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336 pp., 61/8 x 91/4, 14 illus., 19 tables, appends., notes, bibl., index

$49.95 cloth
ISBN 0-8078-2697-9

$19.95 paper
ISBN 0-8078-5366-6

Published: Spring 2002

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Moral Reconstruction:
Christian Lobbyists and the Federal Legislation of Morality, 1865-1920

by Gaines M. Foster

Copyright (c) 2002 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.


In the late 1970s, Christian conservatives became a powerful force in American politics. They believed that the government had become hostile to religion and that Americans had lost their way in a secular society that denigrated religious belief and promoted sinful personal behavior—drug abuse, pornography, unrestrained sexuality, abortion. In response, organizations such as the Moral Majority and, later, the Christian Coalition, mobilized individual Christians and many churches in an attempt to establish a Christian nation and a moral social order, in part through legislating personal morality. Opponents condemned their calls for the government to promote morality as a violation of the separation of church and state and as an abridgment of individual freedom. The resulting debate prompted partisans as well as scholars to search for historical precedents. They found them in the opponents of Sunday mail and Indian removal, the abolitionists, the prohibitionists, the anti-Semitic Right of the 1930s, and perhaps most often, the civil rights movement. Except for brief references to the Woman's Christian Temperance Union or the Anti-Saloon League, neither partisans nor scholars explored the most intriguing parallel to the current campaign to legislate morality, a Christian lobby active in Washington between the Civil War and the adoption of Prohibition.[1]

The Christian lobby that formed in the late nineteenth century campaigned to expand the moral powers of the federal government and to establish the religious authority of the state. Some of the lobbyists believed the power of the government rested in God, but most sought only to force government to respect God's law and thereby prove itself worthy to exercise its powers. During the Civil War, the National Association to Amend the Constitution first lobbied to have an acknowledgment of God, Christ, and the authority of the Bible incorporated into the preamble to the Constitution. That crusade for what came to be called the Christian amendment continued after the war, because its proponents believed the nation owed allegiance to God. But they also thought the amendment would demonstrate the religious authority of the state and provide an unassailable constitutional basis for the federal legislation of morality.[2]

The legislation of personal morality remained the primary goal of the reformers who made up the Christian lobby. Anthony Comstock lobbied for tougher federal laws against obscenity, birth control, and abortion in the early 1870s. Soon thereafter, his friend Joseph Cook, a Boston-based minister who earned his living on the lecture circuit, campaigned for laws against polygamy, Sabbath breaking, and other behavior he considered sinful. Henry Blair, a Republican senator from New Hampshire, first introduced a prohibition amendment in Congress in the 1870s and worked for a broad array of moral legislation, even after he left Congress. Blair became an ally and friend of Frances Willard, who, along with Comstock, was perhaps the best known of the Christian lobbyists. Far less well-known but important nonetheless was Wilbur J. Crafts, who founded the International Reform Bureau, proclaimed himself a Christian lobbyist, and opened an office on Capitol Hill in 1895.

By that time, Comstock, Cook, Willard, Crafts, and others had helped form a loose alliance, a Christian lobby, that operated in Washington but whose power rested in a group of organizations that mobilized Christians and churches across the nation. The National Association to Amend the Constitution changed its name to the National Reform Association and promoted not just the Christian amendment but a broad array of moral legislation. Crafts's Reform Bureau advocated a similar agenda. The National Temperance Society, as its name indicated, sought only to restrict the sale of alcohol. By far the largest and most influential of the early organizations within the Christian lobby was the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, which generated much of the public pressure on Congress to pass not just prohibition but other types of moral legislation. Several of the WCTU's leaders, including Willard, Ada Bittenbender, and Margaret Dye Ellis, lobbied on Capitol Hill. In the early twentieth century, even as the Reform Bureau and the WCTU continued their efforts, a new single-issue organization, the American Anti-Saloon League, and its chief lobbyists, Edwin Dinwiddie and James Cannon Jr., became very influential in congressional debates leading to the adoption of prohibition.

Like members of the Anti-Saloon League, most of the Christian lobbyists defined morality primarily in terms of righteousness or virtue, not justice. The laws they advocated did not seek to create a more equal society, to reorganize the economic order, or to foster similar types of societal change, although a few individuals within the Christian lobby at times advocated such reforms. Most of them and the alliance as a whole sought only to use the law to create a social environment that promoted biblical standards of personal behavior. In effect, they preached a social gospel centered on shaping individual behavior. Working at the local, state, and federal level, they sought laws to control drinking, obscenity, polygamy, divorce, Sabbath observance, gambling, smoking, prizefighting, prostitution, and sex with underage girls.[3]

