|image from Rolling Stone|
"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.