Did individual redemption or social control motivate American reformers during the Antebellum era?

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Did individual redemption or social control motivate American reformers during the Antebellum era?

Donald Winchester

A young Frenchman, Michel Chevalier, having witnessed the celebrations of Andrew Jackson’s re-election as President in autumn 1834, recorded his observations, picking out one particular feature: ‘other banners featured portraits of […] Jackson himself, some depicting the President as a simple farmer and others showing him as a triumphant general.’1 While initially this may seem immaterial, the two separate portrayals of the Jackson take on immense significance when considered in the light of the reform movement that was, by 1834, in full swing.
The conflict between individual redemption and social control as motivators for reform can be represented by a simple analogy of inside vs. outside. That is, reform was the aim: it was the means that were uncertain. The choices in how to exact reform ranged from working from the inside (i.e. through the individual) or from the outside (i.e. through coercion, social control). These two, apparently opposing, impulses can be represented in the twin renderings of Jackson, through a nineteenth century context. Jackson as general - reigning terror upon his enemies and stringent dictatorial rule over his soldiers, to the joy of the exultant civilians whose fears are repulsed at the swipe of his swift sword - can be easily seen as representative of reformatory social control. Reformers coerce evildoers to change and repent under external threat, as the proverbial sword of the law. Conversely, Jackson as farmer, under the nineteenth century agrarian ideal, can be symbolic of the individual redemption motive. A statement by John Ashworth explains this correlation: ‘Many Jacksonian Democrats wanted every citizen to be independent […] for them the farmer was the ideal citizen, especially the freeholder who worked his own holding.’2 The man who was closest to nature was deemed to be most in touch with his own individual self, for, according to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature ‘resembles his own spirit’3. The farmer, far from the corrupt capitalist world of the city, interacts uninterrupted with the purity of the finisher of his inner being, creating a ‘transparent eyeball’ (Emerson’s ideal) or, equivalently, the pure upright educated citizen who by his very presence upgrades society.4 Robert Rantoul Jr, an eminent contemporary, is summarized like so: ‘with success conditioned by character, and character by moral education, each man becomes finally responsible for his own fate; and the condition of society is a resultant of the way all its individual components use their responsibility.’5 Thus, reform is effected by the redemption of individuals, ultimately constructing an ideal society through the purification of its various parts.
The comparison of images of Jackson in 1834 is perhaps particularly noteworthy, given the evolutionary aspect of reform between the two impulses of individual redemption and social control at this time. Either one strain or the other did not mark reform during the pre-Civil War period. Through a progression, both were singularly evident. As John L Thomas notes, the reform movement was ‘initial[ly]’ motivated more by the desire for individual, piece by piece, restoration of society.6 Thomas does not, however, mark the decided shift in tactics by reformers apparent by 1861 and manifested unmistakably in the belated abolition of slavery. He instead ignores the evidence that has convinced so many of the ‘social control’ camp and plumps for the individual redemption option. Such a one-sided argument does not reflect the evidence. The reform movement began with hopes of an America represented by a crown, bejewelled by multitudinous faultless citizens comprising a magnificent whole. However, through disillusionment, frustration with the supposed potential of the individual and the widening class divide, reform became increasingly motivated by an aspiration for a curative directive from the relative above to create a societal ideal.
America was in a moral freefall according to the principled upstanding citizen in the increasingly industrial age of post-War of 1812. ‘Immigration, internal migration, urbanization, the spread of a market economy, growing inequality, loosening family and community ties, the westward advance of settlement, and territorial expansion all contributed’7 to what was seen as an ethically deteriorating nation. Thomas expounds the results: ‘infidelity flourished on the frontier and licentiousness bred openly in seaboard cities; intemperance sapped the strength of American workingmen and the saving word was denied their children.’8 Widespread concern was voiced over the increasingly lax conduct of their young men in particular, and the city and frontier both (perhaps paradoxically given the aforementioned supposed perfecting influence of Nature) were seen as centres for corrupt chicanery and drunken lasciviousness. Both the inherent American sense of ‘mission’ and national moral pride called for rampant social reform. The concurrence of the Second Great Awakening had a major impact on how this reform was to be enacted. American religious belief was altered irreversibly by this mass hysteria. Calvinist pre-determination, a staple of the first Great Awakening a century earlier, was rejected in favour of a type of ‘self-determination’. Charles Finney, prominent preacher and proclaimed ‘father of modern revivalism’, informed the public that ‘God has made man a moral free agent.’9 Thus was sparked a belief and desire to plumb the ‘reservoir of possibilities’10 that the individual was seen to be. Potential reformers looked upon their moral inferiors and saw, not a doomed worthless mutilator of society, but a latent power, an undeveloped prospective honest member of society who simply needed an education in the proper ways. In fact, these impurities had to be reformed for the mutual benefit of the entire public, or else they would pollute society further to their own and all of society’s detriment.
