A Spiritual Awakening Inspires Reforms
Poverty, alcoholism, illiteracy, overcrowded housing, poor health care, abuse of women and declining moral values – these problems began to infect cities in the Northern states. Therefore, a powerful movement to reform American society took hold in the North.
The Second Great Awakening was a widespread religious movement. In revival meetings that lasted for days, people studied the Bible and listened to impassioned preaching. Many Americans joined churches because of the movement. As a result, church goers felt the pressure to save society from itself in order to save their own souls.
Unitarians were a religious group that appealed to reason instead of emotion. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a New England minister, writer and philosopher, founded transcendentalism. It was a philosophy that emphasized the interconnection between nature, human emotions, and the imagination. It taught that the process of spiritual discovery and insight would lead a person to truths more profound than he or she could have discovered through reason.
Enslaves African Americans also experienced the urge to reform. Many in the South heard the sermons and hymns as a promise of freedom. In the North, free African Americans formed their own churches. These churches became political, cultural and social centers for African Americans.
Slavery and Abolition
By the 1820s, many people began to speak out against slavery in a movement called abolition. The movement did not develop overnight, but over a long period of time. Even during colonial times, African Americans spoke out about their freedom with little success. At first, most antislavery activists, or abolitionists, favored a moderate approach. Moderates advocated a gradual transition to emancipation by not spreading slavery to new states.
However, as the abolition movement continued to grow, its demands became more radical. One extreme abolitionist was William Lloyd Garrison. In his newspaper, The Liberator, Garrison called for the immediate emancipation of slaves, or freeing of the slaves. Many people in both the North and South thought Garrison’s ideas were too extreme. Another important abolitionist was Frederick Douglass. Douglass was an escaped slave who had learned how to read and write. Garrison was impressed with Douglass and sponsored his speeches. Later Douglass broke with Garrison. Douglass believed slavery could be ended without violence. He published his own newspaper, The North Star. Southern states responded to the antislavery messages by banning all antislavery messages and made it illegal to teach slaves to read.
Despite the new restrictions, both white and African American abolitionists risked arrest to fight. Abolitionists created the Underground Railroad, a network of escape routes that provided protection and transportation for slaves fleeing north to freedom. The term railroad referred to the paths that African Americans traveled, on foot or in wagons, to Canada.
By 1830 there were two constants in the lives of slaves – hard work and oppression. Most slaves worked as field hands or house servants. Some slaves were manumitted or freed, but most lived lives filled with suffering. In 1831, a Virginia slave named Nat Turner led a violent rebellion. The rebels were captured and executed. The Turner rebellion frightened white Southerners. They made restrictions on slaves even tighter. Some Southerners also began to defend slavery as a good thing.
Women and Reform
Women were active in the 19th century reform movements. The women’s movement emerged out of the religious reforms and abolition movements of the early 1800s. Many women worked for abolition. Women also played key roles in the temperance movement, the effort to ban the drinking of alcohol.
Traditionally, women were expected to remain in the home. Middle class women were expected to raise and educate their children, entertain guests, serve their husbands, do community service and engage in in-home activities such as needlework and quilting. Lower class women were forced to take jobs in factories in order to help support their families. Men, however, were expected to engage in public activities such as politics, law, and public speaking. Most people, traditionally minded or not, would e shocked if women were to do any of these things.
Until 1820, American girls had little change for education. Some female reformers opened schools of higher learning for girls. In 1821, Emma Willard opened one of the nation’s first academically oriented schools for girls. In 1833, Oberlin College in Ohio became the first co-educational college in the nation.
Some women addressed the issue of women’s rights. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott had been abolitionists. After been shunned at an abolition conference in England by their male counterparts, they realized that the fight for freedom and equality in the abolition movement did not extend to women. In 1848, they organized a women’s rights convention. The Seneca Falls Convention, the first women’s rights convention in United States history, supported many reforms. The most controversial one was women’s suffrage, or the right to vote. The lasting impact of the Seneca Falls Convention was gradual. It did not trigger an avalanche of support for women’s rights. Most Americans still shared the traditional view that women should influence public affairs indirectly, through their work in the home. Yet the convention marked the beginning of the organized movement for women’s rights and for the women’s suffrage movement in the United States.
For the most part, African American women did not have a voice at the time. Sojourner Truth, however, made her voice heard. A former slave, Truth became famous for speaking out for both abolition and women’s rights.
Reform movements produced conflict not only in the North. They increased ill will between the North and the South as well. Southerners bitterly resented abolitionists’ efforts to prevent the spread of slavery and to shelter escaped slaves. They felt stung by the charge that slaveholders were immoral.
For southern churches, slavery presented a painful dilemma. As southern revivalists began claiming that the Bible supported slavery, their audiences began to grow. Catholic and Episcopal churches in the South, on their hand, were largely silent on the issue.
As the abolition movement intensified, it produced deep rifts between many church denominations. The action snapped the bonds that had unified northern and southern members for decades. Churches in the slaveholding states left the national organization of their churches. For example, in 1845, southern Methodists formed the Methodist Episcopal Church South, which endorsed slavery.
Reformers’ calls for public schools and equal rights for women further offended many white southerners. The southern men saw these “reforms” as suggestions that they did not properly care for their families. In the South, where personal honor was particularly important, such suggestions provoked offense and outrage.
Most of the South remained untouched by the social turmoil that came with urbanization and industrialization in the North. Southerners saw no need to reform their society. Clearly, the bonds that had united Americans were slipping. As emotions intensified, the North and the South found it increasingly difficult to resolve differences through negotiation and compromise.