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  • The Dangerous Isms and the Fanatical IstsAntebellum Conservatives in the South and the North Confront the Modernity Conspiracy
  • Michael F. Conlin (bio)

Conservatives in the South and the North regarded the abolitionist attack on slavery as part of a greater modernist attack on traditional American values. They believed the United States in general and the South in particular were under ideological siege by the dangerous isms—usually italicized, to emphasize their threat. Ranging from planters, theologians, and lawyers in the South to yeomen, mechanics, and merchants in the North, they feared that the North was under attack by a phalanx of dangerous ideas and that the South had to defend itself or conservatives would have to fight a two-front war to protect the United States from what Massachusetts Democrat Benjamin F. Hallett called the “whole band of isms.” These spanned from religion to politics, economics to literature, and race relations to domestic arrangements. In a breathless rant, a Natchez physician ticked off the “kindred isms” that imperiled the United States: “Mormonism, Millerism, Transcendentalism, Teetotalism, Free Lovism, Socialism, Naturalism, [and, of course,] Abolitionism.” Taking a deep breath, the American Whig Review calmly observed that they ranged from “Fanny Wrightism to Fourierism.” Others listed a dozen more—Red Republicanism, Black Republicanism, Agrarianism, Free-Renterism, and so on and on—in a veritable witches’ brew of sedition, immorality, and blasphemy.1

Rather than seeing these ideas as part of the welter of responses—many of them contradictory or even mutually exclusive—to industrialization and liberalization, American conservatives regarded the isms as part of a single program imported from Europe, which posed an existential threat to the American Republic. In addition to trying to liberate their slaves (Abolitionism), conservative southerners and northerners worried that the reckless ists who practiced these isms wanted to give women full political and social rights (Bloomerism), undermine traditional notions of marriage and sexual relations (Fanny Wrightism and free-lovism), prohibit the sale and consumption of alcohol (Maine Lawism), undermine the authority of the Bible through “higher criticism” (skepticism and atheism), overturn [End Page 205] traditional Christianity’s monopoly on spiritual relations (Mormonism, Millerism, Spiritualism, and Transcendentalism), deny the sanctity of private property and contracts (Socialism, Communism, Proudhonism, Fourierism, Agrarianism, and Anti-Rentism), end the political deference poor whites gave elites (Red Republicanism), and give African Americans— free and enslaved—full political and social rights (Black Republicanism). George Fitzhugh, a proslavery ideologue from Virginia, warned that the isms were acting as “assiduous wedges” to undermine the religion, family, polity, and society of the South after having already destroyed those institutions in the North. Richard Rush, a Philadelphia lawyer and scion of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, complained that the isms threatened to shake America’s social institutions until they came tumbling down. From the top of the Upper North to the bottom of the Deep South, antebellum conservatives believed they must stand as a bulwark against what a Wisconsin Democrat called the “deluge” of isms or what the New Orleans Picayune called the “whirlwind of fanaticism” that threatened to alternately wash or blow away the political, economic, social, and religious foundations of the United States and to topple the fixed hierarchies that swayed above them.2

The idea that the southern reaction to the abolitionist challenge was essentially antimodern is not new. Since the 1950s, historians have cast the South as resisting the modernism of abolition, at least.3 Since the 1980s, historians have argued that the slaveholding elite in the Old South had selectively adopted those aspects of modernity they found useful, for example, the railroad, steamboat, and telegraph as well as capitalism, while discarding the others. In doing so, these scholars contend that southern slaveholders had developed a “regionally distinct understanding of modernity.”4

Although it is clear that conservatives in the South selectively adopted some aspects of modernity—principally technological advances and the primacy of free markets—it is equally clear that they rejected the more important social, cultural, political, and intellectual advances of modernity—women’s rights, skepticism, democracy, abolition, and so forth—and their challenges to the fixed hierarchies in the household, field, church, and government. If the antebellum...


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