Kyle Volk is Associate Professor of American History at the University of Montana. This interview is based on his new book, Moral Minorities and the Making of American Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2014).
JF: What led you to write Moral Minorities and the Making of American Democracy?
KV: I’ve been interested in the place of religious and moral questions in American politics for quite some time. This general curiosity drove Moral Minorities, but more concretely, this book grew out of research. With early questions about church-state relations, I explored the history of Sunday laws (aka. Sabbath legislation or what many call “blue laws”) and discovered a flood of debates over them in the mid-nineteenth century. I was struck by how evangelical reformers turned to “majority rule” to defend Sunday laws and how Jews, Seventh Day Baptists, German immigrants, and others disparaged them as prime examples of majority tyranny and democratic despotism. I was somewhat surprised to find that dissenters organized and challenged Sunday laws in public and in court with arguments about minority rights. I had been reading Alexis de Tocqueville, John Calhoun, and John Stuart Mill and their thoughts on democracy and majority tyranny. My research led me to consider that it wasn’t just intellectuals and slaveholders who were concerned about minority rights in the mid-nineteenth century. Ordinary folks, it seemed, were ruminating about majoritarian democracy and developing ways to defend themselves as minorities. I found this proposition fascinating, and it didn’t fit with what I knew about nineteenth-century political life. So I set out to write a book that examined how a range of nineteenth-century Americans sought to protect minority rights. After researching many issues, I discovered that two other major moral questions of the day—alcohol and racial equality—worked alongside Sunday laws to prompt widespread grassroots minority-rights activism and influential debates about majority rule and its limits.
KV: Moral Minorities argues that conflicts spurred by the rise of Protestant moral reform drove the emergence of America’s lasting tradition of popular minority-rights politics in the mid-nineteenth century. As officials heeded demands to regulate Sabbath observance, alcohol consumption, and interracial contact, a motley but powerful array of moral minorities—Jews, Seventh Day Baptists, black northerners, radical abolitionists, liquor dealers, German immigrants, and others—objected and reshaped American democracy by questioning the era’s faith in majority rule and pioneering lasting practices to defend civil rights and civil liberties.
JF: Why do we need to read Moral Minorities and the Making of American Democracy?
KV: I hope there are many reasons. For all readers, I hope Moral Minorities helps them contemplate the historical roots of phenomena that today seem to be almost natural parts of the political landscape. I show, for example, that moralized debates over gay rights, birth control, religion in schools, and racial prejudice are nothing new. Over 150 years ago, these types of issues burst on to the political scene and brought all sorts of people to take an active interest in public life. These issues and those who debated them—like they continue to do today—played essential roles in making the tension between majority rule and minority rights a hallmark of American democracy. For those interested in modern-day minority-rights activism—in how folks across the political spectrum organize to defend constitutional freedom and to achieve social justice—my book shows how this political tradition got started.
For historians, legal scholars, political scientists, and other academics, I hope Moral Minorities tackles some fundamental questions about the history of American political theory and practice. It explains, for example, how James Madison’s well-known concerns about majority rule became the concerns of a wide range of everyday Americans. Moral Minorities also offers a new perspective on the “golden age” of American democracy by detailing another foundational development beyond expanding voting rights and two-party politics—namely, the birth of grassroots minority-rights politics. More than a white man’s democracy worshiping at the altar of majority rule and party, I emphasize a public sphere energized by popular movements for moral reform and minority rights and by divisive questions of race, religion, and alcohol.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
JF: What is your next project?
KV: I have several projects in the works. But I’ve been teaching a course on alcohol in US history and have more to say about this topic than what appears in Moral Minorities. I expect to move in that direction and explore the place of alcohol in debates over the meaning of freedom in the long nineteenth century. I’m sure that moral issues and related questions of personal and popular liberty will long remain central to my research agenda.
JF: Sounds great! Thanks Kyle.
And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner