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
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.