Society, Culture, and Reform of US, 1820–1860

Society, Culture, and Reform of US, 1820–1860

Society, Culture, and Reform of US, 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 reformers dedicated themselves to such causes as establishing free (tax- supported) public schools, improving the treatment of the mentally ill, control- ling 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 perfectability, the politics of Jacksonian democracy, and changing relationships among men and women and among social classes and ethnic groups. Perhaps most important of all were the powerful religious motives behind the reformers’ zeal.

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 the 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 democrati- zation of American society.

RevivalisminNewYork. In1823,aPresbyterianministernamedCharles G. Finney started a series of revivals in upstate New York, where many New Englanders had settled. Instead of delivering sermons based on rational argument, Finney appealed to people’s emotions and fear of damnation and persuaded thousands to publicly declare their revived faith. He preached that all were free to be saved through faith and hard work—ideas that strongly appealed to the rising middle class. Because of Finney’s influence, western New York became known as the “burned-over district” for its frequent “hell- and-brimstone” revivals.

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 attract thousands to hear their dramatic 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.

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 hap- pened on the appointed day, but the Millerites would continue as a new religion, the Seventh-Day Adventists.

Mormons. Another religious group, the Church of the 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 connec- tion between the Native Americans and the lost tribes 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 wilder- ness. Their practice of polygamy (allowing a man to have more than one wife), however, aroused the hostility of the U.S. government.

The Second Great Awakening, like the first, caused new divisions in society between 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 Massachusetts 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 antebellum era.

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 same 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.

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 materialism of American society by suggesting that artistic expression was more important than the pursuit of wealth.

Although the transcendentalists were highly individualistic and viewed organized institutions as unimportant, they supported a variety of reforms, especially the antislavery movement.

RalphWaldoEmerson(1803–1882). Thebest-knowntranscendentalist, 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 American 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-reliance, independent thinking, and the primacy of spiritual matters over material 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.

HenryDavidThoreau (1817–1862). LivinginthesametownasEmerson (Concord, Mass.) was one of his close friends, Henry David Thoreau. To test his transcendentalist philosophy, Thoreau conducted a two-year experiment of living by himself in the woods outside town. There he used observations of nature to discover essential truths about life and the universe. His writings from these years were published in the book for which he is best known, Walden (1854). Because of this book, Thoreau is remembered today as a pioneer ecologist and conservationist.

Through 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 actions would inspire the nonviolent movements of both Mohandas Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King, Jr., in the United States.

BrookFarm. Couldacommunityofpeopleliveoutthetranscendentalist ideal? In 1841, George Ripley, a Protestant minister, launched a communal 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 women’s rights) writer and editor; Theodore 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 remembered for its atmosphere of artistic creativity and an innovative school that attracted the sons and daughters of New England’s intellectual elite.

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 before the Civil War proved fertile ground for over a hundred experimental communities. The early Mormons may be considered an example of a religious communal effort and Brook Farm an example of a humanistic or secular experiment. Although many of the communities were shortlived, these “backwoods utopias” reflect the diversity of the reform ideas of the time.

Shakers. Oneoftheearliestreligiouscommunalmovements,theShakers had about 6,000 members in various communities by the 1840s. Shakers held property in common and kept women and men strictly separate (forbidding marriage and sexual relations). For lack of new recruits, the Shaker communities virtually died out by the mid-1900s. The Amana settlements 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.

NewHarmony. Thesecular(nonreligious)experimentinNewHarmony, Indiana, was the work of the Welsh industrialist and reformer Robert Owen. Owen hoped his utopian socialist community would provide an answer to the problems of inequity and alienation caused by the Industrial Revolution. The experiment failed, however, as a result of both financial problems and disagree- ments among members of the community.

Oneidacommunity. Afterundergoingareligiousconversion,JohnHum- 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.

FourierPhalanxes. Inthe1840s,manyAmericans,includingthenewspa- 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 popularly known as Fourier Phalanxes. This movement died out, however, almost as quickly as it appeared. Americans proved too individualistic to adapt to communal living.

Arts and Literature

The democratic and reforming impulses of the Age of Jackson expressed themselves in painting, architecture, and literature.

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 riverboats, voting on election day, and carrying out domestic chores. William S. Mount won fame and popularity for his lively rural compositions. 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 was called, expressed the romantic age’s fascination with the natural world.

Architecture. Reflecting upon the democracy of ancient Athens, Ameri- can 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 homes.

