Should we understand radical protest as central to American culture? Dr. Holly Jackson, associate professor of English at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, argues that we should.
American Radicals: How Nineteenth-Century Protest Shaped the Nation (Crown, 2019) opens on the Fourth of July, 1826. As the United States celebrates the semicentennial or Jubilee – 50 years after the Declaration of Independence – Jackson paints a picture of what we might expect (booming cannons and church bells peeling for the heroes of 1776) but also what we might not. Robert Owen – a Scot speaking in Indiana implores 1,000 listeners to launch a second revolution. He presents a Declaration of Mental Independence, recommending that the crowd slay a “hydra of evils”: private property, religion, and marriage. American Radicals highlights Owen to underscore that hundreds of thousands of 19th-cedntury Americans who would ultimately pledge “themselves to what Jackson calls “a vision of the nation based on collectivity, equality, and freedom.” These “American Radicals” would build a tradition of resistance and reform that would “reshape American life” influencing “westward expansion, southern succession, northern victory, and Reconstruction.” American Radicals – a trade book written by an academic with a flair for nuanced research and evocative writing – focuses on individuals (familiar and famous, once famous but forgotten, and also little known) to demonstrate the extent to which 19th-century American Radicals transformed law, the text of the Constitution, and innumerable aspects of American culture including “the breakfast table, marital bed, and the church pew.” The book covers 60 years of activism but the reforming of marriage, pushing against capitalism, questioning Christianity, and opposing slavery are central themes that Jackson highlights. The book is organized into four slightly overlapping eras: Foul Oppression in the Wind of Freedom (1817-1840); Infidel Utopian Free Lovers, (1836-1858); Abolition War (1848-1865); and The Radicals’ Reconstruction (1865-1877).
By focusing on both private life and traditional politics, Jackson demonstrates how American Radicals affected a second revolution in slavery and race, sex and gender, and property and labor – impacting “prisons, housing, birth control, religious beliefs, free speech, imperialism, child rearing, and diet.” Jackson contends that American radicals looked to change the “invisible, toxic framework of the entire society” rather than reform any particular institution. Because we have adopted many of their ideas (women in pants, the telephone, regular bathing) we may lose sight of how implausible these proposals seemed at the time. As Jackson writes, “success carries with it a feeling of inevitability.” American Radicals concludes by weighing the extent to which the American Radicals succeeded and failed – seeing important contributions even in those so-called failures. Jackson asks us to understand radicalism as both continuity and something outside the nation’s DNA but she concludes that the American Radicals (in the 1855 words of John Humphrey Noyes, the man who likely coined the term Free love and led a commune in Oneida) inspired ideas and institutions that “changed the heart of the nation; and that a yearning toward social reconstruction has become a part of the continuous permanent, inner experience of the American people.” Jackson calls this “slow-release radicalism” and the extremely well-written and thoroughly researched book ends with a hope that these “flashes of a kind of radical sociality” may lay the groundwork for future radicalism in the U.S.
Susan Liebell is an associate professor of political science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. Why Diehard Originalists Aren’t Really Originalists recently appeared in the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage and “Retreat from the Rule of Law: Locke and the Perils of Stand Your Ground” was published in the Journal of Politics (July 2020). Email her comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet to @SusanLiebell.
Susan Liebell is associate professor of political science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.