Impulse for Reform

In the first half of the nineteenth century, politicians either ignored or avoided a number of social issues, including alcoholism, the quality of public education, slavery, and women's rights. Reformers, working as individuals and through organizations, were left to tackle these problems.

The temperance movement. By the early nineteenth century, the per capita consumption of hard liquor (whiskey, brandy, rum, and gin) had grown dramatically to more than five gallons a year. The high level of consumption was blamed for poverty: workingmen spent their wages on alcohol instead of rent or food and were frequently absent from their factory jobs. Alcohol abuse also contributed to the abuse of wives and children. In 1826, the American Temperance Society began a persistent campaign against the evils of drinking. Although focusing at first on persuading individuals to abstain, the advocates of temperance soon entered the political arena and sought laws to limit the sale and manufacture of alcohol. The movement caught on—particularly in New England but much less so in the South—and by the 1840s, national consumption had dropped to half of what it had been two decades earlier. The reformers were not satisfied, however, and they continued to press for a complete ban on the sale and use of all intoxicating liquor, an effort that culminated in the 1919 passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, ushering in the era of Prohibition.

Improving public education. The demand for free public education grew during the 1830s as the franchise expanded. Education was deemed important for creating an informed electorate. In addition, factory workers wanted their children to have more opportunities than they had had, and schooling was seen as a way to assimilate the children of immigrants through the inculcation of American values.

Already‐existing schools generally taught the “three Rs”—reading, writing, and arithmetic—to a room full of boys and girls whose ages might have run from three to eighteen. Reformers found that system inadequate for preparing students to succeed in a rapidly changing society. Massachusetts, as it had during the early colonial period, took the lead in promoting education. In 1827, the state passed a law that provided for the establishment of high schools and set guidelines for curricula based on community size. The legislation was strictly enforced after Horace Mann was appointed the first secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education in 1837. During his tenure, state funding for schools increased, new high schools were established, compulsory school attendance laws were passed, a specified school term (six months) was delineated, and structured curricula and teacher training were designed and implemented. Mann also called for “grade” schools that would use a placement system based on the age and skills of the students.

Massachusetts pioneered popular education in addition to public education. The state was the birthplace of the lyceum (1826), an organization that attracted large audiences for its public lectures on literature, art, and science. Many of the lyceums that were developed across the country during the 1830s and 1840s also had lending libraries with books for children as well as adults.

One of the results of the changes to education was an increase in women teachers. The first high school for girls was opened in New York in 1821, and Oberlin College was established as a coeducational institution in 1833. Mount Holyoke was founded as a women's college four years later. Educational reform was more successful in the North than in the South, where even white illiteracy was high. African Americans did not benefit from improvements in public education. Free blacks attended poor segregated schools, and slaves generally received no formal education at all. Notably, one institution of higher learning, again Oberlin College, admitted blacks as well as women.

The abolitionist movement. Congress considered slavery so controversial that in 1836, the House of Representatives, largely at the insistence of southerners, passed a gag rule prohibiting discussion or debate of the subject. This move was a reaction to numerous petitions submitted to Congress that called for the abolition of slavery and the slave trade in the District of Columbia, a reflection of a growing anti‐slavery movement in the United States.

Not all Americans who opposed slavery favored simply putting an end to it. Some considered slavery to be wrong but were unwilling to take action against it, while others accepted slavery in the states where it already existed but opposed its expansion into new territories. An early antislavery proposal was to repatriate slaves to Africa. Farfetched as it seems, in 1822, under the auspices of the American Colonization Society, the first freed slaves departed for what would become the independent nation of Liberia in West Africa. Over the next forty years, however, only about fifteen thousand blacks emigrated to Liberia, a number far below the natural increase in the slave population that accounted for most of the population's growth before the Civil War.

Advocates of an immediate end to slavery were known as abolitionists. The movement's chief spokesperson was William Lloyd Garrison, who began publishing his antislavery newspaper, the Liberator, in 1831. His American Anti‐Slavery Society (organized in 1833) called for the “immediate abandonment” of slavery without compensation to slaveholders; the end to the domestic slave trade; and, radically, the recognition of the equality of blacks and whites. The abolitionists, however, were divided on how best to achieve these goals. While Garrison opposed political action, moderate abolitionists formed the Liberty party and ran James G. Birney for president in 1840. The party's strength was such that it determined the outcome of the presidential election four years later. The movement split, however, in 1840 over the appropriate role of women within the organization. Even though women, such as Angelina and Sarah Grimke, were deeply committed to the cause, many members of the society felt it was inappropriate for women to speak before predominantly male audiences. More important, there was significant opposition to the inclusion of women's rights issues under the umbrella of the abolitionist program.

Free blacks were the strongest supporters of the abolitionist movement and its most effective speakers. Escaped slaves like Frederick Douglass provided northerners with vivid firsthand accounts of slavery, and his book Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) was just one of many slave autobiographies popular in abolitionist circles. While most blacks supported a peaceful end to slavery, some believed that only insurrection could actually bring it about.

Beginnings of the women's rights movement. The various reform movements of the nineteenth century gave women—particularly, middle‐class women—an opportunity to participate in public life, and they were mainly successful in their efforts. A prime example is the work by Dorothea Dix to create public mental‐health institutions that would provide humane care for the insane. American women turned their attention to their own situation when activists split from the abolitionists. The specific event that led to the organized push for women's rights was the exclusion of a group of American women from the 1840 World Anti‐Slavery Convention in London. One hundred women met in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, both abolitionist activists, to draft a statement of women's rights. The Seneca Falls “ Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions” called for equality for women before the law, including changes in divorce laws that automatically gave custody of children to the husband. Equal employment opportunity and the right to vote were other important demands.

The only women's rights issue that was addressed before the Civil War concerned property. Several states, but far from all, gave married women control over inherited property during the antebellum period. Women did not get the right to vote until 1920 (through the Nineteenth Amendment), and they were still limited to careers in either teaching or nursing. It took more than a century for the issues of equal employment and full legal and social equality to be seriously addressed.

The utopian communities. During the period from about 1820 to 1850, a number of people thought that creating utopian communities, which would serve as models for the world, could solve society's ills better than the reform movements. All of these utopian communities failed, usually because of the imperfections in those seeking perfection. For example, British industrialist Robert Owen, who knew firsthand the evils of the factory system, established New Harmony (Indiana) in 1825 as a planned community based on a balance of agriculture and manufacturing. The nine hundred men and women who went there either refused to work or quarreled among themselves, and New Harmony collapsed after just a few years. French Socialist Charles Fourier's idea for small mixed‐economy cooperatives known as phalanxes also caught on in the United States. Brook Farm (1841–46) in Massachusetts, perhaps the best‐known utopian experiment because it attracted support from writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, combined manual labor with intellectual pursuits and became a phalanx in 1844.

Utopian communities were also founded by religious groups. John Humphrey Noyes, a product of the Second Great Awakening, and disciples of the Society of Inquiry founded the Oneida Community in New York in 1848. In contrast to the celibate Shakers, Noyes's followers accepted “complex marriage,” the idea that every man and every woman in the community were married to each other. Boys and girls were trained in sexual practices when they reached puberty, but only those who accepted Jesus Christ as their savior were allowed to have sexual relations. Oneida prospered because it developed products known for their quality, first steel traps and later silver flatware. When Noyes left Oneida to avoid prosecution for adultery, the members abandoned complex marriage and formed a company to continue manufacturing tableware. It remains in business today as Oneida Community, Ltd.

Back to Top