Michael Monescalchi, Rutgers University
Barra Dissertation Fellow
“A Disinterested Republic: Reform and New Divinity Theology in Early America”
I am a doctoral candidate in the English Department at Rutgers University, specializing in early American literature and religious history, African American literature and the history of slavery, and American women writers. Portions of my dissertation have been published or are forthcoming in Early American Literature and Common-place.
In “A Disinterested Republic: Reform and New Divinity Theology in Early America,” I offer an evangelical—as opposed to a typically civic republican—history of disinterestedness and consider the term’s importance for early American reform writings, especially those that critique slavery and promote urban poverty relief projects. Far from the modern conception of disinterestedness as an apathetic or indifferent stance, early Americans considered a disinterested person to be someone who was both charitable and devoted to God. In contrast to civic republicans, who believed that only white men are capable of exhibiting disinterested behavior, evangelicals argued that all persons can inhabit a disinterested persona after they have undergone a conversion experience and aligned their will with God’s. Marginalized Americans, such as women and African Americans, found this evangelical conception of disinterestedness to be particularly useful in the crafting of their reform philosophies, for in presenting themselves as disinterested subjects who cared for others’ interests more than their own they were able to critique unjust institutions like slavery without having to allude to their own pained conditions. In a similar fashion, white reform-minded writers and ministers who desired to alleviate marginalized persons’ suffering frequently depicted such persons as devout, disinterested subjects who are deserving of charity because of their ability to exhibit benevolence, despite having limited resources, to those who are most in need of it. By turning to the conversion narratives and spiritual biographies about, as well as to the poetry, fiction, sermons, and letters written by marginalized Americans in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, I argue for the persistence of this alternative, evangelical conception of disinterestedness to the early American moral imagination.