Protestant Moral Reformers and the Regulation of “Commercialized Vice” in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

The “right of citizens peaceably to assemble and deliberate upon the public and individual welfare,” a late nineteenth-century critic of the expanding regulatory power of the state asserted, is “recognized by the Massachusetts Bill of Rights, and guaranteed in the Federal and every State Constitution.” Consequently, this irate book and magazine entrepreneur viewed the state’s effort to monitor his business as a “foully assault” on “the Natural Right of citizens to acquire and impart knowledge.”  At the same time another group of entrepreneurs were also troubled by expanded government regulation of their business. One of them found it ironic that large scale stock market investors received “encouragement from the State” because they were reportedly carrying on business “conducive to public good,” but individuals running similar operations on “a small scale” faced “legal penalties.” The “average man,” he claimed, would soon discover the “lame inconsistency” of such “meddlers.”  A third set of entrepreneurs in the same era also protested the encroaching reach of the state over their business affairs. “I was a . . . merchant,” as one explained, “for the same basic reason others peddled pills, groceries, clothing, toys, [and] cars . . . to make money and acquire the better things of life.”

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