The Possession of Frances Whipple

Frances Whipple was almost your standard aristocrat, heir to an elite family name; but through a life of radical activism she helped transform America.

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Frances Whipple was born into the quintessential American aristocratic family. On her father’s side, the Whipple line included Rhode Island heroes like Abraham, who led the burning of the British ship Gaspee in 1772, and some of the earliest settlers of the colony. On Frances’ mother’s side, the Scotts included some of Roger Williams’ earliest and closest associates in the foundation of the Rhode Island colony. In 1815, though, nature leveled the Whipple clan. A storm called the Great Gale ravaged Providence, flooding wharves and destroying crops within a 40-mile radius of the city. It was also the year without a summer, thanks to the Tambora volcano in Indonesia, which erupted so violently that the ash clouds actually cooled the planet. With a future of nothing but drought, sooty clouds and gloom, her father sold the family farm in 1816 and Whipple was destitute. Frances supported herself through odd jobs and self-education. She became a very different sort of Whipple, and over her lifetime, she helped make America a very different sort of place.

Sarah O’Dowd, A Rhode Island Original: Frances Harriet Whipple Green McDougall, 2004.

“Elleanor Eldridge: Folk Hero of African American Feminism”

“Let Usurpers Tremble: The Unrepublican Anomaly”

Whipple, Might and Right: By A Rhode Islander, Providence: A.H. Stilwell. 1844.

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00:06 Anthony Comegna: Frances Whipple was born into the quintessential American aristocratic family. On her father’s side, the Whipple line included Rhode Island heroes like Abraham, who led the burning of the British ship Gaspee in 1772, and some of the earliest settlers of the colony. On Frances’ mother’s side, the Scotts included some of Roger Williams’ earliest and closest associates in the foundation of the Rhode Island colony. In 1815, though, nature leveled the Whipple clan. A storm called the Great Gale ravaged Providence, flooding wharves and destroying crops within a 40-mile radius of the city. It was also the year without a summer, thanks to the Tambora volcano in Indonesia, which erupted so violently that the ash clouds actually cooled the planet. With a future of nothing but drought, sooty clouds and gloom, her father sold the family farm in 1816 and Whipple was destitute. Frances supported herself through odd jobs and self-education. She became a very different sort of Whipple, and over her lifetime, she helped make America a very different sort of place.

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01:26 Anthony Comegna: Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna.

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01:48 Anthony Comegna: The 19th century was one of the great eras of reform movements, and Frances Whipple dabbled in just about all of them at some point in her life, from Locofocoism and Dorrism to forms of early libertarianism, all the way to spiritualism, feminism and abolitionism, with a few others mixed in from time to time. It was an age when Americans were still discovering who they were and where they fit into the world around them. Whipple called it “the new age of reform,” and its bounds were limitless. Radicals like her believed there were few, if any, natural limitations on what human beings could achieve. And Whipple lived this principle every day of her life.

02:29 Anthony Comegna: Early in her career as a writer, Whipple contributed to a literary magazine called The Original. Gaining some prominence, she came to the attention of a Rhode Island Women’s Benevolent Society, hoping to raise funds for the relief of one Elleanor Eldridge. Elleanor was a free black resident of Providence, recently embroiled in a vexatious legal battle for her home and property, virtually bankrupted by the fees incurred. Whipple was tasked with writing the memoirs of Elleanor Eldridge and Elleanor’s second book, both of which sold tens of thousands of copies. They were astonishing successes that made Elleanor Eldridge a folk hero of African American feminism. Frances Whipple became a Rhode Island literary legend, positioning her well to agitate the related issues of suffrage and slavery. Throughout her life, interracial sisterhood was a key theme.

