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 Lloyd Benson (Department of History, Furman University )
Published on H-South (October, 2000)
How Different was Southern Reform?
How Different was Southern Reform?
During the 1840s University of Alabama president and Baptist leader Basil Manly was a vocal defender of slavery and the rights of Southerners against Northern interference. Yet he also served prominently in benevolent reform efforts, including Bible and Tract societies, the Sunday school movement, colonization, and temperance. As John Quist shows in his new book Restless Visionaries, Manly's enthusiasm for such projects was not unusual. Southerners, he suggests, embraced benevolent reforms with the enthusiasm of their Northern counterparts, and did so despite the perceived dangers these movements posed to slavery.
Through a meticulous comparative study of community activism in antebellum Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, and Washtenaw County, Michigan, Quist shows that the history of reform activities in both places was characterized by broadly similar patterns. Market-related transformations and a shift to Arminian theology led local leaders in both communities to place new emphasis on social control, self-control, and self-improvement. These efforts unfolded according to parallel cycles of persuasion, coercion, reaction, and institutionalization. In both communities leaders such as Manly faced public criticism, factionalism, and difficulty sustaining organizational vitality. Abolition was the crucial difference between the two communities, though in ways Quist shows were fragmented and paradoxical.
Quist's method is to recount the organizational history of each local benevolent association and then to place the social origins of each group's membership in comparative context. In the book's first part he examines the roots of benevolence in evangelical religion and discusses the role of Bible societies, tract societies and the Sunday school movement in promoting not only spiritual but secular regeneration. In both communities the ideology of this "benevolent empire" sought to produce self-mastery and virtue in society through education and charity. These beliefs were consistent with the movement's membership, which was disproportionately Whiggish (though with an important Democratic minority), professional, commercial, urban, and propertied. Initial resistance to this program was equally vocal in both communities, as Jacksonian individualists and predestinarians questioned its elitism, centralized organization, and presumptions about human nature.
By the 1840s these criticisms had subsided, to be replaced by denominational and ideological factionalism. Although debates over slavery in the late antebellum period affected the benevolent empire in both counties, Quist persuasively argues that the issue proved more damaging in the North than in the South. While Southerners could maintain local harmony by seceding from troublesome national organizations, warning off dissenters, and placing African-Americans under firm control, Northerners could not prevent internal community disputes over the slavery issue from fracturing local reform associations, congregations, and even political parties.
A similar pattern emerges in the book's middle chapters, which are devoted to temperance reform in the two communities. Quist finds little evidence of planter hostility to temperance, which he says was "by far the most extensive and successful" of Tuscaloosa's efforts to alter behavior (p. 155). Quist suggests that temperance work in the two communities was rooted in market-related transformations, but he modulates this explanation with close attention to organizational dynamics and leadership factors. The sheer number of reform associations in both counties and the author's careful chronology of each add significantly to the length of the book, but these details are necessary to show the organizational cross-linkages and developmental contingencies that emerged over the period. A key example can be found in the gyrations of temperance legislation. In 1851, for example, Tuscaloosans voted to raise the price of local liquor licenses to a nearly prohibitive $1,000. Less than a year later a voter backlash caused the fee to be dropped to $400. Over the next eight years the fee was raised to $5,000, dropped to $200, and then raised again to $500 (pp. 204-218).
Quist shows how these oscillations resulted not only from a general concern over a destabilized social order, but also to contingent factors such as the national post-Maine law fad for temperance legislation, the vicissitudes of state politics and debates among temperance leaders over the efficacy of license laws in limiting alcohol consumption. This integration of the political context, attention to timing, and close study of social origins and ideology is one of the book's strengths, and his depiction of how national movements intersected with local reform efforts is generally subtle and informed. The one exception is his spare treatment of the relationship between temperance and anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiments. This must have been an especially significant issue in Washtenaw, which had five Catholic churches with total capacity for at least two thousand parishioners (Appendix, Table 4).
Quist does note differences in female activism in the two counties. While Tuscaloosa's women never formally participated in temperance reform, their counterparts in Washtenaw County created several women's temperance societies and worked publicly to close saloons. One society, the Ladies Total Abstinence Benevolent Society of Ann Arbor, had as many as four hundred members. A shortage of local records and the reluctance of local newspaper editors in both counties to report women's activism makes conclusions about their role conjectural, but the author's claim that "women in Washtenaw County were socially less constrained than their Southern sisters" (p. 284), may understate the importance of these differences. In particular it suggests that either the local market system's effects on women were more significant in the North than he accounts for, or that presumptions about the causal relationships among market change, household structure, and women's activism may be less strong than this book and most recent historiography contends.
The most explicit consideration of the relationship between slavery and benevolent reforms appears in the book's final chapters. Quist argues that as in other Southern communities, local resistance by Tuscaloosa's slaves and the national debate over slavery heightened planter anxiety, which in turn fed into other reforms. Most significantly, white Tuscaloosans turned to colonization and plantation missions. While both reforms were criticized for endangering slavery, Quist suggests that over time they gained legitimacy because of the number of large slaveholders who actively participated. While both reforms were clearly designed to maintain social order, whites had many motives for promoting them, not the least of which was to silence Northerners who criticized slavery's unscriptural excesses.
The social origins of these colonizationists, who were more likely to be professionals and more likely to hold slaves than other Tuscaloosa reformers, contrasts strikingly with the origins of Washtenaw County's abolitionists. Members of the Liberty Party, far more than any other Washtenaw reformers, were likely to be farmers or work in other rural occupations. Here too, Quist's evidence suggests that the relationship between market transformations and abolitionist reform, at least of the political variety, could be counterintuitive. Although late to abolition (the first antislavery society in Washtenaw was not founded until 1838), Washtenaw reformers were among the first to support political abolitionism. Quist's treatment of the rise and fall of Liberty party activism and its ideological contrasts with its successor parties over the issue of racial equality is one of the book's highlights.
Restless Visionaries is an important contribution to the debate over differences between the North and South. Through his focus on two of antebellum America's newer states he offers a useful complement and counterpoint to other works in this genre, particularly the Pease's Web of Progress, that have emphasized contrasts in the ideology and practice of benevolence in older Northern and Southern communities. This book's depiction of how a broad range of similarities worked to magnify the handful of crucial issues that divided the sections, and how men such as Manly could rationalize and compartmentalize their reform efforts in the face of such apparent contradictions gives a more balanced and nuanced understanding of antebellum reform. Quist's demonstration of the vitality of market-driven reform in at least one Southern town suggests that the region's rurality, as much as its ideology, may have been the reason for its limited reforms.
. William Pease and Jane Pease, The Web of Progress : Private Values and Public Styles in Boston and Charleston, 1828-1843 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).
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Lloyd Benson. Review of Quist, John W., Restless Visionaries: The Social Roots of Antebellum Reform in Alabama and Michigan.
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