- The Kingdom of Nauvoo: A Story of Mormon Politics, Plural Marriage, and Power in Nineteenth-Century America (W. W. Norton/Liveright: forthcoming, 2020)
This book is a case study of the fears and concerns of disestablishment by looking at the Mormon community in Nauvoo, Illinois, between 1839 and 1846. Refugees kicked out of Missouri, the Mormons sought some form of shelter after an experience they believe confirmed the democratic system did not work. Now ensconced within their own city-state, Joseph Smith charted a religious, social, and political kingdom that sought to peel back the dangers of democracy, which they felt teetered toward anarchy, in order to introduce more stability and control. Though their message sounded antithetical to the Age of Jackson, as many as 20,000 converts streamed into the Mormon region, which demonstrated the potency of their critique. At its climax, Smith inaugurated a marital order (polygamy) that challenged America’s developing cult of domesticity and flirted with political systems (theocracy) that abolished the perils of democratic society; by 1844, he was sealed to over thirty women and announced his own run for the presidency on a platform centered on expanding and centralizing federal power.
- Transcendental Abolition: European Theology, American Thought, and Defining Democracy in the Nineteenth Century (in progress)
In its most narrow sense, this project is a reception history of German and French philosophy and theology in 1830s and 1840s Boston. Yet this seemingly parochial topic had broader cultural implications, as the obsession with foreign thought found in figures like Theodore Parker, Elizabeth Peabody, Caroline Healey Dall, Orestes Brownson, and Margaret Fuller represented a deep anxiety over the trajectory of America’s democratic tradition: they felt it had become too naturalistic, cold, and unable to address the issues of the day—most especially, slavery. To solve the most pressing problem of the day, southern states’ refusal to relinquish their economic system based on unpaid black labor, many of these American romantics argued for an infusion of spirituality into political discourse.
This manuscript seeks to challenge at least three general assumptions concerning American democratic thought. First, scholars often depict America’s entrance into modernity as a steady march toward secularism, implying a move from a more revelatory to more scientific basis for thinking. Yet these antebellum figures, who were highly influential at one of the nation’s most critical moments, argued the reverse: that the country’s problems could be solved through a return to its spiritual roots. Second, it is commonly assumed that most prominent Americans rejected the idea of reliance on foreign sources until the progressive era, and that American thought was classified as maintaining a higher authority over European ideas. Yet key figures of the abolitionist movement in Boston felt that America’s freedom could only be secured through a rigorous engagement with European thinkers and texts—that the philosophies and theologies across the Atlantic had much to teach them regarding democratic theory. And finally, engagements with American political theologies on the eve of the Civil War often leave out the female voices that were not only a part of but often the key instigators for these intellectual transformations. Indeed, this manuscript seeks to demonstrate the deep gendered tensions found throughout these debates over antislavery politics, spiritual reform, and democratic thought in general.