Social Reform and Societal Inertia


The perfectionist or idealist strain within Transcendentalism and Evangelicalism, which stressed the spiritual advancement of the individual, also gave rise to a recurring, analagous impulse to minister to the spiritual health of the larger society. Accordingly , both movements took steps toward social reform in the belief that people of religious conviction could and ought to make society over in accordance with the benevolence of God and the reasonableness of God's laws. The plight of numerous marginalized populations of society -- the extremely poor, the mentally ill, the exploited, the enslaved -- drew particular attention from reformers. Yet the story of the reform efforts of Transcendentalists and Evangelicals is in large measure the story of idealism thwarted. While they succeeded at overcoming the inherited belief structures of Calvinism and Unitarianism, reformers in each movement would ultimately run up against entrenched social realities that proved remarkably resistant to change.

The United States of this era proved fertile ground for reform movements. With the success of the Revolution opening apparently limitless possibilities, American society seemed poised to lead the world into the millenium. To accomplish this, the people would need to continue the unfinished work of the Revolution by realizing its promises of liberty and equality for everyone. The country's youth, social fluidity and ethos of exceptionalism encouraged people to pursue various forms of social activism, including educational reform, prison reform, temperance, feminism, and poverty relief. While the motivation of most reformers was religious in nature (as Charles Finney put it, "To the universal reformation of the world [true Christians] stand committed"), stark differences of opinion emerged as to the best way of achieving reform.78 Activists of a more radical stripe believed that by vigorously challenging and changing the harsher practices of American existence -- such as the abuses of capitalism and slavery, which seemed to stunt individual growth -- they could provide an environment more conducive to personal spirituality and general social well-being. This philosophy underlay such radical approaches as the "immediatist" abolitionism of William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, and the quasi-communist economic radicalism of Orestes Brownson's "The Laboring Classes." More conservative reformers cautioned against immediate structural change and the potentially bloody upheavals that would accompany it, arguing instead that individual moral reform was the safest long-term route to a righteous society. Henry Ward Beecher, for example, wrote that "those reforms which spring from the love of Christ are regulated, tempered, restrained."79 Most social reform of the early nineteenth century would take place between these poles of aggressive confrontation and cautious amelioration.

Generalizations about how Transcendentalists and Evangelicals pursued various types of social reform are difficult to make. The Northern Evangelicals and Southern Evangelicals differed sharply and predictably over the question of slavery; among the Transcendentalists, antislavery sentiment coexisted with ignorance, apathy and even racism. On other specific questions, both groups engaged in divisive internal debates. The only generalization that can be safely made is to say that neither group achieved the kind of profound social change implied by their egalitarian and millenarian rhetoric. Examining two main areas of reform effort -- slavery and gender relations -- illuminates both the genuine idealism that drove reformers in both camps and the internal and external obstacles they encountered on the path to genuine, long-lasting social change.

Slavery Reform

The spiritual beliefs of Transcendentalists and Evangelicals virtually compelled them to denounce the institution of slavery. To religious movements that based their philosophies on the dignity and equality of humankind, a system that kept thousands of men in ignorance and chains and prevented them from practicing religion was nothing less than an abomination. Was not bodily freedom the natural counterpart to spiritual freedom? Both movements tended to stress the negative psychological and moral impact of servitude, which seemed not only to stunt the spiritual growth of the slaves, but to warp and deprave the morals of the masters as well. Practical opposition to slavery, however, proved an entirely different matter than merely denouncing it. The institution was too deeply rooted in American society -- economically, politically, psychologically -- to admit of profound alteration without a level of social trauma that most people wished to avoid. As immediatist abolitionism and the less aggressive policy of "containment" gained momentum in the 1840s and 1850s, proslavery forces in the South stepped up their defense of their economic system, while controversial legal and political decisions (notably the Dred Scott case, the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, and the Fugitive Slave Act) rendered the conflict ever starker. The battle raged on such a scale that the voices of the Transcendentalists out of New England could scarcely be heard in the tumult, and the Evangelicals, who counted among their members a vast majority of Southerners, found that antislavery agitation threatened to tear their churches apart.

Compounding the structural obstacles to antislavery reform, psychological and theological issues adulterated Transcendentalist and Evangelicals opposition to the peculiar institution. First, a nominal commitment to abolition frequently coexisted with lingering feelings of racism. Unresolved and unsettling questions remained with respect to the place of freed slaves in American society, assuming abolition came to pass. Would it result in a northward tide of "hordes of dusky Negroes"? Did blacks possess the moral or intellectual capacity for participation in the American economic and political system? If so, could the races ever live in peace in the same country? Was the solution to recolonize freedmen in Liberia? Ship them all west? Could the country afford to lose such a valuable labor source, when no clear replacement existed? The answers given to these questions, especially by Evangelicals, fell far short of a consensus, and revealed the practical limits of antislavery ideology. Philosophically, moreover, both movements displayed an ambivalence toward the idea of outright philanthropy. For many of the Transcendentalists, who placed a rhetorical premium on self-reliance, reform which was external in nature -- rather than originating from within the given sphere of reform -- represented a false and even presumptuous form of social change. Similarly, most Evangelicals took seriously the maxim that "charity begins at home," and regarded the immediate family as the most important -- and often as the only legitimate -- sphere for the "implementation" of personal beliefs.

