What America’s 19th-Century Reformers and Radicals Missed

What America’s 19th-Century Reformers and Radicals Missed

The Romance of Reform

A new book on the antebellum period captures the dangers of confusing self-improvement with institutional change.


Horace Greeley’s large brain was in just “the right PLACE,” according to the phrenologist who studied the bumps on Greeley’s head. That the bigheaded Greeley was also an outspoken freethinker came as no surprise to readers of The American Phrenological Journal and Miscellany. By 1847, the year Greeley underwent his analysis, he was one of the most renowned American publishers. Courageous and uncompromising, Greeley had fluently opposed the Mexican War, peddled temperance, prodded young men to “Go West!,” espoused European socialism, fought for women’s rights, condemned capital punishment (as well as the use of coffee, tea, and hard liquor), and found the institution of slavery immoral. Later, he would try to settle the Civil War single-handedly, and he would also run a quixotic presidential campaign against that war’s popular hero, Ulysses S. Grant. Greeley was articulate, notorious, and eminently recognizable: Long before Mark Twain adopted his signature white, the shambling Greeley put on his trademark snowy linen duster to walk the streets of Manhattan, where he edited the nationally prominent New-York Tribune. As his phrenologist noted, this was “no ordinary man.” 

Extraordinary too, if in a lesser key, was the famous American phrenologist Orson Squire Fowler, who, with his brother 
Lorenzo, developed the pseudoscience into a popular pastime, luring Greeley and countless others to their headquarters in New York City to read their bumps instead of their palms. The brothers also published the aforementioned American Phrenological Journal and Miscellany, a tremendously lucrative enterprise in whose pages they examined the pates of Cicero, Napoleon, William Words­worth, Jenny Lind, Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Black Hawk, and Clara Barton, either in person, by reputation, or from beyond the grave. Promising to illuminate its subjects, or revitalize them, phrenology made the Fowler brothers a fortune. 

Fowler and Greeley are just two of the seven antebellum reformers that Philip F. Gura profiles in his latest book, Man’s Better Angels: Romantic Reformers and the Coming of the Civil War. The others are George Ripley, William Batchelder Greene, Mary Gove Nichols, Henry David Thoreau, and John Brown. All of them were psychologically scarred, Gura argues, by the awful Panic of 1837, an economic depression precipitated to a great extent by rampant land speculation, inflation, and Andrew Jackson’s decentralization of the US banking system. The results of the panic were devastating: factory shutdowns, pervasive unemployment, widespread hunger, and unremitting misery nationwide. 

According to Gura, these seven figures were representative of a broader self-help culture of reform that spread across the United States in the years before the Civil War. Shaken to their core, they each scrambled after various panaceas—some of them pretty weird—to revive the country from its economic stagnation, which they generally assumed had its root cause in the poor physical or mental health of the individual, a being innately virtuous, creative, and capable of spiritual elevation. Hence the “romantic” in the title of his book: These reformers set out to nurture the “better angels of our nature” years before Abraham Lincoln uttered that memorable phrase in his first inaugural speech.

Although his subjects may have been naive, Gura himself is no ingenue when it comes to America’s antebellum culture and its discontents. 
A distinguished professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and the author of such fine books as American Transcendentalism: A History and Truth’s Ragged Edge: The Rise of the American Novel, Gura is an undisputed expert on literature written in the vexed era before and after the Civil War. Here, in this elegant volume, he provides seven biographical chapters that examine how his reformers dedicated themselves to what he calls “imaginative, if frequently specious, ways for Americans to think about how, by improving certain aspects of their personal lives, they could make themselves better, more productive, and potentially successful citizens.” Unfortunately, these reformers avoided any scrupulous confrontation with systemic economic or social problems. They had no real blueprint for institutional change and no real desire for it; they also offered no real challenge to capitalism. Instead, they remained in thrall to what Gura calls an American “middle-class liberalism” that depended on a “national ethic 
of self-reliance.” 

This critical judgment is a leitmotif in Man’s Better Angels, but it doesn’t diminish Gura’s respect for these reformers or his kindly indulgence of their foibles. However half-baked their cure-alls, they each possessed an unshakable trust in the goodness of human nature and a bedrock confidence in the sanctity of the individual, who just happened to be backed up by God. Even if their faith was misguided and their sense of self-importance overweening, they were still idealists, and Gura, ever sympathetic, never condescends to them. 

How exactly self-culture might effect a broader transformation of society was the nut these reformers had a hard time cracking. Take George Ripley, in his own time the most famous of the bunch: With his wife, Sophia Dana Ripley, he founded the experimental community known as Brook Farm in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, near Boston. Gura outlines Ripley’s “humble beginnings” as the scion of a financially successful, politically influential store owner who sent his son to Harvard. After graduating at the head of his class, Ripley adopted Unitarianism, which rejected any Calvinistic sense of humankind’s innate depravity. He took over a liberal church, published his sermons, and grew a social conscience. Eventually, Ripley joined the so-called “Transcendental Club,” which included men like Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose credo of self-reliance, says Gura, “fit perfectly well with the emergent capitalist market that drove the nation’s ever-growing economy.” But unlike some of the club’s other members, Ripley wanted more out of self-reliance, which he believed could degenerate into rank egotism. What about social problems, Ripley wanted to know: Why can’t labor and capital work together harmoniously so that laborers were free to work and at the same time cultivate their own gardens? 

