What Is “Western Civilization”?
From Sevastopol to Separate Spheres
Abolitionist print culture, the Crimean War, and middle-class life in 19th century America
I have written before about how American abolitionists linked the territorial expansionism of “the slave power” with the territorial expansionism of Czarist Russia, drawing a connection between the Nebraska debate and the Crimean War in 1854. That linkage was not only rehtorical, but also visual, as news of the Crimean War and news of the Nebraska debate ran side by side on the same pages of the newspaper.
It is fruitful — and fun — to dig deeper into some of these juxtapositions and consider what they tell us about American thought and culture at the time. Here’s an example…
On March 24, 1854, in between a report on the latest debate over the Nebraska bill and a summary of a sermon on the inferior and blighted Christianity that existed where slavery was allowed, William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator ran a brief squib recommending a newly-published booklet, Russia and the Eastern Question, by Richard Cobden, the radical Member of Parliament from Manchester. Garrison wrote,
This is a pamphlet of some 150 pages, in which the question of a war with Russia, in its bearings on the interests of England, is discussed by one of the most comprehensive and practical of her statesmen. Cobden’s position is in favor of non-intervention and peace. To those who would understand the merits and tendencies of the mighty struggle now going forward among the nations of Europe, this will prove a timely publication. It is issued by Messrrs. J. P. Jewett & Co., Cornhill.
Thus ran Garrison’ very brief review, summarizing Cobden’s view and promising the reader a more complete grounding in the issues at stake in the Eastern War via the “pamphlet.” That term had less to do with the length of Cobden’s prose than with its genre, a polemical intervention in a matter of current discussion or debate.
Garrison’s use of the term “pamphlet” was also a nod to the format in which Cobden’s work was produced. The Boston publisher J. P. Jewett issued some of the most important books of the era, from Margaret Fuller’s Woman of the 19th Century to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (first serialized in Gamaliel Bailey’s National Era). The house also published a multitude of once popular but now mostly forgotten titles, both fiction and non-fiction, addressing various moral reform issues of the day, from abolitionism to the temperance movement to the supposed moral and political menace of Catholicism. While Jewett produced many lovely hardbound editions of important works, much of this moralizing literature for the reformist market appeared in mass-printed paperbound copies held together by a single thread looped through two holes in all the pages and tied in a knot on the last printed page.
The Jewett publishing house had a western printing office in Cincinnati. The “Old Northwest” state of Ohio was the intellectual and political center of abolitionism and the growing anti-Nebraska movement. I obtained a copy of the Cobden pamphlet that very well may have been printed in that western outpost of the house of Jewett. I haven’t read the pamphlet yet. For now, I’m focused on the fascinating juxtapositions visible on its back cover.
The back cover of this cheaply-bound 25-cent pamphlet advertises other works that would be of similar interest to abolitionists and moral reformers in both Cincinnati and Boston. Here is a close-up look:
This list of titles on the back of the Cobden pamphlet offers a fascinating look at “the market” for J.P. Jewett’s titles: evangelical, pious, focused on establishing and maintaining a Christian household — anti-Catholic, anti-alcohol, anti-slavery. The titles available include sermon collections, poetry anthologies, children’s anti-slavery books, and sensational novels — The Convent and the Manse, a “Protestant tale” condemning the sensual immorality of Catholicism, and The Mysterious Parchment; or, Satanic License, a “Temperance tale” about the evils of alcohol.
The sort of pious Protestant evangelical household that would purchase Jewett’s new and forthcoming titles would have been a middle-class household as well. The moral reform era of the 1830s-1850s was also the era during which the idea of “separate spheres” for middle-class men and women took hold. Before the first industrial revolution, husbands and wives worked side-by-side on family farms or in workshops. As men’s work moved out of the home to the factory or the office — from the private to the public — a respectable wife could no longer work alongside her husband. Only public women or low-class women would work outside of the home.
With father at the factory, mother became the spiritual and sentimental center of the home, and her chief concern became the moral formation of the children. This may sound “normal” to some today, but it is important to remember that during the Revolutionary era and into the early 19th century, it was the father who was expected to provide religious instruction to his wife and children.
The very presence of children’s titles on the list of forthcoming books shows the reach of the cult of domesticity in the 19th century that viewed the home as a moral haven from the world. In the place of primers and patriotic readers there are moral tales centered upon the anti-slavery movement: Pictures and Stories from Uncle Tom’s Cabin is advertised as the first number in “a new series of Juveniles.” Other books for children include the aforementioned anti-slavery books, as well as a book of moral tales or parables, First Lessons in Gentleness, by “Aunt Alice.”
For middle-class families setting up life together near new centers of manufacturing and commerce springing up in the Old Northwest, real aunties and grandmothers might have been half a continent away; the role once played by older relatives in the moral formation of children now fell upon the mother and her selection of reading materials for her young ones. Children’s books written by “Aunt Alice” were one way a mother could hope to bring that generational wisdom into the single-generation home.
Many of the books listed were aimed squarely at the mother herself as the angel of the house and the guardian of moral purity. In addition to notices of novels, the first art form created to delight women’s imaginations in particular, there are a few books on domestic living: Dress as a Fine Art, by Mrs. Merrifield, a large “elegant” volume filled with engravings and gilt pages, and A Pastor’s Marriage Gift, a pious discussion of the duties of married life, and particularly of the marriage bed.
Hints for the Household, by the same Reverend author, would have been one of many “homemakers’ manuals” designed to answer the questions and allay the fears of young middle-class mothers who lived far away from their mothers and aunts and sisters. Far from the frank and funny conversation of female relatives, these new domestic angels would have to learn their duties in and out of the bedroom from some morally unimpeachable Reverend who might be by turns boring or alarming. The fact that Jewett was coming out with a “sequel” to Hints for the Household demonstrates that there was a ready market for such works.
Jewett gave a fair amount of space in the second column of this book list to several volumes “to be issued immediately” comprising The Writings of Rev. John Cumming, D.D., of London, including sermons, Biblical commentaries, lectures on the evils of Romanism (Catholicism), “and other books by the same author.” This listing underscores the fact that the history of American thought, including the books and ideas Americans encountered, must range far beyond the imagined community of the nation-state. English ideas traveled to America, American ideas traveled to England in an unceasing current of transatlantic circulation.
The ties between moral reformers in England and America were particularly strong, as a glance through the pages of Garrison’s newspaper would attest. Indeed, we can see those ties in the very fact that Garrison commended Cobden’s book to his readers. And we can see those ties reinforced by the titles juxtaposed on the back cover of Cobden’s book, this little pamphlet about Russia and the Eastern Question, held together by a single thread.
England, Russia, Turkey, and the war in the Crimea were all a world away from Americans’ everyday lives, but they found their way to Americans’ homes thanks to abolitionist print culture, from Garrison’s Boston-based Liberator to J.P. Jewett’s Cincinnati printing office. They found their way into American thought and culture via this little pamphlet by an Englishman, printed in America, sold alongside temperance fables, children’s books, fashion plates, marriage manuals, and sentimental novels for middle-class women, women trying to take and fill the measure of their separate spheres.