Ever since 1835, when William Henry Channing published Slavery , the Transcendentalist camp had publicly identified itself with the antislavery cause, at least in spirit. In this essay, Channing argued that chattel slavery contravened Christian teaching and thwarted the Christian desire to knit humankind together in a divine fabric of spirituality and freedom. Importantly, he did not blame individual Southerners for slavery, but rather concentrated on the institution as a systemic, impersonal evil. The dilemma for the Transcendentalists, however, was that systemic reform proved infinitely more difficult than a literary critique of slavery that subordinated structural change to questions of individual character. The Transcendentalist antislavery "report card," accordingly, is mixed. Theodore Parker, William Henry Furness, and Thoreau emerged as the more consistent and practically-minded antislavery activists. Their colleagues did not. Elizabeth Peabody and Bronson Alcott simply found other topics and projects more interesting; Orestes Brownson, after converting to Catholicism in 1850, cautioned against the disruptive potential of abolitionism; and George Ripley's conservative instincts led him away from activist reform.

As for Emerson, he stands as a striking example of the inner conflicts regarding race and abolitionism. On one level, the fact of slavery could not but offend the sensibilities of a man who had declared his eternal theme to be "the infinitude of the private man." This is the Emerson who denounced the Fugitive Slave Act as a "detestable law" and vowed that "[a]ll I have and all I can do shall be given and done in opposition to the execution of the law."80 Yet another side of Emerson proved capable of expressing racist sentiments that are distressing for a modern audience, and he often questioned the wisdom and practicality of abolitionism. In a kind of icy proto-Darwinianism, Emerson reasoned that "[i]f the black man is feeble and not important to the existing races, not on a parity with the best race, the black man must serve, and be exterminated." He continued, "The anti-slavery of the whole world is dust in the balance before this, -- is a poor squeamishness and nervousness ... I say to you, you must save yourself, black or white, man or woman; other help is none."81 Here is an extreme version of Emerson's vaunted philosophy of self-reliance -- the private man helps himself; if he cannot compete, he will perish; antislavery agitation, and charity in general, is "love afar [but] spite at home."82 We may regard these statements in any number of lights: as the guilt-effacing rationalizations of a good-hearted Northerner who knows he can do nothing about slavery, as the genuine beliefs of a man who really does not care all that much about the plight of slaves, or perhaps simply as instances of rhetorical extremism intended to make a strong point by overstating the point. But however we regard them, Emerson's equivocations point up the internal battles that Transcendentalists -- and indeed all antislavery whites -- had to wage as part of their larger battle against slavery.

Among the Evangelicals, the antislavery experience of the Southern wing of the movement provides the clearest insight into the practical limits of a reformist idealism, as personal psychology and societal inertia combined to stymie efforts to ameliorate slavery. As a general principle, Evangelicals conceived of themselves as a select community removed from the world, yet determined to work for the world's betterment, and believed that the best way to promote good was for the individual to make his or her life an example of godly behavior. From the egalitarian spirituality of Evangelicalism and its desire to uplift the downtrodden, opposition to slavery emerged as an obvious arena in which to improve the world. To varying degrees, Methodists, Baptists and Presbyterians in the South embraced blacks as members, and to varying degrees white Evangelicals worked for the slaves' emancipation. Yet the walls of societal inertia loomed, and their initial enthusiasm stumbled. "The social realities of slavery," writes Donald Mathews, "and the psychological realities of racial prejudice simply could not be counterbalanced by religious commitment -- they could be affected but not destroyed."83 Increasingly, white Evangelicals resigned themselves to failure in opposing slavery, and turned to an emphasis on individual psychological and spiritual emancipation through the conversion experience. In a crucial compromise that would provide the rationale for inaction, Evangelicals increasingly stressed that the soul could be free regardless of the body's station in society. Peter Cartwright spoke for many of his brethren when he wrote:

I will not attempt to enumerate the moral evils that have been produced by slavery; their name is legion. And now, notwithstanding these are my honest views of slavery, I have never seen a rabid abolition or free-soil society that I could join, because they resort to unjustifiable agitation, and the means they employ are generally unchristian. They condemn and confound the innocent with the guilty; the means they employ are not truthful, at all times; and I am perfectly satisfied that if force is resorted to, this glorious Union will be dissolved, a civil war will follow, death and carnage will ensue, and the only free nation on the earth will be destroyed.84

