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Complete Social Despotism

On American radicals.


American Radicals: How Nineteenth Century Protest Shaped the Nation
Holly Jackson 
Crown, pp. 400, $28.00

Near the beginning of Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan, the film’s young protagonist Tom Townsend announces that he’s “a committed socialist, but not a Marxist.” Rather, as Tom goes on to say, his radicalism is inspired by one of Marx’s predecessors—the French theorist Charles Fourier. Shocked by this news, Tom’s acquaintance Charlie tries to talk sense into him.

Charlie: Fourierism was tried in the nineteenth century and failed. I mean, wasn’t Brook Farm Fourierist? It failed.

Tom: That’s debatable.

Charlie: Whether Brook Farm failed?

Tom: That it ceased to exist, I’ll grant you, but whether or not it failed cannot be definitively said.

I used to think Charlie had the better argument. However, in her lively history American Radicals, Holly Jackson manages to build a strong case for Tom. Jackson’s chief claim is that nineteenth-century radicals, including Fourier and his American counterparts, succeeded in shaping America for the better.

When placed on a short timeline, Jackson admits, most nineteenth-century radicals appear to fail. Utopian communes, like Brook Farm, either folded or evolved into capitalist enterprises. Militant abolitionists failed to spark large-scale slave revolts. Free lovers failed to abolish marriage. Grahamists failed to abolish meat. And so on. When you take a longer view, though, the radicals appear to have been more successful than their conservative critics at shaping the modern American mind.

Take, for instance, the activist Fanny Wright. Her calls to abolish organized religion and marriage were met with such stark resistance during her lifetime that her very name became a slur. But today, as Jackson notes, Wright’s ideas have been adopted to an extent that would shock her contemporaries. While many Americans are still religious, their beliefs seem increasingly idiosyncratic—deviations from a secular norm. While Americans continue to get married, the prevalence of divorce and contraception has transformed marriage from a means of family formation into a slightly more intense version of other companionate relationships.

That Fanny Wright ceased to exist, I’ll grant you, but whether or not she failed cannot be definitively said. As Jackson suggests, radicals like Wright at least predicted and perhaps even produced the ways modern Americans view themselves and their relation to society.

Given the difficulty of calculating the radicals’ concrete impact, Jackson suggests we evaluate them on a moral basis. She encourages readers to “look not to the perpetuity of their outcomes, but to the rightness of their principles.” It’s a telling formation. For Jackson, the rightness of radicalism is assumed. The moniker “radical” denotes only a dogged commitment to the good of liberty. And so when Jackson encounters individual radicals who, say, owned slaves or advocated for eugenics, she chalks these errors up to lingering conservatism rather than asking if radical principles could possibly have led anyone astray.

A more rigorous account of American radicalism appears in the work of the nineteenth-century journalist Orestes Brownson, who knew the subject firsthand. In his youth, Brownson was a socialist, a member of the Transcendentalist Club, and a confidante to Fanny Wright. In the 1840s, though, he converted to Roman Catholicism and revised many of his former social views. If, as Jackson claims, the radicals enacted “a second and more glorious” American Revolution, then Brownson was their Benedict Arnold.

That’s not to say Brownson opposed the radicals on all matters of policy. Throughout his career, he objected to the financialization of the American economy, prioritizing the interests of “the poorer and more numerous classes.” He also consistently opposed slavery. In an 1864 editorial, Brownson describes his tenuously relationship with the Radical Republicans: “We are Radical in our determination, at the earliest moment it can be legally done, to get rid of the system of slavelabor, but, thank God, a Radical in nothing else, and sympathize in little else with those who are called Radicals.”

The reason Brownson distanced himself from the radicals—even as he formed temporary alliances—had little to do with individual questions regarding capitalism or slavery. Their dispute was much more fundamental, concerning the nature and ends of the human person. Brownson’s 1854 novel The Spirit-Rapper presents American radicalism as—most essentially—a commitment to increasing individual autonomy. Midway through the novel, the young social reformer Pricilla, who seems partially based on Fanny Wright, shares her beliefs with the narrator. At first, she seems like a collectivist, explaining how her philosophy “seeks no individual, no exclusive good.” As it turns out, though, Pricilla’s only sense of the common good involves the unencumbered pursuit of private goods. “The welfare of the race,” she explains, “consists in progress, which is effected only by free activity. . . . The only good is free activity, and every conceivable good is included in that one word, LIBERTY.”