The antebellum reform movement is, quite rightly, widely seen as being incited by the religious revival. Without the morals imposed by the various faiths, the ‘decent’ citizen would have no cause for qualm – for, without the law, there is no sin. Robert Wiebe asserts ‘scarcely a reform failed to identify its cause with those atmospheric absolutes from the Bible.’11 However, there was another, more secular, yet no less theoretical, aspect to the individualist motivation. This is most clearly seen in the Transcendentalist contour of thought, led by such luminaries as Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Embracement of Nature and its flawlessness were key themes, as were the perfectible qualities of the individual to the universal benefit of society. This is most clearly seen in Emerson’s essays The American Scholar (1838/41) and Self Reliance (1841). In them, Emerson asserts that ‘nothing can bring you peace but yourself’12 and ‘in yourself slumbers the whole of Reason; it is for you to know all, it is for you to dare all.’13 He called for an American literary revolution: indeed, ‘The American Scholar’ has been labelled the ‘American cultural Declaration of Independence’. Long-standing religious concepts of separating from the corrupt Old World abound, but the mood is reformatory, designed to create a perfect nation through the perfection of individuals in literary terms, reflecting the more widespread moral impulse.
This belief in the perfectibility of humanity incited the motivation to reform from the inside. How was the human potential to be exploited, though? Transformation in this style could not, by definition, be dictated from above. Therefore, the more traditional methods of political reform were rejected. Although politics became extremely popular in this era, the marked lack of legislation for social reform in the early antebellum period (apart from the wrangles over state designation for/against slavery, which will be addressed in due course) signals the absent use of coercive politics. ‘Intensive education held the key to illimitable progress’14, thus performing reform from the inside, enlightening individuals and allowing, through their free moral agency, to choose the right way and achieve perfection. It is no coincidence that improvements in public education numbered among the many reforms of the antebellum era, along with changes in the areas of temperance, health, prisons, female rights and notably, slavery. Numerous institutions were set up to educate the public in these matters. The early emphasis on individual redemption as opposed to political social coercion can be seen clearly in the rise of penitentiaries, where ‘the guilty experienced penitence and underwent rehabilitation, not just punishment.’15 Convicts would be renewed and transformed through an early form of prison education, to be released a more complete man, ready to contribute to the betterment of society. The earliest penitentiary of this sort was commissioned in 1816. Even abolitionism, soon to be the leader in the change in attitude amongst reform, began with this non-political individualist charge. Elizabeth Heyrick, celebrated British abolitionist, influenced many American hearts and minds in her seminal work Immediate, Not Gradual Abolition (1824). She argued: ‘Why petition Parliament at all, to do that for us, which, were they ever so well disposed, we can do more speedily and more effectual [sic] for ourselves?’16 The abolitionist movement at first aspired to instruct slaveholders in the evils of slavery, and thus, trusting in the inherent perfectibility of humanity through education, would their goal of ‘immediate emancipation’ be inexorable.
This reform impulse, branching into many forms (for ‘many causes […] meant many means to the one great end, human perfection’17), lasted in its individualist enthusiasm for varying terms. Each, however, lost fervour as time went on. Take, for example, the temperance movement. Excess of alcohol was one of the founding complaints that led to the mass of social reform. It was seen as a ‘destroyer of families’ and its products were publicized widely: ‘abandoned wives, prodigal sons, drunken fathers.’18 Average alcohol consumption exceeded an estimated 7.1 gallons per person over the age of fifteen at one point19, leading to public outrage. Countless temperance societies, calling for reform up to extremes, sprang out of this malaise and were one of the most zealously followed movements. However, by the mid 1850s, the faction had collapsed. Why? Wiebe contends that it was because ‘it could no longer sustain the impression of growth.’20 Belief in the inexorable ascent of humanity towards perfection had been frustrated. If the preceding years be examined, the general progress of antebellum