03:19 Anthony Comegna: In 1844, Whipple published Might and Right, her history of Rhode Island’s constitutional crisis, the Dorr Rebellion. Whipple had long been involved in the effort to reform her state’s government, and vigorously supported Thomas W. Dorr’s movement to spontaneously replace its constitution. After a standoff between Dorr’s government and the old state government, the radicals lost and opted to compromise for a new constitution approved by the old government. When Whipple published Might and Right, Dorr occupied a prison cell, charged with treason against his state. Meanwhile, his followers were busy clambaking Van Buren, then Polk, into the White House, losing sight of their principles each step of the way. She dedicated Might and Right to Dorr, the true and tried patriot, the fearless defender of human rights. But she was plainly reacting to the movement’s military failure, the weak wills and cheap manhoods that apparently occupied the land. For her, the Dorr War was a struggle for all humanity.

04:23 Anthony Comegna: Her first task, then, was to rally the firm Republicans of sister states to come to the aid of liberty-loving Rhode Islanders. She adopted the definitive language and sense of certainty found in all expressions of manifest destiny. To Whipple, the Loco-Dorrite revolution would literally spread like wildfire in the winds, if only the people chose to make it so. The pattern she foresaw closely followed the Free Soil election of 1848 and the Republican Party’s route to victory in 1860. But more on those later.

04:57 Anthony Comegna: In 1845 Frances Whipple, now Frances Green, edited Liberty Chimes, a collection of antislavery writings. Thomas Dorr was one of the state’s most prominent abolitionists and defenders of free speech, but his reluctant assent to the whites-only clause in the People’s Constitution alienated much of the abolition movement from the Dorr movement. Frances connected the two, and offered Liberty Chimes as a call for unity to refocus on the ways powerful people impact our lives, especially our families. In The Slave Wife, Whipple wrote with shocking realism about the fact of master-slave sexual violence, six years before Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. For Whipple, women’s liberation and abolitionism were one and the same cause, points along the way in the great continuum of liberty and power. Her other Liberty Chimes story, Ahmed’s Letters, told the story of a Barbary traveler to the United States, disgusted by the annexation of Texas and the expansion of slavery within a supposedly free country. History was not supposed to go this way. Over the next decades, the fruits of war drove single issue wedges between the diverse factions of the Locofoco Movement.

06:15 Anthony Comegna: Frances Whipple married and divorced Charles Green within two years, likely the victim of domestic abuse and spousal neglect. At the highest point of tensions between radical political factions, her own life took dramatic and unexpected turns. After her divorce, Whipple lived in Pomfret, Connecticut, with her sister’s family, until meeting Samuel Brittan, one of the founders of American spiritualism. She lived with Brittan’s family in Bridgeport for some time and immersed herself in the new faiths of the industrial era. Transcendentalism, mesmerism, magnetism, Swedenborgianism and spirit mediumship. For spiritualists, their religion was not only authentically American, it was the quintessential American faith. It was one small variant of the larger existential crisis in Jacksonian America.

07:07 Anthony Comegna: Adrift in a swiftly changing, ever more complex world, many Americans embraced radical new answers to old questions about man’s place in history and the cosmos. Most cultural institutions weathered the storm, but new scientific learning was everywhere, accessible to more people than ever before. And disciplines like geology clouded all traditional knowledge with doubt. In place of the traditional Christian God or the deists’ divine clockmaker, spiritualists saw godliness in the operations of nature, especially electricity. Darwin’s discoveries expanded the issue further, while telegraphs transmitted one’s thoughts electrically around the globe. During the 1850s, Americans everywhere experimented with telegraphy, and spirit mediums, like Whipple’s mentor, Samantha Mettler, practiced charging their auras with electrical energy. Experts claimed they became spirit batteries, communicating with the dead by telegraph.

08:05 Anthony Comegna: The movement began with people like Brittan and Whipple in the 1840s, and reached its peak in the 1860s. Whipple wrote for Brittan’s spiritualist publications, including accounts of clairvoyant magnetic healing, to lessons for young people in botany. In 1860, spiritualists held a large convention in Providence, and Whipple was advertising her services as a healing medium. She was one of two people marketing mediumship in Rhode Island at the time, and Providence became known as a leading center of spiritualist thought in the country.

