Man’s Better Angels: Romantic Reformers and the Coming of the Civil War

Philip F. Gura. Belknap, $29.95 (328p) ISBN 978-0-674-65954-4
In this absorbing and lucid study, Gura, a professor of American literature and culture at UNC–Chapel Hill, examines the reform movement in the quarter century before the outbreak of the Civil War. Focusing on both well-known figures, such as Henry David Thoreau and Horace Greeley, and less familiar ones, such as Mary Gove Nichols and William B. Greene, Gura depicts these individuals as struggling to make sense of the drastic economic and social changes that were reshaping the U.S. in this era, particularly the Panic of 1837. In Gura’s view, these intellectuals contributed to “the bankruptcy of an American liberalism” in the mid-19th century, as they attributed even nationwide financial crises to the moral failures of individuals rather than structures and institutions. This failure to distinguish between personal and societal agency rendered these well-intentioned people’s writings incapable of contributing to the resolution of their nation’s problems, and also resulted in John Brown’s tragic raid on Harpers Ferry. Reformist intellectuals believed so deeply in the power of a single person to produce social change that they were willing to give moral and financial support to Brown’s bloody and futile crusade. Gura’s book is deeply pessimistic about individual efficacy in response to social crises, which remains relevant in the 21st century. (Apr.)
Reviewed on: 02/13/2017
Release date: 04/10/2017
Genre: Nonfiction
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