Society, Culture, and Reform, 1820 1860



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Society, Culture, and Reform, 1820 – 1860
We would have every path laid open to Woman as freely as to Man … As the friend of the Negro assumes that one man cannot by right hold another in bon-dage, so should the friend of Woman assume that Man cannot by right lay even well–meant restrictions on Woman. Margaret Fuller, 1845

XI. Society, Culture, and Reform, 1820 – 1860


Many of the significant reform movements in American history began during the Jacksonian era and in the following decades. The period before the Civil War is also known as the antebellum period. During this time, a diverse mix of reform-ers dedicated themselves to such causes as establishing free (tax–supported) pub-lic schools, improving the treatment of the mentally ill, controlling or abolishing the sale of liquors and beers, winning equal legal and political rights for women, and abolishing slavery. The enthusiasm for reform had many historic sources: the Puritan sense of mission, the Enlightenment belief in human goodness and perfectibility, the politics of Jacksonian democracy, and ethnic groups. Perhaps most important of all were the powerful religious motives behind the reformers’ zeal.
A. Religion: The Second Great Awakening Religious revivals swept through the United States during the early decades of the 19th century. They were partly a reaction against the rationalism (belief in human reason) that had been in fashion during the Enlightenment and the American Revolution. Calvinist (Puritan) teachings of original sin and predestination had been rejected by believers in more liberal and forgiving doctrines, such as those of the Unitarian Church.
Calvinism began a counterattack against these liberal views in the 1790s. The Second Great Awakening began among educated people such as Reverend Timothy Dwight, president of Yale College in Connecticut. Dwight’s campus revivals motivated a generation of young men to become evangelical preachers. However, in revivals of the early 1800s, successful preachers were audience – centered and easily understood by the uneducated; they offered the opportunity for salvation to all. These populist movements seemed attuned to the democrat-ization of American society.

1. Revivalism in New York In 1823, a Presbyterian minister named Charles G. Finney started a series of revivals in upstate New York, where many New Englanders had settled. Instead of delivering sermons based on rational argu-ment, Finney appealed to people’s emotions and fear of damnation and per-suaded thousands to publically declare their revived faith. He preached that all were free to be saved through faith and hard work—ideas that strongly ap-pealed to the rising middle class. Because of Finney’s influence, western New York became known as the “burned–over district” for its frequent “hell – brimstone” revivals.


2. Baptists and Methodists In the South and on the advancing western frontier, Baptist and Methodist circuit preachers, such as Peter Cartwright, would travel from one location to another and attracted thousands to hear their dra-matic preaching at outdoor revival, or camp meetings. They converted many of the unchurched into respectable members of the community. By 1850, the Baptists and the Methodists had become the largest Protestant denominations in the country.
3. Millennialism Much of the religious enthusiasm of the time was based on the widespread belief that the world was about to end with the second coming of Christ. The preacher William Miller gained tens of thousands of followers by predicting a specific date (October 21, 1844) when the second coming would occur. There were obvious disappointments when nothing happened on the appointed day, but Millerites would continue as a new religion, the Seventh–Day Adventists.
4. Mormons Another religious group, the Church of Latter–Day Saints, or Mormons, was founded by Joseph Smith in 1830. Smith based his religious thinking on a book of Scripture—the Book of Mormon—which traced a con-nection between the Native Americans and the lost tribe of Israel. Smith gathered a following and moved from New York State to Ohio, Missouri, and, finally Illinois. There, the Mormon founder was murdered by a local mob. To escape persecution, the Mormons under the leadership of Brigham Young migrated to the far western frontier, where they established the New Zion (as they called their religious community) on the banks of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Their cooperative social organization helped the Mormons to prosper in the wilderness. Their practice of polygamy (allowing a man to have more than one wife), however aroused the hostility of the U.S. govern-ment.
The Second Great Awakening, like the first, caused new divisions in society be-tween the newer, evangelical sects and the older Protestant churches. It affected all sections of the country. But it was only in the northern states from Massa-chusetts westward to Ohio that the Great Awakening played a significant role in social reform. Activist religious groups provided both the leadership and the well –organized voluntary societies that drove the reform movements of the ante-bellum era.
B. Culture: Ideas, the Arts, and Literature In Europe, during the early years of the 19th century, a romantic movement in art and literature stressed intuition and feelings, individual acts of heroism, and the study of nature. At the time, in the United States from 1820 to 1860, these romantic and idealistic themes were best expressed by the transcendentalists, a small group of New England writers and reformers.
1. The Transcendentalists Writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau questioned the doctrines of established churches and the capitalistic habits of the merchant class. They argued for a mystical and intuitive way of thinking as a means for discovering one’s inner self and looking for the essence of God in nature. Their views challenged the materialistic American society by suggesting the artistic expression was more important than the pursuit of wealth.
Although the transcendentalists were highly individualistic and viewed organ-ized institutions as unimportant, they supported a variety of reforms, especial-ly the antislavery movement.

a. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) The best – known transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, was among the most popular American lecturers of the 19th century. His essays and lectures expressed the individualistic mood of the period. In an 1837 address at Harvard College (“The Ameri-can Scholar”), Emerson evoked the nationalistic spirit of Americans by urging them not to imitate European culture but to create an entirely new and original American culture. His essays and poems argued for self–reli-ance, independent thinking, and the primacy of spiritual matter over ma-terial ones. As a northerner, Emerson, became a leading critic of slavery in the 1850s and then an ardent supporter of the Union during the Civil War.

b. Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) Living in the same town as Emerson (Concord, Mass.) was one of his close friends, Henry David Thoreau. To test his transcendentalist philosophy, Thoreau conducted a two–year ex-periment of living by himself in the woods outside town. There he used observations of nature to discover essential truths about life and the uni-verse. His writings from these years was published in the book for which he is best known, Walden (1854). Because of this book, Thoreau is re-membered today as pioneer ecologist and conservationist.
Though his essay “On Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau established himself as an early advocate of nonviolent protest. The essay presented Thoreau’s argument for not obeying unjust laws. The philosopher’s own act of civil disobedience was to refuse to pay a tax that might be used in an “immoral” war—the U.S. war with Mexico (1846–1848). For breaking the tax law, Thoreau was forced to spend one night in the Concord jail. In the next century, Thoreau’s essay and action would inspire the nonviolent movements of both Mohandas Gandhi in in India and Martin Luther King. Jr., in the United States.

c. Brook Farm Could a community of people live out the transcendentalist ideal? In 1841, George Ripley, a Protestant minister, launched a commun-al experiment at Brook Farm in Massachusetts. His goal was to achieve “a more natural union between intellectual and manual labor.” Living at Brook Farm at different times were some of the leading intellectuals of the period. Emerson went, as did Margaret Fuller, a feminist (advocate of wo-men’s rights) writer and editor; Theodor Parker, a theologian and radical reformer; and Nathaniel Hawthorne, the novelist. A bad fire and heavy debts forced the end of the experiment in 1849. But Brook Farm was re-membered for its atmosphere of artistic creativity and an innovative school that attracted the sons and daughters of New England’s intellectual elite.


2. Communal Experiments The idea of withdrawing from conventional society to create an ideal community, or utopia, in a fresh setting was not a new idea. But never before were the social experiments so numerous as during the middle decades of the 19th century. The open lands of the United States be-fore the Civil War proved fertile ground for over a hundred experimental communal effort and Brook Farm an example of a humanistic or secular ex-periment. Although many of the communities were shortlived, these “back-woods utopias” reflect the diversity of the reform ideas of the time.
a. Shakers One of the earliest religious communal movements, the Shakers had about 6,000 members in various communities by the 1840s. Shakers held property in common and kept men and women strictly separate (for-bidding marriage and sexual relations). For lack of new recruits, the Shaker communities virtually died out by the mid-1900s. The Amana set-tlements founded in Iowa by German Pietists were also dedicated to an ascetic life, but allowed for marriage, which helped to ensure the survival of their communities.

