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Hellfire Nation

Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History

James A. Morone
Copyright Date: 2003
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 592
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  • Book Info
    Hellfire Nation
    Book Description:

    The American Constitution firmly separates church and state. Yet religion lies at the heart of American politics. How did America become a nation with the soul of a church? InHellfire Nation, James Morone recasts American history as a moral epic. From the colonial era to the present day, Americans embraced a Providential mission, tangled with devils, and aspired to save the world.Moral fervor ignited our fiercest social conflicts-but it also moved dreamers to remake the nation in the name of social justice. Moral crusades inspired abolition, woman suffrage, and civil rights, even as they led Americans to hang witches, enslave Africans, and ban liquor. Today these moral arguments continue, influencing the debate over everything from abortion to foreign policy.Written with passion and deep insight,Hellfire Nationtells the story of a brawling, raucous, religious people. Morone shows how fears of sin and dreams of virtue defined the shape of the nation.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13023-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Introduction: A Nation with the Soul of a Church
    (pp. 1-28)

    Ten thousand people filled the Holt Street Baptist Church and spilled out into the Montgomery evening. The young minister, Martin Luther King, Jr., slowly worked his way through the crowd.When he finally reached the pulpit and began to preach, loudspeakers carried his message to the black men and women standing outside. King called on them to rise in protest. “There comes a time,” he roared over shouts and amens, “when the people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression.”Then he pointed down a celebrated path. “I want it to be known throughout . . ....

  5. PART I The Puritan Foundations of Morality Politics (1630–1776)

    • [PART ONE: Introduction]
      (pp. 29-33)

      In June 1630, four hundred English Puritans arrived in Salem, Massachusetts. There they found a squalid collection of shacks and tents, but what Governor John Winthrop reported in his journal was the good beer they drank with supper. (So much for the Puritan as teetotaler—but that’s a story for a different chapter.) These were the first boatloads in a great migration—twenty thousand people followed over the next twelve years. By 1640, the New England Puritans made up more than half the European population in what would become the original United States.¹

      From the start, these immigrants grappled with...

    • Chapter 1 Us: The City on a Hill
      (pp. 34-54)

      History gives us two different pictures of the Puritans. On the one side, Nathaniel Hawthorne described them as “black browed, witchunters [who] so darkened the national visage” that “all subsequent years have not sufficed to clear it up.” “How narrow and cold was their prison,” added Vernon Parrington. Their society was “bred up . . . in aristocratic contempt for the sodden mass of the people” and “long lingered out a harsh existence, grotesque and illiberal to the last.” They were intent, chimed in popular historian James Truslow Adams, “on making the wilderness blossom like a thistle instead of a...

    • Chapter 2 Them: Heretic, Heathen, and Witch
      (pp. 55-99)

      It sounds boring. Rebels attack the Puritan establishment with cries of Arminianism. The establishment slashes back with countercharges of antinomianism. The sides are eager to fight, but about what? “Few could see where the difference was,” wrote John Winthrop. In fact, the clash raised the real issues: power, conscience, the woman’s role, and the road to hell. The first great intellectual conflict in the English colonies defined the Puritan establishment. It still stands as a prototype for America’s culture wars.

      The story begins with minister John Cotton’s arrival in Boston in 1633. Cotton quickly made his mark.The Boston church elected...

    • Chapter 3 The Puritans Become America
      (pp. 100-116)

      Horrible noises, shrieks, trances, and young women rolling around on the church floors—it could have been another witch frenzy. But this hysteria marked a “mighty exultation of the soul,” as Jonathan Edwards put it. In the 1730s and ’40s, New Englanders stormed toward heaven and, amid the religious convulsions, remade their society.¹

      The Great Awakening was an early burst of American populism. A surging people walked out of the churches for revivals in the fields and on the commons. The mobbing had wide institutional consequences: new churches, new schools, and a new politics bearing the first traces of unabashed,...

  6. PART II The Abolitionist Crusade (1800–1865)

    • [PART TWO: Introduction]
      (pp. 117-122)

      Gustave de Beaumont traveled around the United States in the early 1830s with Alexis de Tocqueville. When he got back to France he cast about for a way to explain America to his countrymen. I believe, he wrote in the introduction to his book, I should describe the first time I attended the theater in the United States. “I was surprised at the careful distinction made between the white spectators and the [rest of] the audience. In the first balcony were whites; in the second, mulattoes; in the third, Negroes. An American, beside whom I was sitting, informed me that...