Shortly afterward, Pricilla hosts a party in which a wide variety of radical thinkers outline their agendas. Some, such as a relatively tame activist who hopes to abolish spanking, call for massive governmental interventions to control and reeducate the public. Others, like the anarchist Thomas Jefferson Andrew Jackson Hobbs, call for the complete abolition of the government. Though the activists’ agendas vary widely, they are fundamentally united in their prioritization of “free activity . . . .” In Brownson’s novel, the radicals may differ in means but they concur in ends, hoping to expand individual autonomy by deconstructing social forms.

Jackson’s description of the radicals is remarkably similar to Brownson’s caricature, but positively inflected. In one especially interesting episode, she recounts the 1858 Free Convention of Rutland, Vermont, which brought together activists from all of America’s various and overlapping reform movements. Abolitionists, free love feminists, anarchists, dietary cranks, utopian socialists—they were all there.

As Jackson shows, slavery was important to these activists, not only as an issue in its own right but as a symbol for other forms of oppression. At the convention, as in the broader reform culture, “feminist talk of ‘marriage slavery’ was matched by others decrying ‘mental slavery,’ ‘spiritual slavery,’ and man’s ‘enslavement’ by religious conventions.”

Slavery was symbolically useful to the nineteenth-century radical because, in this institution, a social form most clearly produced injustice. The next step for the radical was to abstract from slavery that the problem was not with this particular institution but with all social forms. If the injustice of slavery was not special but representative of society, then justice would demand what Henry C. Wright called for in his opening speech at Rutland: “the immediate abolition of all external authority.”

Of course, one problem with such a goal is that it leads to confusion. As Jackson relates, the speeches at Rutland failed to distinguish between grave injustices, like slavery, and less substantial grievances, like tariffs. Another problem, though, and one which Jackson does not adequately consider, is that enshrining autonomy as the chief end of man can paradoxically lead to oppression.

This is precisely what Brownson argues in his 1865 treatise The American Republic, writing, “Were [the radicals'] socialistic tendency to become exclusive and realized, it would found in the name of humanity a complete social despotism, which, proving impracticable from its very generality, would break up in anarchy, in which might makes right, as in the slaveholder’s democracy.”

Brownson goes on to identify America’s most famous radical abolitionists with the nation’s most famous pro-slavery advocates, declaring, “Wendell Phillips is as far removed from true Christian civilization as was John C. Calhoun, and William Lloyd Garrison is as much of a barbarian and despot in principle and tendency as Jefferson Davis.” Brownson’s comparison is overstated, of course, but he identifies a real danger of radicalism—that in the pursuit of autonomy it dissolves the only solid foundation of social life.

Rather than opposing slavery entirely because of its curtailment of individual autonomy, Brownson shows slavery’s incompatibility with “a real, living solidarity, which makes individuals members of the social body, and members one of another.” In so doing, he departed from the radicals of the Rutland Free Convention, but aligned himself with ex-slave writers such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs who often presented slavery as a social solvent rather than a social form.

In his 1845 narrative, for instance, Douglass condemns slave traders for how they “sunder forever the dearest friends, dearest kindred, and strongest ties known to human beings.” In her 1861 narrative, Jacobs identifies freedom with precisely those domestic arrangements that the free lovers in Jackson’s history identified with slavery. For Jacobs, freedom necessarily involves the ability to form a family. And she ends her narrative stating, “The dream of my life [is to] sit with my children in a home of my own.”

While Jackson is correct that nineteenth-century radicals shaped the modern American mind, she ignores their most serious problems. Namely, how their wholesale rejection of society recreated those forms of oppression they ostensibly resisted. To recover from the worst effects of the radicals’ influence, we must begin the hard work of revitalizing the religious, political, and domestic forms that enable solidarity.

Daniel Luttrull is an assistant professor of English at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota.

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