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Q&A with Stanford Humanities Center fellow Charles Postel

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Charles Postel has spent his year at the center working on the demand for equal rights among disparate groups during the Reconstruction Era.
Photo Credit: 
Steve Castillo

Charles Postel is professor of history at San Francisco State University, where he teaches courses on U.S. politics, thought and culture. He has published work on the political ideas of late 19th century farm and labor reform, and on modern conservatism. His acclaimed book The Populist Vision reassessed the populist movement and argued that populists were modern people, who pursued an alternate vision for modern America. In 2008 the book won both the Frederick Jackson Turner Award of the Organization of American Historians and the Bancroft Prize.
 
Postel’s current book project, "The Problem of Equal Rights: Reform in Post-War America," focuses on how disparate groups began to make claims for equal rights during the aftermath of the Civil War. He examines how participants in activist movements understood the idea of equal rights in their historical moment, and how these understandings contributed to the defeat of the Reconstruction experiment in racial equality, the diverse mobilizations against the inequities of corporate capitalism, and the shaping of modern America.

What is the focus of your current research?

The conclusion of the Civil War, fought over racial slavery, unleashed a tumultuous conflict over the meaning of equality in America. Freed slaves, women, farmers, workers, and middle class activists formed associations of unprecedented scope and power. This made the post-Civil War years something of a collectivist moment in American life. The millions of men and women who joined the farmers’ Grange, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Knights of Labor, and similar associations pursued often incompatible and conflicting claims for equal rights. My current research explores how different participants understood the idea of equality in their historical context. I am especially interested in how these understandings shaped pivotal developments, including the defeat of the Reconstruction experiment in racial equality in the former Confederacy, political movements against the economic inequities of Gilded Age capitalism, and the consolidation of corporate power. 

What drew you to work on equal rights in America?

In a sense, I stumbled onto this topic. I am interested in the political ideas that have animated social movements. I had written a book about the Populist movement of the 1890s, but I was curious about the ideas that inspired similar movements in the previous decades. I knew that African Americans emerging from slavery aspired to equal rights. But I was surprised to discover that at the end of the Civil War demands for equal rights and equality were so widespread among such diverse groups of the population. This led me to explore why this happened and what it meant.

Why is it valuable to study ideas about equality? 

As an historian, I see the main value of this study as providing a better understanding of the power and multifaceted nature of the egalitarian impulse in American life in the post Civil War decades, and thereby filling in missing pieces of the puzzle of a turbulent period in U.S. history. And as a twenty-first century citizen of a world riven by economic, racial, and gender inequalities, I think there is value in understanding just how dynamic, complex, and contradictory equal rights claims can be. 

How do you conduct your research? (Archives, materials, examined, etc.?)

Most of my research is in the record left behind by farmer, labor, and women’s organizations. This includes memoirs of organizers, correspondence, minutes of meetings, leaflets, and newspaper accounts. Much of this research requires traveling to archives at, for example, the Iowa State Historical Society and thumbing through letters written to and from officers of the Grange. But in recent years, historical societies and other archives have digitized a vast amount of material. This has greatly expanded the quantity of sources that are available online. This is terrific. But it also means more work, not less, because to make good use of these thousands of digital sources still requires the old-fashioned labor of careful reading, note taking, and analyzing. 

What would people be surprised to learn about the topic that you are working on? 

Perhaps people would be surprised to learn that the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was the largest organization advocating equal rights for women, with a membership in the 1880s ten times the size of the women’s suffrage associations. The WCTU was a far cry from the hatchet wielding and “hell and damnation” caricatures of temperance women. For the WCTU, alcoholism was understood as a public health issue, and was one of the multiple issues they campaigned on in the name of women’s progress and equal rights.  

People might also be surprised to learn that the farmers’ Grange, which by the early 1870s had a million members concentrated in Iowa, Missouri, and other rural states, was founded in 1867 in a federal office building in Washington, D.C., by six federal bureaucrats and a retired investment banker. At the time, many farmers viewed federal power as the key to their economic success and equal rights.