Literature. Inadditiontothetranscendentalistauthors(notablyEmerson and Thoreau), 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 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 included 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 Hawthorne 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. 

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 persua- sion. 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.


It is easy to understand, given the high rate of alcohol consumption (five gallons of hard liquor per person in 1820), why reformers targeted alcohol as the cause of social ills, and why temperance became the most popular of the reform movements.

The temperance movement was an excellent example of the shift from moral exhortation to political action. In 1826, Protestant ministers and others, concerned with the high rate of alcohol consumption and the effects of such excessive 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 Washingto- nians, 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 reformers’ 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 temperance 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.

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 in- mates 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.

Mentalhospitals. DorotheaDix,aformerschoolteacherfromMassachu- setts, was horrified to find mentally ill persons locked up with convicted crimi- nals 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.

Schoolsforblindanddeafpersons. Twootherreformersfoundedspecial 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.

Prisons. Taking the place of crude jails and lock-ups were new prisons erected in Pennsylvania. These penitentiaries, as they were called, experimented with the technique of placing prisoners in solitary confinement to force them to reflect on their sins and repent. The experiment was dropped because of the high rate of prisoner suicides. These prison reforms reflected 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 providing moral instruction and work pro- grams.

Public Education

Another reform movement started in the Jacksonian era focused on the need for establishing free public schools 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 reform- ers’ campaign for free (tax-supported) schools.

Free common schools. Horace Mann (1796–1859) was the leading advo- cate 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. 

Moral education. Besides the teaching of basic literacy, Mann and other educational reformers wanted children to be instructed in principles 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 behav- iors 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.

Higher education. The religious enthusiasm of the Second Great Awak- ening 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, Illinois, and Iowa). At the same time, several new colleges, including Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts (founded by Mary Lyon in 1837) and Oberlin College in Ohio, began to admit women. Adult education was furthered by lyceum lecture societies, which provided speakers like Ralph Waldo Emerson to small-town audiences.

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 women 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 from being forced into lives of prostitution.

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.

Originsofthewomen’srightsmovement. Womenreformers,especially those involved in the antislavery movement, resented the way men relegated them to secondary roles in the movement and prevented them from 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.

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 overshadowed by the crisis over slavery.

Antislavery Movement

Opponents of slavery ranged from moderates who proposed gradual aboli- tion to radicals who urged immediate abolition and freeing 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.

American Colonization Society. The idea of transporting freed slaves to an African colony originated in 1817 with the founding of the American Colonization Society. The idea appealed to antislavery reformers with moderate 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 population grew from 1.5 to nearly 4 million, while only about 12,000 African Americans were settled in Africa during the same decades.

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 uncompromising Garrison advocated immediate abolition of slavery in every state and territory without compensating the slaveowners. In 1833, Garrison and other abolitionists founded the American Antislavery Society. Garrison stepped up his attacks by condemn- ing 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.

Libertyparty. Garrison’sradicalismsoonledtoasplitintheabolitionist movement. Believing that political action was a more practical route to reform than Garrison’s moral crusade, a group of northerners formed the Liberty party in 1840. They ran James Birney as 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.

Blackabolitionists. Escapedslavesandfreeblackswereamongthemost outspoken and convincing critics of slavery. A former slave like Frederick Douglass could speak about the brutality and degradation of slavery from firsthand experience. An early follower of Garrison, Douglass later advocated both political and direct action to end slavery and racial prejudice. In 1847, he started the antislavery journal The North 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.

Violent abolitionism. 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 in 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.

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:

The American Peace Society, founded in 1828 with the objective of abolishing war. It influenced some New England reformers to oppose the later Mexican War.
Laws to protect seamen from being flogged
Dietary reforms (eating whole wheat bread and Sylvester Graham’s

Southern Reaction to Reform

The antebellum reform movement was largely a regional phenomenon. It succeeded at the state level in the northern and western states but had little impact on many areas of the South. While “modernizers” worked to perfect society in the North, southerners were more committed to tradition and slow to support public education and humanitarian reforms. 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 Perspectives: Motives for Reform

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 temperance, asylums, and public education as attempts by the upper and middle classes to control the masses. According to their argument, the temperance movement was designed to control the drinking of the poor and recent immigrants. The chief purpose of penitentiaries was to control crime, of poorhouses 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 rea- sons for increased spending for treatment of the mentally ill. Appeal- ing 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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