08:41 Anthony Comegna: Frances moved to San Francisco in 1861, just a few months after the Civil War began. There, she wrote for the award-winning Hesperian and the Pacific Monthly. She regularly lectured on her prophetic visions of California’s destiny at churches and reading groups. Soon after she arrived, Whipple became famous for channeling the spirit of Union colonel ED Baker, killed at Ball’s Bluff, Virginia in October 1861. Whipple claimed that Colonel Baker’s spirit communicated a funeral oration he wished her to deliver. Using Frances Whipple as his medium, the spirit of Colonel Baker became the first major politician on the West Coast to advocate emancipation. Over an unknown amount of time, Colonel Baker’s spirit made its presence known to her somehow, and engaged her in long conversations about how to properly communicate his message. She delivered the oration personally at Platt’s Hall in San Francisco.

09:37 Anthony Comegna: Baker, through Whipple, began his speech with an explanation of mediumship and spiritualism itself. And we should note, in keeping with the new science, it was a material explanation. Crude, of course, but materialist nonetheless. Baker assures the audience that a proper understanding of spiritual existence would near immediately set mankind aright. He tells them, moreover, that he did not come alone tonight. He brought with him into the hall a gaggle of history’s greatest statesmen, a group of the wisest of the wise spirits, calling themselves the Spiritual Congress on American Affairs.

10:19 Speaker 2: Mrs. Frances H. Green, the Baker Oration. Power and Permanence of American Institutions, delivered at Platt’s Hall on Wednesday evening, March 5th, 1862.

10:32 Speaker 2: Ladies and gentleman, citizens of San Francisco. Before entering on the main subject, permit me a word of explanation concerning the reasons of this reunion. I was, as you well know, called away abruptly and from the midst of life, a memory of promise, rather than of great achievement lay behind a mountain of unattempted work towered up before. The yet unabated power of life had been germinating, growing, clasping whatever they could reach, still putting forth toward the unbloomed blessings of the great unexplored beyond. Think ye that any bullet, blade or bayonet could, in an instant of time, sever all these: Germs, buds, blossoms, tendrils of the soul? Nothing is more false than this assumption. The uncompleted life is attached to everything around it by the radiation of 10,000 vital interests which are, so to speak, offshoots of the soul, and partakers of its own immortal energy.

11:31 Speaker 2: If the life be a working and aspiring power, it will reach out still farther, still more resolutely, and shape the future by the irrepressible emanations of its own will. You cannot crush all of life at one blow. If you cut down a green tree, though you sever the trunk, you do not kill the roots. Their unexhausted vitality will assert itself. They will push forth at random and live their allotted term in some shape or by some means. But if the tree dies of itself altogether, either by old age or disease, the separation is complete and the transition perfect.

12:09 Speaker 2: The human soul, as you may see by this, is not an abstract essence or organism boxed up in a six by two or five by one and a half apparatus of insurmountable outline by its love, its hope, its faith, its will. Aye, by its necessities, more than all, it creates and sustains innumerable relations with things all around as well as beyond itself. And these ties are not independent abstractions, but they are actual emanations of its own substance, essences of its own power, intense partakers of a nature immortal and indestructible as itself. When the spirit is prepared for transition by the gradual operation of age or disease, it retracts its tendrils, it reabsorbs its emanations. Like one about to take a long journey, it calls home all it may want by the way, it gathers back all that properly belongs to it, that it may go forth free and leave no essential thing behind. But when the cord of life is severed suddenly, there is no time for retraction. The process is wholly unnatural, and the violated law claims its own. This is the secret of ghosts and apparitions with which the history of the world teems.

13:27 Speaker 2: The spirits of persons who die by accident, crime or any other untimely means come back because the unsevered ties of earth draw and compel them to return. It has been the subject of regret with many intelligent and benevolent minds that I ever exchanged the forum for the field. But however disastrous it may seem and, in fact, is, by that movement, I have been thrown into the line of a truer promotion. I have been translated from the lower to the upper house, where not the affairs of the nation only, but of the world are discussed and ordered. Imagine, if you can, the august character of that assembly, where Cicero, Clay, Chatham, Demosthenes, Emmett and Webster are among the speakers, where Solon is secretary, where Sydney, Washington, Milton, Franklin and Toussaint are a committee on American affairs, where William Tell and Leonidas are doorkeepers, and the glorious old Greek who sang freedom with the morning stars, Homer, presides.

