Michael Meranze, Laboratories of Virtue: Punishment, Revolution, and Authority in Philadelphia, 1760-1835. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996. Pp. xii, 338. $45.00.
In 1833, Alexis de Tocquevile and Gustave de Beaumont published the results of their inquiry into the workings of the prisons they had visited during their nine-month ramble through America. On the Penitentiary System in the United States, as the book was called in English, shared little in common with the most famous account of this journey published a few years later, Tocqueville's Democracy in America. While the latter is leavened with aphorisms that continue to engage historians, pundits, and political theorists, the prison report is decidedly heavy fare. It begins with a grim description of contemporary France, besieged by "two millions of paupers, and forty thousand liberated convicts," and proceeds to offer a detailed comparison of the penal institutions founded in the northern United States in the early decades of the nineteenth century. But buried in the discussion of operating costs and recidivism rates is an epigram that still gives pause. The two young Frenchmen remarked that "while society in the United States gives the example of the most extended liberty, the prisons of the same country offer the spectacle of the most complete despotism."
As the legitimacy of penal incarceration faded in the 1960s, historians began to wrestle with the puzzle first posed by Tocqueville and Beaumont. A decade later, a remarkable literature attempted to explain how it was possible that the penitentiary, with its uniformed prisoners and heavily surveillanced cells, first emerged in societies undergoing the protracted transition to democratic politics, free labor, and the market economy. These studies, with varying emphases, concluded that the invention of the penitentiary in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was no paradox but was instead inextricably intertwined with the emergence of liberal society. According to David Rothman, reformers in Jacksonian America turned to the penitentiary in the nostalgic hope that it could instill self-discipline in criminals who were products of the disordered families and communities of an overly mobile society. Michael Ignatieff argued that the factory-like rules and routines of the English penitentiary defined "the moral boundaries of social authority in a society undergoing capitalist transformation." Most influential of all, Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish proposed that the control of time, space, and bodies epitomized by penal incarceration was a distinctly modern technology of power that constituted the "dark side" of bourgeois liberalism.
Michael Meranze's elegantly written and incisively argued Laboratories of Virtue reexamines the fusion of liberty and compulsion that attended the birth of the penitentiary." In the decades after the American Revolution, the members of Philadelphia's humanitarian coteries became convinced that only imprisonment could rehabilitate criminals and secure public order. Their efforts to create a perfectly regulated prison culminated in 1823 with the founding of the Eastern State Penitentiary, a massive institution on the edge of the city where inmates labored in solitary confinement, insulated from the moral contagion of both their fellow prisoners and the outside world. Meranze argues that liberal ideology pervaded the discourse of criminality and the modes of rehabilitation embraced by Philadelphia reformers. Liberalism posited a distinction between the self-possessed individual and society, leading penal crusaders to locate the roots of vice in the character of the offender rather than in the social conditions of their city. Moreover, the penal reformers' commitment to the liberal vision of a society with minimal constraints on individual action blinded them to the intensely corporal nature of their carceral strategies. Insisting that their target was the soul of the criminal, humanitarians often ignored the violence undergirding penal authority and claimed that physical punishments were reserved only for those who resisted their ministrations.
Michael J. Millender,
The Road to Eastern State: Liberalism, the Public Sphere, and the Origins of the American Penitentiary,
Yale J.L. & Human.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/yjlh/vol10/iss1/5