Ripley wasn’t the only one asking this question. In the 1840s, some 60 communities intending to remedy or escape the ills of industrial society were organized in the United States, but of them, Ripley’s utopian experiment at Brook Farm may be the most famous. Having left the ministry in 1841, he and his wife (who doesn’t have much of a presence in Gura’s book) hoped that Brook Farm might offer an example of a reorganized social system that fostered a “more natural union between intellectual and manual labor” and, by mingling work and play, “permit[ted] a more simple and wholesome life, than can be led amidst the pressure of our competitive institutions.”

The plan looked good on paper. The Ripleys purchased a dairy farm in West Roxbury that would be run as a joint-stock company, each share costing $500 and returning a fixed rate of interest to the shareholders. In exchange for board, the residents of the commune would work the farm in whatever way suited them: They could run the nursery, where mothers might leave their children in the daytime, or they could hoe the fields. Nonworking residents would be welcome, but for a fee. Expenses for the farm’s upkeep would be offset by tuition from the community’s prospective school and from produce sold in the Boston market so that all members could enjoy what amounted to health care as well as concerts, lectures, and impromptu picnics. 

But the Ripleys, who knew very little about agriculture, had purchased the farm before they realized that its 170 acres of meadows and trees, while bucolic, were not arable. Brook Farm became a financial disaster—and as a skeptical Greeley noted after a visit, the place tended to attract “the conceited, the crotchety, the selfish, the headstrong, the pugnacious, the unappreciated, the played-out, the idle, and the good-for-nothing generally.” 

Yet while Greeley viewed the Brook Farm experiment with a jaundiced eye, he remained attracted to the utopian socialism of his era. He had read Albert Brisbane’s Social Destiny of Man, an American interpretation of the reform blueprint proposed by the French philosopher Charles Fourier. If left to their own devices, Fourier believed, most people would gravitate to the tasks for which they were naturally suited, and so he proposed the reorganization of society by placing congenial individuals into “phalanxes,” or small communities, where they could work at what they liked, benefiting themselves and society at the same time. Under this new social system, people would eventually live to be 144 years old, all beasts would grow gentle, and the sea would turn into a kind of lemonade. 

Greeley’s idealism didn’t go that far, but he did adopt Fourier’s views sufficiently to urge Ripley to retool his agrarian project into a complex of phalanxes for the manufacture of pewter, shoes, and window sashes, hoping to fill Brook Farm’s coffers by making it the poster child for the New York Associationist movement (as the Fourierists were called). It was a bad decision. As Sterling Delano points out in his Brook Farm: The Dark Side of Utopia, the New York and New England chapters of utopia differed on dicey political matters. For example, Brook Farmers opposed the war with Mexico and the extension of slavery, a position that prominent New York Associationists labeled treasonous. Without New York backing, Brook Farm sputtered along for another year, until smallpox, internal wrangling, and finally fire razed the place in 1846.

As for Greeley, he too did not want to replace capitalism, Gura argues, but rather just “control it for the good of all,” and he evidently supposed for a while that the issue of slavery could be handled with slow deliberation, or “by tinkering with what amounted to middle-class socialism.” Like many of his other reformist compatriots, Greeley would be radicalized in the 1850s, although Gura is far more interested in the decade before, when the utopian dreamers concocted schemes like that of William Batchelder Greene (the subject of another chapter), who was briefly associated with Brook Farm but, having read Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, sought to develop a scheme for a new banking system to eliminate fluctuations in the market. Greene’s plan, which he called “mutualism,” or mutual banking, circumvented the need for both paper currency and specie (silver or gold) with a credit system anchored by real estate and Christian humanism. That plan, like Greene himself, is mostly forgotten now.

Organized around these seven reformers, Man’s Better Angels uses Brook Farm and Greeley’s evolution as its connective tissue, but Gura ultimately looks toward the coming of the Civil War, particularly when, at the conclusion of his excellent chapter on Orson Fowler, he again notes that such fads as phrenology “never challenged but rather supported and reinforced the American economic and political system.” Phrenology avoided hard moral questions, principally about slavery, and in fact can be said to have justified the racial stereotypes that underpinned it. This was true of the fascinating Mary Gove Nichols, who was also influenced by Fourier but whose real passion was women’s health and the exercise of control over the physical body, notably in relation to sex. Devoted equally to the water cure, good hygiene, brown bread, and equal rights, this early feminist also believed that slavery was just another example of the way that everyone was oppressed—most especially “the Northern wife,” who was “worse off than the Southern slave, for her moral cultivation gives her a keenness of anguish that the want of spiritual culture saves her Southern sister from.” This view also happened to be rampant among proslavery advocates. 