14:28 Speaker 2: What could be given or expected more than the merest shadow of the scope, aims and plane of thought that must distinguish such an assembly? This is no fable, no picture of excited imagination. There are absolutely organizations of spiritual power where the affairs of earth are continually canvassed, and measures are taken to regulate and control them. And it is something more than mere egotism, or even patriotism, to declare that the present war in America is the subject, of all others, that now most engrosses the attention of these august minds. Could you enter into the spirit of their councils, you would enlarge your ideas of Christendom, you would pull up your old stakes and stake e’er larger for the boundaries of the civilized world.

15:15 Speaker 2: Here are many representatives from heathen and savage nations, and many also from unfortunate conditions in the so-called civilization. Their very names may have died out from earth and perished with them, in their limited spheres of knowledge and use they lived and died unknown to fame and unhonored by history. And yet, in their genuine love of good, in their aptitude for truth and, above all, in their reaching and aspiring power, they have unfolded beauty and wisdom that rank them with the highest. And this should comfort and strengthen all earnest and aspiring souls. They know not the power that is in them.

15:56 Speaker 2: Citizens of San Francisco, I bring with me tonight a grander company than you have ever yet welcomed within your walls: Statesmen, philosophers, prophets, poets, martyrs, heroes and demigods, they who lived and they who died for the genuine love of right. Could you see and know them, the house would not hold you, the city would not hold you. You would flock from every quarter to salute and entertain guests so glorious. Could you only comprehend how they are working in and through you to repress evil, to unfold good, you would not so contract, you could not so debase yourselves. Could you see how benignly they bend from their beautiful spheres to reach and move you, you would come out with one mind to meet and to work with them. The temptations of policy, the corruptions of lucre, and all the belittling finesse of world craft would be left behind. I will now endeavor to translate or transfer to you the sense of the house, which I have the honor to represent, the Spiritual Congress on American Affairs.

17:06 Speaker 2: In a general way, it may be said that the sentiment of the spirit world in regard to this subject is the sentiment of the Declaration of Independence, of the American Revolution and of all clear-seeing, right-minded people since that period and before. It may be resolved into one word: Humanity. This, in its most liberal sense, includes everything of right, power, possession in the individual, in the nation and in the race. It involves the security of life, liberty and happiness. Whatever comports with, or promotes these, at least in a general and generous sense, must be in harmony with it and, therefore, true, whether it be national, sectional, social or individual. Being true, it is founded in the indestructible elements of things and, therefore, cannot be lost. Whatever conflicts with or is subversive of these is false, unnatural and monstrous, and though, by a forced power, it may be sustained for a while, it must ultimately pass away and perish.

18:14 Anthony Comegna: Baker dwells at length on the argument that the American Revolution was, in its entirety, an abolitionist movement. He marshals quote after quote from that great generation of heroes, Washington, Lafayette, Jefferson, Hamilton and on and on and on. He argues both that the Constitution was an antislavery document, that it nowhere recognized slavery, and then chastises them for fetishizing a piece of parchment. Moral laws, spiritual laws, transcend the merely human-made and, treasonous it may be, no one was required to support an unjust law. Northerners had long abandoned their duties to their fellow human beings, preferring instead the much easier work of voting once or twice a year. Meanwhile, the slave power was always on the advance, gobbling up a sleepy public’s last liberties, one by one. Now the nation’s wicked rulers had pushed the sections into civil war, and the people were paying for their follies in blood. It was undoubtedly a horrifying tragedy, but it did offer a chance for redemption.

