On the Fourth of July in the late 1820s, Frances Wright, a Scottish philanthropist, writer and social reformer, gave what was probably the first public address by a woman in the United States. In it, she warned her audience against a narrow patriotism that worshipped the founders instead of their principles. She encouraged listeners to focus instead on the Constitution’s amendment system, with its expectation of change as the public became more enlightened. Holly Jackson’s magnificent American Radicals tells the story of trailblazers like Wright who sparked a second American revolution in the 19th century and of their profound effect on the course of our history.
This sweeping and briskly told history introduces the many people who have challenged conventional approaches to race, gender, property, labor and religion, and the devastating attacks waged in response by defenders of the status quo. The major figures in public reform are certainly here, but Jackson intentionally focuses on obscure figures who played significant parts.
Among them was George Ripley, who left the Unitarian ministry and, with his wife, founded Brook Farm, a communitarian project whose residents shared domestic and agricultural work equally in an intellectual atmosphere. Nathaniel Hawthorne lived there, and many other visitors came to observe, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller. The theories of Charles Fourier, a French philosopher who felt that “civilization” as it was being practiced was “monstrously defective” and needed major reform, inspired the project. Jackson believes “the impact of Fourier’s thought on American culture has been underestimated, probably because it is difficult to believe that thousands of Americans, including highly educated members of the elite, earnestly embraced these ideas. But they did.”
This incisive and well-written overview of Americans who protested wrongs in their society deserves a wide readership. Many fine academic studies have covered the subjects here, but this account, written for a general audience, is authoritative and fast-paced and vividly portrays a crucial period.