Righteous Violence: Revolution, Slavery, and the American Renaissance (review)
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Intellectual history, Political violence, Slavery, Revolution

Righteous Violence: Revolution, Slavery, and the American Renaissance. By Larry J. Reynolds. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011. Pp. 256. Paper, $24.95.)

Larry J. Reynolds, Distinguished Professor of English at Texas A&M University, has produced a body of exciting interdisciplinary and globally oriented work on the intellectual history of the mid nineteenth century. His first book, European Revolutions and the American Literary Renaissance (New Haven, CT, 1988), was among the earliest studies to examine the impact that the European revolutions of 1848 had on American intellectuals. In his newest volume, Righteous Violence, Reynolds develops themes related to his earlier work, tracing the ways in which seven writers of the American Renaissance grappled with the moral and ethical problems posed by the many instances of politically motivated violence that troubled the world of the mid-1800s. In seven loosely connected essays, some versions of which previously appeared elsewhere, Reynolds explores the ways in which some of America’s best-known writers struggled to find answers to one important question: “Under what circumstances is it morally right to kill another human being?” (1). Reynolds argues that each author resolved the problem in different ways, but that all wrestled with it, thereby imparting much of the moral urgency to the literary movement that was subsequently termed “the American Renaissance.” [End Page 166]

Reynolds begins his study with the observation that “political violence permeated the nineteenth century” (1). Much of the conflict, he argues, was driven by the growing tension between the desire for human liberty and the existence of human oppression and slavery. The American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, the revolutions of 1848, the American Civil War, and the struggles of the early labor movement, Reynolds contends, all suggested to contemporaries that violence might be employed in a “righteous” struggle for human freedom. According to Reynolds, many of the authors he studied dwelt especially on the figure of John Brown as they responded to the ethical dilemmas inherent in current events. For some writers, figures like Brown, and the “rebellions, revolts, riots, insurrections, and revolutions” they fomented, represented principled heroism, while other authors remained more ambivalent about those who would kill so that good might be done (x).

Reynolds, in his first and most provocative chapter, argues that Margaret Fuller’s dispatches from Italy during the revolutions of 1848 and 1849 may have inspired a generation of abolitionists to abandon their pacifist principles and embrace violence in the name of freedom. Fuller strongly supported the struggle of Italian revolutionaries to establish a republic in Rome, and, in her dispatches, depicted such insurrectionists as Giuseppe Garibaldi as heroic and romantic men-of-action. She even went so far as to countenance the brutal assassination by stabbing of the prominent reactionary, Count Pellegrino Rossi. Fuller’s writings, Reynolds contends, had a strong impact on such militant abolitionists as Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Franklin Sanborn. In a later chapter, Reynolds demonstrates that Fuller’s work may also have inspired Louisa May Alcott, whose novel Moods (1865) prominently featured a character who left America to fight alongside Garibaldi in Rome.

The other authors in Reynolds’s study did not embrace violence so quickly or easily. For Frederick Douglass, Reynolds argues in his second chapter, the decision to abandon pacifism proved difficult. Douglass understood the human relationships slavery could engender, but also experienced the brutal repression the institution entailed. Reynolds demonstrates, through a close reading of Douglass’s work, how the famous abolitionist gradually abandoned his pacifist principles over the course of the 1840s and 1850s, finally concluding in his story The Heroic Slave (1853) that slave revolt, like political revolution, could be justified in the name of human freedom.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel [End Page 167] Hawthorne remained more ambivalent, as Reynolds argues in three subsequent chapters. Emerson remained nominally a pacifist, and criticized the South’s resort to arms during the Civil War. Still, he admired John Brown, admitted to excitement at the muster of troops in 1861, and eventually countenanced war in the aftermath of the Emancipation Proclamation. Thoreau, too, Reynolds argues, rejected...