    • Chapter 4 The Wrath of God in Black and White
      (pp. 123-143)

      The first African slave stepped onto North American shores in 1619. More than two centuries later, Americans began brawling over abolition. What heated up the argument after all that time? Another religious revival. Evangelical fervor rolled across the United States for three decades, peaking in the early 1830s. If the First Great Awakening primed Americans for their Revolution, the Second lit the long fuse to the Civil War.¹

      Political scientists usually focus on the democratic ferment that shook both sides of the Atlantic in the early nineteenth century. But nothing struck the young United States with the force of the...

    • Chapter 5 Abolition!
      (pp. 144-168)

      William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper, theLiberator,often gets the credit for whipping up the abolitionist fracas. But why? Calls for immediate abolition had been popping up for years before the paper was founded, in 1831. And as Boston Mayor Harrison Gray Otis reported eight months after theLiberatorwent into business, nobody “of my acquaintance had ever heard of the publication.” The mayor eventually “ferreted out the paper and its editor.” He was not impressed. Garrison’s office was an “obscure hole, his only visible auxiliary a Negro boy, and his supporters a very few insignificant persons of all colors.” Garrison’s...

    • Chapter 6 South: The Pro-Slavery Argument
      (pp. 169-182)

      A full-scale attack on bondage shook the political scene. Starting in the early 1830s, abolitionists organized, Britain abolished slavery, the women’s petitions hit Congress, and anti-slavery pamphlets started reaching the South. Under the barrage, white southerners tossed aside the airy African-colonization schemes and developed a full-blown pro-slavery argument. The Virginia legislature, frightened by Nat Turner’s rebellion, took one last heated look at the alternatives (in 1831–32). Beginning with Thomas Dew’s review of that debate, southerners portrayed slavery as a “positive good” and as the “cornerstone” of southern civilization.

      From a distance, the pro-slavery argument looks like the fiercest attack...

    • Chapter 7 North: The Ragged Chorus of the Union
      (pp. 183-216)

      The abolitionists created an uproar in the North, too. “A few thousand crazy blockheads,” reported theNew York Herald,“have actually frightened 15 million people out of their senses.”While the South developed a party line in the early 1830s, the North remained up for grabs. Ultimately, both regions faced the same tribal question: Who are we? Each found its answers in a tangle of economics and morals, in both liberalism and hellfire.¹

      Southerners imagined a North united in an anti-slavery frenzy. There was plenty of frenzy, but most of it came from mobs routing the abolitionists. In 1835, President Jackson...

  7. PART III The Victorian Quest for Virtue (1870–1929)

    • [PART THREE: Introduction]
      (pp. 217-221)

      In the half-century following the Civil War, farmers stormed into politics, labor fought bitterly with capitalists, the South roiled over race, women reached for suffrage, and a new administrative state broke free of political parties and embarked on all kinds of projects—regulating railroads, inspecting meat, busting trusts.

      At the same time, a new generation of Jeremiahs began warning about disorder in the family. Reformers pushed into the private sphere, pledging to restore America’s “hearthstone values.” The new abolitionists, as they fancied themselves, drew the state into a great quest for Victorian virtue. The moral campaign attracted all kinds of...

    • Chapter 8 Purity and the Woman’s Sphere
      (pp. 222-256)

      In the 1870s, one wishful free thinker imagined a genuinely liberal society: “Morality in its very nature is voluntary. Its appeal . . . should be to the conscience . . . alone.” That is an almost perfect description of what the late Victorian era was not. Instead, the politics of private lives—of purity and virtue—went decidedly public. The great clashes over sexual purity do not fit a traditional reading of American politics. We usually imagine a formidable division between the public sector and the private sphere. Men confer in the polis. They compete in the market. The...

    • Chapter 9 White Slaves and the Modern Witch-Hunt
      (pp. 257-280)

      At the wicked heart of the city stood the fallen woman selling sex. All the purity crusades—all the White Cross pledges and confiscated books—scarcely touched the flourishing red-light districts. The prostitutes created a medical problem, a moral peril, and a mass panic.

      The medical problem remains familiar: sexually transmitted diseases. Urbanization, large-scale immigration, and widespread dislocation appeared—then as now—to exacerbate the contagion. By the turn of the century, many physicians were warning of a plague with no cure available. The medical problem inevitably got entangled in moral danger. After all, doctors believed that the health risk...

