Ultraists vs. Nothingarians:

The 19th Century Debate over the Rhetoric of Social Reform

E Pluribus Unum

Mid-Nineteenth Century Concerns Over Rhetoric and Reform

The heated debates over topics such as temperance, abolitionism, and women's rights generated yet another debate about the right way to talk about reform. While this discussion was particularly intense within reform circles, it was also a matter of some concern to the public. People worried that the intense passions stirred up by reform speakers might disrupt the normal codes of conduct in life or even bring about violence and disorder; and it is hard to discount these fears considering the number of riots that took place during or after public gatherings and speeches in the antebellum period. There was also some concern that by repeatedly calling on people to question the status quo, reformers would cause Americans to lose faith in their government and respect for its laws.

Maintaining order and behaving according to standard codes of conduct were a serious matter to 19th century Americans, particularly among those who were part of the upper classes or striving to become part of the newly emerging middle class. The number of conduct manuals and etiquette books published between 1830 and the 1860's suggest that Americans were very concerned about how to learn the rules of "proper behavior." Although we continue to speculate today about why people were so concerned with refinement, it is clear that the behavior guides emphasized the importance of two seemingly contradictory thingst

RESTRAINT in speech, movement, and behavior;

and the NATURAL EXPRESSION of the passions of the heart.

However, according to the rhetorical theories of that day, oratory was not simply intended to be rational. It was also intended to take over the imagination, stir the emotions, and take control of the will in order to compell the listener to action. This kind of high-intensity rhetoric was being used to debate the incendiary issues of that day, including temperance, abolitionism, and women's rights. Although the ideal orator of that period was expected to create an appeal to the sense in order to convince the mind, he or she was also expected to appeal to the emotions in order to stir the emotions on the subject and eventually move listeners to action. While celebrities of the platform found an appreciative audience among those hungry from entertainment or reform, they were sometimes seen as a potentially dangerous force not only by those outside the reform movement but also by other reformers.


The Debate Within the Reform Movement

The debate over the kinds of rhetoric best suited to promoting change divided reformers into warring camps. Some argued that reformers could only succeed by using dramatic language and proposing severe measures, while others believed that "harsh llanguage" and extreme proposals would offend their listeners while also violating the basic codes of civilized life.

Although Frederick Douglass began his career as an abolitionist orator under the sponsorship of William Lloyd Garrison, Douglass eventually developed an independent approach to reform that Garrison rejected. Garrison employed a fiery style on every occasion and took an absolutist stand on every point. Going out of his way to inflame his listeners, he inspired the devotionof his followers and denunciations from almost every one else. Douglass, on the other hand, eschewed "harsh language" in favor a more subtle approach to persuasion in speeches such as What to the Slave is the Fourth of July. While Douglass certainly did not share all of the beliefs and approaches that characterized "refined" and/or evangelical reformers, he certainly did everything possible to communicate that he was a calm and reasonable man. Eventually, Douglass and Garrison even quit speaking to one another, and the seriousness of the breech between the two reformers is evident in Harriet Beecher Stowe's letter to William Lloyd Garrison attempting to mend his dispute with Douglass.

This dramatic break in the relationship between two men whose devotion to the abolitionist cause should have made them natural allies is just one illustration of the heated debate that took place in the middle of the 19th century over the kind of rhetoric best suited to promote reform. Another example of the dispute between different segments of the abolitionist cause can be seen in Grimke-Beecher Exchange, a debate that book place between Angelina Grimke and Catherine Beecher through a series of publicly published "letters."


"Revolutionary" Reformers

Like Garrison, some reformers argued that it was important to break the traditional codes of behavior both in order to express the truth and passions they felt in their hearts and in order to create a new social order that reflected their heart-felt beliefs. Many of these reformers pointed to the ideals of the American revolution and republicanism as a way of defending the righteousness of revolutionary activities. Critics of these activists objected to their use of "harsh language," breeches of "proper conduct," and violations of the civil order. Along with Garrison, the Grimke sisters, and Lucy Stone were among the reformers attacked for the inappropriateness of their behavior.

