Man's Better Angels: Romantic Reformers and the Coming of the Civil War

Man's Better Angels: Romantic Reformers and the Coming of the Civil War Philip F. Gura's informative and well-written book is filled with insight into the pivotal impact of the panics of 1837 and 1857 on the lives of seven individuals: George Ripley, Horace Greeley, William B. Greene, Orson Squire Fowler, Mary Gove Nichols, Henry David Thoreau, and John Brown. Much like Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), which established the classic conservative response to the prospect of revolution in European society, Gura recounts how antebellum America's romantic reformers (“man's better angels”), whose mantra centered around Ralph Waldo Emerson's celebration of individualism and self-reliance, responded to these two traumatic economic crises and their aftermath. Choosing to tell the story through this group of closely connected intellectuals, Gura examines their visionary efforts to address the problems endemic to capitalism's free-market system. Beginning with Ripley's Brook Farm experiment, and then Greeley's dilettantish New-York Tribune, Green's transition from the pulpit to Christian “mutualism,” Fowler's pseudoscience of phrenology, Nichols's health reform movement, and Thoreau's arch-individualism, Gura takes readers on an intellectual journey that culminates in their fatuous worship of Brown and his murderous band of outlaws. Believing themselves “prophets of a new moral and social order to be achieved when everyone accessed the internal, God-given power to align one's self with God's will,” these divinely inspired reformers ultimately made a mockery of Emerson's ethic of self-reliance (p. 263). Their insistence on the unimpeachable sovereignty of the individual led them to a crisis of means and ends as they gave their consent to make the world a better place through the enshrinement of individual conscience over pragmatic compromise and the rule of law. My criticisms are minor and admittedly based on personal bias. I would have preferred that the author spend more time exploring the impact of Emanuel Swedenborg on these romantic reformers. While Gura recounts the history of Brook Farm, he does not follow its transition from associationism into Swedenborgianism. Henry James Sr., the most influential Swedenborgian among the proponents of Fourierism, drew on the law of correspondences in his claim that Charles Fourier's blueprint for society provided the closest approximation of Swedenborg's angelic planes, including the transformative work of divine influx in the exercise of human fellowship. James viewed Fourierism as the earthly representation of Swedenborg's revelatory vision of the divine order with the latent divinity of humanity realized in its earthly communities. This is an important book because it connects the nation's self-proclaimed prophets not only to their pet theories for rectifying the nation's ills but also to those personal and sometimes-foolhardy failings that propelled them into high-minded idealism and self-righteous resolve to acquire liberty and equality even if it necessitated violence. Maximilien Robespierre said as much in his defense of terrorism before the French Convention in 1794. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png The Journal of American History Oxford University Press

Man's Better Angels: Romantic Reformers and the Coming of the Civil War

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Publisher
Oxford University Press
Copyright
© The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.
ISSN
0021-8723
eISSN
1945-2314
D.O.I.
10.1093/jahist/jax462
Publisher site
See Article on Publisher Site

Abstract

Philip F. Gura's informative and well-written book is filled with insight into the pivotal impact of the panics of 1837 and 1857 on the lives of seven individuals: George Ripley, Horace Greeley, William B. Greene, Orson Squire Fowler, Mary Gove Nichols, Henry David Thoreau, and John Brown. Much like Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), which established the classic conservative response to the prospect of revolution in European society, Gura recounts how antebellum America's romantic reformers (“man's better angels”), whose mantra centered around Ralph Waldo Emerson's celebration of individualism and self-reliance, responded to these two traumatic economic crises and their aftermath. Choosing to tell the story through this group of closely connected intellectuals, Gura examines their visionary efforts to address the problems endemic to capitalism's free-market system. Beginning with Ripley's Brook Farm experiment, and then Greeley's dilettantish New-York Tribune, Green's transition from the pulpit to Christian “mutualism,” Fowler's pseudoscience of phrenology, Nichols's health reform movement, and Thoreau's arch-individualism, Gura takes readers on an intellectual journey that culminates in their fatuous worship of Brown and his murderous band of outlaws. Believing themselves “prophets of a new moral and social order to be achieved when everyone accessed the internal, God-given power to align one's self with God's will,” these divinely inspired reformers ultimately made a mockery of Emerson's ethic of self-reliance (p. 263). Their insistence on the unimpeachable sovereignty of the individual led them to a crisis of means and ends as they gave their consent to make the world a better place through the enshrinement of individual conscience over pragmatic compromise and the rule of law. My criticisms are minor and admittedly based on personal bias. I would have preferred that the author spend more time exploring the impact of Emanuel Swedenborg on these romantic reformers. While Gura recounts the history of Brook Farm, he does not follow its transition from associationism into Swedenborgianism. Henry James Sr., the most influential Swedenborgian among the proponents of Fourierism, drew on the law of correspondences in his claim that Charles Fourier's blueprint for society provided the closest approximation of Swedenborg's angelic planes, including the transformative work of divine influx in the exercise of human fellowship. James viewed Fourierism as the earthly representation of Swedenborg's revelatory vision of the divine order with the latent divinity of humanity realized in its earthly communities. This is an important book because it connects the nation's self-proclaimed prophets not only to their pet theories for rectifying the nation's ills but also to those personal and sometimes-foolhardy failings that propelled them into high-minded idealism and self-righteous resolve to acquire liberty and equality even if it necessitated violence. Maximilien Robespierre said as much in his defense of terrorism before the French Convention in 1794. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.

Journal

The Journal of American HistoryOxford University Press

Published: Mar 1, 2018

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