* * *

Historians have not ignored post@-Civil War moral reform. Every cause that the Christian lobby championed has been studied, in some cases by several scholars. The first of these studies dismissed the temperance and similar movements as backward-looking, sometimes irrational attempts to maintain an older way of life or the reformers' own status. Aspects of such an interpretation persist, but recent accounts more often acknowledge that reformers sought to solve real problems and adopted very modern methods in attacking them. Moral Reconstruction does not seek to confront these many, able studies of postbellum reform. Rather it seeks to build upon them by establishing the personal and organizational connections among postbellum moral reformers, by explicating their shared beliefs and concerns, by recounting their combined lobbying efforts in Congress, and finally by analyzing the resulting debates there in order to understand the national government's changing role in imposing morality.[4]

The Civil War helped spur a new interest in using the federal government to regulate morality. The Christian lobbyists, many of whom came of age in the crucible of the war and Reconstruction, believed, probably correctly, that the disruptions of the war and the freedom that soldiers had enjoyed in the army had led to an increase in drinking and other behaviors thought to be immoral. At the same time, the lobbyists, like the northern intellectuals and clergy historian George Fredrickson has written about, developed a strong sense of nationalism and a new faith in coercion and federal power to restrain immorality. The lobbyists thought that in the Thirteenth Amendment they had found a powerful precedent. If the federal government could abolish the sin of slavery, they claimed, it could also outlaw other forms of immorality. Although historians have pointed to a continuity between abolition and postwar moral reform, the Christian lobbyists' ties to abolition were hardly so direct. Few of these lobbyists actually embraced the abolitionists' goal of expanding human freedom; instead they exploited what might best be called an antislavery precedent to outlaw sin, not to promote justice or equality.[5]

Although efforts to secure federal legislation began almost as soon as the Civil War ended, the lobbyists consolidated and expanded their efforts in the 1880s and then achieved their greatest success after the turn of the century. During those years, the United States experienced the expansion of industrialization, the emergence of a national business system, the beginnings of a commercial culture, a growth in the number and size of cities, and an influx of immigrants with new customs. The Christian lobbyists believed these changes contributed to a dramatic rise in drinking, gambling, prostitution, divorce, and other sins. Demonstrating whether or not their fears were real is beyond the scope of this study. Several scholars, though, have contended that various forms of public immorality did increase. More important to understanding the efforts of the Christian lobby is the distinctive way in which the Christian lobbyists conceived of the problem, an understanding that shaped the legislation they advocated and Congress eventually passed. The Christian lobbyists attributed increasing immorality not directly to social changes but to individual failings. They blamed appetite, by which they meant the individual's desire for various forms of sensual pleasure, exacerbated by avarice, the greed for gold that drove commercial vice.[6]

The Christian lobbyists sometimes singled out immigrants and workers for special concern, which suggests that class interests helped fuel their fears, a factor historians have frequently cited in explaining postbellum moral reform. Several scholars portray reformers as members of the middle class who used standards of moral behavior to define themselves in opposition to both the upper and the working classes. Others add that middle-class activists sought social control, envisioning their reforms as a means to make the lower orders behave as the middle class thought they should. Most of the Christian lobbyists were middle class, and they certainly thought workers, immigrants, and the newly freed slaves were especially susceptible to the temptations that the new society brought and sought to save them from themselves. But too much stress on class bias obscures the fact that the lobbyists also condemned the behavior of the elite and worried endlessly about the fate of "our boys," young middle-class males whom they also felt faced new, powerful forms of temptation in postwar society. To protect them as well as to reform the lower orders and the elite, the Christian lobby advocated laws to control everyone's behavior.[7]

Rather than class, other historians have emphasized gender in explaining postbellum moral reform. Women, several scholars have argued, sought empowerment through reform activities. The efforts of women in lobbying Congress and mobilizing the churches were even more important to the passage of moral legislation than most scholars have acknowledged. Their gender obviously influenced their reform activities; the female culture of the WCTU, for example, helped inspire and sustain many of them. In addition, as Paula C. Baker has argued, their subordinate status encouraged women to perceive government as a potential source of protection from dangerous males; females therefore more readily advocated an expansion of government's functions. However, like class, gender does not fully explain the motives of the Christian lobbyists. Women in the Christian lobby always worked easily with men, and the men sought women's help, because both shared a moral reform agenda and a deep Christian faith. In the final analysis, their Christian faith and its proscriptions about personal behavior proved more important in leading many women to support moral legislation than did the goal of expanding their role, just as the promotion of Christian values proved more vital than the preservation of class privilege.[8]