b. New Harmony The secular (nonreligious) experiment in New Harmony, Indiana, was the work of the Welsh industrialist and reformer Robert Owen. Owen hoped his utopian socialist community would provide an an-swer to the problems of inequality and alienation caused by the Industrial Revolution. The experiment failed, however, as a result of both financial problems and disagreements among members of the community.

c. Oneida community After undergoing a religious conversion, John Hum-phrey Noyes in 1848 started a cooperative community in Oneida, New York, that became highly controversial. Dedicated to an ideal of perfect social and economic equality, members of the community shared property—and later even shared marriage partners. Critics attacked the Oneida system of planned reproduction and communal child–rearing as a sinful experiment in “free love.” Even so, the community managed to prosper economically by producing and selling silverware of excellent quality.

d. Fourier Phalanxes In the 1840s, Many Americans, including the newspa-per editor, Horace Greeley, became interested in the theories of the French socialist Charles Fourier. To solve the problems of a fiercely competitive society, Fourier advocated that people share work and living arrangements in communities known as Fourier Phalanxes. This movement died out, however, almost as quickly as it appeared. Americans proved too individ-ualistic to adapt to communal living.

3. Arts and Literature The democratic and reforming impulses of the Age of Jackson expressed themselves in painting, architecture, and literature.
a. Painting Genre painting—portraying the everyday life of ordinary peo-ple—became the vogue of artists in the 1830s. George Caleb Bingham, for example, depicted the common people in various settings: riding river-boats, voting on election day, and carrying out domestic chores.


Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, c. 1845 notice the cat is tethered.

The County Election, said to depict an election in 1850, in Saline County, Missouri


William S. Mount won fame and popularity for his lively rural compositions.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Sidney_Mount it will not let me copy and post!

Both Thomas Cole and Frederick Church emphasized the heroic beauty of American landscapes, especially in uplifting dramatic scenes along the Hudson River in New York State and the western frontier wilderness. The Hudson River school, as it came to be known, expressed the romantic age’s fascination with the natural world.

Thomas Cole



View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow.

Home in the Woods, 1847


Frederick Church

Twilight in the Wilderness




Aurora Borealis, (1865)
b. Architecture Reflecting upon the democracy of ancient Athens, American architects adapted classical Greek styles during the Jacksonian era to glorify the democratic spirit of the republic. Columned facades like those of ancient Greek temples graced the entryways to public buildings, banks, hotels and even some private houses.

c. Literature In addition to the transcendentalist authors, other writers helped to create a literature that was distinctively American. Partly as a result of the War of 1812, the American people became more nationalistic and eager to read the works of American writers about American themes. Washington Irving, best known for his short stories "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle", both of which appear in his book The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent, and James Fenimore Cooper, for example wrote fiction using American settings. Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales were a series of novels written from 1824 to 1841, that in The Last of the Mohicans, The Pathfinder, and The Deerslayer, which glorified the frontiersman as nature’s nobleman. The Scarlet Letter (1850) and other novels by Nathaniel Haw-thorne questioned the intolerance and conformity in American life. Herman Melville’s innovative novel Moby–Dick (1855) reflected the theological and cultural conflicts of the era, as it told the story of Captain Ahab’s pursuit of the white whale.


C. Reforming Society Reform during the antebellum era went through several stages. At first, the leaders of reform hoped to improve people’s behavior through moral persuasion. After they tried sermons and pamphlets, however, reformers often moved on to political action and to ideas for creating new institutions to replace the old.

1. Temperance It is easy to understand, given the high rate of alcohol consump-tion (five gallons of hard liquor pre person in 1820), why reformers targeted alcohol as the cause of social ills, and why temperance became the most popu-lar of the reform movements.


