John W. Quist. Restless Visionaries: The Social Roots of Antebellum Reform in Alabama and Michigan. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998. xi + 562 pp. $57.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8071-2133-7.
Reviewed by Douglas Carlson (Department of History, Northwestern College)
Published on H-SHEAR (April, 2000)
Reform in the Hinterlands
An accepted maxim of antebellum historiography has been that moral reform efforts were a northern phenomenon, and non-existent or anemic in the South. Most scholarly attention has focused on the urbanizing Northeast, where the national reform societies were headquartered. John Quist, in an impressive first book, takes the study of reform out of the Northeast to the villages and countryside of the Old Northwest and the South. By the end of the antebellum era, he reminds us, only twenty percent of the American population lived in towns of 2,500 or more. Industrial and urban trends in the Northeast may have pointed to the future, but they were not the norm for most Americans during antebellum years. "In order to understand how deeply and extensively the climate of reform penetrated into the lives of most Americans," he says, "one must study reform as most Americans observed and experienced it -- that is, as it functioned in the villages and countryside" (p. 4). In a comparative study of two counties (Washtenaw County, Michigan, and Tuscaloosa County, Alabama), he finds similar climates of reform that led to similar movements in both places.
His focus is on the agencies of the benevolent empire (the American Bible Society, American Tract Society, and the American Sunday School Union), temperance, and slavery. He found that reform was rooted in revivalism as well as the growing forces of the market. Both advocates of a Protestant republic and prophets of material progress envisioned self-controlled, self-disciplined individuals, whom the benevolence and temperance agencies sought to create. Temperance evolved through identical cycles in both counties from moral to legal suasion. In both counties reformers tended to be professionals occupationally rather than artisans, oriented toward the town, and among the social elite. They sent their children to school more often than the general population, and they were more often Whigs than Democrats.
The two counties Quist chose to compare were quite similar. Settled in the teens and twenties by migrants from regions directly to the east, their populations grew in roughly parallel fashion. Both counties had important towns (Tuscaloosa and Ann Arbor) that sought to be their state capital, housed universities, and inclined toward Whiggery in states where Democrats generally predominated. Religiously both counties were dominated by evangelical Protestants (Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians), though Washtenaw was somewhat more diverse with Congregationalists as well as some Catholics, Lutherans, Universalists, Wesleyans, and Free Will Baptists. The greatest differences between the counties were racial composition and labor force. Tuscaloosa County was almost 44 percent black and slave by 1860, whereas Washtenaw's population was almost entirely white and free.
Temperance, benevolence and slavery were the reform issues that resonated with folks in Alabama and Michigan, not women's rights or the peace movement which were considered too radical. He traces the evolution of these movements and their ideologies and tactics, frequently analyzing their membership. Devoting a chapter to each reform in each county, he presents the southern county first, then the northern one for comparison. This approach occasionally gives a sense of repetitiveness, in part because the reform constituencies in each county often overlapped, but it does help clarify similarities and differences.
To link reform to revivalism and the forces of the market economy extends to new geographic regions a widely-accepted school of interpretation supported by scholars like Ronald Walters, Paul Johnson, Ian Tyrrell and others. What is most significant is his portrayal of reform in Tuscaloosa County. The magnitude of the movements there, their measure of success, and the profile of their membership are essentially equivalent to the same efforts in Michigan, suggesting substantial presence in Alabama of those forces of modernization whose absence have been used to define the South. Tuscaloosa reformers were indigenous, not Yankee implants. Members of the societies of the benevolent empire as well as temperance organizations were a higher percentage of native-born southerners than the rest of the county; they were slaveowners as well, to a greater extent than the rest of the white population, proving that these reforms were compatible with slavery. Quist found the slaveowning reformers to be tied to the market. Abolition did not taint southern reform as some scholars have argued; instead it was a divisive influence in Michigan, where abolitionists sympathetic to benevolent efforts refused to join societies that would not denounce slavery.
The greatest contrast in reform in the two counties emerged when the reform impulse intersected with slavery. In Alabama the two reform efforts directed at African Americans -- the colonization of free blacks to Africa, and the "plantation mission," the effort to convert slaves to Christianity -- were intended to strengthen the peculiar institution, and signaled that southern reformers did not propose to extend the promise of American life to blacks. Michigan reformers, by contrast, joined abolition ranks. In his longest chapter Quist carefully dissects the complex story of who supported which expressions (political and nonpolitical) of antislavery sentiment in the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s. Interestingly, he found a large percentage of Washtenaw abolitionists to be farmers and artisans in contrast to the professional and elite constituency of the other reforms. He suggests that these working people understood that slavery demeaned their labor, and the Slave Power threatened their future. Together these two chapters on slavery's critics and defenders illustrate how similar reform impulses could take quite different directions.
This book is a lengthy and ambitious work. The research is impressive, both in the extant records of a great many antebellum organizations, and his command of secondary literature on a diverse number of subjects. An appendix of 34 tables includes census material on population, birthplace, slaveholding, and churches, as well as analysis of characteristics of reformers, plus Washtenaw election returns during the 1840s and 1850s. His treatment of each county could probably stand as a work by itself. Brought together, the comparisons provide a broader, textured interpretation of reform in the hinterlands.
Any study of this length that touches on so many topics will most likely leave some readers frustrated with themes not spun out further. The role of women might be one example, a criticism he anticipates in his introduction. There is reference to female participation in most of the reforms, yet the evidence is frustratingly scarce and women's role hard to ascertain, particularly in Alabama. Quist documents women's presence where he can and speculates judiciously. For example he concludes that women played a lesser role in reform efforts in Tuscaloosa County than in Michigan, implying "that gender roles were more circumscribed in the southern locale." (p. 465). That conclusion is in line with prevailing thinking on southern women, but the presence of women at all in Alabama reform efforts perhaps bears more explanation. But his focus is elsewhere and this is a minor criticism.
If one of his aims was to address reform among the more typical 80 to 90 percent of Americans who lived in communities of less than 2,500, it should be noted that most of his sources come from the towns of Tuscaloosa and Ann Arbor, with populations at or above that size. (The town of Tuscaloosa grew from 1,949 in 1840 to 3,983 in 1860; Ann Arbor was 4,025 in 1850). (p. 9n) While it is difficult today to think of 2,500 as urbanizing, his findings do support the town-oriented interpretation of reform.
This book offers much in its careful analysis and comparison of reform in two different places. The commonalities he finds between Michigan and Alabama reform -- in ideology, tactics, and sources of support -- are striking, weighing in in favor of the similarity between the two regions in the old historiographical debate. If he embraces the widely-accepted interpretation linking reform to modernization and the market, his application of it to Alabama poses a persuasive challenge to assertions of their absence in the South. He makes a good case for at least the mindset of the market in the heart of the cotton kingdom.
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Douglas Carlson. Review of Quist, John W., Restless Visionaries: The Social Roots of Antebellum Reform in Alabama and Michigan.
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