Americas and Oceania Collections blog

31 August 2012

The radical life of Moncure Daniel Conway

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.



Conway had an India connection and appears to have met and spent time with the Madras Secular Society - an organisation founded in 1875, and influenced by the National Secular Society, and by Bradlaugh and Besant. The Madras Secularists ran a set of journals: Philosophical Enquirer, The Thinker and a Tamil weekly, Tattuva Vivesini. They also formed the Hindu Malthusian Society, and propagated Birth Control. Their key concerns voiced in the decade before the founding of the Indian National Congress (1885) assumed political weight and resonance - especially their arguments around Birth Control and their rejection of Hinduism and the caste order in the 1920s, with the emergence of a radical anti-caste movement associated with E V Ramasamy and others. Neo-Malthusianism at that point was discarded for a more feminist position.

Currently, Prof. V. Arasu, Head of the Department of Tamil, University of Madras is putting together a 5 volume collection of essays from the various journals edited by the Madras Secular Society - and one hopes that this allows us to think of a more global and richer history of freethought. Until now, this latter in India has been associated with Besant, and marked as a doctrine she rejected in favour of theosophy, and this new scholarship allows us to complicate that view, and note the progress of freethought and feminism, as well as anti-religious radicalism in southern India, exactly at the time Besant renounces it. The Madras secularists were highly critical of the theosophists and praiseful of the pre-theosophy Besant though with the 1920s rationalists this would change and even Besant's views on female education would then be found too culturally nationalist and wanting in radicalism.

V. Geetha, Chennai/Madras

I was very interested in Geethv's information. It ties in with Edward Carpenter's accounts of meeting Indians interested in secularism when he visited India in 1890-91. Also, when Margaret Samger visited India she was warned by an American woman not to push women's rights over their bodies to the neo-Malthusians. - Sheila Rowbotham

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