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Review of “The Political Thought of America’s Founding Feminists”

Male voices dominate the canon of American political thought.  Lisa Pace Vetter’s book, The Political Thought of America’s Founding Feminists, examines the political theories of seven women who were central figures in American political thought, despite their exclusion from the contemporary canon.  Makers of the canon have dismissed these thinkers as derivative “popularizers” of men’s ideas and their theories as “mere advocacy or activism” (216).  Instead, Vetter shows how these women built on classical political thinkers like Alexis de Tocqueville and Adam Smith to make original contributions to American political theory.  Their analyses of slavery, abolitionist politics, and women’s oppression in the early Republic contributed to our understanding of fundamental American political principles such as citizenship, equality, liberty, happiness, and justice.  For Vetter, this merits these women’s inclusion in the canon as “America’s founding feminists.”

Beginning her analysis with British travel writers Frances Wright and Harriet Martineau, Vetter examines how both women’s abolitionist and feminist analyses of American politics encouraged women to think and speak freely.  Wright develops Alexis de Tocqueville’s concept of “interest convergence” to demonstrate white men’s interest in Black and female equality.  However, she departs from Tocqueville when she advocates for a universal education that will enable all citizens to distinguish opinion from truth as they interrogate the voices of elite thinkers.  Martineau, on the other hand, builds on Adam Smith’s work to develop a unique theory of sympathy that requires citizens to engage the “other” to develop a pluralist, culturally specific understanding of morality and human happiness.  For Martineau, sympathy facilitates the understanding that difference need not produce inequality.

Vetter’s analysis next examines two thinkers known primarily as abolitionists and only secondarily as feminists, Angelina and Sarah Grimké.  First, Vetter defends Angelina’s rhetorical style against accusations that it was too incendiary.  Vetter demonstrates that Angelina’s impassioned rhetoric is consistent with Adam Smith’s moral theory of rhetoric, “provid[ing] an example of how to deploy a powerful, often deeply emotional rhetoric while maintaining moral and intellectual legitimacy.”  Next, Vetter demonstrates Sarah Grimké’s unique combination of Quaker constitutionalism and human reason, which suggests that the U.S. Constitution (or any constitution) is only valid to the extent that it meets the requirements of what Quakers understood to be a God-given “fundamental constitution,” which includes all people under its rule.

The next two chapters examine woman suffragists who were also, secondarily, abolitionists.  Vetter looks first at Lucretia Mott’s contribution to political thought, which has long been overshadowed by her contemporary woman suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who Vetter examines second.  Mott’s anti-dogmatism requires that each citizen become a truly free thinker because oppression occurs when people accept any particular creed besides their own.  Left to their devices, Mott asserts, individuals can recognize and reject dogmatism in all its forms, producing a radical, self-scrutinizing democracy.

Read entire article at Society for US Intellectual History