19:24 Speaker 2: It has been a grand error of our people that they have regarded protective documents which are the work of finite human beings as irreversible and final. They have been invested with a sanctity which does not belong to them. Constitutions and laws may represent the ultimate of wisdom at any given time and place set free, but there is no more obligation to keep and follow when we have outgrown them than there is to keep the old spinning wheel, or a sickle, or a stage coach when machinery and steam are ready to come in and multiply the old unit of hand and horsepower by hundreds and by thousands. This blind subservience to written documents has in it, indeed, a taint of the old time when the supreme state was the grand idol on whose bloody altar humanity was immolated. It is contrary to the whole spirit of American institutions, whose original aim and scope, whose fundamental spirit and power, were all intended to unfold and cherish and protect the man.

20:27 Speaker 2: You must go down to the very root of the tree of liberty and cut and cauterize before you try to heal. You must kill the worm that is gnawing there with its poisonous fangs infecting the whole growth. You must crush its many heads. You must burn it on the spot. You must gather up its very ashes and cast them into the depths of the deepest sea, lest by some horrible necromancy, they be restored to life and bring forth a new brood of curses. We have been beguiled. We have been paralyzed. We have been led by unwise and unworthy motives, and now we are paying the penalty of our weak and insane stupidity. We are paying it in rivers of blood, in floods of fire. And the fact that we are able to pay it is not due to the policy of leaders, to statesmen or politicians, but to the great heart of the American people.

21:22 Speaker 2: This, amid all corruptions, has yet retained enough of truth to save it, enough of humanity and manhood to move and control it. Aye, and it is this that must conquer. It is this that must wear forever the laurels of unfading freedom. The Spartan, the Grecian and Roman Republics perished and passed away because they were not founded on the broad principles of humanity and justice, and so must ultimately be dissolved all governments that do not recognize the absolute sovereignty of man and the inviolable sanctity of human right. They have invoked their fate. Hour by hour, they hasten to their doom. The most stupendous drama in the history of time is now unfolding. The world is the stage, the nations are actors, and it may be that the scenes will be centuries, and the acts, ages. But be it longer or shorter, it must be played out. All the powers of human nature and human destiny will there meet, not only shoulder to shoulder and thigh to thigh, but thought to thought and soul to soul.

22:31 Speaker 2: And so long as slavery is able to stand against freedom, error against truth, or wrong against right, so long will the contest continue. The sacred books of almost all people teach the final subjugation of the powers of evil. There is a grand truth in this doctrine, and now the world rapidly hastens towards its fulfillment. Remember that in the coming contest, nothing but the genuine armor of right will sustain you. Everything will be tested by Severus trial, and no shams will then pass muster.

23:09 Anthony Comegna: Shortly after delivering the funeral oration, Frances married William McDougall, a Scottish Ohioan, former California state representative, and wealthy local miner. For the remainder of her days, Frances Whipple McDougall enjoyed a modest lifestyle and domestic peace while producing a vigorous stream of new publications on spiritualism, mediumship, and a mystical liberal vision for what America and California could make itself. Whipple closed her life and career in relative isolation and obscurity, though countless Americans felt her influence. She stopped short of advocating for women’s suffrage, largely because she feared politics would destroy women’s social position of moral supremacy and objectivity. Whatever women at home could accomplish, women at the ballot box could fritter away.

24:02 Anthony Comegna: Her undoubtable feminism is exactly what attracted her and many other literary women of the day to spiritualism. Amorphous as it was, it was the only contemporary religion that offered women full equality. Women as mediums channeling spirits escaped the long series of sociopolitical restrictions on their behavior. The spirits spoke through them and the medium’s words were not necessarily her own. In fact, audiences might have an impossible time distinguishing between a true believer medium and a woman with her own opinions and soapbox. Every individual, regardless of gender, race, class, or any other distinction, could witness the mysteries of spiritualism and the individual knowledge of his or her own electric relationship with nature. No need for clergy, political or religious. She lived a new sort of American’s life, fraternizing equally with both sexes. She was an empowered, individualistic feminist, and she was a radical Locofoco and libertarian before either word existed.

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25:17 Anthony Comegna: Liberty Chronicles is a project of libertarianism.org. It is produced by Tess Terrible. If you’ve enjoyed this episode of Liberty Chronicles, please rate, review and subscribe to us on iTunes. For more information on Liberty Chronicles, visit libertarianism.org.

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