America’s Long Journey: The 1840s and Utopia

The 1840s and Utopia

Two generations later, in a different context, George Bernard Shaw would famously say that some people saw things as they were and asked why, but he dreamed things that never were, and asked why not. That was very like America — particularly New England America — in the 1840s. Reform was in the air. It was a new day, under new conditions, and it seemed that all the world’s wrongs could be identified, addressed, and overcome.

When scholars think of the 1840s, they think of the New England Transcendentalists, because they were the thinkers whose work bore such vigorous fruit. (We cannot stay to explain Transcendental Idealism, nor to trace its derivation from German philosophers via Coleridge and others. A fast search on the word “transcendentalist” will start you on your way.) If later generations came to think of them as perhaps a bit stuffy, that is only because time had made them “classics,” therefore “respectable,” therefore dull. In life, these men – they were mostly men – were incendiaries.

Take merely Emerson and Thoreau: Their social gospel was self-reliance. Test everything. Hold to what seems true to you, and don’t worry about what England thinks, or what contemporary American society thinks, or what your neighbors think. Every day is a new day, bringing new thoughts and new perceptions. Everyone (they would have said “every man,” meaning the same thing and being understood to mean the same thing) has equal access to divine inspiration, and must learn to trust it. And down with whatever in society revealed itself to their eye as obsolete or moribund or – particularly – unjust.

Stuffy? These men were revolutionaries, relying on an inner power more solid than the state, and stronger than gunpowder. And they met response! Emerson spoke to the Harvard Divinity School as a young man, and the corporation didn’t dare ask him back until a full generation had passed. They knew arson when they experienced it.

Beyond the transcendentalists came that literary renaissance – one might almost call it a first-birth rather than a re-birth – that included Whitman and Melville. Nothing sedate and conservative about these two, either! And behind the literary renaissance came the reform movements. The North, particularly New England, centering on Boston, radiated reform movements, or, one might almost say, the reforming mood. In the South, the perceived need to protect slavery from any possible threat generated intolerance of nonconformity. In the South (and increasingly so as the years went on and the feeling of being under siege grew stronger), you went along with the power structure or you got out. But in the North, political and economic interests were more diverse, which left room for individual conscience.

Into that society, relatively open to innovation, social reformers poured their ideas and experiments: prison reform; educational reform; attacks on the sources of prostitution and drunkenness; creation of insane asylums and orphanages, and of cooperative and utopian societies such as Brook Farm and the Oneida community, and of new religious sects such as the Mormons.

But the most widespread, most vocal, most disruptive and ultimately most successful reforms were the intertwined calls for abolition of slavery and equal rights for women. The two causes emerged together and affected each other; often luminaries in one were also active in the other.

In the early 1830s, active abolitionists had to face ridicule and even mob violence. But by the end of the decade, the nation had begun to learn a lot more about the nature of slavery in the South, and was beginning to become exasperated by Southern resistance to change, and so anti-slavery became less unpopular. Naturally, this led the movement to split into two factions, radical idealists who refused to compromise, and moderates interested in practical politics and achievable results.

Radical abolitionists tended to favor woman’s rights and believe that women should have a significant role in antislavery work. “Political” abolitionists, on the other hand, sought to elect anti-slavery candidates, and therefore shied away from “the woman question” lest it frighten people off. So, when the 1840 national convention of the American Anti-Slavery Society supported the nomination of a woman abolitionist, Abigail Kelley, to serve on the convention’s business committee, the political abolitionists walked out and formed the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, which explicitly excluded women from membership.

But women had been involved in the antislavery movement from its beginning in 1833, when they organized female antislavery societies in Philadelphia and Boston. In 1837, seventy-one delegates from eight states held the first Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women in New York, issuing publications and resolutions, forming executive committees, and launching a campaign to collect one million signatures on antislavery petitions to Congress. And individual women who began as abolitionists became increasingly active on behalf of woman’s rights.

Jack Larkin, Chief Historian for Old Sturbridge Village, puts it this way:

“The most active abolitionist women were the principal organizers and energizers of local or statewide action, and the writers who produced children’s books, hymns, and stories with an antislavery message, contributed to antislavery papers, or wrote tracts on the subject. The most unusual of them were the handful of women who spoke publicly for the cause, traveling the countryside as agents for the American Anti-Slavery Society. These women confronted a deeply ingrained tradition—the notion that women did not and should not speak in public. The first women lecturers were Sarah and Angelina Grimké. They began by addressing all-female audiences—itself a violation of custom—but soon went on to speaking before mixed groups of men and women, an even more serious offense. Such `promiscuous assemblies,’ as they were called, created controversy wherever the Grimké sisters went. In 1837, the General Association of Massachusetts, which represented the ministers of the state’s dominant Congregational church, issued a statement condemning women `who so far forget themselves as to itinerate in the character of public lecturers and teachers.’ This attack, and others made against them, spurred the Grimkés to make the equality of women a more important part of their message. They began to write and speak about the condition of woman as well as the condition of the slave—a decision which would soon help to split the abolitionist movement. But for the rest of their career as public speakers, Sarah and Angelina continued to combine the messages of woman’s rights and antislavery.

“In the process they helped lay the foundation for the woman’s rights movement which would issue its first manifesto, the famous “Declaration of Rights and Sentiments” at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. Many of the women who would sign that Declaration and work to secure equality for women were also active abolitionists who believed that woman, like the slave; was entitled to equal rights.”

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The 1840s were much like the 1960s would be. In both cases, an impulse to reform caught fire, one enthusiasm sparking another, one perception of injustice illuminating another, until utopia itself seemed not quite good enough. In both cases, reform proposals blossomed into organized movements, which generated counter-pressure from conservative elements, which finally quashed the expectation of near-term reform. In both cases, few or none of the immediate goals were achieved, and yet, in both cases, the country was changed forever.

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