In 1830, in the midst of the Second Great Awakening, an addled carpenter in Albany, NY determined that he was truly the wandering Jewish prophet Matthias. Taking advantage of the spiritual swirl of the times, he got several New York businessmen to join his "kingdom", which he established on one of their estates in Sing Sing. Members of the patriarchal kingdom followed his word absolutely until sexual scandal and charges of murder and fraud tore the place apart. The subsequent trial of Matthias became one of the first big stories for the emergent penny press, but he was eventually cleared of all of the serious charges. Wilentz and Johnson take this extremely minor, albeit colorful, episode from the American past and try to spin out grand theories from it concerning things like the social displacement caused by industrialization, the changing roles of women, religion in general, and so on. But ultimately, the story is really only interesting for its most colorful aspects and for the frisson of recognition it provides as we see parallels to modern equivalents like David Koresh and Jim Jones.
Oh, and there's one other parallel that the authors could not have imagined when they wrote the book-- the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. You see, Wilentz, if memory serves (see article), was one of the driving forces behind the Potemkin petition signed by "400 Historians!" averring that the Founding Fathers never intended impeachment to apply to crimes like obstruction of justice, perjury, and the like so long as they pertained to the President's private sexual behavior. How delicious are the ironies of life. These smug little liberal elitist profs set out to write a book about how the poor confused hoi polloi of the last century were sucked into the scams of charismatic but fraudulent religious hucksters who preyed on their need for reassurance in a tumultuous time. As it turns out, a hundred years from now when historians write about the huckster in the White House and his...
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