reform can be seen. Dissatisfaction at the inability of humanity to attain perfection of and by themselves led to a significant change in the tenor of the movement towards coercion. Wiebe continues: ‘as they issued from above, the arguments for temperance in the 1840s emphasized social control, but at the class margin meant self-control: the personal discipline for independence and progress.’21 This statement betrays a transition in mood: self-control and social control, preventative and curative, existed simultaneously. This did not last for long: Maine in 1950 enforced prohibition, utilizing the ultimate means of social control – legislation. The problems can be clearly seen. Harry L Watson reports that ‘it could make a lasting contribution […] if the businessman reformed his personal life and used his position to inspire others to reform theirs.’ In theory it seems plausible, but the reality was riddled with complications: the workers ‘resisted any effort to make them give up their remaining rights to control their personal lives.’22 Humanity, supposedly containing the potential for perfection through education, also apparently possessed the inherent resistance to rule, whether good or bad. Disillusionment punctured other reforms. ‘The dramatic disclosure of deprivation and suffering which did not tally with perceived notions of perfectibility’, such as ‘Robert Hartley’s inspection of contaminated milk in New York slums’23, may have initially inspired zealous reformers to action, but the persistence of these conditions stymied and frustrated their efforts.
This is not to say that no lasting reform was enacted. However, the disappointment of the initial thrust led to a sizeable change in focus. The emphasis shifted to use of coercive methods from outside. Fundamental to this change, aside from the disillusionment in individual redemption, was the widening class divide. It can be, and has been, argued that reform in any shape is inescapably a type of social control, as it is an imposition of one man’s principles on another – an attempt to change society towards one man’s ideal. However, this argument is not quite convincing in the early antebellum era, as there was a beneficent quality to early reformers, a concern for another’s personal well-being. It could be said that, in the early antebellum period, the reformers’ desire to impose from above was channelled into a more caring and conciliatory, less coercive, tenor. However, the inherent impatience and sense of personal superiority of the human (which had not been calculated upon by the early reformers, particularly the abolitionists hoping for immediate emancipation upon education of the slaveholders) allowed reform to spill out of its benevolent shell and betray signs of smugness and personal satisfaction. It was, as Theodore Parker put it, ‘the wrong kind of individualism, the kind that said, “I am as good as you, so get out of my way” replacing the right kind, ‘the individualism whose motto was “You are as good as I, and let us help one another”.24 The ‘rags to riches’ stories, both real and fiction, enhanced the class divide: true accounts made some very rich, while both real and fabricated tales encouraged many to their ruin. Notions of class superiority led, for some, to an uncaring attitude: ‘if impoverished immigrants swamped some other portion of the city’s school system, it scarcely mattered, just as long as their own sons and daughters still had a ladder of escape from the pit.’25 For most reformers though, ‘they saw themselves as surrounded by moral indifference, and one after another of them decided that they had to convert the entire unregenerate mass.’26 It simply permitted compulsion of principles on a unethical mass of poor, avowing that perhaps they themselves were capable of perfection, but the poor had shown through their position on the social ladder that they were not. The poor must still have codes of law, though.
Thus disillusionment at the failure of mankind to perfect itself and the fledgling, yet monstrous, class divide impeded any aspirations of reform motivated by individual redemption. There were still some hopes, though. Countless utopian communities and the fight for women’s rights continued into the 1850s. However, the proverbial nail in the coffin for individual redemption as a motivator for reform came in the shape of abolition. Once a bastion for individualism, abolition had gained notoriety and recognition through the efforts of such as William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, but support became stagnant as the south refused to be swayed. Abolitionists once rejected political means – Garrison echoed Thoreau’s Resistance to Civil Government in avowing in his journal The Liberator ‘if “laws and constitutional authorities” required him to assist in the return of fugitive slaves, “then I will not obey them”.27 However, Wiebe states significantly, ‘well before the Civil War, it became evident that abolitionism would never emerge naturally out of an unfolding progress. In some fashion its truth would have to come marching with a ‘terrible swift sword’.’28 In fact, ‘by the 1840s the abolitionist movement was institutionalised’, and this led to the inevitable conclusion of reform in the extreme sense of social control – war combined with obligatory legislation. Hence, initial optimistic belief in the perfectibility in mankind, frustrated, shifted to coercive social control, as Andrew Jackson evolved from a farmer to an army general.