Here are just a few examples of the work of those reformers:

Lucretia Mott's Reform Networks,
Angelina Grimké Weld's speech at Pennsylvania Hall
John G. Whittier, The Anti-Slavery Convention of 1833, 1874


"Refined" Reformers

There were, however, other reformers who attempted to use the polite codes of polite behavior as a means of arguing in favor of reform. Harriet Beecher Stowe, for example, appealed to conventional notions of the sanctity of motherhood as a way of arguing on behalf of abolition in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Although all reformers tended to base their claims on appeals to Christianity, these reformers often based their arguments on the idea that the American social order--with its separate male and female "spheres" and destinctions between classes--was founded on Biblical prescriptions. These reformers also often wrote or spoke in a fashion intended to be conciliatory towards those who might disagree with them. Radical reformers often rejected these approaches as inadequate, insincere, or worse--as reinforcing the evils of the social system. Harriet Beecher Stowe and Catherine Beecher were among those who wrote against slavery while insisting on the importance of politeness and traditional codes of behavior.


Why All The Worry?

Those who objected to the radical rhetoric of the Garrisonian-style reformers were motivated by a variety of concerns. Some feared that radicalism was a self-defeating tactic, one that would drive away potential supporters. There was also concern that the speech, behavior, and proposals of the more radical reformers would bring about a breakdown of the very codes of civilization. Those who criticised the more fiery-tongued abolitionists, for example, would comment on the fact that William Lloyd Garrison was not a "sabbatarian" (i.e., he was not a church-goer) and the fact that the Grimke sisters and other women broke conventions of refined behavior by giving public speeches. bring about the destruction not only of specific evils such as slavery, but also of things regarded as basic codes of civilization. Were these the right role models for other Americans? And there those both within and outside of the reform movement who feared that radical rhetoric would spark violence.

The fear of disorder was not completely unfounded. It was not unusual for a meeting to be preempted by a riot incited by their opponents; nor was it unheard of for a meeting to erupt into violent disorder. The story of the events surrounding the burning of Philadelphia's Pennsylvania Hall when an abolitionist group attempted to convene there in 1838 serves to illustrate what could happen when excited crowds representing different sides of a question gathered in a single place regarding a heated issue. (The speech delivered by abolitionist Angela Grimke Weld delivered over the threatening rumble of the crowd gathering outside the building conveys something of the electricity of that moment, and you can find a brief analysis of that event on PBS's Africans in America site.)

There was another, even larger worry underlying the concerns about mob violence. Because some reformers urged Americans to follow the "higher law" rathe than simply adhering to the rules of the civic order, there was some fear that the United States would disintegrate into a lawless society. A writer for the United States Review cited below worried that Americans would "lose all respect for the laws, and resort to violent opposition on any occasion of excitement." In other words, if you were willing to oppose the federal government in its attempt to assist slaveholders from retrieving those who had escaped, who was to say that you would not choose to disregard other laws that did not meet your liking? As a republic founded on the idea of many different people coming together as one, not because they shared a common culture but because of their shared respect for the law of the land, disorder could pose a potent threat to the existence of the country.


The Significance of the Debate Over Rhetoric and Reform

Although sometimes the debate was simply a question of which tactics would be most effective in promoting change, at other times people were disagreeing about what kind of change was desirable. While some people were trying to preserve or reinforce the existing social order, others were trying to create a new kind of order. These arguments over the right way to promote reform tell us a great deal about the hopes and fears that characterized American life in the middle of the nineteenth century. They also represent an important part of America's long conversation about how to maintain civility and order in a society dedicated to the ideals of free speech and independent thinking--a conversation that continues today.


Commentaries on the Rhetoric of Reform.


Theophilus P. Doggett, "Traits Requisite in the Character of Modern Reformers," 1838.

Rev. Doggett, delivered this sermon in his capacity as the pastor of the First Congregational Church in Bridgewater, Connecticut, at a service to commemorate the annual fast held April 5, 1838. Here is an excerpt:

"Now my idea is, that the two extremes in all these several departments of moral reform, ought to be cautiously avoided by the moral reformers of the age. Falling into either, is the same as falling into error.Truth, every rational mind will acknowledge, always lies upon the medium ground. It is somewhere between the Nothingarian and the Ultraist. Let all moral reformers seize and pursue a middle course between these two deluded characters, and they will come out right. They will follow the steps of Jesus, the unerring author of truth, the Divine Reformer of Man."

