Taking a series of popular jokes about fictitious “anti-societies” as its point of departure, this article explores the responses to the transformation of reform in the decade between 1825 and 1835 and places them in the context of social and political change brought about by Evangelicalism and Jacksonian democracy. Rooted in the tradition of the moral reform society, through specialization of its aims, the anti-society seemed to become a democratic pendant of older reform societies and was thought to play a divisive role in local communities. Critics denounced the new societies for their prescriptive character, the prominent role women played, and the “spirit of opposition” they triggered.
Contemporaries increasingly understood the evolution of reform culture from the relatively harmonious religious and moral reform societies of the Benevolent Empire of the first quarter of the 19th century to the oppositional and highly contested organizations of radical antislavery and temperance of the 1830s as a serious threat to the social order and the future of the United States. Using the Benign Violation Theory of Humor, this article argues that the American reaction to anti-societies suggests that while they were broadly perceived as a threat to the social order from the late 1820s on, this threat was at first understood to be benign, and thus could be laughed off, while from 1833 on, anti-societies were increasingly regarded as a destructive force, and provoked substantial fears that could justify violent responses as an alternative way to reinforce the “normal” order of things.