Laboratories of Virtue

Punishment, Revolution, and Authority in Philadelphia, 1760-1835
Michael Meranze
Paperback price: $47.50
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Publisher: Omohundro Institute and University of North Carolina Press
Imprint: OIEAHC
Cloth/Hardcover Publication Date: 04/1996
Pages: 352
Paperback ISBN: 9780807856314
Paperback Publication Date: 04/1996
Ebook ISBN: 9780807838273


Michael Meranze uses Philadelphia as a case study to analyze the relationship between penal reform and liberalism in early America. In Laboratories of Virtue, he interprets the evolving system of criminal punishment as a microcosm of social tensions that characterized the early American republic. Engaging recent work on the history of punishment in England and continental Europe, Meranze traces criminal punishment from the late colonial system of publicly inflicted corporal penalties to the establishment of penitentiaries in the Jacksonian period. Throughout, he reveals a world of class difference and contested values in which those who did not fit the emerging bourgeois ethos were disciplined and eventually segregated.

By focusing attention on the system of public penal labor that developed in the 1780s, Meranze effectively links penal reform to the development of republican principles in the Revolutionary era. His study, richly informed by Foucaultian and Freudian theory, departs from recent scholarship that treats penal reform as a nostalgic effort to reestablish social stability. Instead, Meranze interprets the reform of punishment as a forward-looking project. He argues that the new disciplinary practices arose from the reformers’ struggle to contain or eliminate contradictions to their vision of an enlightened, liberal republic.

About The Author

Michael Meranze, associate professor of history at the University of California, San Diego, is editor of Benjamin Rush’s Essays: Literary, Moral, and Philosophical.


“An impressive achievement. It is thoroughly researched, brilliantly argued, and lucidly written.”–Law and History Review

Laboratories of Virtue is by far the most ambitious, sweeping, and powerful account yet rendered of early American reform movements as instruments of elite authority, class discipline, and social control.”–William and Mary Quarterly

“Meranze’s elegantly written and incisively argued Laboratories of Virtue reexamines the fusion of liberty and compulsion that attended the birth of the penitentiary. . . . [This book] deserves the widest readership.”–Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities

“A milestone. . . . For students of the rise of the American penitentiary, this book is essential reading.”–American Historical Review

“Meranze has made significant and valuable interventions in understanding the failure of penal practices as they evolved in Philadelphia.”–Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography

“Makes an important contribution to our understanding of crime and punishment in the early republic.”–Journal of American History

Laboratories of Virtue . . . draws selectively and critically on Foucault’s insights to shape a thoughtful and illuminating history of the penitentiary in Philadelphia, a major center of criminal reform in this period. Meranze is both an adept reader of cultural criticism and a skilled archival historian. . . . This is an important social and cultural history of the late colonial and early republican period, which deepens our understanding of the complex forces at work in the humanitarian revolution.”–Karen Halttunen, University of California at Davis

“In Michael Meranze’s formidable book, America’s ways of punishing become our guide to the successive reformulations of social order that accompanied the birth and early decades of the Republic. . . . Meranze’s arguments properly leave happy generalizations about ‘Eras of Good Feelings’ bobbing far in their wake. The history of punishment and criminal discipline in America has needed an extended work of this nature for some considerable time. . . . A most signal achievement.”–Christopher L. Tomlins, American Bar Foundation

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