From Embodied Republicanism to Empowered Bodies: Physiology and Political Thought in the Antebellum North

Sunday, January 7, 2018: 9:40 AM
Columbia 10 (Washington Hilton)
Jonathan D. Riddle, University of Notre Dame
Discourses of bodily health played a central role in the political thought of the antebellum north. In the early nineteenth century, the dominant republican political paradigm held that free republics required virtuous citizenries in order to survive and to thrive. Such virtue was thought to be all the more important in the nascent United States, given the broad freedoms Americans—in reality, white men—enjoyed. To cultivate civic virtue and avoid vice, therefore, many northern Americans turned to evangelical religion, voluntary societies, and reform. The study and popularization of physiology was at the heart of this endeavor. Antebellum health reformers and physicians argued that social vices were rooted in bodily sins, such as intemperance, poor diet, and sexual excess. Yet these vices could be remedied by studying physiology and adhering to the proper principles of living that it illustrated. Thus, the health of the republic depended on the health of republicans’ bodies.

By focusing on bodily health, physiological reformers bypassed institutions like churches, schools, and voluntary societies and placed the burden of responsibility directly on individuals. Each person was responsible to maintain his or her own health in strict temperance and probity. While this certainly constituted a discourse of biopolitical discipline, health reformers also believed that physiology empowered people: with health and thereby with happiness and wealth. Through this optimistic focus on the individual, therefore, physiological reformers helped push republican political thought toward pro-market, liberal individualism. Bodily health was no longer a means by which to support the republic; now, it was an end in itself—part of living a happy, successful life.

My paper explores the role of physiology in antebellum northern political thought through the political writings and activities of physiological reformers and physicians, especially the popular lecturer Sylvester Graham.

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