In the turbulent decades leading up to the Civil War, it could be said that the moral center of the nation rested in the Finger Lakes region of central New York state. The district was a hot spot of abolitionism and the fledgling women-rights movement.
Rochester, on the region’s western edge, was home to Frederick Douglass, ex-slave and celebrated orator, who published his abolitionist newspaper, the North Star, in a church basement. The village of Seneca Falls, on Cayuga Lake, was the site of the first women’s rights convention, in 1848, with its seminal Declaration of Rights and Sentiments. A medical school on Seneca Lake was the first to award a degree to a woman, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell.
Then there is Auburn, which sits at the northern tip of Owasco Lake. The town is at the heart of Dorothy Wickenden’s “The Agitators,” an absorbing and richly rewarding chronicle of three principled women who fought on behalf of abolitionism and women’s rights. The title comes from Lucretia Mott, a prominent feminist, abolitionist and Quaker who proudly modeled herself on the early Friends—social activists whom she once described as “agitators, disturbers of the peace.” Ms. Wickenden, executive editor of the New Yorker, traces the Auburn women’s lives with intelligence, compassion and verve. In an earlier book, “Nothing Daunted,” she told the story of two Auburn girls who left home to become teachers in the wilds of Colorado in 1916.
The most famous member of the Auburn trio is Harriet Tubman, whose life story is well-known. Born into slavery in Maryland, she escaped to Philadelphia in 1849, when she was in her 20s, only to return to her home state as a conductor on the Underground Railroad that carried escaped slaves to freedom. During the Civil War, she worked as a scout, spy and nurse for the Union Army.
Auburn was one of Tubman’s stops on the Underground Railroad. Close to Lake Ontario, it was a jumping-off point for Canada, where fugitive slaves could be assured of safety. In Auburn, Tubman was introduced to Martha Coffin Wright and Frances Miller Seward, who opened their homes to the freedom seekers she sent their way. Giving a meal and a bed to a runaway slave was an act of courage in an era when the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850 imposed harsh penalties on those who helped escapees. On the night that the first fugitive arrived in the Wrights’ kitchen, Martha felt “a sense of satisfaction unlike any she’d ever experienced,” Ms. Wickenden writes. “She was violating a law she could not tolerate, transforming her kitchen—the symbolic heart of woman’s sphere . . . —into a place of political asylum.”
Martha Wright, a mother of seven, was the younger sister of Lucretia Mott and a compatriot of feminist leaders Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She went on to become a founder of the Seneca Falls Convention, a supporter of property rights for married women, and an advocate of women’s suffrage.
The third member of this circle of friends, Frances Seward, was, in Ms. Wickenden’s words, a “quieter rebel.” The most conventional of the three, she belonged to a well-off family and had been educated at Emma Willard’s Troy Female Seminary, the country’s best school for girls, at a time when no college accepted women. On a visit to Virginia in 1835, when she was 30, she was radicalized by the sight of 10 weeping black boys, ages 6 to 12, naked, roped together and overseen by a white man with a whip. The children were on their way to auction, where they would be sold to work in the fields of the Deep South.
As the wife of William Henry Seward, governor of New York, then senator and Lincoln’s secretary of state, Frances often found herself in the painful position of trying to follow her conscience without damaging the career of her husband, who was not as outspoken on the contentious issue of abolition. In keeping with his wishes, she kept a low public profile about her antislavery work, declining to sign an antislavery petition or publicize her work educating freed slaves. In private, however, she was a powerful and insistent adviser to her husband, pushing him to press Lincoln to emancipate the slaves.
In telling the stories of Martha Wright and Frances Seward, Ms. Wickenden relies heavily on their letters and diaries and those of close family members. The result is an intimate, detailed portrait of the women, including the effect that their activism had on their families. When we meet Martha in the 1820s, she is dissatisfied with her life as a homemaker and its endless drudgery. She writes: “The only way is to grub & work & sweep & dust, & wash & dress children, & make gingerbread, and patch & darn.” Frances, for her part, loathed being a political wife, choosing to spend long periods in Auburn rather than joining her husband in Albany or Washington. After 35 years of marriage, she informed Henry, by then a senator, that she would no longer act as his hostess. For both women, their work on the Underground Railroad sparked political awakenings and a resolve to take leadership roles in the causes they championed.
Harriet Tubman, who was illiterate and left no written record, is nevertheless the one who comes most alive in the book’s pages. Drawing on published interviews with Tubman and letters and diaries of people who knew her, Ms. Wickenden paints her as highly intelligent, determined and dignified—“a small, unstoppable woman . . . unafraid of the slave power of the South and the lawmakers in Washington.” When Tubman needed a home for the family members she had rescued and a base for her work, Frances Seward sold her a house in Auburn.
One of the pleasures of “The Agitators” is the cast of supporting characters who pass through its pages. John Brown “had a hypnotic effect on abolitionists who lacked his fire-breathing pugnacity.” Illinois Sen. Stephen Douglas, one of Lincoln’s opponents in the 1860 election, was “a small, pot-bellied man with hooded eyes and big ambitions who had an ability to crash through legislative logjams.” Susan B. Anthony was “neither graceful nor beautiful nor rich nor winning to strangers” in the assessment of Martha’s daughter Ellen. Frances Seward describes Lincoln as “amusing and friendly, with a manner like an unassuming farmer’s—not awkward & ungainly but equally removed from polish of manner.”
As the story moves into the war years, the book’s focus shifts and Martha and Frances fade somewhat into the background. Tubman’s wartime service in South Carolina is chronicled in an electrifying chapter about a military raid on plantations along the Combahee River in which she leads 750 slaves to safety. A chapter on Martha’s son Willy, wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg, is deeply moving. Ms. Wickenden’s fast-paced description of the attack on Henry Seward by an associate of John Wilkes Booth on the night of Lincoln’s assassination is—in a word—thrilling. A Seward daughter who witnessed the attack writes in her journal: “Blood, blood, my thoughts seemed drenched in it—I seemed to breathe its sickening odor.”
Violence is an ever-present feature of “The Agitators”—from slavery’s brutalities to the blood-soaked battlefields of the Civil War. Auburn, where not everyone approved of the women’s work, was not immune. “These are lawless times,” Frances tells one of her sons after someone throws a rock through a window of the Seward home. That incident came on the heels of an assault on a black boy she was tutoring and after the family dog had been poisoned.
So, too, religion is a continuous presence. Martha, Frances, Harriet—Quaker, Episcopalian, Methodist—all believed that God was on the side of the abolitionists. Tubman went so far as to say that God wouldn’t let Lincoln win the war until he had freed the slaves. The women’s religious faith bolstered their moral determination and shaped their work.
In the book’s closing pages there is an astonishing photograph of Tubman, probably taken outside her home in Auburn in 1911, two years before her death at around the age of 90. It shows a diminutive figure dressed in suffragette white. After the war, the woman who had led slaves to freedom and shown wartime valor turned her attention to advancing the roles of women, black and white.
“The Agitators” carries no political message, but Ms. Wickenden’s assessment of the era leading up to the Civil War will resonate with readers in our own fractious age: “The nation never had been so politically engaged—or so divided.”
—Ms. Kirkpatrick is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and the author of the forthcoming “Lady Editor: Sarah Josepha Hale and the Making of the Modern American Woman.”