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The Agitators

Three Friends Who Fought for Abolition and Women's Rights

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From the intimate perspective of three friends and neighbors in mid-nineteenth century Auburn, New York—the “agitators” of the title—acclaimed author Dorothy Wickenden tells the fascinating and crucially American stories of abolition, the underground railroad, the early women’s rights movement, and the Civil War.

Harriet Tubman—no-nonsense, funny, uncannily prescient, and strategically brilliant—was one of the most important conductors on the underground railroad and hid the enslaved men, women and children she rescued in the basement kitchens of Martha Wright, Quaker mother of seven, and Frances Seward, wife of Governor, then Senator, then Secretary of State William H. Seward.

Harriet worked for the Union Army in South Carolina as a nurse and spy, and took part in a river raid in which 750 enslaved people were freed from rice plantations. Martha, a “dangerous woman” in the eyes of her neighbors and a harsh critic of Lincoln’s policy on slavery, organized women’s rights and abolitionist conventions with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Frances gave freedom seekers money and referrals and aided in their education. The most conventional of the three friends, she hid her radicalism in public; behind the scenes, she argued strenuously with her husband about the urgency of immediate abolition.

Many of the most prominent figures in the history books—Lincoln, Seward, Daniel Webster, Frederick Douglass, Charles Sumner, John Brown, Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Lloyd Garrison—are seen through the discerning eyes of the protagonists. So are the most explosive political debates: about women’s roles and rights during the abolition crusade, emancipation, and the arming of Black troops; and about the true meaning of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Beginning two decades before the Civil War, when Harriet Tubman was still enslaved and Martha and Frances were young women bound by law and tradition, The Agitators ends two decades after the war, in a radically changed United States. Wickenden brings this extraordinary period of our history to life through the richly detailed letters her characters wrote several times a week. Like Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals and David McCullough’s John Adams, Wickenden’s The Agitators is revelatory, riveting, and profoundly relevant to our own time.

This reading group guide for The Agitators includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

Dorothy Wickenden, the New York Times bestselling author of Nothing Daunted, once again brings historical figures vividly to life in The Agitators, a riveting dive into the lives of three unlikely collaborators in the quest for abolition and women’s rights. By taking readers through the lives of these women—Harriet Tubman, Frances Seward, and Martha Wright—Wickenden offers an unusual and highly intimate perspective on the classic American stories of abolition, the underground railroad, women’s rights activism, and the Civil War.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. Discuss the book’s epigraph. How does this quote prepare you for the text? In what way does it resonate with current events?

2. The prologue and epilogue bookend the text with vivid descriptions of Fort Hill Cemetery today. What is the value of beginning and ending the book in this way? What effect does this have on your reading experience?

3. The first three chapters establish the very different backgrounds of Martha, Frances, and Harriet and the time in which they lived. What is your sense of their personalities and how they changed over time?

4. In chapter 4, Frances’s husband, Henry, makes the extraordinarily controversial decision to defend William Freeman, the twenty-three-year-old Black man who confessed to murdering four members of a white family. This is one of the first uses of the insanity defense, which is based on the belief that a person who is unable to distinguish right from wrong should not be criminally charged because they cannot take moral responsibility for their crime. Henry’s father-in-law, a county judge, thought his defense of Freeman would end his political career. Why was Frances so supportive of his choice?

5. In chapter 5, Martha overhears a party guest calling her “a very dangerous woman” because of her social activism and her friendship with Frederick Douglass. Consider what it meant to be a “dangerous woman” in Martha’s time and place. Who, or what, is being threatened by Martha’s behavior? Is there a modern-day equivalent of the term “dangerous woman?”

6. Discuss these two quotes from chapter 13 and how they have “aged” since their initial utterance: “The United States government ‘was made by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever.’” —Senator Stephen A. Douglas. “I know, and you know, that a revolution has begun. I know, and all the world knows, that revolutions never go backward.” —Senator William Henry Seward

7. Each of these women was bold, principled, and intent on changing the world. They express their idealism in different ways. Discuss the avenues and methods each used to try and affect change.

8. At the end of chapter 13, Henry and the British intellectual Harriet Martineau discuss slavery, “the great American question.” What might you consider today’s “great American question”?

