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  • Man's Better Angels: Romantic Reformers and the Coming of the Civil War by Philip F. Gura
  • Tim Roberts (bio)
Man's Better Angels: Romantic Reformers and the Coming of the Civil War. By Philip F. Gura. ( Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017. Pp. 328. Cloth, $29.95.)

Scholars have remarked on the litany of social experiments, many committed to moral and political reform, which flamed in the early American republic. Alice Felt Tyler's and Ronald Walters's surveys explained mass movements including temperance, school reform, and antislavery as well as the more eccentric phenomena of utopian communities and phrenology. Rooted in Protestant evangelical religion, these reforms reflected Americans' grappling with the country's diversification and expansion and the spread of market forces. Tyler attributed this reform era to Americans' general optimism, predisposing them to be open to change. Walters, conversely, located the reforms' impulse in middle-class Americans' concern about modernization, along with confidence that improved or corrected behavior could cure modernization's evils. Tyler emphasized the reformers' lasting impact after the Civil War; Walters deemed their ambition to thwart capitalism a failure.1

Philip Gura offers a different approach to explore this reform impulse, providing not a social history survey but an interpretation of selected important reformers: George Ripley, Horace Greeley, William B. Greene, Orson Squire Fowler, Mary Gove Nichols, Henry Thoreau, and John Brown. Like his predecessors, Gura sees social reform principally characterized by faith in individual agency and in anticipation that the nation's institutions would respond to Americans' capacity for good behavior. He emphasizes, however, the central impact of the Panic of 1837, the complexity of whose domestic and international causes escaped reformers' (and most Americans') understanding. Rather than lobby for greater government control of financial institutions and/or commodity prices, reformers, reflecting a general attitude of the age previously documented by Scott Sandage, attributed the problem to individual moral corruption, which, they believed, precipitated, rather than resulted from, financial failure. But for reformers, self-examination could [End Page 192] lead to repentance; newly conscientious individuals imagined, and many constructed, various prototypes of a good society. A few radicals even engaged in dramatic acts of rebellion against the corrupted institutions of an unregulated market society.2

In its organization around selected key or representative figures, Gura's book is reminiscent of Daniel Walker Howe's study of various individuals who were intent on self-improvement as a basis for remaking themselves and their society. But while Howe noted the success stories of America's culture of self-construction before the Civil War, Gura, like Walters, emphasizes the flawed idealism of his coterie. Ripley's Brook Farm utopian community, for example, championed self-realization but could not earn enough income to be sustainable. Greeley's interests, meanwhile, were too eclectic, and his advocacy of Associationism, a model of cooperative work and living adapted from the French socialist Charles Fourier, seemed, to many Americans, too socialist. Too late, Gura implies, Greeley realized that it was slavery that needed confronting.3

Likewise, fearful businessmen blocked Greene's advocacy of mutual banking laws, a stateless system he adapted from the writings of the anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, in which all of a bank's subscribers, regardless of financial condition, could borrow the bank's fiat money at a minimal interest rate in order to buy land. Fowler's bestselling books about how the human brain's different regions directed certain behaviors or personality traits attracted a range of readers, from women interested in the benefits of looser clothing to prison wardens seeking to cure inmates. But these fascinations hardly constituted institutional reform. Nichols, like others, eschewed abolitionism because of a "preoccupation with another kind of bondage closer to home" (204). For her this meant advocacy of women's autonomy through their education on alternative nutrition, hydropathy, sexual activity, practice of birth control, and rejection of marriage, another influence of Fourier.

Of Gura's reform leaders, Thoreau and Brown came closest to grappling with what became the critical issue of the era, slavery. Thoreau famously called for civil disobedience against the Mexican War, which he considered a proslavery conquest. Yet while a man's imprisonment [End Page...


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