Published by EH.NET (May 2011)

Lorman A. Ratner, Paula T. Kaufman and Dwight L. Teeter, Jr., Paradoxes of Prosperity: Wealth-Seeking versus Christian Values in Pre-Civil War America. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2009. xiii +148 pp. $40 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-252-03453-4.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Donald E. Frey, Department of Economics, Wake Forest University.

This short book looks at popular publications in the 1850s to document middle-class reaction to the tension between economic growth and American republican, Christian values; it adds to the growing scholarly interest in issues other than slavery during the antebellum period. The chapters cover newspapers, literary and general magazines, as well as business publications, novels, and travelogues. They also juxtapose northern and southern writers, and male and female authors. In recent years, Stewart Davenport?s Friends of the Unrighteous Mammon (see review on EH.Net) has dealt with the clergy?s response to the same conflict. See also the EH.Net review of Mark Noll, editor, God and Mammon, which sees more moral continuity as Protestants participated in the new economy.

Paradoxes of Prosperity reveals American popular writers fretting that economic life was undermining conventional American values. Yet, the writers offered no common response to the problem. One outlier was James Gordon Bennett (editor the New York Herald) who simply dismissed such concerns. On the other side, some were willing to condemn the emergent capitalism, but mainly because southern writers often defended slavery by contrasting it with an unfavorable view of the northern market economy. The large center of popular writers, on which this volume focuses, seemed to write for evangelical Protestants rising into the middle-class, who were economically insecure enough to behave in ways they suspected lay outside the moral boundaries they had been taught. These readers were offered little clear moral advice.

A typical strategy for calming the troubled conscience can be seen in the suggestions of Timothy Shay Arthur, a popular novelist, who accepted ?this relentless pursuit of gain so long as the money was used for the good of society? (pp. 99-100).? Of course this formulation excused behaviors that in earlier times would have been condemned as sinful. Conversely, Arthur rejected the simplistic ?argument that poverty is the result of sin and wealth is the product of virtue? (p.100), a primitive twisting of religious doctrine to validate personal gain and negate any responsibility for the neighbor in need (a view akin to Max Weber?s ?Protestant ethic?).

The examples of moral decay in these writings were many, ranging from speculation, to luxurious living (a staple complaint of colonial moralists), consumption of liquor, moral hypocrisy, slaveholding, and so on. Suggestions for reform were also numerous, but — with the exception of abolition of slavery — generally amounted to exhortations for more individual willpower to resist temptation. The popular literature showed little alarm at the encompassing system of which temptation was an inherent feature, and which also created the insecurity that goaded men to the relentless pursuit of wealth as a form of worldly security.

Paradoxes of Prosperity also looks at publications aimed explicitly at middle-class women readers. As was typical of popular publications, Sarah Hale, editor of Godey?s Lady?s Book, ?engaged in a balancing act between defending the status quo and seeking to instigate changes in women?s role in American life? (p. 66).? While she advocated for advanced ideas, such as higher education or expanded property rights for women, she rejected stronger feminist ideas. Hale also recognized the threat of economics to traditional values, but blandly resolved the problem by holding that ?the pursuit of wealth was important and would bring happiness so long as it was tempered by moral principles? (p. 66).? In short, many women writers were no more likely than male counterparts to raise fundamental moral objections to the rapidly advancing economy.

The many writers surveyed in this book rarely looked carefully at the nature of the values of emergent capitalism or of republican and Christian values. Sometimes values were implied in anecdotes or historical references. (Historical novels, glorifying the virtue of heroes such as Washington, were common.) Lacking a clear definition of which they wrote, authors reached conclusions running the gamut from exhortations about individual responsibility, to dark foreboding, to scapegoating of vulnerable groups (such as immigrants), to singling out particular evils, such as alcoholic drinks. Given the lack of clear definitions, few of the writers suggested that systemic change of either American capitalism or, conversely, of Christian/republican values would have to occur to resolve the tensions.

The book, itself, refrains from critiquing the understanding of American values (such as it was) advanced by the publications studied. Yet, Paradoxes of Prosperity might have sharpened its thesis by documenting how far the meanings of ?republican and Christian? values had already drifted by 1850 from their late eighteenth century meanings. My own view is that the ?values? cited by 1850s publications were already anemic versions of the ethics of earlier American Protestantism. For instance, American Puritans had been social reformers and not merely individualistic moralists. That reform impulse remained in the Abolitionist cause; yet, Abolition was a topic most of the popular authors steadfastly avoided (because it might be bad for sales). The earlier Protestant sense of human moral frailty and sinfulness surely should have registered alarm at an economic faith (amounting to a secular religion) that left the public good to the working out of self-interest alone. A central motif of Puritan thought had been that God defined boundaries around human activity. By the 1850s, economic behavior was well on the way to recognizing no boundaries. Even the very style of moral thinking differed between the utilitarian outlook prevalent in the economic world (and explicit in political economy) and the obligation ethics of earlier Protestantism.? (For a contrary view, see Mark Noll?s volume mentioned previously.)? Paradoxes of Prosperity accepts the watered-down version of values of their 1850s subjects (see p.4) as an operational definition. This is fair enough, but a significant dimension of the topic is thereby lost.

This book adds to a growing literature examining the tensions that early nineteenth-century Americans perceived between the emerging economy and their inherited values. A study of mass-readership publications nicely complements more specific studies, such as Davenport?s study of the ways Protestant clergy dealt with the same tension. The book is very readable, even enjoyable, and fills in our knowledge of the ways the growing American middle class was rationalizing economic life with what remained of their religious and patriotic values.

Donald Frey is author of America?s Economic Moralists: A History of Rival Ethics and Economics (SUNY Press, 2009).???
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