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Man’s Better Angels

Man’s Better Angels

Romantic Reformers and the Coming of the Civil War

Philip F. Gura

ISBN 9780674659544

Publication date: 04/10/2017

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Banks failed, credit contracted, inequality grew, and people everywhere were out of work while political paralysis and slavery threatened to rend the nation in two. As financial crises always have, the Panic of 1837 drew forth a plethora of reformers who promised to restore America to greatness. Animated by an ethic of individualism and self-reliance, they became prophets of a new moral order: if only their fellow countrymen would call on each individual’s God-given better instincts, the most intractable problems could be resolved.

Inspired by this reformist fervor, Americans took to strict dieting, water cures, phrenology readings, mesmerism, utopian communities, free love, mutual banking, and a host of other elaborate self-improvement schemes. Vocal activists were certain that solutions to the country’s ills started with the reformation of individuals, and through them communities, and through communities the nation. This set of assumptions ignored the hard political and economic realities at the core of the country’s malaise, however, and did nothing to prevent another financial panic twenty years later, followed by secession and civil war.

Focusing on seven individuals—George Ripley, Horace Greeley, William B. Greene, Orson Squire Fowler, Mary Gove Nichols, Henry David Thoreau, and John Brown—Philip Gura explores their efforts, from the comical to the homicidal, to beat a new path to prosperity. A narrative of people and ideas, Man’s Better Angels captures an intellectual moment in American history that has been overshadowed by the Civil War and the pragmatism that arose in its wake.


  • Gura…brilliantly connects the harsh privation of the 1837 depression to the intellectual and spiritual reform movements that emerged in the 1840s and ’50s. He does so by offering us seven roughly sequential portraits of American reformers in which he tethers their idealism to real suffering and their very tangible awareness of the ways their community had failed its members. Linking the cultural and intellectual ferment in the 1840s to the economic failure of 1837 is particularly appropriate at a time when only the oldest Americans can remember pre–New Deal America. Softened by Social Security, Medicaid and the various federal handouts that are now on the chopping block, contemporary Americans can barely imagine how an old-fashioned depression smacked people sideways with bankruptcies, penury, displacement and biting shame.

    —Carol Bundy, Wall Street Journal


  • Philip F. Gura is William S. Newman Distinguished Professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Book Details

  • 328 pages
  • 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
  • Belknap Press