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  • Man's Better Angels: Romantic Reformers and the Coming of the Civil War by Philip F. Gura
  • Patrick Mulford Connor
Man's Better Angels: Romantic Reformers and the Coming of the Civil War. By Philip F. Gura. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2017. 328 pp. $29.95).

Philip F. Gura's lucid and engaging Man's Better Angels: Romantic Reformers and the Coming of the Civil War begins with the Panic of 1837 and concludes in the aftermath of John Brown's 1859 raid at Harpers Ferry. Gura argues that the former inspired a "quixotic" culture of reform that, frustrated by failure, ultimately curdled into the latter (2). The reformers in question represent the mostly elite cliques that emerged from the salons, colleges, churches, and communes of antebellum New England and New York. Despite their wide-ranging philosophical and political concerns, Gura suggests that his subjects shared a commitment to "the national ethic of self-reliance." Rather than confront the structural causes of their era's crises, he writes, reformers endeavored to fix "their countrymen's moral shortcomings" through "moral suasion and self-discipline" (3). Gura does not hide his disdain for their approach and candidly judges his subjects as "extravagant and foolhardy," and, later, "misguided" (18, 266).

Each of Gura's seven biographical chapters explores a different current of reform culture. Chapters about Horace Greeley, Henry David Thoreau, and George Ripley's Brook Farm are excellent introductions to their subjects, but experts will not find much new information. Gura is at his best in chapters about reformers who wielded considerable influence during their lives but whose reputations have not endured. His argument is most convincing in an entertaining study of Orson Squire Fowler. Phrenologists such as Fowler claimed to provide self-knowledge that would improve individual lives and eventually redeem all of humanity. "Few pseudosciences," writes Gura, "were better suited to nineteenth-century American liberalism, with its faith in an individual's unimpeded talents rising to deserved merits" (133). A chapter about the Unitarian minister and political economist William Batchelder Greene illustrates the contributions of financial reformers who wished to rid markets of selfishness and greed. Like many of his contemporaries, Greene believed the source of his country's woe was a cabal of government, banks, and large landowners. As an alternative, Greene proposed a "mutual bank" in which members' real estate holdings—as opposed to hard money—would be the basis of credit. Greene argued that his proposal would perpetuate individual liberty by promoting land ownership and by eliminating the predatory loans and currency fluctuations that [End Page 1401] perpetuated inequality. Similarly, Gura's analysis of Mary Gove Nichols demonstrates reformers' belief that self-knowledge, including of one's anatomy, would mitigate gender inequality. Nichols was a famous—perhaps infamous—health reformer, educator, and writer who challenged the state's dominion over sex. Her comparison of marriage with slavery presaged widespread post-emancipation concerns about the true character of wifely submission. Building upon the work of Jean Silver-Isenstadt and Patricia Cline Cohen, Gura explores Gove Nichols's defense of divorce, polygamy, and homosexuality as expressions of individual autonomy.

In addition to synthesizing elite reformers' various concerns, Man's Better Angels emphasizes the influence of Europeans such as the French social theorist Charles Fourier, the Scottish phrenologist George Combe, and a host of other philosophers, religious leaders, and healers. Gura's analysis of Fourier is especially insightful. Throughout the book, he identifies traces of Fourier's theories of "Association" and "passional harmony" at Brook Farm, in the pages of Greeley's New-York Tribune, and in the writings of Marx Edgeworth Lazarus, a collaborator of Mary Gove Nichols. Because Americans tended to read Fourier and other European models selectively, Gura portrays antebellum reform as an ever-changing pastiche of ideas culled from Unitarian theology and European socialism, The Dial as well as eighteenth-century mysticism.

Although his subjects' had a diverse range of interests, Gura maintains that each was primarily concerned with "the centrality of the individual"—as opposed to the structural—causes of society's most pressing problems (202). Unfortunately, Gura never clearly distinguishes between individualistic and structural reform. In several cases...


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