Harriet Martineau, The Martyr Age in the United States, 1839.

The title provides a clue to Martineau's vision of the nature and treatment of reformers in American society. Martineau represents abolitionists as "the greatest people now living and moving" in the world, and offers detailed descriptions and defenses of individual reformers as well as commentaries on key events. Here is an excerpt from the opening:

"There is a remarkable set of people now living and vigorously acting in the world, with a consonance of will and understanding which has perhaps never been witnessed among so large a number of individuals of such diversified powers, habits, opinions, tastes and circumstancs. The body comprehends men and women of every shade of color, of every degree of education, of every variety of religious opinion, of every rank, bound together by no vow, no pledge, no stipulation but of each preserving his individual liberty; and yet they act as if they were of one heart and of one soul. . . . A well-grounded faith, directed towards a noble object, is the only principle which can account for such a spectacle as the world is now waking up to contemplate in the abolitionists of the United States."


William Ellery Channing, excerpts from "Address on the Present Age," 1843

Delivered before the Gentlemen of the Mercantile Library Company, Boston (Published in W.E. Channing's Works, VI [Boston, 1843] 149-182.

"They call the age wild, lawless, presumptuous, without reverence. All men, they tell us, are bursting their spheres, quitting their ranks, aspiring selfishly after gain and preeminence. The blind multitude are forsaking their natural leaders. The poor, who are the majority, are contriving against the rich. Still more, a dangerous fanaticism threatens desturction to the world under the name of Reform; society totters; property is shaken; and the universal freedom of thought and action, of which so many boast, is the precursor of social storms which only despotism can calm. Such are the alarms of not a few. . . . But it is the true office of fear to give a wise direction to human effort, not to chill or destroy it." [p. 169]


Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Man the Reformer"

Emerson delivered his lecture before the Mechanics' Apprentices' Library Association in Boston on January 25, 1841 Here is an excerpt from his comments that day:

Mr. President, and Gentlemen, I wish to offer to your consideration some thoughts on the particular and general relations of man as a reformer.. . . In the history of the world the doctrine of Reform had never such scope as at the present hour. Lutherans, Hernhutters, Jesuits, Monks, Quakers, Knox, Wesley, Swedenborg, Bentham, in their accusations of society, all respected something, -- church or state, literature or history, domestic usages, the market town, the dinner table, coined money. But now all these and all things else hear the trumpet, and must rush to judgment, -- Christianity, the laws, commerce, schools, the farm, the laboratory; and not a kingdom, town, statute, rite, calling, man, or woman, but is threatened by the new spirit.

What if some of the objections whereby our institutions are assailed are extreme and speculative, and the reformers tend to idealism; that only shows the extravagance of the abuses which have driven the mind into the opposite extreme. It is when your facts and persons grow unreal and fantastic by too much falsehood, that the scholar flies for refuge to the world of ideas, and aims to recruit and replenish nature from that source. Let ideas establish their legitimate sway again in society, let life be fair and poetic, and the scholars will gladly be lovers, citizens, and philanthropists.


"Abolition and Sectarian Mobs," The United States Review, August, 1854

The author expresses his fear that the country will be destroyed by the social unrest provoked by social reformers and sectarian preachers.

"Societies were instituted; periodicals and newspapers established; itinerant lecturers employed to disseminate and enforce these disorganising principles; and finally the pulpit was enlisted as the most powerful of all auxiliaries in the cause of abolition. . . . Preachers of the gospel have turned their back on religion, and taken to beating 'the pulpit drum ecclesiastic' to raise recruits for sedition, violence, and bloodshed. . . . Is it a subject of surprise that, thus appealed to . . . and assailed by every device of hypocrisy and fanaticism, a large portion of the people of the north, should, by all degrees, lose all respect for the laws, and resort to violent opposition on any occasion of excitement? Is it not to be greatly feared that this habit of opposition to one class of laws will gradually extend to all others, and that under the auspices of universal philanthropy and the higher law, the constitutionality or expediency of alll law, will finally be settled, not by a decision of the Supreme Court, or a verdict of the grand inquest of the States, but by mobs of runaway negroes, and run-mad fanatics, marshalled under the banners of those eminent constitutional oractles, Messrs. Garrison, Parker, Phillips, Sumner Chase, Wade, and Giddings, not forgetting those inscrutable hybrids Abby Folsom, Lucy Stone, and the rest of the strong-minded women.


