• Joe Pace

Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #82: American Reformers, 1815-1860


Trumpeter on loan from Monty Python.

I've made mention before on this list - and will again, with some of the books I've yet to cover - of my fascination with the era of the early American republic. This was a time when two forces emerged that continue to shape who we are as a nation: the commercial or market revolution that cemented aggressive capitalism as the primary tenet of our national economy, and the Second Great Awakening that installed robust Protestant evangelicalism as our default faith. These forces have had myriad and at times conflicting impacts on American political and cultural evolution over the centuries since, and today we feel their gravity more than ever. The volume profiled here focuses on the reform era that emerged in response to the emergence of those forces, and which unleashed forces of its own that continue to resonate today.


America in the early 1800s was growing and changing. The agrarian economy of previous centuries was being supplanted by factory work and industry, particularly in the urbanizing north. With the need for workers came immigration, increasingly from southern and Eastern Europe. These immigrants, who came to work in textile mills like Amoskeag and Lowell and river towns throughout the northeast, were Catholic. Not only did they worship Christ differently than the moneyed Presbyterians and Anglicans and Methodists who owned the factories where they labored, they also lived differently. They drank more and fought more and had more children than the upper crust were all that comfortable with. This was a time when the Finneyite revivals of aggressively evangelical Protestantism were sweeping the region, from the Great Lakes to Philadelphia. With that evangelicalism came the impulse to change society, to make it more reflective of the divine plan for humanity. Out of these two vectors, a commercializing economy and an increase in religiosity, came the Reformist era that took hold in the antebellum era.


Reformers seized on four main targets: abolition, temperance, women's suffrage, and health care. (It's important, then as now, to distinguish between reformers and radicals. Reformers want to improve and strengthen extant structures, often because they enjoy a privileged position in them. Radicals reject the structures themselves and want to replace them with new ones, either more egalitarian or with themselves in a more privileged position. Then as now.) These targets weren't an accident. Abolition stemmed from a moral impulse, but also from regional distance. The reformist energy was coming from the industrializing north, looking down on the less evangelical, more agrarian, "backward" south. Slavery was an easy mark. Temperance was directed at these new Catholic immigrant laborers, often as a way to assimilate and control a rambunctious and growing population that unnerved reformers. Oh, did I mention that the largest segment of reformers was upperclass white women? This was the caste that was most discomfited by the social changes emerging, threatening their accepted economic and cultural dominance. Abolition and temperance were tied up with the push for women's suffrage, as these same Christian, white, affluent women flexed their newfound moral muscles to reform America. Health care was on the docket too (think mental health, civic hospitals, schools).


In some ways, the above oversimplifies the reform movement. There were certainly morally virtuous motives, joined with anti-Catholicism, economic anxiety, and racism. Populism was embraced by the radicals and disdained by the reformers because it tended to threaten the core systems from which the reformers derived their power. I don't think it takes much mental yoga to perceive similar fault lines in today's political landscape. All of that said, it's a difficult movement to comfortably embrace or dismiss. Abolition was certainly a universal good. Improved health care quality and access in poorer neighborhoods was good. Women's suffrage, good. Temperance, your mileage may vary. But even as societal benefits accrued (unevenly), financial strength and political power accumulated even faster among certain segments of the population. It's a time worthy of study, because it sheds significant light on how we came to be who we are today, warts and all.

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