Monday, October 24, 2005

Below is the second paper written for the social history class, on a less odious book than the first. The essay brings across Mintz's whole argument pretty well, which is essentially that antebellum reformers were liberals just like "gilded age" reformers, progressives, and then the ultimate "reform" liberals, the Square, New, Fair Dealers. Unfortunately Mintz shows little or no regard for how much that term has shifted in meaning in American political and intellectual history and plays down significantly the immense differences between various American reform movements. All this while frantically searching for a definition of liberalism and never seeming to find one that he likes and can stick with.

The “Liberal” Tradition: Steven Mintz’s Moralists and Modernizers

The subject of antebellum reformers is one of variety and complexity as historian Steven Mintz is able to convey in his brief account of their activities, Moralists and Modernizers. The essential argument that Mintz makes in a worthwhile attempt to fit these reformers into the larger narrative of American reform movements is that his tripartite subdivision of reformers into “missionaries,” “humanitarians,” and “liberationists” were all “firmly based in the American liberal tradition.”[1] The question that should immediately com to mind is: What American liberal tradition? Mintz is seeking an alternate explanation of the actions and goals of antebellum reformers in contrast to the two extremes of either calling the reformers crass manipulators of the poor to entrench capitalist rule or angelic do-gooders who did no wrong. Mintz’s use of the term “liberal” and the various definitions he attributes to it provides an interesting though confusing and largely ineffective way of explaining the antebellum reform phenomenon.

The objection here is not that Mintz seeks to place antebellum reformers within an American liberal tradition because it is liberal, but rather that the definition of that term is subject to so many meanings, particularly across time, that Mintz’s attempt to tie antebellum reformers to all reform movements in American history under this rubric is akin to squaring a circle. Mintz cannot seem to settle upon a consistent definition in his epilogue where even he acknowledges the problem of multiple meanings for the term “liberal.” This problem still exists today where outside of North America and England the political designation “liberal” still means what it meant everywhere in the nineteenth century, an ideology of freedom in the marketplace and the area of political rights.

Mintz comes up with his first definition in juxtaposition to the other definitions out there by saying that “[Liberalism] refers to an impulse to ameliorate the harsher aspects of capitalism through collective efforts at reform and a willingness to use the government as an instrument of social betterment.”[2] This definition of liberalism seems to relate more to late nineteenth and early twentieth century progressives who used the state for all sorts of “reform” schemes rather than reformers in the antebellum period. Of course, all of this depends on which reformers one is referring to. Is one talking of abolitionists who had no choice but to use the state since they were combating an unjust state policy or is one referring to mutual aid societies that did not rely on the state at all?[3]

Mintz muddies things up further by defining the “liberal” goals of antebellum reformers as seeking “to broaden individual rights, foster fulfillment or the salvation of the individual, and eradicate those institutions and customs that obstructed individual self-determination and improvement.”[4] These do not seem to be goals that would make the so-called “harsher” aspects of capitalism, whatever these are (again, a difference needs to be drawn between groups that were dealing with market dislocation, like mutual aid societies, and those dealing with things like alcoholism and slavery which existed before the growth of capitalism), any less harsh, let alone require or imply the use of the state. With this reformulation of liberalism, Mintz seems to be contradicting what he claims, earlier in the book, is the purpose of the reformers, that being “to assert that the country needed a new ethical and moral vision to replace the ethos of selfishness and individualism that dominated American society in the years before the Civil War.”[5] The contradiction between attempting to supplant individualism while nearly all of one’s goals are based on individual achievement and success is obvious. Lumping every conceivable adherent of “liberalism” regardless of the many and real differences in the definition of that term over time only confuses any real continuum that may exist in the intellectual history of American reformers.

As if these two definitions are not enough, Mintz offers a third set of goals and aspirations when he writes that the “antebellum reformers’ goals—to place limits on acquisitiveness and exploitation, establish basic standards of human dignity and justice, and renew the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.”[6] “Limits on acquisitiveness” sounds more like the rhetoric of modern day environmentalists than the antebellum reformers that are supposed to be the subject of his book. Attempting to place this widely varying group of people as part of a “liberal” continuum within the context of modern politics or to impose modern politics onto this group of people separated from us by more that just 144 years of history is too daunting a task of intellectual history that Mintz simply cannot perform in the limited space he has allotted himself. He brings up an interesting point by tying the Declaration of Independence to the antebellum reform movements, which is obvious in the case of women’s rights and the anti-slavery movement, but far less so in the temperance and public school movements. An explanation of how exactly all of these supposedly related movements “renewed” the ideals of the Declaration of Independence would have been useful and perhaps provided an underlying way of actually making the case that these movements were, indeed, part of the same intellectual tradition, whatever one ends up calling it.

Even with all of these objections to Mintz’s argument it should not be inferred that he makes no sense at all. One can certainly detect elements of classical and modern liberalism in the antebellum reformers. Yet some of these reforms movements, like the temperance and anti-slavery movements, defy such an explanation. Whigs and Democrats could belong to both movements or oppose both for numerous reasons, a fact illustrated by the demise of the Whig party and the Democrats splintering in the election of 1860 with respect to slavery. Mintz’s attempt to navigate between the poles of utter cynicism and utter worship of these moralists and modernizers may be the correct way of viewing their many efforts and achievements, but his attempt to force them into an “American liberal tradition” comes across as contradictory and confused as that term is in the scope of American political and intellectual history.

[1] Steven Mintz, Moralists and Modernizers (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), xviii, 155.
[2] Ibid, 154.
[3] In his book From Mutual Aid to Welfare State, historian David Beito describes the demise of non-governmental mutual aid societies to that strain of the American liberal tradition that Mintz is perhaps referring to when he describes the willingness of antebellum reformers to use the state to ameliorate the harsh effects of capitalism.
[4] Mintz, Moralists and Modernizers, 155.
[5] Ibid, 11.
[6] Ibid, 156.

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