Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Radical Reform Rhetoric and the Ethics of White Manhood in Antebellum America

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Radical Reform Rhetoric and the Ethics of White Manhood in Antebellum America

Article excerpt

Both abolitionists and women's rights activists understood that the positions of slaves and women in American culture were deeply woven into America's social fabric. They believed swift, broad-reaching reform was necessary and that any significant change could be realized only through an ideological reform of national identity. They proposed immediate abolition and an aggressive reconstruction of gender dynamics based on the ideology of separate spheres. They attacked patriarchy and its institutions, seeking to reform the nation and its people through a moral agenda that was far more egalitarian and that included a much broader notion of equality than what was currently accepted. For radical reformers, the profound reorganization of national identity they deemed necessary was in many ways predicated upon a concomitant ethical reform of the hegemonic masculinity represented by the white, middle-class, Protestant men of the period.

**********

Social reform flourished in the United States during the decades preceding the American Civil War, but no reformers posed a more formidable challenge to traditional conceptions of national identity than certain abolitionists and women's rights activists. As social and economic forces reshaped the nation, reformers such as William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Sarah Grimke, Angelina Grimke, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Frederick Douglass, some of the most notable radical reformers of the period, worked to enact essential changes designed to improve the ethical character of the United States and its people. They were "radical" in that they sought not simple palliative reform of certain flawed aspects of American life, but momentous change of an underlying American patriarchal identity that they perceived to be the source of the nation's ethical problems. (1) Their primary agent of change, radical reform rhetoric, was powerful because it posited a fundamental restructuring of America's identity that went far beyond the most immediate and direct goals of various reform movements. Both abolitionists and women's rights activists understood that the positions of slaves and women in American culture were deeply woven into America's social fabric. They believed swift, broad-reaching reform was necessary and that any significant change could be realized only through an ideological reform of national identity. They proposed immediate abolition and an aggressive reconstruction of gender dynamics based on the ideology of separate spheres. They attacked patriarchy and its institutions, seeking to reform the nation and its people through a moral agenda that was far more egalitarian and that included a much broader notion of equality than what was currently accepted. For radical reformers, the profound reorganization of national identity they deemed necessary was in many ways predicated upon a concomitant ethical reform of the hegemonic masculinity represented by the white, middle-class, Protestant men of the period. (2)

Radical reformers focused their efforts on goals--empowering women and freeing slaves--that would directly reconstruct the identities of white women and African Americans. It is evident how women's rights reformers attempted to change contemporary notions about feminine identity; simply put, these reformers aspired to provide women the social, political, and legal status that America's white men enjoyed. It should be similarly clear how radical abolitionists attempted to change notions concerning the femininity and masculinity of slaves; for these abolitionists, rhetorically establishing the full humanity of African Americans was fundamental to the project, which often meant affirming and reinforcing the idea that these enslaved or oppressed women and men conformed respectively to contemporary notions of femininity and masculinity. (3) Less immediately evident is how both sets of reformers also labored to reconstruct contemporary white masculinity as a crucial element of their reform efforts. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.