The conservative resting place of an initial antislavery impulse can be seen in the Mission to Slaves and of a later slaveholding ethic, neither of which represent a proud moment in the history of white southern Evangelicalism. The Mission, which Mathews terms "a volatile compound of anxiety, shame, guilt, humane concern, rationalization, and self-interest,"85 grew out of the residual impulse of white Evangelicals to do something about slavery, but had the "advantage" of operating safely within a slave system. As Mathews tells it, there were really three missions: to society, to masters, and to slaves. The mission to society, most importantly, would make the South safer from race war, while the mission to masters would promote Evangelical values and good relations, and the mission to slaves would strengthen the black family, spread the gospel, and encourage self-discipline among slaves over a desire for revenge. Predictably, the failure of the Mission lay in not only its lowered moral vision, but in its inability even to realize the compromised ideal, as racism and misunderstanding prevented white and black culture from forming meaningful bridges one to the other. Finally, compounding this "tragedy" was the articulation of a slaveholding ethic that arose in tandem with the Mission's demise. The ethic stripped slaveholding of its traditional immoral connotations and reinforced notions of the racial and cultural inferiority of blacks.

Evangelicals faced an additional problem that the Transcendentalists did not: their movement straddled the Mason-Dixon line. As antislavery agitation gathered steam in the 1830s and 1840s, strain developed between the Northern and Southern camps and by 1845 would result in an official ecclesiastical division of the Methodist and Baptist churches. Since the former had less at stake in the slave system, they could more aggressively and consistently argue for slavery reform, as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lyman Beecher's daughter, did by writing Uncle Tom's Cabin and giving vent to a passionate outrage with slavery which far exceeded the position of most Southern Evangelicals. For those Evangelicals with a stake in slavery, religion was not supposed to be mixed with politics, and particularly not with slavery politics. An increasing number of them also began to argue that the Bible did not explicitly forbid slavery and actually seemed to imply that it might be the necessary lot of some people. William McLoughlin has identified the prevailing mood in the South when it came to the question of slavery reform:

In a land with little real poverty, no urban slums or factory towns, minimal cultural conflict with Roman Catholic immigrants, with the Indians removed to the West and the blacks considered childlike beneficiaries of civilization, the white southerner felt that this region of the nation was already closer to millennial perfection than any other part of the country.86

Such complacency, however, did not prevent the egalitarian message of Evangelicalism from reaching the slaves themselves. While the reform efforts of white Evangelicals could not overcome the inertia of the slavery system, the efforts of African Americans to alleviate their own conditions proved psychologically much more successful. To an oppressed population already receptive to the balm of religion, Evangelicalism offered a new world of salvation and a powerful point of contact with the dominant culture. A sense of mutual spirituality united members of the same denomination; whites did not condescend to blacks; blacks proved to be highly expressive preachers from whom white preachers could learn; in essence, slaves discovered that Christianity was not just for whites. Gradually, haltingly, against flareups of white resistance, blacks developed their own churches and their own Evangelicalism. It incorporated African folk religion, the Arminian promise of deliverance through self-disciplined morality, an empowering sense of independence, and a feeling of being somehow a chosen people, all of which helped to ameliorate the psychological and spiritual damage of slavery.

Gender Relations

In addition to slavery, the philosophical and practical implications of individualist rhetoric extended to relations between the sexes. Most noticeably, by positing the equality of the individual in the eyes of God Transcendentalists and Evangelicals could hardly avoid questions regarding women's status in the eyes of society. At the same time, their enduring emphasis on community suggested the existence of certain bounds to which individual freedom could be safely pushed. In one sense, gender relations were of more immediate concern than slavery to Transcendentalists and Evangelicals because they structured and gave meaning to the personal lives of members of both movements. While for Northerners slavery could remain safely at a distance, as "that awful problem down South," questions of marriage and family lay at the heart of their social existence. For white Southern Evangelicals, the presence of slavery was an omnipresent fact of life, but they also tended to subordinate issues of race and bondage to those of hearth and home.

The early decades of the nineteenth century saw the crystallization of the "cult of domesticity," which upheld the nuclear family as the province of safety and virtue in a world of uncertainty and competition. The home represented a port, tenderly nurtured by the woman, in which the man could take refuge from the churning sea of politics and economics outside the door. This division of gender roles had long been the norm of American life, but what differed after the Revolution was the explicitness with which it was articulated. By universalizing the rhetoric of equality and by drawing women partially into the political and military spheres during the actual conflict, the Revolution raised unsettling questions regarding the proper role of women in the new republic. What followed was, in its essence, a conservative reassertion of the traditional segregation between men's place in the world and women's place in the home. Yet the home had acquired a new importance as the site not only of feminine virtue but of political education, in which the men -- future lawyers, doctors, politicians -- would benefit from the wisdom and care of the mother. Linda Kerber termed this new role for women "Republican Motherhood," and described it as follows:

[W]omen devised their own interpretation of what the Revolution had meant to them as women, and they began to invent an ideology of citizenship that merged the domestic domain of the preindustrial woman with the new public ideology of individual responsibility and civic virtue. They did this in the face of severe ridicule, responding both to the anti-intellectual complaint that educating women served no practical purpose and the conservative complaint that women had no political significance.87

This expansion of the participation of women in American culture occurred within the limits of the home and family, but formed nonetheless one of the streams of social development through which post-Revolutionary energies could flow. It underlay and helped to validate the more overtly political feminist efforts of the antebellum period.

