"The Vision of Principles"
This dissertation analyzes the way in which antebellum writers participated in and helped shape the tradition of political liberalism. Emphasizing the dynamics of moral deliberation that are central to democratic life, "The Vision of Principles" puts US literature into conversation with moral and political philosophers not routinely encountered in Americanist literary scholarship to reveal how antebellum US writers routinely responded to moments of profound political conflict by interrogating the nature of moral belief itself. By ranging not only between literature, history, and philosophy, but also across literary forms, from gothic, picaresque, and sentimental novels to slave narratives, essays, and political oratory, this dissertation argues that amidst such textual diversity, we nevertheless find a consistent preoccupation with the individual endeavor for perspective-for vision-into the realm of moral value and moral ideas. It traces that concern as writers responded to three important moments of political conflict in the antebellum era: the debates over the ratification of the Constitution, the "nullification" controversy of the 1830s, and the fallout over the "compromise" of 1850. In doing so, it reconsiders the emergence of American Romanticism and argues that the "inward" turn of U.S. literature towards the self during this era was not an evasion of political life, but an imaginative examination of how individuals come to understand the moral ideas and principles at the heart of political existence.