The temperance movement was an excellent example of the shift from moral exhortation to political life. In 1826, Protestant ministers and others, con-cerned with the high rate of alcohol consumption and the effects of such ex-cessive drinking, founded the American Temperance Society. Using moral arguments, the society tried to persuade drinkers not just to moderate their drinking but to take a pledge of total abstinence. Another society, the Wash-ingtonians, was begun in 1840 by recovering alcoholics, who argued that alcoholism was a disease that needed practical, helpful treatment. By the 1840s, the various temperance societies had more than a million members, and it was becoming respectable in middle–class households to drink only cold water. Temperance had become a path to middle–class respectability.
German and Irish immigrants were largely opposed to the temperance re-formers’ campaign. But they did not have the political power to prevent state and city governments from siding with the reformers. Factory owners and politicians joined with the reformers when it became clear that temperance measures could reduce crime and poverty and increase workers’ output on the job. In 1851, the state of Maine went beyond earlier measures that had simply placed taxes on the sale of liquor. Maine became the first of 13 states to prohibit the manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquors before the Civil War. In the late 1850s, the issue of slavery came to overshadow the temper-ance movement. However, the movement would gain strength again in the late 1870s (with strong support from the Women’s Christian Temperance union) and achieve national success with the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919.

2. Movement for Public Asylums Humanitarian reformers of the 1820s and 1830s called attention to the increasing numbers of criminals, emotionally disturbed persons, and paupers. Often these people were forced to live in wretched conditions and were regularly either abused or neglected by their caretakers. To alleviate the lot of these unfortunates, reformers proposed setting up new public institutions—state–supported prisons, mental hospitals, and poorhouses. They hoped that the inmates of these institutions would be cured of their antisocial behavior as a result of being withdrawn from squalid surroundings and treated to a disciplined pattern of life in some rural setting.

a. Mental hospitals Dorothea Dix, a former schoolteacher from Massachu-sets, was horrified to find mentally ill prisons locked up with convicted criminals in unsanitary cells. She dedicated the rest of her adult life to improving conditions for emotionally disturbed persons. In the 1840s, her travels across the country and reports of awful treatment caused one state legislature after another to build new mental hospitals or improve existing institutions. As a result of Dix’s crusade, mental patients began receiving professional treatment at state expense.

b. Schools for blind and deaf persons Two other reformers founded special institutions to help people with physical disabilities. Thomas Gallaudet founded a school for the deaf, and Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe founded a school for the blind. By the 1850s, special schools modeled after the work of these reformers had been established in many states of the Union.

c. Prisons Taking the place of crude jails and lock – ups were new prisons erected in Pennsylvania. These penitentiaries, as they were called, experi-mented with the technique of placing prisoners in solitary confinement to force them high rate of prisoners suicides. These prison reformers reflect-ed a major doctrine of the asylum movement: structure and discipline would bring about moral reform. Another penal experiment, the Auburn system in New York, enforced rigid rules of discipline while also provid-ing moral instruction and work programs.

3. Public Education Another reform movement started in the Jacksonian era focused on the need for establishing free public school for children of all classes. Middle–class reformers were motivated in part by their fears for the future of the republic posed by growing numbers of the uneducated poor—both immigrant and native–born. Workers’ groups in the cities generally supported the reformers’ campaign for free (tax–supported) schools.


a. Free common schools Horace Mann (1796 – 1859) was the leading advocate of the common (public) school movement. As secretary of the newly founded Massachusetts Board of Education, Mann worked for improved schools, compulsory attendance for all children, a longer school year, and increased teacher preparation. In the 1840s, the movement for tax – supported schools spread rapidly to other states.

b. Moral education Besides the teaching of basic literacy, Mann and other educational reformers wanted children to be instructed in principle of morality. Toward this end, William Holmes McGuffey, a Pennsylvania teacher created a series of elementary textbooks that became widely accepted as the basis of reading and moral instruction in hundreds of schools. The McGuffey readers extolled the virtues of hard work, punctuality, and sobriety—the kind of behavior needed in an emerging industrial society.


