- Cholera, Christ, and Jackson:The Epidemic of 1832 and the Origins of Christian Politics in Antebellum America
For I will pass through the land of Egypt this night, and will smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the LORD.Passover traditional
No one knew where it came from. "Epidemiological thought in the United States had been conditioned by experience with yellow fever, and the black vomit seemed obviously non-contagious. As was the case with yellow fever, so it was with cholera: there could never be found any pattern within the cases that would support a contagionist argument." It struck down its victims in the street, and they would be dead by nightfall. Symptoms were multiform and terrifying: muscular cramps, spasmodic vomiting, fever, a constant stream of rice-water diarrhea. It was known, alternately, as Asiatic cholera, pestilential cholera, spasmodic cholera, and the blue pest. In 1832, in the days before germ theory, it was an affliction without cause or logic. The only comfort, perhaps, was that "It is the intemperate and vicious, especially the vicious poor, who have most to fear from it, and it is among them the greatest panic prevails." Visiting destruction where it wished, a plague on the filthy and unregenerate, cholera seemed nothing less than the finger of God.1 [End Page 233]
The United States, if unready for such a visitation medically, was more than prepared religiously. The cholera made landfall barely a year after Charles Finney closed his Rochester revivals, and in the same Burned-Over District where his New Measures had flourished. At such a time and in such a place, cholera was ideally situated to become understood as a religious event—and from there, to enter politics.
The antebellum cohabitation between religion and politics has received considerable scholarly attention in recent years; interpretations have shifted from a paradigm of early republican religion as a kind of decaying, reactionary Puritanism to an understanding of republican religion as a vibrant Christianity galvanized by frenetic competition, where radical ideas of liberty merged with Arminian impulse and Calvinist tradition to create Christianities that embraced egalitarianism, popular culture, and the needs of everyday people.2
Also reflecting the needs of the people, of course, were the nascent political parties of Jacksonian America, and scholars have not missed the opportunity to draw parallels between the religious and political geographies of the age. Evangelical ethos, organization, and belief are often cited as elements that predisposed evangelicals to enter the political [End Page 234] realm, most convincingly in Richard J. Carwardine's Evangelicals and Politics in Antebellum America. For many scholars, the confluence between political ideology and Christian theology in the nineteenth century explains the presence of evangelicals in party politics. It is, in Richard R. John's parlance, a "plausible alliance." The mentalité and organization of evangelicals, according to this historiographical thread, virtually guaranteed that evangelicals would enter politics. Yet such an assumption becomes teleological when applied to evangelical entry in the developing party system; arguing that evangelicals became Whigs because Whiggery was more evangelical does not explain why Whiggery was more evangelical. Moreover, the history of the Second Party System was full of improbable alliances: Jackson and Calhoun, Seward and the Anti-Renters, Tippecanoe and Tyler, too. The component groups of a party affect its character and development. Benevolence and internal improvements may have possessed an ideological consonance; so did nullification and strict construction, but they could not coexist in the Democracy in 1833. Rather than assuming an inevitable polarity between evangelicalism and Jacksonianism—or the inevitability of evangelicals in politics—we need to examine the political exigencies that bred ideological proximities. When did evangelicals realize they needed the Whigs—or when did the Whigs realize they needed the evangelicals? How did politicians signal their newfound piety and desire for a more Christian state to voters? We must identify the events and times where evangelicals were invited into the developing partisan system; we need to know not only that they would enter politics, but also how they did enter politics, and more specifically, when and...