Although the Christian lobbyists acted from traditional Christian values and feared the society emerging about them, they still adopted modern methods of reform. As some scholars have pointed out, they created bureaucratic organizations, with broad, national, grassroots support. The Christian lobbyists also pioneered the development of a new form of political activity, interest-group politics, in which popularly based organizations exerted pressure on Congress outside of the party structure. Even the WCTU, which endorsed the Prohibition Party, adopted a nonpartisan approach when lobbying Congress for moral legislation.[9]

Because of its modern organization, its use of interest-group politics, and its attacks on big business, K. Austin Kerr treats the American Anti-Saloon League as part of the Progressive movement. Paul Boyer, as well, includes Prohibition and other plans to regulate morality among Progressive reforms, terming them the coercive environmental approach within the larger movement. The lobbyists did have much in common with the Progressives. Evangelical Protestantism influenced both, and both sought to impose morality. Many Progressives supported Prohibition and other of the Christian lobbyists' legislation. Nevertheless, the lobbyists should not be subsumed under the rubric of Progressive reform. Their efforts began long before the emergence of Progressivism in 1890s. The lobbyists first embraced national legislative solutions as early as the 1860s and 1870s and formed their alliance in the late 1880s. More important, they never shared the Progressives' interest in expanding democracy, increasing efficiency, or limiting the power of monopolies. When the Christian lobbyists attacked business, they articulated their criticism in the language of individual sin—avarice—and never campaigned for structural economic changes.[10]

The Christian lobby, however, did seek fundamental changes in the nation's moral polity, the system through which American society sought to maintain a virtuous population. The founders of the United States deemed moral citizens essential to the perpetuation of the republic, yet they created a secular national government that lacked any power to regulate morality. Ensuring a virtuous population became primarily the responsibility of the churches and reform groups that relied not on coercion but on moral suasion. Some states did regulate various forms of personal morality, but only on very rare occasions before the Civil War did Congress pass moral legislation.[11]

That changed after the war because the Christian lobby convinced the federal government to accept a far greater role in regulating moral behavior. The story of the lobby's campaigns in Congress and the subsequent debates over the bills they presented thus forms part of a larger story, that of the reconstruction of the American state in the years between the Civil War and World War I. Thomas R. Pegram makes the case that Prohibition was part of the expansion of the state, and Morton Keller shows how various campaigns to regulate moral behavior helped expand governmental power. Keller's important work, in fact, describes the old polity much as it is here. Most scholars, however, have focused on the role of liberals and economic regulation in expanding the size and functions of government, not moral reform. Giving appropriate attention to the role played by conservative Christians adds complexity to the historical narrative of the creation of the twentieth-century state.[12]

In the case of the moral polity, it is not a story of a total transformation. Older traditions of personal liberty, moral suasion, and states' rights persisted, and Congress rejected much of the Christian lobbyists' agenda. Members of Congress had no intention of creating a "Christian government"; they steadfastly refused to acknowledge Christ in the Constitution or even enact substantial Sunday laws, which involved a tacit acknowledgment of the government's responsibility to God. Congress also blocked the lobbyists' repeated attempts to pass constitutional amendments granting the federal government power over marriage and divorce, gambling, and other forms of behavior. Yet, often at the behest of the Christian lobbyists, Congress did substantially expand the moral powers of the federal government. It forced an end to polygamy in Utah. It banned obscenity, information on birth control and abortion, lottery materials, and prizefight films from the mails and interstate commerce. It enacted less sweeping laws to restrict divorce, prostitution, and under-age sex. And, in the crowning achievement of moral reconstruction, Congress passed and sent to the states for ratification a constitutional amendment that banned the manufacture and sale of alcohol throughout the nation.

The adoption of Prohibition, like many of the lobbyists' victories, rested in part on the votes of southern congressmen. Elizabeth Sanders has made a strong case for the important role southerners played in the expansion of the national government after the Civil War, but most historians have emphasized instead the region's continued advocacy of states' rights. Before the Civil War, white southerners had opposed federal moral legislation, fearing it would establish a precedent that could be turned against slavery. When emancipation eliminated their need to defend slavery, and when the politics of race replaced those of slavery, southern attitudes began to change. By the early twentieth century, secure in the racial repression they had imposed on the region, white southerners provided crucial votes and leadership in national legislative campaigns to impose morality. The white South's support for moral laws helped earn it a reputation as the Bible Belt, an appellation nineteenth-century northerners would hardly have applied to a region they believed tainted by the sin of slavery. Many late-twentieth-century southerners assume that the South had supported moral legislation all along but would be surprised to learn that it advocated the use of federal power.[13]

Moral Reconstruction, then, is in part the story of the Reconstruction that followed the Civil War. Emancipation began the process that led to the white South's support for federal moral legislation and provided a powerful precedent for outlawing immoral behavior. But it is more the story of the reconstruction of the antebellum moral polity and, in the process, the reconstruction of the American state.[14]

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