Objecting to the evangelical Protestant tone of the public schools, Roman Catholic groups founded private schools for the instruction of Catholic and foreign–born children.

c. Higher education The religious enthusiasm of the Second Great Awaken-ing helped fuel the growth of private colleges. Beginning in the 1830s, various Protestant denominations founded small denominational colleges, especially in the newer western states (Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa). At the same time, several new colleges, including Mt. Holyoke College in Massa-chusetts (founded by Mary Lyon in 1837) and Oberlin in Ohio, began to admit women. Adult education was furthered by lyceum lecture societies which provided speakers like Ralph Waldo Emerson to small–town aud-iences.


4. The Changing American Family and Women’s Rights Movement American society was still overwhelmingly rural in the mid–19th century. Even so, the growing part of society that was urban and industrial underwent fundamental changes that would be felt for decades to come. In cities, as a result of office and factory jobs created by the Industrial Revolution, the roles of men and women, husbands and wives were redefined. Men left home to work for salaries or wages six days a week in the office or factory; middle–class wo-men typically remained at home to take charge of the household and children.
Industrialization also had the effect of reducing the economic value of children. In middle–class families, birth control was used to reduce average family size, which declined from 7.04 family members in 1800 to 5.42 in 1830. More affluent women now had the leisure time to devote to religious and moral uplift organizations. The New York Female Moral Reform Society, for example, worked to prevent impoverished young women form being forced into lives of prostitution.
a. Cult of domesticity The new definitions of men’s and women’s roles soon became an established norm in urban, middle–class households. Those holding this view of gender roles expected men to be responsible for economic and political affairs while women concentrated on the care of home and children. The idealized view of women as moral leaders in the home and educators of children has been labeled the cult of domesticity.

b. Origins of the women’s rights movement Women reformers, especially those involved in the antislavery movement, resented the way men relegat-ed them to secondary roles in the movement and prevented them taking part fully in policy discussions. Two sisters, Sarah and Angelina Grimke. Objected to male opposition to their antislavery activities. In protest, Sarah Grimke wrote her Letter on the Condition of Women and the Equality of the Sexes (1837). Another pair of reformers, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, began campaigning for women’s rights after they had been barred from speaking at an antislavery convention.

c. Seneca Falls Convention (1848) The leading feminists met at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. At the conclusion of their convention—the first women’s rights convention in American history—they issued a document closely modeled after the Declaration of Independence. Their “Declaration of Sentiments” declared that “all men and women are created equal” and listed women’s grievances against laws and customs that discriminated against them.
Following the Seneca Falls Convention, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony led the campaign for equal voting, legal, and property rights for women. In the 1850s, however, the issue of women’s rights was over-shadowed by the crisis over slavery.

5. Antislavery Movement Opposition of slavery ranged from moderates who proposed gradual abolition to radicals who urged immediate abolition and freeing of slaves without compensating their owners. The Second Great Awakening encouraged many northerners to view slavery as a sin. This view limited the possibilities for compromise and promoted radical abolitionism.


a. American Colonization Society The idea of transporting freed slaves to an African colony originated in 1817 with the founding of the American Col-onization Society. The idea appealed to anti–slavery reformers with mod-erate views, and especially to politicians, in part because large numbers of whites with racist attitudes hoped to remove, or banish, free blacks from U.S. society. In 1822, the American Colonization Society established an African–American settlement in Monrovia, Liberia. Colonization never proved a practical option, since between 1820 and 1860, the slave popula-tion grew from 1.5 to nearly 4 million, while only about 12,000 African Americans were settled in Africa during the same decades.

b. American Antislavery Society In 1831, William Lloyd Garrison began publication of an abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, an event that marks the beginning of the radical abolitionist movement. The uncompro-mising Garrison advocated immediate abolition of slavery in every state and territory without compensating the slave owners. In 1833, Garrison and other abolitionists founded the American Antislavery Society. Garri-son stepped up his attacks by condemning and burning the Constitution as a proslavery document. He argued for “no Union with slaveholders” until they repented for their sins by freeing their slaves.

c. Liberty party Garrison’s radicalism soon led to a split in the abolitionist movement. Believing that political action was a more practical route to re-form than Garrison’s moral crusade, a group of northerners formed the Lib-erty party in 1840. They ran James Birney a their candidate for president in 1840 and 1844. The party’s one campaign pledge was to bring about the end of slavery by political and legal means.

d. Black abolitionists Escaped slaves and free blacks were among the most outspoken and convincing critics of slavery. A former slave Frederick Douglass could speak about the brutality and degradation of slavery from firsthand experience. An early follower of Garrison, Douglass later advo-cated both political and direct action to end slavery and racial prejudice. In 1847, he started the antislavery journal The Northern Star. Other black leaders, such as Harriet Tubman, David Ruggles, Sojourner Truth, and William Still, helped organize the effort to assist fugitive slaves escape to free territory in the North or to Canada, where slavery was prohibited.

e. Violent abolitionists David Walker and Henry Highland Garnet were two northern blacks who advocated the most radical solution to the slavery question. They argued that slaves should take action themselves by rising up led a revolt against their “masters.” In 1831, a Virginia slave named Nat Turner led a revolt in which 55 whites were killed. In retaliation, whites killed hundreds of blacks in brutal fashion and managed to put down the revolt. Before this event, there had been some antislavery sentiment and discussion in the South. After the revolt, fear of future uprisings as well as Garrison’s inflamed rhetoric put an end to antislavery talk in the South.

6. Other Reforms Efforts to reform individuals and society were not limited to movements for temperance, asylums, free public education, women’s rights, and abolition of slavery. Other reforms of the antebellum era included:

a. The American Peace Society, founded in 1828 with the objective of abol-ishing war. It influenced some New England reformers to oppose the later Mexican War.

b. laws to protect seamen from being flogged.

c. dietary reforms (eating whole wheat bread and Sylvester Graham’s crack-ers) to promote good digestion.

d. dress reform for women (wearing Amelia Bloomer’s pantalettes instead of long skirts)



e. a new pseudoscience call phrenology (the study of the skull’s shape to access a person’s character and ability)
7. Southern Reaction to Reform The antebellum reform movement was large-ly a regional phenomenon. It succeeded at the state level in the northern and western states but had little impact on many areas in the South. White “mod-ernizers” worked to perfect society in the North, southerners were more com-mitted to tradition and slow to support public education and humanitarian re-forms. They were alarmed to see northern reformers join forces to support the antislavery movement. Increasingly, they viewed social reform as a northern conspiracy against the southern way of life.
Historical Perspective
In her history of antebellum reform, Freedom’s Ferment (1944), Alice Tyler portrayed the reformers as idealistic humanitarians whose chief goal was to create a just and equitable society for all. Other historians generally accepted Tyler’s interpretation.
In recent years, however, historians have questioned whether the reforms were truly motivated by humanitarian concerns. They view such reforms as tem-perance, asylums, and public education as attempts by the upper and middle classes to control the masses. Ac-cording to their argument, the temperance movement was designed to control the drinking of the poor and recent immi-grants. The chief purpose of penitentiaries was to control crime, of poor-houses to motivate the lower classes to pursue work, and of public schools to “Americanize” the immigrant population. Schools were supported by the wealthy, because they would teach the working class hard work, punctuality, and obedience. Revisionist historians also have discovered that most of the reformers were Whigs, not Jacksonian Democrats.
Some historians have argued that the reformers had multiple motivations for their work. They point out that, although some reasons for reform may have been self–serving and bigoted, most reformers sincerely thought that their ideas for improving society would truly help people. Dorothea Dix, for example, gave two reasons for increased spending for treatment of the mentally ill. Appealing to people’s self – interest, she said that the reform would save the public money in the long run. Appealing to their religious and social ideals, she also argued that the reform was humane and morally right. Historians point out further that the most successful reforms were ones that had broad support across society—often for a mix of reasons.


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