Adolf Douai

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Feb 1 10:44:45 MST 2002


H-NET BOOK REVIEW Published by H-GAGCS at h-net.msu.edu (January, 2002)

Justine Davis Randers-Pehrson. _Adolf Douai, 1819-1888: The Turbulent 
Life of a German Forty-Eighter in the Homeland and in the United 
States_. New German American Studies; Neue Deutsch-Amerikanische 
Studien. New York:  Peter Lang, 2000. 364 pp.Illustrations, notes, 
bibliography, and index.  $67.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-8204-4881-8.

Reviewed for H-GAGCS by Walter D. Kamphoefner <waltkamp at tamu.edu>, 
Department of History, Texas A&M University

A Restless Spirit of the Revolution

Adolf Douai is best remembered in America--if at all--for being 
hounded out of Texas in 1856 because of his abolitionist writings. He 
is also remembered as a leading American socialist who in 1883 
delivered the eulogy to Karl Marx to a packed crowd at Cooper Union 
Hall. This biography joins the ranks of several others on 
second-echelon German-American political and intellectual figures 
such as Frederick Hecker and Francis Hoffmann that have recently 
appeared [1]. Randers-Pehrson presents Douai as somewhat of an ideal 
type of the German revolutionary, someone whose career offers "an 
examination of the German revolution in miniature 'from the inside 
out'" (p. 6). She recently completed a book-length treatment of the 
1848 Revolution in Germany, and this "life-and-times" approach to 
Douai overlaps considerably, and occasionally literally, with her 
previous work.[2]. The biography treats all major developments of the 
Revolution, including the parliamentary efforts in the Paulskirche 
and the 1849 uprising in Baden and the Palatinate that did not 
involve Douai at all, so that there are sections such as Chapter 7 
where Douai is mentioned only once rather tangentially in the first 
paragraph. Consequently, more pages are devoted to Douai's first 33 
years spent in Germany than to the last 36 he spent in the United 
States.

Douai left behind an unpublished autobiography that the author uses 
as a basis for her work, but she does not accept it uncritically. For 
example, Douai described himself as "a true child of the proletariat" 
(6), but the author points out that while he lost his mother early 
and may have experienced some economic want, several generations of 
his family had belonged to the educated bourgeoisie. Douai himself 
studied at the University of Jena, partially supported by stipends, 
and went on to acquire a doctorate at Königsberg, if only to measure 
up to the standards of his future in-laws, who were minor nobility 
and members of the Prussian officer corps. The author's 
characterization of Douai as a typical Forty-Eighter gains credence 
from his experiences in the Vormärz. One of the many underemployed 
intelligentsia, he spent four years in the Russian Baltic serving as 
a tutor on a nobleman's estate. And his homeland, the dwarf 
principality of Saxe-Altenburg where he returned in 1846, embodied 
many of the ills of German Kleinstaaterei.          The outbreak of 
revolution in 1848 found Douai teaching at a progressive private 
school which he had founded and actively involved in the 
establishment of rationalist Freie Gemeinden; he soon found himself 
elected to the local Landtag. In July he authored a Volkskatechismus 
that included a freethinking parody on the Lord's Prayer--one of a 
number of factors leading to his arrest in October 1848 and his 
sentencing to eight months of imprisonment. Although Douai struggled 
to maintain his pedagogical enterprises in the face of reaction, 
continued official harassment, including a second imprisonment for 
two months, led him to emigrate in March 1852 to the United States, 
where his father and a younger brother had preceded him. After a 
brief interlude in the immigrant colony of New Braunfels, Douai 
established himself in San Antonio and began editing a 
German-language newspaper. This brought him into contact with 
Frederick Law Olmstead and brought about his brief appearance in the 
national spotlight with the abolitionist controversy that drove him 
from Texas.

With Olmstead paving the way, Douai next located in Boston, 
supporting himself by a variety of activities including the 
establishment of a kindergarten. Although he is sometimes credited 
with the introduction of the Froebel system to America, the author 
makes clear that Douai had only limited experience as an educator at 
this point, none of it involving young children or exposure to 
Froebel's methods. Douai's school lasted only a year in Boston before 
his atheistic pronouncements undercut his support.  Landing on his 
feet in New York, he served a brief term as editor of the New Yorker 
Demokrat, and then served as director of the bilingual Hoboken 
Academy during most of the Civil War. The next five years were spent 
in New York, fraught with difficulties in attempting to run a school 
and edit a newspaper. In 1871 Douai moved to Newark to take over 
directorship of another bilingual German-American school, and with 
$1,200 of his wife's inheritance, purchased a comfortable home and 
had apparently achieved a measure of economic security. But after 
four successful years, he resigned his position in a dispute with the 
school board and ended up losing his house to foreclosure. The last 
ten years of his life from 1878 on were spent as an editor of the 
Socialist New Yorker Volkszeitung, from which position he delivered 
the eulogy to Marx.

Instead of a resume, the author devotes a concluding chapter to the 
relationship between Douai and Karl Heinzen--two uncompromising 
radical freethinkers who held similar ideological beliefs and yet 
ended up in a bitter feud that lasted from 1859 to the end of their 
lives, exploring the question of what it was in the experiences or 
psychological makeup of German radicals that, despite their devotion 
to the "stern god of civil courage," made them so rigid and often 
self-defeating.

The author is clear about her likes and dislikes, and on which 
figures she considers to be realistic or unrealistic in their 
strategies and assessments. But in general the book is balanced in 
its judgements and informed with background information from the 
recent scholarship on a given issue, e.g. Jonathan Sperber on 1848, 
William Gienapp on American politics of the 1850s, or James McPherson 
on the Civil War. Errors of fact are minor, restricted to things like 
the assertion that Hesse-Darmstadt instead of Hesse-Kassel was 
annexed by Prussia in 1866 (p. 316), or that Texas Germans were 
"Catholics for the most part" (p. 195), though it should be noted 
that Heinrich Börnstein's memoirs chronicle Fünfundsiebzig, not 
_Fünfundzwanzig Jahre_--75, not 25 years (p. 340). But all in all, 
the book forms a worthwhile addition to the literature on German 
America, rescuing a Forty-Eighter from near obscurity and shedding 
some interesting light on the mentality of German revolutionaries in 
general.

Notes

[1]. Lore Blanke, _Franz Arnold Hoffmann (1822-1903): Politiker auf 
Deutschamerikanischem Kurs_ (Stuttgart: Verlag Hans-Dieter Heinz, 
1993); Sabine Freitag, _Friedrich Hecker: Biographie eines 
Republikaners_ (Stuttgart: Steiner, 1998).

[2]. Justine Davis Randers-Pehrson, _Germans and the Revolution of 
1848-1849_. New German American Studies; Neue Deutsch-Amerikanische 
Studien, Vol. 18. New York, Berlin and Oxford: Peter Lang, 1999.

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