Abolitionists and Prohibitionists; or Moral Reform Embarrassed by Ultraism, 1892 (MOA)

This article from the Yale Review offers a reflective end-of-the-century look back at the mid-century struggle over aboliton and the difficulties caused by "ultraists" on both sides of the debate. The discussion is based on the arguments of Dr. Austin Phelps; two quotes from Phelps are cited below.

"To a looker-on, it seemed as if all the 'cranks' on the continent were drawn in invisible grooves to the platform of abolition. Divorced women could tak there of the tyranny of marriage laws; beardless boys could expose there the blundres of Moses and the barbarism of the Old Testament; socialists could exppound there the inhumanity of property in land; laborers on the strike could denounce there the despotism of capital; come-outers could recite there in sing-song the corruption of the Church; in short, every bee in everybody's bonnet had a chance to hum there."

On the other hand, Phelps also comments:

"My Webster never uttered a truer word than when he told the Senate of the United States that hostility to slavery was born in the religion of his constituents . It was their ancestral birthright. They drank it in with their mother's milk. They breathed it in the atmosphere of their Sunday-schools and their family prayers. They were taught it in the thoughtful sermons of their pulpits, and in the masterly decisions of their courts. They sung it on Thanksgiving and Fast Days in the ballads of the farm and the workshop. Even the doggerel of 'Yankee Doodle,' by its associations with Independence Day and Bunker Hill, had become their festal song of liberty. No power of suasion or force could change the convictions of such a people."


Julia Ward Howe, "Is Polite Society Polite?"

This 1895 publication is based on speeches Howe delivered in the years after 1850 and the impressions she gathered during her work in those years.

"I wish to speak here of the so-called rudeness of reform; and to say that I think we should call this roughness rather than rudeness. A true reformer honors human nature by recognizing in it a higher powerr than is shown in its average action. The man or woman who approaches you, urging upon you a more fervent faith, a more impartial justice, a braver resolve than you fin in your own mind, comes to you really in reverence, and not in contempt. Such a person sees in you the power and dignity of manhood or womahood, of which you, perhaps, have an insufficient sense. And he will strike and strike until he finds in you that better nature, that higher sense to which he appeals, and which in the end is almost sure to respond to such appealing. " [p. 19]

"In order to be polite, it is important to cultivate polite ways of thinking. Great social troubles and even crimes grow out of rude and selfish habits of mind. Let us take the case of the Aanarchists who were executed in Chicago some years ago. Before their actions became wicked, their thoughts became very impolite. They were men who had to work for their living. They wanted to be so rich that they should not be under this necessity. Their mode of reasoning was something like this: "I want money. Who has got it? The capitalist. What protects him in keeping it? The la"s. Down with the laws, then!"He who reasons thus forgets, foolish man, that the laws protect the poor as well as the rich.
[p. 23]


Note: If you wish to look more deeply into the debate over slavery, you can consult the E Pluribus Unum Guide to Resources on Abolitionism. You may also wish to see:


"Rhetoric of Freedom: Lincoln, Emerson, Douglass"

A commentary on the anti-slavery speeches and writing produced by the three men, along with links to the texts.


"Sectional Conflict" - Outline of American History (USIA)

An explanation provided by the Frederick Douglass Archives of Public Address (at Northwestern University) of the "Two Americas" that existed in the antebellum period and the tensions that resulted. You can also consult the Frederic Douglass Archives for a collection of: Speeches and Documents on Slavery.


Abolitionism 1830-1850

A collection of primary texts on abolitionism available as part of "Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture," a project of the University of Virginia.



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