Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Paradoxes of Prosperity

Paradoxes of Prosperity: Wealth-Seeking Versus Christian Values in Pre-Civil War America

Lorman A. Ratner
Paula T. Kaufman
Dwight L. Teeter
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 168
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/j.ctt1xcjtt
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Paradoxes of Prosperity
    Book Description:

    In the midst of the United States' immense economic growth in the 1850s, Americans worried about whether the booming agricultural, industrial, and commercial expansion came at the price of cherished American values such as honesty, hard work, and dedication to the common good. Was the nation becoming greedy, selfish, vulgar, and cruel? Was there such a thing as too much prosperity?_x000B__x000B_At the same time, the United States felt the influence of the rise of popular mass-circulation newspapers and magazines and the surge in American book publishing. Concern over living correctly as well as prosperously was commonly discussed by leading authors and journalists, who were now writing for ever-expanding regional and national audiences. Women became more important as authors and editors, giving advice and building huge markets for women readers, with the magazine Godey's Lady's Book and novels by Susan Warner, Maria Cummins, and Harriet Beecher Stowe expressing women's views about the troubled state of society. Best-selling male writers--including novelist George Lippard, historian George Bancroft, and travel writer Bayard Taylor--were among those adding their voices to concerns about prosperity and morality and about America's place in the world. Writers and publishers discovered that a high moral tone could be exceedingly good for business._x000B__x000B_The authors of this book examine how popular writers and widely read newspapers, magazines, and books expressed social tensions between prosperity and morality. This study draws on that nationwide conversation through leading mass media, including circulation-leading newspapers, the New York Herald and the New York Tribune, plus prominent newspapers from the South and West, the Richmond Enquirer and the Cincinnati Enquirer. Best-selling magazines aimed at middle-class tastes, Harper's Magazine and the Southern Literary Messenger, added their voices, as did two leading business magazines.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09222-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. xi-xii)
    Dwight L. Teeter Jr.

    This book is the idea of Professor Lorman “Larry” A. Ratner, emeritus professor of history at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and, from 1999–2007, adjunct professor of history at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. While editing the manuscript, Professor Ratner died of a heart attack on July 14, 2007, just a few days before his seventy-fifth birthday. Although my name may appear in connection with this book, Larry Ratner did the lion’s share of the research and writing. As I view this book, it is 60 percent the work of Professor Ratner, 20 percent the work of his wife,...

  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    Overshadowed by the Civil War—and the more than 50,000 books written about it—the cultural life of the United States in the 1850s often seems to be remembered only as a prelude to the great divide in American history. As that decade passed, the paradox of a nation conceived in liberty but permitting and even celebrating slavery was crucial in the breaking up of the American union. This book takes up another major theme in American cultural life of that decade, a widespread and intense concern about the conflict between financial success and righteousness. The prosperity-morality paradox is the...

  6. ONE Communicating the Prosperity-Morality Paradox during the Mid-Nineteenth-Century Publishing Boom
    (pp. 9-18)

    At mid-century, Americans confronted two compelling paradoxes: slavery in a land founded on the value of freedom, and an aggressive pursuit of wealth that enriched the republic at the cost of endangering traditional republican and Christian values. New economic forces delivered prosperity to some and the possibility of raising one’s economic status to many more, but they were accompanied by a growing anxiety that the way to wealth followed a slippery path. To those caught up in that promising but tumultuous time, it was exciting but unnerving.

    Consequently, change and anxiety were reflected in and impelled by a new mass...

  7. TWO New York’s Newspaper Giants during the Anxious 1850s
    (pp. 19-33)

    In the 1850s, no part of America’s mass media was more pervasive than the newspaper, and no paper had more readers than either theNew York Heraldor theNew York Tribune.¹ In addition to their daily papers, each published a weekly that was sent to subscribers across the country. These newspapers’ influence was even more far-reaching than circulation numbers suggest, thanks to the frequency with which other papers quoted them.

    Horace Greeley, publisher of theNew York Tribune, used his paper to crusade for the restoration of moral values and the reform of business behavior. James Gordon Bennett, publisher...