9. Harriet Tubman and her companions felt guided by their religious faith in pursuit of their activism, as did many reformers of the time, which often aided the progress of their causes. How was the political expression of evangelical thought different from how it is manifested today?

10. Harriet was an extraordinary orator and storyteller who, as the author says in chapter 15, knew how to play to “her audiences’ enthusiasm for hair-raising first-person accounts of slavery and escape.” What role does storytelling play throughout the book and in activism?

11. Throughout the book, we see Martha’s roles as activist and mother intersect. In chapter 14, “Martha Leads,” we see this manifest in conflict with her daughter Ellen, who, according to the author, was “overwhelmed by self-doubt” and, “to Martha’s dismay,” was “more interested in her succession of suitors than in her studies.” How does Martha’s career as an activist seem to affect her daughter’s development? What do you think of Martha’s early reservations about becoming a leader and her own doubts about her capabilities? Do you see this conflict present in modern-day mother-daughter relationships?

12. Discuss the interplay of women’s rights and anti-slavery activism throughout the book. The abolitionist and women’s rights movement were aligned through much of the mid-nineteenth century. The movement split in the late 1860s over priorities—some women insisting that the fight for Black male suffrage take precedence over the fight for women’s rights, while Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony broke away to fight solely for the women’s vote. In what ways have the conflicts of this period extended to our own?

13. Think about the husbands of Martha, Frances, and Harriet. How did they help or hinder their wives in their sociopolitical goals? What impact did these relationships have on the women in their decision-making processes? How did the women shape the thinking and actions of their husbands?

14. Reflect on the Henry’s long anti-slavery career, the battle between Frances and Henry in the early 1860s about immediate emancipation, and the ultimate assassination attempt on Henry and two of their sons. Martha blames Henry for Frances’s unhappiness and, the author writes, finds him “hungrier for power than for principle.” What is your final assessment of Henry and of the difficulties of their marriage?

15. Letters, photos, and portraits appear throughout the book as chapter and section openers. What do these add to your reading experience? How does it feel to have faces and handwriting to put to these historical figures?

16. Consider the impact that the actions of the activists in the book may have had directly on your own life. Can you conjure an example of how their efforts in the movements benefited you personally?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Check the National Register of Historic Places for historical sites near you. See what you can learn about your local history!

2. Correspond with your friends through handwritten letters about the book. This way, you might get a sense of what it was like to hold passionate discussions through snail mail as the women in the text did.

3. Brainstorm ways you might contribute to social activism today. Research causes that you are passionate about and take inspiration from Martha, Frances, and Harriet. Is there a local group you can participate in or online resources available in your area?
Photograph © Jayme Grodi

Dorothy Wickenden is the author of Nothing Daunted and The Agitators, and has been the executive editor of The New Yorker since January 1996. She also writes for the magazine and is the moderator of its weekly podcast The Political Scene. A former Nieman Fellow at Harvard, Wickenden was national affairs editor at Newsweek from 1993-1995, and before that was the longtime executive editor at The New Republic. She lives with her husband in Westchester, New York.

Gabra Zackman knows romance. Her clever and “thrilling romantic caper” (Library Journal) Bod Squad series was inspired by the more than one hundred romance and women’s fiction titles she has narrated for audio. She divides her time between her native New York City and Denver, Colorado.

"Narrators Heather Alicia Simms, Anne Twomey, and Gabra Zackman harmonize to memorable effect in Dorothy Wickenden's remarkable examination of three friends who led twin battles for abolition and women's rights in nineteenth-century America. Simms gives a witty and rousing rendition of Harriet Tubman, freedom fighter extraordinaire; Twomey is gentle and steely as Francis Seward, the publicly conventional and privately radical wife of Secretary of State William H. Seward; and Gabra Zackman is energized and clear as Martha Wright, uncompromising Quaker mother of seven. Their surprising and inspiring lives are woven together with those of such luminaries as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frederick Douglass, and Abraham Lincoln, for between them, they knew everyone. Informative, entertaining, unnerving, and stirring—listen and then share this book with all your friends."

– Winner of an AudioFile Earphones Award, AudioFile Magazine

More books from this author: Dorothy Wickenden