As Evangelical Protestantism matured, it grew in a more conservative direction; by the 1840s the movement had developed intricate links to society, significant economic power, and a definite air of respectability. As Evangelicalism became a religion of the middle-class and of stability, it also became a religion that perpetuated itself through schools and colleges, and that emphasized the family as the most basic social unit. Within the family, Christian precepts were to be faithfully inculcated in all the members; as Samuel Davies put it, families were "either to set up the worship of God immediately in your families or sin willfully against the knowledge of the truth."88 Accordingly, women were increasingly granted ideological importance as pious nurturers of the Christian home, yet did not gain total independence to operate outside their sphere. They were supposed to be moral complements to men's worldly affairs, yet still dependent on their husbands. Nevertheless, Evangelicalism provided women, as it did African Americans, with a vital measure of "psychological and social space"89 by affirming their individual importance in the eyes of God. The relation of parents to children was also particularly important, and symbolically paralleled the relation of divinity to humanity; the father was supposed to act toward his children as a stern yet forgiving God would toward humankind, while the mother assumed the role of Christ, selflessly sacrificing her needs for those of the children.

The Transcendentalists also experienced a tension between the individualism of their religious philosophy and the conservative instincts they retained in respect to family. For those members of a movement which developed during a time of disquieting social flux and which had distinguished itself by an intellectual and religious rebellion against tradition, home remained one of the few areas where emotional stability could reliably be found. The ideal of the perfectly free individual ran up against the mutual responsibilities of domestic life -- and the typical result for women was a continuation of their traditional roles. After Lidian Emerson, for instance, gave up on the idea of teaching Sunday school, she wrote to her husband:

I seek only to improve my character -- in doing which intellect will of course make some progress -- but I shall never again as I formerly did make mental cultivation of a chief aim. God help me to have no aim in the future but to do his will in seeking the happiness of others -- forgetting my own.90

Lidian Emerson's dilemma paralleled that of other women attached to the Transcendentalist movement, even those who participated in the Brook Farm and Fruitlands communities. At Brook Farm, while women were granted limited voting rights and officeholding priveleges, they continued to take most of the responsibility for the traditional forms of "women's work" and did not take part in the farm's major decisions. Sophia Ripley, who converted to Catholicism after Brook Farm disbanded in a continued effort to find a spiritually satisfying community, expressed the feeling that the community's commitment to a new mode of gender relations subverted itself because it derived more from abstract philosophy than from emotion. She wrote, "I saw that all through my life my ties with others were those of the intellect & imagination, & not warm heart ties; that I do not love anyone & never did, with the heart, & of course never could have been worthy in any relation [without the Catholic church]."91 While Brook Farm and Fruitlands had been envisioned as extended families, in which both married and single adults could strive for their highest potential, they remained moored to the traditional norms of family life that continued to define individual marriages.

Of all the Transcendentalists who took steps toward redefining their own conceptions of gender relations, Margaret Fuller stands out as the one who blazed the clearest path and managed to cleave unerrantly to her principles. Her booklet "Woman in the Nineteenth Century" (1845) is generally acknowledged as a seminal publication in the American feminist movement. This work expanded and amplified an article she wrote for the Dial in 1843 entitled "The Great Lawsuit." Here, Fuller delves under immediate political questions of female suffrage and extra-domestic activity in order to, in Perry Miller's words, "go to fundamentals." Fuller's central idea is as follows:

....I would have woman lay aside all thought, such as she habitually cherishes, of being taught and led by men. I would have her, like the Indian girl, dedicate herself to the Sun, the Sun of Truth, and go no where if his beams did not make clear the path. I would have her free from compromise, from complaisance, from helplessness, because I would have her good enough and strong enough to love one and all beings, from the fulness, not the poverty of being....Men, as at presented instructed, will not help this work, because they also are under the slavery of habit....92

Fuller's radicalism here consisted of applying the principles of transcendent freedom explicitly to woman, rather than articulating them, as her colleagues often did, in an abstract or phallocentric form. For Fuller, the experience of conversion and attainment of an independent relationship with divinity had far-ranging implications for women: no longer were they to define themselves in relation to the masculine strictures of society, but in relation to themselves and to God.


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