The Wrongheaded and the Transparent Eye-Ball: Garrison, Emerson, and Antebellum Reform

By Brennan, Denis P. | Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

The Wrongheaded and the Transparent Eye-Ball: Garrison, Emerson, and Antebellum Reform


Brennan, Denis P., Historical Journal of Massachusetts


John L Thomas and Robert H. Abzug agree that the reform movement of the early nineteenth century was built on three factors: the expansion of democracy and egalitarianism, the millennial optimism of the early republic, and the disestablishment of the churches.' These factors provided the foundation on which reformers operated until the Civil War era refocused the nation toward institutional efforts at efficiency and professionalism. Building on this foundation, the approaches of these two authors then diverge and more nuanced perspectives develop.

Thomas emphasizes the influence of perfectionism. For the founding fathers, he argues, perfectionism was institutionally possible within the boundaries of a system of checks and balances, but for what Thomas calls the "romantic reformer," perfectionism was a possibility for the educated individual as well as the means to personal self-improvement.2 As the romantic reform movement spread across American society, Thomas contends, it became philosophically associated with Transcendental theory. In turn, Transcendentalism secured perfectionism within the individual and promised that from there it could move outward through family and society to regenerate the world. Since, according to Octavius Frothingham, the transcendentalist "was less a reformer of human circumstances than a regenerator of the human spirit,"3 the failure of church and state to support real reform eventually led some transcendentalists into communitarian efforts.

Abzug focuses on the religious and the "sacralization" of the profane, along with the holy, or as he defines it, "the tendency to apply religious imagination and passion to issues that most Americans considered worldly."4 The religious cosmos appeared to disintegrate early in the nineteenth century as church control of social behavior was challenged by democratic changes.5 Initially, Abzug argues, benevolent reformers and the societies they established sought to remind people of the proper order in society. Although they never completely disappeared, benevolent reformers eventually gave way to evangelical reformers who sought individual holiness, and who in turn were succeeded by radical reformers who envisioned a complete restructuring of society. In each case, Abzug claims, the changes were precipitated by a sense of a collapsing "cosmetology" which could only be saved by commitment, in a profoundly holy and religious sense, even when the issue would most often be envisioned as one of earthly significance.

At the risk of over-simplifying both Thomas' and Abzug's intricate examinations of one of the most active and complicated periods of American intellectual development, the crux of their analysis of nineteenth century reform appears to rest on the individual differently understood. For Thomas, perfectionist moral reform and transcendental reform preceded from the individual. It was reform within the individual that provided the structural framework for organizational or communitarian efforts to remake the rest of the world. In fact, while lack of money and management skill contributed to the final collapse of perfectionist efforts at reform, the "real cause" rested "in the person of the perfectionist self, Margaret Fuller's 'mountainous me.'"6 The emphasis is essentially reversed for Abzug. The individual embraces a sacralized concept which is envisioned as containing the means to reform the world. Thus, for example, acceptance of and adherence to the principles of benevolence, temperance, sabbatarianism, or even non-resistance, had the potential to restore a crumbling cosmos to the order intended by God, or whatever power that ruled the natural world. From this base grew the radical reformers (abolitionism, communitarianism, and feminism) who envisioned a complete restructuring of society. The ultimate radicalism and the one that split reformers in the 1840s was feminism. This radical call for equal rights, equal participation, and equal treatment for women was too extreme for even some radical reformers -- too much of their cosmos crumbled in its wake. …

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The Wrongheaded and the Transparent Eye-Ball: Garrison, Emerson, and Antebellum Reform
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