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Creating the Culture of Reform in Antebellum America

T. Gregory Garvey

Publication Year: 2006

In this study, T. Gregory Garvey illustrates how activists and reformers claimed the instruments of mass media to create a freestanding culture of reform that enabled voices disfranchised by church or state to speak as equals in public debates over the nation's values. Competition among antebellum reformers in religion, women's rights, and antislavery institutionalized a structure of ideological debate that continues to define popular reform movements.

The foundations of the culture of reform lie, according to Garvey, in the reconstruction of publicity that coincided with the religious-sectarian struggles of the early nineteenth century. To counter challenges to their authority and to retain church members, both conservative and liberal religious factions developed instruments of reform propaganda (newspapers, conventions, circuit riders, revivals) that were adapted by an emerging class of professional secular reformers in the women's rights and antislavery movements. Garvey argues that debate among the reformers created a mode of “critical conversation” through which reformers of all ideological persuasions collectively forged new conventions of public discourse as they struggled to shape public opinion.

Focusing on debates between Lyman Beecher and William Ellery Channing over religious doctrine, Angelina Grimke and Catharine Beecher over women's participation in antislavery, and William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass over the ethics of political participation, Garvey argues that “crucible-like sites of public debate” emerged as the core of the culture of reform. To emphasize the redefinition of publicity provoked by antebellum reform movements, Garvey concludes the book with a chapter that presents Emersonian self-reliance as an effort to transform the partisan nature of reform discourse into a model of sincere public speech that affirms both self and community.

Published by: University of Georgia Press


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pp. vii-viii

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p. ix

Quite a few people made important contributions to this book. The content of individual chapters has been strongly influenced by feedback I received from the members of the Rochester University Social Historian (RUSH) draft group. The members of this group gave careful and thoughtful comments on the introduction and the chapter on Garrison and Douglass. I presented a version...

List of Abbreviations

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pp. xi-xii

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INTRODUCTION: Discursive Democracy and the Culture of Reform

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pp. 1-30

Antebellum social reform movements, especially antislavery and women's rights, shaped public discourse in ways that still define the manner in which Americans deal with divisive issues. The relationships that these reform movements created not only redefined Americans' understanding of citizenship and equality; they also created a culture of reform through which people debated moral and ethical...

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CHAPTER ONE: Religious Pluralism and the Origins of the Culture of Reform

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pp. 31-73

During the three decades between Henry Ware's election to the Hollis Chair of Divinity at Harvard in 1805 and the disestablishment of Congregationalism in Massachusetts, the New England ministry underwent a transformation metaphoric of broader trends toward pluralism in antebellum society. Movements that would restructure the role of the church in American society were...

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CHAPTER TWO: Sincerity and Publicity in the Grimké-Beecher Debate

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pp. 74-120

As the legitimization of the minister's authority diffused into the realm of critical public discourse, the types of authority Americans saw in womanhood were also beginning to find purchase in the public sphere. Even as Jacksonian Americans were assembling the scaffolding of antebellum domesticity, American women were defining two important pathways into critical discourse. Working...

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CHAPTER THREE: Garrison, Douglass, and the Problem of Politics

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pp. 121-160

Frederick Douglass's fight with the slave breaker Covey was clearly an act of liberatory self-assertion. But as Frank Kirkland points out, it is also a parable of recognition, a story that demonstrates Douglass's ability to compel a white man to recognize him as an equal, at least in terms of brute force.1 After defeating Covey, Douglass puzzled over his master's response and wondered why Covey did...

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CHAPTER FOUR: Emerson's Self-Reliance as a Theory of Community

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pp. 161-198

When Emerson remarks in his 1841 essay "Man the Reformer," "What is a man born for but to be a Reformer," he is only half thinking about reform associations and organized movements (CW 1:156). More directly he is considering the processes and forces that transform selves and communities. In this early essay on the emerging culture of reform, he speaks in self-reflexive terms and argues that...

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EPILOGUE: Sincerity and Pluralism in Critical Conversation

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pp. 199-202

The emphasis that early reformers placed on the right of access to public discourse also says much about ambiguities in the relationship of liberalism to discursive democracy. One reason that Frederick Douglass accepted the advantages of political antislavery and that the women's rights movement chose the path indicated by Angelina Grimké is that advocates of civil and equal rights...


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pp. 203-221


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pp. 223-235


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pp. 237-263

E-ISBN-13: 9780820330839
E-ISBN-10: 0820330833
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820326856
Print-ISBN-10: 0820326852

Page Count: 280
Publication Year: 2006

OCLC Number: 647901093
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Creating the Culture of Reform in Antebellum America

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Subject Headings

  • Social reformers -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Deliberative democracy -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • United States -- Social conditions -- To 1865.
  • United States -- History -- 1815-1861.
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