Ashworth, John, Slavery, Capitalism, and Politics in the Antebellum Republic, Volume 1: Commerce and Compromise 1820-1850, (London: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

Baym, Nina, Gen Ed., The Norton Anthology of American Literature, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1998), Vol 1, 5th ed.

Lynd, Stoughton, Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism, (New York: Vintage Books, 1968).

Meyers, Marvin, The Jacksonian Persuasion: Politics and Belief, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1957).

Niven, John, The Coming of the Civil War 1837-1861, (Wheeling, Illinois: Harlan Davidson, Inc, 1990).

Mary Beth Norton, David M Katzman, Paul D Escott, Howard P Chudacoff, Thomas G Paterson, William M Tuttle Jr and William J Brophy, A People & A Nation, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996), Volume A.

Schlesinger Jr, Arthur M., The Age of Jackson, (New York: Book Find Club, 1945).

Thomas, John L, “Romantic Reform in America, 1815, 1865”, American Quarterly 17 (Winter 1965), p665-681.

Tindall, George Brown & Shi, David Emory, America, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2000), Brief 5th Ed.

Watson, Harry L, Liberty and Power, (New York: Harper Collins, 1990).

Wiebe, Robert H, The Opening of American Society, (New York: Vintage Books, 1984).

1 Harry L Watson, Liberty and Power, (New York: Harper Collins, 1990), p3.

2 John Ashworth, Slavery, Capitalism, and Politics in the Antebellum Republic, Volume 1: Commerce and Compromise, 1820-1850, (London: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p11.

3 Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘The American Scholar’ in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1998), 5th Ed, Vol 1, p1102.

4 The use of the male pronoun is no accident, given the emphasis, though deteriorating, on the male in the industrial Western world.

5 Marvin Meyers, The Jacksonian Persuasion: Politics and Belief, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1957), p160.

6 John L Thomas, ‘Romantic Reform in America, 1815-1865,’ American Quarterly 17 (Winter 1965), p658.

7 Mary Beth Norton, David M Katzman, Paul D Escott, Howard P Chudacoff, Thomas G Paterson, William M Tuttle Jr and William J Brophy, A People & A Nation, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996), Volume A, p243.

8 Thomas, ‘Romantic Reform in America, 1815-1865’, p657.

9 Norton, Katzman etc A People & A Nation, p244.

10 Thomas, ‘Romantic Reform in America, 1815-1865’, p656.

11 Robert H. Wiebe, The Opening of American Society, (New York: Vintage Books, 1984), p313.

12 Emerson, ‘Self Reliance’ in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, p1143.

13 Emerson, ‘The American Scholar’ in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, p1113.

14 Thomas, ‘Romantic Reform in America, 1815-1865’, p668.

15 George Brown Tindall and David Emory Shi, America, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2000) Brief 5th Ed, p421.

16 Stoughton Lynd, Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism, (New York: Vintage Books, 1968), p107.

17 Wiebe, The Opening of American Society, p314.

18 Norton, Katzman etc, A People & A Nation, p246.

19 John Niven, The Coming of the Civil War 1837-1861, (Wheeling, Illinois: Harlan Davidson, Inc, 1990), p42.

20 Wiebe, The Opening of American Society, p318.

21 Wiebe, The Opening of American Society, p334.

22 Watson, Liberty and Power, pp178-179.

23 Thomas, ‘Romantic Reform in America 1815-1865’, p663.

24 Thomas, ‘Romantic Reform in America 1815-1865’, p673.

25 Wiebe, The Opening of American Society, p335.

26 Wiebe, The Opening of American Society, p314.

27 William Lloyd Garrison, ‘The Liberator’ (March 7, 1835) in Lynd, Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism, p110.

28 Wiebe, The Opening of American Society, p320.

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