Moral Minorities and the Making of American Democracy by Kyle G. Volk (review)
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Keywords

Minority politics, Religion, Religious freedom, Evagelical reform, Abolition, Legal history, Constitution

Moral Minorities and the Making of American Democracy. By Kyle G. Volk. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pp. 312. Cloth, $34.95.)

This highly original book identifies and gauges the significance of a heretofore largely ignored, popular minority rights politics that arose in the United States in the last two decades of the antebellum period—a tradition that had become by the Civil War, so contends its author, a core component of American democracy. [End Page 508]

In chapter 1, Volk describes the impetus for much of the late antebellum activism of the moral minorities he investigates: the reform efforts of the evangelical middle class, beginning in the 1820s and 1830s, aimed at advancing Christianity and improving the morals of the people, such as the campaigns to promote public observation of the Christian Sabbath, temperance, and abolitionism. Evangelical reformers consciously sought to harness their causes to the power of rising popular politics in the era of Andrew Jackson. To do so, they employed both ‘‘moral suasion’’ and the law—a tactic that engendered reaction among widely divergent minorities jealous of their fundamental liberties. Chapter 2 describes how, in the 1840s, Seventh Day Baptists and Jews organized to oppose Sunday closing laws, bringing petitions to legislatures, test cases to the courts, and appeals to the wider public through newspaper publications and other print media. Appellate judges upheld objectionable statutes, typically on secular grounds. But emergent moral minorities succeeded in making Americans consider the proposition that coercive Sunday laws breached constitutional and democratic limits to majority rule. The subject of chapter 3 is the minority campaign in the 1840s against local option liquor laws. Opponents of these measures employed an array of non-partisan, grass-roots political tactics to advance a conception of democracy that privileged the protection of natural and constitutional rights. Resorting to the ideas of such divergent thinkers as James Madison, John Calhoun, and Edmund Burke, and with first-rate legal counsel, they also won decisions in appellate courts with the well-honed argument that local option laws unconstitutionally stripped legislators of the power to fulfill their duties to vulnerable minorities.

Chapters 4 and 5 identify evangelical reformers as embattled moral minorities rather than as members of an abusive moral majority. They examine white and black abolitionists who, in the 1840s and 1850s, employed the methods of grass-roots mobilization, as well as more formal ones, to challenge ‘‘anti-miscegenation’’ marriage laws, segregated public schools, and Jim Crow conveyances in a number of northern venues. In defiance of the racist accusation that they had embraced ‘‘amalgamation,’’ these minority champions questioned directly the Jackson-era faith in simple majority rule. Proponents of racial justice made their cases in print, held meetings, reached out to lawmakers, and sponsored test cases bolstered by legal defense funds. Challenges to racial segregation, some [End Page 509] of which were successful, drew on founding-era political ideals of equality and inalienable rights, but persistently articulated an understanding of democracy that respected minority rights and interests.

Revisiting questions explored in chapter 2, chapter 6 describes how, in the 1850s, the greatly increased number of German immigrants in the United States revitalized the campaign to eliminate Sunday closing laws as violations of religious liberty and property rights. By the same token, it shows how minority opponents of the 1851 Maine Law and its various incarnations in other northern states succeeded in casting prohibition as a majoritarian despotism that unjustly discriminated against German immigrants and denied liquor dealers and saloon keepers their fundamental right to property and to labor for a livelihood. Of particular interest to the legal historian will be the discussion of an association composed of German and American liquor dealers, distillers, grocers, and brewers in Buffalo, New York, that successfully challenged the prohibition law of that state. The 1856 decision of the New York Court of Appeals, Wynehamer v. The People, overturned the statute on the novel ground that it denied appellants their ‘‘life, liberty, or property without due process of law’’ in violation of the Constitution of New York—a ruling that was among the...


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