The book’s penultimate chapter examines Henry Thoreau, another individualist distinguished, for Gura, by his “brave defense” of John Brown after the calamitous Harpers Ferry raid, and who sought to move beyond the transcendentalists, Brisbane, and Fourier. (Of Brook Farm and the other utopian communities, Thoreau quipped, “I think I had rather keep bachelor’s hall in hell than go to board in heaven.”) In 1845, he built a cabin for one at Walden Pond, “to transact some private business with the fewest obstacles,” as he later wrote. 

But after two years spent divining his own nature at Walden Pond, what then? How would Thoreau implement what he had learned there, once he returned to Concord and the world at large? According to Gura, Thoreau turned to civil disobedience: He would resist the government when its actions contravened his conscience. And Thoreau did just that during America’s invasion of Mexico, refusing to pay his local poll tax, even if it meant a night or two in the Concord jail.

With the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, Thoreau’s activism took on an even more radical tilt when he announced that he recognized “a higher law than the Constitution.” “Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator?” he asked in his now-famous essay “Resistance to Civil Government.” Respect what is right and just, Thoreau counseled, not the law. Otherwise, “why has every man a conscience, then?” Like John Brown’s, Thoreau’s politics were transformed in the 1850s. He was no longer just a romantic reformer; he had become a political evangelist. (Fowler and Ripley both seem mere tinkerers when placed alongside Brown and Thoreau.) 

As for John Brown—another casualty of the Panic of 1837—he spent much of his life in one failed business endeavor after another and had once been imprisoned for bankruptcy. But he was also an abolitionist willing to entertain—or, more to the point, provoke—violence for the social good. And though the story of the Harpers Ferry raid has been told many times, in recounting Brown’s commitment to conscience, Gura focuses on the lecture “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” in which Thoreau emphatically defended the freedom fighter after his arrest, proclaiming that Brown had lifted us up from the “trivialness and dust of politics into the region of truth and manhood” (or, at least in Thoreau’s case, the region of rhetorical flourish). 

Gura suggests that Brown’s violent acts—both at Harpers Ferry and during the earlier Pottawatomie massacre in Kansas, which Brown oversaw—were caused in part by frustration. When the romantic fails to illuminate or enlighten others, and when social reform is slow to come—or seems not to come at all—then he or she can only resort to violence. After all, Brown’s romanticism, even his heroism, purportedly sprang from a “noble ideal, the ideal that in a democratic society properly conceived all men and women, regardless of class, gender, race, or ethnicity, should be treated fairly and with dignity because they were irreducibly equal in spirit.” 

Certainly Brown’s violence, as well as Thoreau’s canonization of it, symbolizes the dangerous pitfalls of an unfettered self-reliance, where individuals are convinced that they and they alone incarnate higher laws. This was actually Nathaniel Hawthorne’s criticism of pie-eyed sentimentalists like Ripley and, more significantly, his foreshadowing of romantic egotists like Brown, who were vain enough to think that they alone could read by the light of a higher or divine law. “They have no heart, no sympathy, no reason, no conscience,” Hawthorne wrote in The Blithedale Romance, his send-up of Brook Farm, which he composed almost a decade before Harpers Ferry. “They will keep no friend, unless he make himself the mirror of their purpose; they will smite and slay you, and trample your dead corpse under foot, all the more readily, if you take the first step with them, and cannot take the second, and the third, and every other step of their terribly straight path.” 

But is violence the fate of all thwarted idealism? Surely, idealism did not spark the sanguinary Civil War, and long before it, many people knew that devastating social problems could not be solved by the likes of Mary Nichols, Orson Fowler, or even John Brown. And the idealists—including liberals like Charles Sumner, Lydia Maria Child, and David Walker, to say nothing of pragmatic politicians like Abraham Lincoln—never really relinquished their commitment to a more perfect union. Nor did they sink into despair or desperate action.

Gura’s romantic reformers, New Englanders all, however charming or visionary or well-intentioned, largely served up distractions to spare their readers, followers, acolytes, and well-paying customers from the “trivialness and dust of politics.” Perhaps, then, in this new age of Trump, we should criticize their political superciliousness more and their liberalism less. True, these men and women, with their crazy quilt of nostrums, participated in an ethos of competitive and rugged individualism—albeit tempered with compassion—and invited others to change themselves, but not the existing order. More pernicious, it seems, was their conviction that they and they alone could bring about the end of slavery (assuming they cared about it at all), sidestepping the long, weary slog of setbacks and rank stupidity endured by the likes of Robert Smalls, Jane Swisshelm, and William Lloyd Garrison. 

Read after the 2016 election, Gura’s intriguing book, written before it, does shed a kinder light on his benighted reformers, whose commitment to free expression, individual dignity, and social justice reminds us of the importance of dissent—all manner of dissent—and of the power inherent in the individual’s ability to say no. Yet Man’s Better Angels also highlights the willful political ignorance and purposeful childishness with which so many of these reformers confronted, at least in the 1840s, the grievously unfree world in which they lived.

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