Banks failed, credit contracted, inequality grew, and people everywhere were out of work while political paralysis and slavery threatened to rend the nation in two. As financial crises always have, the Panic of 1837 drew forth a plethora of reformers who promised to restore America to greatness.Read more...
Banks failed, credit contracted, inequality grew, and people everywhere were out of work while political paralysis and slavery threatened to rend the nation in two. As financial crises always have, the Panic of 1837 drew forth a plethora of reformers who promised to restore America to greatness. Animated by an ethic of individualism and self-reliance, they became prophets of a new moral order: if only their fellow countrymen would call on each individual's God-given better instincts, the most intractable problems could be resolved.
Inspired by this reformist fervor, Americans took to strict dieting, water cures, phrenology readings, mesmerism, utopian communities, free love, mutual banking, and a host of other elaborate self-improvement schemes. Vocal activists were certain that solutions to the country's ills started with the reformation of individuals, and through them communities, and through communities the nation. This set of assumptions ignored the hard political and economic realities at the core of the country's malaise, however, and did nothing to prevent another financial panic twenty years later, followed by secession and civil war.
Focusing on seven individuals--George Ripley, Horace Greeley, William B. Greene, Orson Squire Fowler, Mary Gove Nichols, Henry David Thoreau, and John Brown--Philip Gura explores their efforts, from the comical to the homicidal, to beat a new path to prosperity. A narrative of people and ideas, Man's Better Angels captures an intellectual moment in American history that has been overshadowed by the Civil War and the pragmatism that arose in its wake.
- ISBN-13: 9780674659544
- ISBN-10: 0674659546
- Publisher: Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard Universi
- Publish Date: April 2017
- Page Count: 328
- Dimensions: 8.2 x 5.8 x 1 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2017-02-13
- Reviewer: Staff
In this absorbing and lucid study, Gura, a professor of American literature and culture at UNCChapel Hill, examines the reform movement in the quarter century before the outbreak of the Civil War. Focusing on both well-known figures, such as Henry David Thoreau and Horace Greeley, and less familiar ones, such as Mary Gove Nichols and William B. Greene, Gura depicts these individuals as struggling to make sense of the drastic economic and social changes that were reshaping the U.S. in this era, particularly the Panic of 1837. In Guras view, these intellectuals contributed to the bankruptcy of an American liberalism in the mid-19th century, as they attributed even nationwide financial crises to the moral failures of individuals rather than structures and institutions. This failure to distinguish between personal and societal agency rendered these well-intentioned peoples writings incapable of contributing to the resolution of their nations problems, and also resulted in John Browns tragic raid on Harpers Ferry. Reformist intellectuals believed so deeply in the power of a single person to produce social change that they were willing to give moral and financial support to Browns bloody and futile crusade. Guras book is deeply pessimistic about individual efficacy in response to social crises, which remains relevant in the 21st century. (Apr.)