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"We Have Had Conversation in the World": The Abolitionists and Spontaneity LEWIS PERRY Social control, a favorite theme in American sociology in the 1920s, has more recently attracted the notice of historians. This is particularly true of writings on antebellum reform. In his influential article on "Religious Benevolence as Social Control" Clifford S. Griffin observed that "between 1815 and the Civil War the United States was in a ferment of great and fundamental social, economic, and political change"; reform movements, he argued, were often instituted by Protestant evangelicals who wished to resist change and keep the nation "under control." 1 Subsequent books and articles have indicated that some reformers were disgruntled Federalists and ministers of newly disestablished churches - men who presumably had sufficient reason to lament the decline of moral leadership in the republic. The creation of reform societies, we have also learned, enabled middle-class Americans to signify their own virtues as upright, disciplined citizens in a land thought to be losing sight of proper standards . Abolitionism, plainly more controversial than most reform causes, has not been excepted from generalizations about control. Abolitionists apparently came from the same conservative backgrounds, shared the theocratic design to check the sins of people unlike themselves, and emulated the propaganda techniques of benevolent societies. 2 One recent essay links antislavery to attitudes toward sexuality: "abolitionists were driven as much by a generalized desire to control the 'animal nature' standing between man and civilization as they were by a specific quarrel with the South." 3 Their fascination with eroticism on Southern plantations and their uneasy discussions of marriage suggest that many abolitionists mistrusted signs of impulsive, uncontrolled behavior in themselves; therefore , they sought to identify themselves with self-discipline. Abolitionists and other reformers may, in short, be on their way to receiving some of the stereotypes once vested on "Puritans": they may soon be depicted as a party of repressed men intent on repressing vices that they projected outside themselves. Already they bear a family resemblance to the portrait in Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance of Hollingsworth , a man of inhibited affections and sympathies, a reformer whose THE CANADIAN REVIEW OF AMERICAN STUDIES VOL. VI, NO. 1, SPRING 1975 determination to bend others to his will had grisly consequences. Although this scholarly emphasis on control is a somewhat ironic result of a period of "neo-abolitionism," there is no denying that a good deal of evidence supports it. The theme of control cannot be omitted from accounts of reform , nor can it be relegated to discussions only of those factions of reform that sought to protect a vanishing social order. Consider, for example, the "Moral Police Fraternity" established after meetings in New York with Andrew Jackson Davis, the clairvoyant who is best known for his visions of a world transformed. The seer described the police fraternity as a movement that "could not be repressed. It came just as naturally as foliage comes on trees in the spring." The movement might be interpreted as a voluntary effort to secure social control: its "main idea ... was that of requiring each member of the association, as a duty incumbent upon the soul, to do something, in some shape or form, by way of assisting suffering, relieving distress, comforting affliction, protesting against crime, and instructing ignorance." 4 Or consider the argument against special observance of the Sabbath offered by the abolitionist Henry C. Wright - a stand which won him considerable denunciation, then and since, as an anti-institutional radical. In his view the "inevitable result" of teaching children to associate morality with solemn behavior on one day of the week was "to leave the child without the moral and religious restraints upon his passions, his words and actions on other days." 5 Similar considerations of the morality of children in the republic had once made him an agent of the American Sabbath School Union; that commitment was temporary but concern for social control was lasting. There may be a paradox, however, concealed in the notion of control. It is not surprising that strongly held opinions may be accompanied by fascination with their opposites. It is also possible, of course, to deplore social disorder from a libertarian perspective and to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 3-26
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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