies written about Lucretia Mott, both of them in the last 60 years.  Suddenly, I was 12 years old again leafing through the Dewey Decimal card catalog, hunting for “Mott, Lucretia” in my junior high library.   Now I know why I couldn’t find one – there were none to find.  I found it kismet-like that 50+ years later I was reading a Lucretia Mott bio!  

Carol Faulkner explains little has been written about Mott, and history has largely relegated her to 19th-century sainthood in the abolition and women’s rights movements.  Further complicating Mott’s brief historiography is that she kept few personal papers or speeches, she wrote no diary, and she wrote very little for publication.  She was a prolific, but almost exclusively extemporaneous, public speaker.  Faulkner suggests the key to understanding Mott’s long public career is her self-identification as a heretic – a term that describes her piety and her philosophy in addressing an unjust world.  Mott once declared at an anti-slavery convention that “it  was obligation of reformers to stand-out in our heresy to defy social norms, unjust laws and religious traditions.”   Throughout her adult life, Mott could be relied on to display this heresy, consistently putting principle above pragmatism. 

Faulkner also insists that while Mott was unequivocally dogmatic and steadfastly consistent in her beliefs, she was also a self-described cipher – a sort of enigma.  While many women’s rights activists devoted their lives to their cause, Mott’s Quaker beliefs required her to allot equal time to her vocation and her family.  She and her husband were married fifty-seven years, she had five children who grew to adulthood, and she was a doting grandparent.  Similarly, while her activist colleagues made their own way financially, Mott was completely dependent on her husband since her faith did not allow her to accept any pay.  Finally, while many reformers of the day left their respective religions over issues of morality, faith, or doctrine, Mott remained in the same Society of Friends Cherry Street Meeting for her entire life in spite of a contentious relationship with her Quaker brethren.    As Faulkner shows through the book, Mott was a wonderfully complex personality who challenged conventional social and cultural norms and the hierarchy in her own Quaker faith.  

Faulkner organizes the book chronologically with Mott’s family history on Nantucket Island, the family’s move to Boston and Lucretia’s boarding school days in New York.  In a chapter titled Schism, the author gives the reader an important and highly readable lesson on the Quaker faith.  To understand Lucretia Mott, the reader must understand the Quaker religion as the bedrock of Mott’s strong beliefs and faith in herself.  The Protestant faiths in early 19th century America held the Bible as the infallible word of God and final authority for Christian conduct and belief.  Protestants also held clergy in high regard and emphasized custom, ritual, and tradition.

Quakers, Faulkner explains, were radically different.  They eschewed formal clergy, local meetings were governed by consensus, women had an equal role in ministry and matters of faith, and the Bible was not the authoritative source for conduct and belief.  Instead, Quakers relied on “the divine light of God (that) was in every human being.”  Faulkner uses this divine or inner light as a theme to show how Mott’s own sense of right and wrong, not the Bible’s or clerical authority’s, governed her actions.  This commentary is emblematic of how she charted her own course, “I cannot accept its (the Bible’s) inspiration as a whole…let us recognize revelation and truth wherever we find it…love, and justice, and mercy, and right” are “innate, self-defined.”   Mott would channel this inner light to reform her own religion as well.

Faulkner’s chapter on abolition shows that Mott was in “the interracial vanguard of the anti-slavery movement.”   As with the rest of her convictions, Mott was an uncompromising ideologue for immediate emancipation, racial equality and the boycott of industries involved in slave-labor.  Faulkner also corrects the historical record which had previously downplayed or ignored women’s role at the outset of the movement.  Mott was an anti-slavery leader years before the renowned William Lloyd Garrison.  Faulkner contends that in many ways, “Mott was more Garrisonian than Garrison himself.”   She was present at the founding of the American Anti-Slavery Society, and founded the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, a body she operated for 36 years. 

Faulkner also corrects the record on Mott’s involvement in the women’s rights movement.  Previous scholarship had held that English Quakers’ shoddy treatment of women at the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention in London provided the impetus for Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s women’s rights in convention in Seneca Falls, NY.  The author shows, instead, that Mott’s advocacy for women’s rights was already a long-held part of her inner light ethos – her “responsibility as a rational and immortal being.”   For Mott, the subjugation of women and slavery were inseparable “threats to individual liberty wrought by mindless tradition and greed” (140).   Women’s rights were always part of her life-long struggle for human rights (167).  

Lucretia Mott’s Heresy is a wonderfully written biography of a central figure in the abolition and women’s rights movements.   Faulkner presents a very human portrait of a devoted wife, caring mother and relentless crusader.  It would not be an exaggeration to claim her inner light served as the conscience of the nation.  Faulkner’s work it a nice companion piece to the political history of slavery and women’s rights in this era.  If there is something minor missing from the book, I would have enjoyed reading more about Mott’s domestic life with her husband and children.  Her public accomplishments are impressive enough in their own right.  It would be enlightening to know how she and her husband managed to raise 5 children into successful adults.  This would complete the picture of this great American. 

Mark Harnitchek retired from the Navy in 2015 after 38 years of service and recently retired again from the aerospace industry.  He is currently a full-time Civil War history buff and recently completed his MA in American History at George Mason University.  

2 Responses to Commentary from the Bookshelves— Lucretia Mott’s Heresy: Abolition and Women’s Rights in the Nineteenth Century by Carol Faulkner

  1. In Rock Island County, Illinois, the schools mentioned Lucretia Mott as merely an anti-slavery contemporary of Beecher and Garrison: not as influential as Stowe (who wrote a best-selling book) or Brown (who helped spark the war.) The pre-war connections are worth pursuing, if only to unravel the thread labelled “Quakers.” In Iowa it was the Quakers (and Congregationalists) of Tabor and Springdale that supported John Brown, acting as stops on the Underground Railroad; and providing manpower for Harpers Ferry.
    Thanks to Mark Harnitchek for introducing a more complete biography, and explaining the pre-Civil War importance/ contribution of Lucretia Mott.

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