The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
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by Jesse Walker

Tuesday, August 03, 2010
THE PURSUIT OF PERFECTION: My most recent Reason
column is about TV and Muslims and beer and slavery and almshouses and Objectivists and stuff like that. Mostly it's about the antebellum reform period. Here's an excerpt.
One theme was the rise of perfectionism: the idea that individuals and societies could free themselves from sin. Sometimes, the leftist historian Eric Foner points out, this manifested itself as a "tendency toward social control"; other times it led its exponents "into an intense anti-institutionalism and, occasionally, all the way to anarchy," as the reformer's evangelical passion "came to challenge all existing institutions as illegitimate exercises of authority over the free will of the individual, and as interferences with his direct relationship with God." The first form of perfectionism produced the prison, the asylum, and the almshouse, authoritarian institutions that exploded in the reform era. The second perfectionism spawned the anarchism of Adin Ballou, Henry Clarke Wright, and the young William Lloyd Garrison, the abolitionist who did the most to popularize what became known as the "no government" position. "Unquestionably," the former Federalist wrote, "every existing government on earth is to be overthrown by the growth of mind and moral regeneration of the masses. Absolutism, limited monarchy, democracy--all are sustained by the sword; all are based upon the doctrine, that 'Might makes right;' all are intrinsically inhuman, selfish, clannish, and opposed to a recognition of the brotherhood of man." The Garrisonites rejected politics entirely, stressing nonviolent action instead.

There was a big gulf between the two brands of reformers. But to the extent that they shared the perfectionist impulse, it was possible to flip from one side of the divide to the other. When the Civil War broke out, for example, Garrison abandoned his pacifist anarchism and became a pro-war nationalist. Another anti-state abolitionist, Gerrit Smith, endorsed not just war but conscription, and at one point complained that Abraham Lincoln was too respectful of constitutional liberties. Smith is an especially interesting case, because he proved it is possible to espouse both sorts of perfectionism at the same time. Before the Civil War, he usually sounded like a radical libertarian. Arguing that "Government owes nothing to its subjects but protection," he opposed slavery, tariffs, subsidies for internal improvements, public debt, public schools, and the idea that government should protect "the morals of its subjects." Yet he also favored a ban on alcohol. This combination of views is hard to fathom today, but it felt natural at a time when the rhetoric of the temperance movement drew heavily on the rhetoric of the abolitionists, with prohibitionists promising to liberate drunkards from the "slavery of drink."


posted by Jesse 10:34 AM
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