A Southern Nation of Speechifiers: Heyrman and Eastman in Conversation

University of Chicago Press

Christine Leigh Heyrman’s Southern Cross makes a wonderful companion piece to Caroline Eastman’s A Nation of Speechifiers. More precisely, Heyrman preemptively corrects a historical oversight in Eastman’s much more recent work. Both authors are concerned with identifying the relationships of nonelites to structures of power in the early national period. Both argue that the changes which took place after the turn of the century were not the rosy picture of democratization which has been the academic orthodoxy for politics, society, and religion for some time. Both excellently demonstrate their cases. Yet, while Heyrman treats her subject comprehensively within her limits, Eastman claims a broader scope than she is ultimately able to encompass.

In Nation of Speechifiers, Eastman argues that far from a great triumph of democratization that once dominated thinking on Jacksonian politics or even the perpetual repression of nonelites that has dominated some feminist and minority histories, the period immediately after the Revolution was one of profound cultural negotiation in which nonelites were able to seize access to public participation in limited but meaningful ways. She looks at politics, education, voluntary associations, trade organizations, publishing, and professional oratory to see the ways that women, children, and racial minorities had a public voice prior to 1810. After that, however, culture shifted as the nation solidified. A war won, a peaceful party transition, and a new vision of suffrage for white men all functioned to close the previously permeable borders of public participation and exclude nonelites.

Yet Eastman glaringly omits religion as an arena in which women, children, and racial minorities had a public voice, a curious oversight particularly in view of Eastman’s stress on oratory as a means of public power. The omission might have made a good avenue for further research had not Heyrman perfectly tackled the question more than a decade earlier. Heyrman takes the same period Eastman considers, treats the same nonelites that Eastman does, but focuses narrowly on religion in the South. The conclusions she draws are largely the same. A newly formed (at least in the South) evangelicalism is initially open to the public voice and at least informal authority of women, children, and racial minorities. After the turn of the century, however, Heyrman exhaustively and convincingly traces the restriction of power into the hands of older white males. She concludes, much as Eastman does, by attacking facile notions of democratization by asking the question democratization for whom.

Eastman’s omission of religion—and of the South and transmontane America almost in their entirety—clearly could have been corrected by reading Heyrman, and the failure to do so borders on inexcusable. Yet readers of Heyrman can benefit from consulting Eastman as well. Heyrman explains the changes in evangelicalism largely as evangelistic necessities. “To put the matter bluntly, evangelicals could not rest content with a religion that was the faith of women, children, and slaves” (193). Growth required appeasing and then appealing to white men, in whose hands all temporal power rested. Eastman suggests there is something more at work in the culture at large here. Eastman’s exclusion of the South from her study may throw this observation into doubt for the arena of Heryman’s work, but nevertheless the question must be raised whether or not evangelistic necessity adequately explains the need for a more male-oriented, “traditional” religious structure. Even if it does, do the broader cultural changes charted by Eastman explain what is driving this evangelistic need? In Heyrman, essentially, evangelicals hit a glass ceiling above which a movement of women could no longer ascend. The time of the early nineteenth century as the period of change is incidental; it is just when the need for change outweighed the inertia of convention. Eastman’s work suggests there is something more happening in the period.

Both books are supremely readable, and Heyrman in particular has a literary flourish rarely seen among historians. Though my interests and preferences tend toward Heyrman’s work, I confidently recommend either for general reading. Eastman’s more theoretical framework may scare off non-academics, but anyone who has even a hobbyists interest in the period will be more than amply rewarded by putting in the effort to understand her argument. Together, these two works give a picture of early national American democracy that will challenge the narrative taught in most colleges not to long ago and still, consequently, taught in most grade schools.

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