Eccles Centre Writer in Residence, Sheila Rowbotham, writes,
I really should have known more about the life of the American anti-slavery campaigner and freethinker, Moncure Daniel Conway. I have been going to meetings in Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London since the 1960s. I have the historian’s habit of wondering where the names of places and buildings come from, yet I failed to make the connection.
Because I am currently writing about two women who, in the 1880s, were members of Bristol Women’s Liberal Association , after all these years I started to investigate after finding a reference to him speaking in the Victoria Rooms on ‘Women and Evolution’ on March 26th 1885.
The Bristol women were radical; they had links to the Garrisonian wing of anti-slavery, inclined towards Irish Home Rule and were staunch supporters of women’s suffrage as well as being opposed to the Contagious Diseases Acts whereby women could be forcibly examined for venereal diseases and confined in ‘lock’ hospitals. However as I read about Moncure Conway I wondered how much his audience knew of his extraordinary life.
From a wealthy Virginian slave-holding family, he began to ask questions after reading Emerson. In 1854, while he was studying at Harvard , a runaway slave was arrested in Boston and, after failing to obtain his release legally, abolitionists attacked the jail. A deputy sheriff was killed and with polite Boston reeling in shock, a defiant William Lloyd Garrison burned a copy of the U. S Constitution in protest. These startling events affected the young son of a slave-owner deeply. He turned against his father and brothers, siding with his mother and sisters who opposed slavery. In 1862, during the Civil War, he helped some of his father’s former slaves to escape to Ohio where they established the Conway Colony.
Breaking even with the broad and tolerant tenets of Unitarianism, he moved towards humanism and free thought. But Moncure Conway went further.
When I read his Autobiography, Memories and Experiences in the British Library I was intrigued to find him embracing the dangerous French woman novelist George Sand who had supported the 1848 revolution and was associated with free love. Emerson had given him Sand’s Lelia to read when Moncure Conway went to lecture in Britain in 1863, but it was not until several years later that he met her, experiencing ‘awe’ at being in her presence..
His tribute is remarkable: ‘Margaret Fuller and Mrs Browning were both in this brain of George Sand; nay, all the aspiring and discontented women known to me in America – poets, orators, reformers – were all the offspring of George Sand, endeavouring to build in the New World a palace for Woman ..’
He admired the radical suffrage agitators Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Ernestine Rose. In Britain he made contact with the Bright- Priestman family nexus who were early campaigners for suffrage. Sandra Holton has written with scholarship and sensibility about their influence which was marked in Bristol.
An inveterate networker, friend of Oliver Wendell Holmes as well as Emerson in the U.S., Moncure Conway recounts how he collected European dissidents of every hue. He knew the most diverse radicals; the Cambridge Republican mathematician, W.K. Clifford and the utopian Scot, Thomas Davidson who inspired the Fellowship of the New Life from which the Fabians grew.
His autobiography enables us to glimpse how individuals transcend assumed boundaries. After the defeat of the French Commune, the anarchist anthropologist, Elie Reclus, took him ‘to a room in Bloomsbury where the Communards were wont to gather – a poor place; but I was impressed by their intelligent and benevolent countenances’.
Conway Hall, of course, would not be accepting any spirits into its rationalist premises, but still I can imagine how those Communards might well waft discretely through the gallery from time to time, hob-nobbing with George Sand, Margaret Fuller, Tom Paine, the Bristol Women’s Liberal Association , and, the sociable Moncure Daniel Conway himself.