"Benevolent." "Empire." Discuss.

Elesha Coffman

image from Rolling Stone
Does anyone else remember the Mike Myers SNL sketch "Coffee Talk with Linda Richman"? When the character, host of a fictitious TV talk show, felt emotionally overwhelmed--verklempt--she would throw out a topic and ask viewers to "Talk amongst yourselves" while she pulled herself together. Several of the topics were historical:

"The Progressive Era was neither progressive nor an era. Discuss."

"The New Deal was neither new nor a deal. Discuss."

"The Holy Roman Empire was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire. Discuss."

I keep thinking about this trope as I try to write a book chapter on the Benevolent Empire, the constellation of mostly Protestant philanthropic organizations formed in the first third of the nineteenth century. The Benevolent Empire was neither benevolent nor an empire. Discuss.

I could just leave the post there and let the comments solve my writing problems, but I'll mull over a few things first.

Whether organizations like the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, American Bible Society, and American Temperance Society were benevolent (in the basic sense of good-doing) depended a great deal on whether one belonged to these groups' conception of "us" or "them." Of course it's complicated and morally fraught, and the goodness done varied depending on which organization you're looking at. Overall, though, I'm having trouble not committing the historian's sin of judging past actors by the standards of the present. How could the benevolent imperialists be so sure of the superiority of their values? Then again, how can I?

The "empire" question is less related to historical ethics than to the historian's craft. Does it make sense to focus on the big Protestant organizations, like the three named above, and look for all of the overlapping personnel and goals that knit the groups into something resembling an empire? The overlaps are certainly there. But then there were attempted reforms that spawned competing groups (the American Colonization Society versus the American Anti-Slavery Society, for example); groups whose leaders were free blacks or women rather than, say, Lyman Beecher; and groups--particularly Roman Catholic groups--assembled to do good while opposing Protestant hegemony. How much of this complexity can fit into a short chapter, for a survey text, written for a Protestant publisher? Is it better to write of an empire that failed to be hegemonic or of a melange of groups so various that the title "empire" no longer fits?

I just started reading Kathleen McCarthy's book American Creed: Philanthropy and the Rise of Civil Society, 1700-1865 and would have brought it along on my vacation, except my library only has it in electronic form. (I hate that.) I'm sure I'll find some answers there after I get back. Anything else I should think about, comment away.


John Modern said…
Susan Ryan's The Grammar of Good Intentions: Race and the Antebellum Culture of Violence (2005) is an incredible book
Paul Harvey said…
". . . except my library only has it in electronic form. (I hate that.)"


Great questions (and I want to read what you come up with!). I think the issues you raise about the terminology of "benevolence" is actually a really great opportunity. As you say, there needs to some clarity between using the term as a value judgment (if we call this reform work "benevolent" it was good, which opens you up to the problem of arguing about whether or not it was actually good work) and using it as a historical descriptive term (referring to a range of reforms that understood themselves to be doing good). This is fascinating and opens up the space for a real engagement with 19th century understandings of what "doing good" would look like--including what this meant for understandings of race, class, gender, and religious difference. That seems like essential work. I second the Ryan recommendation above, and Nancy Hewitt's classic Women's Activism and Social Change is also really great at figuring out how to talk about the differences between the benevolence folks and other reform groups (which gets at some of your questions about empire terminology and the false sense of cohesion that it suggests). And (please forgive the self-promotion) I've been working on some of these questions in relation to the ABCFM in my book Christian Imperialism: Converting the World in the Early American Republic, which is out next week and might be helpful on the use of "empire" here.
Laverne Smith said…
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Carol Faulkner said…
Ditto what Emily said. I love Robert Abzug's Cosmos Crumbling about the dissolving of the worldview that held these institutions, and the churches they represented, together. Kyle Volk's Moral Minorities might also be helpful to see how different groups challenged this attempt at both benevolence and empire. I lean toward the complexity/failure approach!
Jonathan said…
Sorry for the delay. With the beginning of the semester, I'm behind on everything.

First, I would observe that when these advocates are talking about benevolence, it should be seen through the theological lens, as love for God (in Edwards's formulation, benevolence to Being in General). Hence, they're not just thinking they are doing good but expressing love of God, primarily.

Second, to follow Emily's self-promotion, I think Elias Boudinot is an important figure to work into the story, for understanding both goals and strategies. Not surprisingly, he has a significant chapter in _Patriotism and Piety: Federalist Politics and Religious Struggle in the New American Nation.