    • Chapter 10 Temperance: Crucible of Race and Class
      (pp. 281-317)

      The fight against liquor may be the greatest reform movement in American history—only abolition came close.No other social movement lasted as long, promised as much, or stirred up more trouble. Temperance organized modern feminism. It fired progressive imaginations and roused men and women to better themselves. Some historians even score Prohibition a success. Americans may have scrapped the program in 1933 (it took effect in January 1920), but by then Prohibition had shut down the noxious saloons, sobered up the working class, and slashed liquor consumption. Americans did not get back to their pre-Prohibition drinking levels till 1971.¹


    • Chapter 11 Prohibition and the Rise of Big Government
      (pp. 318-344)

      My great-grandfather, Vincenzo Morone, made two barrels of wine every year during Prohibition. He cooked up a pretty good zinfandel for everyday use and a sweet muscatel for company—apparently the guests got pretty dreadful stuff. Vincenzo always insisted that his wine was perfectly legal. Prohibition, he used to say, never forbade homemade wine you drank with friends. Was he right? Or were the Morones another Prohibitionera family on the wrong side of the law? These kinds of details got hammered out in the Volstead Act, the law that implemented the Eighteenth Amendment.

      The Volstead Act pressed righteousness against political...

  8. PART IV The Social Gospel at High Tide (1932–1973)

    • [PART FOUR: Introduction]
      (pp. 345-349)

      “The stock market crash was almost like a rending of the earth [on] the day of judgment,” marveled Edmund Wilson. “The slump was like a flood,” an “earthquake” or a “religious conversion.” It was exhilarating. The Puritans finally lost their grip on the national culture, concluded Wilson, though there must have been some Puritan afterglow if he saw millennial omens in the stock ticker. Presidential candidate Franklin Roosevelt urged his countrymen to rethink their basic values before the “mental lethargy of a speculative upturn” dulled their moral sense again. Hard times shook free a completely different kind of morality.¹


    • Chapter 12 The New Deal Call to Alms
      (pp. 350-377)

      A famous cartoon from 1933 pictures two coal miners hard at work, covered with soot. “For gosh sakes,” says one of the men, “here comes Mrs. Roosevelt.” Another cartoon from the same period looks at the same subject from high above the filthy workers. A knot of men and women in dapper evening clothes stop by the neighboring mansion and propose an evening’s entertainment. “Come along,” they say to the moneybags next door, “we’re going to the Trans-Lux to hiss Roosevelt.” In the 1930s, the New Deal recast sin and virtue. Like Mrs. Roosevelt, the state got deeply involved in...

    • Chapter 13 Manifest Destiny and the Cold War
      (pp. 378-406)

      The gates swung open and the GIs from the 442nd Division got a look at the Dachau concentration camp. Men and women, more dead than alive, heads shaved, half starved, and almost skeletons. The American soldiers would tell stories—still hard to fathom more than a half-century later—about warm ovens and neatly stacked chalk bars stamped with numbers. As the troops filtered through the camp, one confused prisoner stopped a GI and asked, skeptically, whether he was really an American. The soldier was Nisei—born in America of Japanese parents and recruited into the Army from an internment camp....

    • Chapter 14 The Sixties
      (pp. 407-446)

      No era agitates Americans quite like the sixties—ground zero for the contemporary culture war. In their heyday, the sixties conjured up a dreamy Woodstock nation reaching for social justice. The civil rights crusade spilled out of the churches and into the streets. Even the hippies “evoked the early Christians,” declared Episcopal Bishop James Pike, when they celebrated peace, love, Jesus, Buddha, and the Hobbit. Popular magazines kept rolling out the same adjectives to describe a nation of young activists: gentle, idealistic, nonviolent, utopian, all-American. In startling contrast, recent critics recall a decade of demons. The revised sixties plunged the...

  9. PART V The Puritans Roar Again

    • Chapter 15 Modern Morals
      (pp. 450-492)

      In 1997 the Southern Baptist Convention voted to boycott Walt Disney. Mickey, Minnie, and Bambi had morphed into a media conglomerate chasing profits by trashing American morals. “Gays have 25 or 30 characters on TV shows,” complained one boycott leader, “and every last one of them is positive.” Disney sponsored hot television likeNYPD Blue(through its ABC affiliates), produced the hereticalPriest(through its Miramax subsidiary), and permitted “gay days” at Disney World. The boycott got great press—then flopped. Prime time went from bad to worse. No sooner had the conservatives organized, for example, thanAlly McBealserved up...

  10. Epilogue
    (pp. 493-498)

    At first glance, the United States looks like a nation of shoppers—a land of malls, Sam’s Clubs, and stock tips.Americans ardently preach capitalism while they scatter McDonald’s and Starbucks across the planet.

    The Shoppers’ Nation—political scientists call it liberalism—tolerates plenty of poverty. The United States always ranks near the top when industrial countries count poor people or infant mortality rates. But that has always been part of the plan—success and failure lie in your own hands. The Puritans read wealth and poverty as divine hints about salvation and perdition. Lincoln saw the honest, sober, and industrious...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 499-560)
  12. Index
    (pp. 561-575)