  8. THREE Two Newspapers, South and West
    (pp. 34-46)

    Although New York City was home to the nation’s most widely read newspapers, the number of papers and their readers grew dramatically in all parts of the country. In the places where they circulated, these newspapers both influenced and were influenced by public opinion. Two newspapers outside of New York are considered in this chapter: theRichmond Enquirerand theCincinnati Enquirer. Both reflected writers’ and readers’ concerns about the paradox involved in embracing economic progress while fearing its consequences. Anxiety over this situation was not limited to New Englanders imbued with a Puritan-inspired conscience or to Whigs who applauded...

  9. FOUR Harper’s Magazine and the Southern Literary Messenger: Self-Styled Guardians of the Republic
    (pp. 47-62)

    In 1850, the Harper brothers, whose New York publishing business was flourishing, decided to launch a magazine. They planned to use it to publicize the books they published and to attract additional authors.¹ Publishing the magazine turned out to be a good business decision, but the brothers James and John Harper hoped to do more with their new publication than just make money. They were devout evangelical Methodists anxious to promote Christian and republican values to their readers. The new publication would be their vehicle to achieve that goal.

    The brothers’ life story typified the saga of those who left...

  10. FIVE Godey’s Lady’s Book: The Guide for Middle-Class Women
    (pp. 63-71)

    By the 1850s, women were a substantial portion of America’s reading public. During the first half of the century, the literacy rate for women grew significantly. Historian Richard D. Brown has suggested that female literacy emerged as a desirable goal in America in the 1790s when the ideal of republican motherhood was articulated. Women increasingly were expected to read widely to better prepare themselves to run their households.¹ As more of them achieved middle-class status, they were able to find time to read and to discuss what they read. Some became authors.

    It was no wonder that a few enterprising...

  11. SIX Merchant Magazines: The Businessman’s Guide and Conscience
    (pp. 72-84)

    Many of the critics of America’s booming economy and its entrepreneurs were not directly involved in the marketplace: women, clergy, and intellectuals, among others. But even those who worked in the marketplace and publishers of magazines aimed at that audience worried about the need to reconcile business activity with Christian and republican values.

    The more complex American business became, the greater businessmen’s need for information about commodity prices, sales data, ship arrivals and departures, and market trends and the like. But those magazines went beyond serving as dispensers of useful facts. They promoted business values to American society, praised some...

  12. SEVEN Women Writers: Defending the Christian Republic
    (pp. 85-96)

    Despite daunting odds and discouraging social pressures, the names of women often appeared among the mid-nineteenth century’s best-selling authors. What those women wrote profited them and gave them a voice in the ongoing discussions about the troubled state of their society. Educated or self-educated women writing for pleasure at home sometimes were impelled into the marketplace by a husband’s death or by financial problems. As Ronald and Mary S. Zboray put it, “Beneath many a woman’s pseudonyms lay tales of broken vows or deceased spouses.”¹ Even if, as for Harriet Beecher Stowe, a woman writer’s financial circumstances were not difficult,...

  13. EIGHT Male Writers: Wrestling with the Marketplace
    (pp. 97-110)

    Because women were a large portion of the reading public, no writer who hoped to sell a lot of books could afford to write something women would be likely to reject.¹ The women writers discussed in this study employed what literary critics have labeled “sentimentality” in their novels, and surely sentiment appealed to women readers but not only to women. Timothy Shay Arthur also played on his readers’ sentiments, sometimes with a hard-edged reportorial toughness calculated to shock, and evidently he had the knack of appealing to both genders. His popularity with women was evidenced, in part, by the many...

  14. NINE Past Times and Faraway Places
    (pp. 111-124)

    While American readers of the 1850s had a taste for novels, authors of history and biography also found a large reading audience for stories of past glories and heroic figures. If about American glory or an American hero, such material sparked and drew upon a sense of national pride and provided a basis for comparing past to present. But explicitly or implicitly, historians created doubts in readers’ minds about the ability of the current generation to match the wisdom, the sense of honor, and the commitment to the public good that were supposed to be hallmarks of those who came...

  15. Epilogue
    (pp. 125-128)

    Americans of the 1850s were troubled by the seeming contradictions between their marketplace lives and their Christian and republican values. They could not have known that the Civil War would come in 1861, any more than Americans of the 1930s knew for certain that World War II was just over the horizon. The Mexican War was over, adding vast new lands to the United States, there was gold in California, and the economy boomed. America was truly the land of opportunity, at least for white, English-speaking men, and for some women who managed, through effort and intellect, to find niches,...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 129-142)
  17. Index
    (pp. 143-148)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 149-153)