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American Literary History 14.1 (2002) 32-59

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Abolition's Racial Interiors and the Making of White Civic Depth

Christopher Castiglia

How social order became understood in relation to the description and reform of specific types of citizens' interiority (their "natures" or "characters," emanations of the "deep" self) is a topic central to understanding how social reform affected public opinion in the nineteenth-century US and how it continues to shape American social life to this day. Michel Foucault, in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1977), famously places the "inward turn" of state control at the advent of modernity, a shift he characterizes as a move from coercion, punishment, and the infliction of death to pastoral benevolence, discipline, and the extension of life. These shifts, for Foucault, enhanced the possibilities for human freedom while simultaneously restricting those options by regulating subjectivity through the statistical knowledges ("norms") of human character that made accusations of delinquency or perversion greater dangers than the loss of freedom. In the US the antebellum movements for social reform played an instrumental role in the shifts Foucault describes, providing a range of discourses through which human "depth" was scrutinized for signs of social unrest. Through reform rhetoric, Americans came to see such unrest as caused less by economic or political inequality than by defects of the human will, personality, or "character." In locating the vectors of social inequality and dissent in proximity to normative "character," and by seeking to remedy social ills through the redisposition of delinquent interiority, nineteenth-century reformers, while making significant social gains for America's underclasses, simultaneously facilitated the individualizing and affect-saturation of political life.

Reform has remained oddly resistant to this analysis, however, in part because of trends in American historiography that have tended toward either/or choices: freedom or oppression, containment or liberation, revolutionaries or reactionaries. These trends have meant that Foucault's central insight--that the generation [End Page 32] of citizens' interiority is particularly restrictive precisely because rooted in discourses of freedom, increasing the possibilities of human agency while prescribing the terms through which that agency can be understood--has been made incompatible with the liberatory impulses of nineteenth-century reform. 1 Yet the frustrations often expressed by those reformers (and not just by their twenty-first-century critics), who achieved greater personal liberty for citizens abjected by class, gender, and race without accomplishing the revolutionary (that is, structural) changes they sought to precipitate, invites a reading of antebellum interiority that conceives of individual liberty and collective restriction as simultaneous phenomena. In part this reading requires that we recognize the institutions of the civil sphere, not simply as sites of popular criticism of the state, as Jürgen Habermas has suggested, but as locations where subjectivity and state interest blend into affective hybrids that create both the possibilities for independent critique and forms of self-management that limit those possibilities.

The nineteenth-century reform movement that most acutely experienced this bind of expansive liberty and restrictive subjectivity, and hence has found itself caught in the struggle between containment and hagiographic historiography (with a strong emphasis on the latter), is arguably the American Anti-Slavery Society. Historians have long critiqued nineteenth-century theories of innate racial inferiority that supported slavery, recognizing their seemingly objective rhetorics of phrenology and social Darwinism as instruments of social power. At the same time, more progressive theories of innate virtues, arising from racialized conceptions of interior "natures," have remained relatively unexplored, despite the fact that these theories, in many ways complementary to their more racist counterparts, have had a longer shelf life in American racial thought. To hasten that analysis, I want to examine the rhetorics of interiorization in the abolition writings of William Lloyd Garrison. I choose Garrison not because he invented the interiorizing tendency of nineteenth-century reform or even because he was its most determined progenitor. Rather, I choose Garrison because the discrepancy between structural and interiorized reform is so pronounced in his work: since his ambitions were genuinely revolutionary, the tensions generated within those ambitions...


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