The Body Politic: Health, Disease, and Political Imagination in the Antebellum United States

AHA Session 273
Sunday, January 7, 2018: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
Columbia 10 (Washington Hilton, Terrace Level)
Joyce E. Chaplin, Harvard University
Sari Altschuler, Northeastern University

Session Abstract

In antebellum America, notions of health and illness transcended the body to include the well-being of the nation itself. During the early-nineteenth century, profound changes sent shockwaves through American society: people moved in mass migrations both into cities and out West; an accelerating marketplace swept ever-more Americans into a capitalist economy and new labor relationships; religious revivals drew thousands into the folds of the faithful; and fundamental questions about slavery, expansion, and economic development roiled the political sphere. For many Americans, these changes were first and foremost embodied experiences. Moving, working, praying—these begin as bodily practices. As such, they provoked introspection about the roles of health and disease in shaping the future of republic. This panel therefore combines medical and political history to explore how thinking about bodily health shaped dreams of the new American nation.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, imperial westward expansion promised to secure the future health and prosperity of the young nation. If the waters of the Mississippi were the lifeblood of this enterprise, the right of deposit at New Orleans was its heart. In his paper, Paul Warden explores the role of yellow fever in the imagination and development of an American New Orleans. For Thomas Jefferson, the affliction proved to be the litmus test of his republican vision for the city, as the healthfulness of its people and environs raised questions about the nature of republican national development: would New Orleans become the salubrious crown jewel of an agrarian republic, or another den of pestilence in an increasingly industrial nation?

Further north, during the 1830s and 1840s, utopian visionaries built communities predicated on novel political economic arrangements. Rejecting existing social structures, these experiments heralded a new, more harmonious nation. Undergirding these dreams were abstemious diets, intentional rhythms of labor, and distinct healing practices. To understand these connections, Kathryn Falvo explores the politics of food at the Massachusetts utopian community Fruitlands, demonstrating how veganism supported an early articulation of anarchism. In discussing bodily and communal health more broadly, Falvo contends that the politics of health affected the lives and labor of women and enslaved people as much as white men with electoral political power.

Popular health reform movements also swept across New England and the Mid-Atlantic during this period. Reformed bodily regimens promised to facilitate spiritual sanctification and served to gird young people for the brave new world of cities and marketplace economies, thereby guaranteeing the health of the nation. Jonathan Riddle examines the connections between physiology and republican political thought, whereby northerners believed that bodily health laid the foundation for healthy, virtuous republics. Tracing this dynamic forward, he argues that when health reformers started seeking health for its own sake, they helped to fracture this republican vision and hasten a liberal nation of individuals.

People embodied and experienced the major changes outlined in American history books. To understand the development American political thought, therefore, we must attend to Americans’ concerns with the body and the ever-present realities of health and illness.

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