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1 The Collision Of Cultures
2 Britain And Its Colonies
3 Colonial Ways Of Life
4 The Imperial Perspective
5 From Empire To Independence
6 The American Revolution
7 Shaping A Federal Union
8 The Federalist Era
9 The Early Republic
10 Nationalism And Sectionalism
11 The Jacksonian Impulse
12 The Dynamics Of Growth
13 An American Renaissance: Religion, Romanticism, And Reform
14 Manifest Destiny
15 The Old South
16 The Crisis Of Union
17 The War Of The Union
18 Reconstruction: North And South
19 New Frontiers: South And West
20 Big Business And Organized Labor
21 The Emergence Of Urban America
22 Gilded-age Politics And Agrarian Revolt
23 An American Empire
24 The Progressive Era
25 America And The Great War
26 The Modern Temper
27 Republican Resurgence And Decline
28 New Deal America
29 From Isolation To Global War
30 The Second World War
31 The Fair Deal And Containment
32 Through The Picture Window: Society And Culture, 19451960
33 Conflict And Deadlock: The Eisenhower Years
34 New Frontiers: Politics And Social Change In The 1960s
35 Rebellion And Reaction In The 1960s And 1970s
36 A Conservative Insurgency
37 Triumph And Tragedy: America At The Turn Of The Century

Chapter 13: An American Renaissance: Religion, Romanticism, And Reform

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An English visitor, Frances Trollope, scathingly scribbled that "if the citizens of the United States were indeed the devoted patriots they call themselves, they would surely not thus encrust themselves in the hard, dry, stubborn persuasion, that they are the first and best of the human race, that nothing is to be learnt, but what they are able to teach, and that nothing is worth having, which they do not possess." She then clucked on about how such an attitude served as an antidote to—meaning it countered or prevented—improvement.

While it was true that Americans tended to crow like cocks on a dunghill, Trollope failed to recognize the concerns behind the cock-a-doodle-doos. There was bravado as well as bravery in American actions, qualms as well as convictions in their attitudes, but they were not about to reveal their doubts and weaknesses to an Englishwoman who represented what to many of them was still the enemy. Yes, Americans did generally believe that their nation and its citizens were the best in the world, an attitude distasteful to others who reserved that title for themselves, but many also thought that their society could and should be improved, and it was up to them—not a foreign observer—to determine what needed to be fixed and how it was to be done.

The 1830s and 1840s were thus years of great cultural as well as political ferment. The agitation and egalitarian spirit that marked Jacksonian democracy spilled over into a variety of reform crusades. A new generation of American moralists and thinkers saw themselves as inhabiting a nation of providential destiny and infinite potential, and they expressed an exuberant faith in the perfectibility of both individuals and society as a whole. As the poet-philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson proclaimed in 1841, "the doctrine of Reform had never such scope as the present hour." Indeed, at mid-century the United States was awash in organized efforts to redress every social evil and conquer every personal failing through both religious and secular means.

Religious life during the decades before the Civil War took on a more optimistic and fervent tone as many Protestants adopted more inclusive visions of God's grace and rejected the predestinarian tenets of orthodox Calvinism. Calvinists proclaimed the absolute sovereignty of God: God elected who was saved and who was damned. Ministers of the New Divinity theology, while accepting God's will, preached that people effected their own destiny by electing between good and evil. People of faith still believed in original sin, but more and more believers embraced the concept of a benevolent God who offered everyone the gift of salvation through the experience of spiritual conversion and a life of faith. Evangelical firebrands such as Charles G. Finney and the Methodist circuit rider Peter Cartwright were especially skilled at challenging orthodox theology and attracting throngs of believers to their banner of emotional rather than reasoned piety. Finney's enthusiasm did not stop with conversion: he exhorted the converted to express their faith not only in church but through good works, including social reform.

In the midst of this so-called Second Great Awakening of the early nineteenth century, new religious denominations appeared which embraced people without regard to social standing or educational achievement. Such egalitarianism assaulted the status quo in other areas as well as Americans set out to correct their society's faults. The most profound version of reform idealism during this period was the peculiar romanticism practiced by the Transcendentalists, an eclectic coterie of New England poets and philosophers. A fluid group of geniuses and cranks, they included among their ranks people of genuine intellectual stature: clergymen such as Theodore Parker and Ralph Waldo Emerson; philosopher-writers such as Henry Thoreau and Bronson Alcott; and such learned women as Elizabeth Peabody and Margaret Fuller.

The Transcendentalists exercised an influence on American thought that far exceeded their numbers. Full of burning enthusiasm and perfectionist illusions about the boundless possibilities of human nature and the American social experiment, they broke away from what Emerson called the cultural domination of "reverent and conservative minds" and the dry logic of Enlightenment rationalism. Celebrating the individual spirit over the collective state, intuitive over rational knowledge, they rejected the intellectual methodology that had established the republic as the proper way to reflect upon and reform its society.

These visionaries—and the authors and artists of the romantic movement they affected—gave free rein to their fertile imaginations so as to transcend the limits of reason and cultivate inner states of consciousness, for they believed that human existence encompassed more experiences than reason and logic could explain: such as impressions and feelings. Such philosophical idealism traced its roots to Plato and Kant and led the Transcendentalists to use the lamp of personal inspiration to illuminate changing states of consciousness and spiritual essences and to wield the rod of personal revelation to beat upon the status quo.

The Transcendentalists emphasized self-reliance but also supported many of the organized efforts to reform social ills. Of course, many of the reform organizations were created to promote self-reliance as well as social responsibility. Activists, many of whom were women, promoted the abolition of slavery, temperance legislation, prison improvements, aid to the physically handicapped and mentally ill, state-supported public schools, and women's rights.

Although this spirit of social reform was centered in New England and often fueled by an evangelical Protestant moralism, it penetrated all regions of the country and displayed quite secular motives as well. Burdened as well as bolstered by a naïve optimism about human nature and the sufficiency of individual moral regeneration, the antebellum reform movements exercised a powerful influence on the country's culture and helped reveal to the young nation how much remained to be done to ensure access to and realization of the American dream.


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