H105, American History I

Reading Guide for Week 11

Last week we looked at two paradoxical elements of political culture in the young United States:  fears of “aristocracy” as well as fears of “democracy” itself.  Both involved contests over social worth, in a context of intensive economic competition which was articulated in terms of an individualized masculine ideology, whether as supposedly self-made success or supposedly self-made failure.  With the development of universal white male suffrage, the necessary attributes for the privileges and advantages of citizenship became whiteness and maleness.  In the hands of some men, either actively struggling and/or simply perceiving threat, the presumption of privilege and advantage could be twisted into scapegoating and targeting marginalized members of American society, such as immigrants.  Some came to doubt the foundational principle of “equality,” and argued instead for a return to an exclusionary “birth” principle, predictably favoring themselves.  What was imagined to be causing the rise or the fall of the American democratic experiment?  Many like Lincoln or Tocqueville feared perceived internal threats, but nativists feared perceived external threats become internal.  Decades after the Declaration of Independence, the American experiment still felt unstable and in jeopardy, requiring continued attention and work.

This week we will meet idealistic social reformers who sought to make the nation a “better” place, or, at least, to reshape it in accord with their own cultural and social preferences.  (The nativists we met last week were idealistic social reformers in their own pathological way, but they sought to inflict harm on their social targets.)  The early nineteenth century witnessed an extraordinary proliferation of voluntary social reform organizations — groups of people who sacrificed time, energy, and money to accomplish goals which they saw as bettering society.  The most extreme of these organizations were utopian communities that sprouted throughout the northern United States, with the radical imagination that one could step outside mainstream society and, from scratch, create a perfect new community.  Perhaps the most dramatic social reform was the emergence of an abolitionist movement, blacks as well as whites who advocated for the immediate and unconditional end to slavery, which would have the potential to jar the Southern economy, the United States economy, and the Atlantic world economy.  Perhaps the most surprising social reform was the unexpected emergence of a women’s movement out of the abolitionist movement.  All of these social reforms moved back and forth across the Atlantic, since British society was energized in similar reform impulses (utopianism, abolitionism, women’s rights, et cetera).


Robert Owen, critique of individualism (1825-1826):  Like many social reformers in the nineteenth century, Robert Owen, who worked himself up the social ladder into a young British industrialist, hoped to make the principles of the Declaration of Independence more of a reality in the United States.  For him, that idealized reality took the form of an experimental utopian community he developed at New Harmony, Indiana.  Why did he believe that the “Revolution of 1776” was still unfinished, 50 years later?  Why did he insist upon a “mental revolution” to follow upon the footsteps of political revolution?

Ralph Waldo Emerson, critique of social conformity (1841-1844):  One of the literary lions of the so-called “American Renaissance” (when American literature first gained an international reputation, in the mid 19th century), Emerson complained about a business sector that seemed to foster endemic moral corruption in the United States.  Yet why did Emerson assign every single person, not just corrupt business men, a share in the blame for the moral degeneration of American society?


David Walker, Appeal (1830):  Just as many white intellectuals formed essentialist notions about the supposed “nature” of blacks, some black intellectuals in turn articulated essentialist notions about the supposed nature of “whites.”  David Walker became one of the first outspoken black intellectuals who participated in a new print culture (newspaper, magazine, and book publication) operated independently by African Americans beginning in the latter 1820s.  How did Walker invoke “Christian” history?  How did he invoke “American” history?  Where did his sense of a solution come from?

American Anti-Slavery Society, Declaration (1833):  Issued by a national organization of mostly white abolitionists, this declaration held up American ideals against the problematic unjust realities of American society.  How did the abolitionists compare the evil of slavery to 1776?  What was the difference in their activist tactics in comparison to the revolutionaries in 1776?  Where did their sense of a solution come from?

Women’s Rights Convention (1848):  Approximately 300 women and men attended the Seneca Falls Convention in upstate New York, a meeting which was inspired by the activism of the anti-slavery movement, but also precipitated by that movement’s subordination of women — a subordination that mirrored prevailing gender practices in the fundamentally patriarchal society that was the United States at the time.  How did the Convention characterize the reasons supposedly justifying the subordination of women to men in American society?  How did they, in turn, articulate alternative reasons insisting upon the equality of women and men?  Where did their sense of a solution come from?