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Inspired by the Second Great Awakening and Transcendentalism, Americans started a number of social reform movements in the antebellum era, including the fight against alcohol and slavery and the fight for public schools, humane prisons and asylums, and women's rights.
It is one of the beautiful compensations in this life that no one can sincerely try to help another without helping himself. - Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson was considered the leader of the transcendentalists, an American philosophical movement that believed all humans, like all nature, were born good. If people became corrupt, it was because some institution of society had ruined them. This philosophy had a strong influence on American society in the 1830s and 40s, and many adherents turned their attention to making America into a better place. The transcendentalists, along with Protestants from the Second Great Awakening, initiated many successful reform movements in the antebellum era.
The temperance movement sought to limit or even ban the consumption of alcohol. Strongly supported by American Protestants, there were thousands of individual temperance societies at the local level by the 1830s. Temperance group members could be affiliated with any political party - the movement was not structured around partisanship.
Alcohol was considered a social evil and was blamed for more of society's problems than any other vice. Many supporters of the movement believed that if alcohol were restricted, there would be less crime, vagrancy, child abuse, poverty, and suicide. Since the movement was opposed by many of the new Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Germany, temperance also became linked to some degree with nativism and anti-immigrant sentiments.
Although it took nearly a century, the temperance movement was finally successful with the ratification of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1919. Commonly called 'Prohibition,' the measure caused a set of unforeseen problems and was repealed during the Great Depression.
In early America, few schools existed outside of Massachusetts; children were taught at home by parents or tutors or were sent away to a boarding school.
By the 1830s, a growing number of concerned Americans began to advocate at all levels for free public education, at least for white boys. In 1837, Horace Mann took control of the new Massachusetts Board of Education and pursued free, equal, non-religious schooling for all social classes, provided by trained, well-paid, professional teachers. His reforms set the standard for public education in the United States, and by 1870, all states had at least some free elementary schools.
College opportunities were also expanding beyond the few, exclusive, religious-based universities of the colonial era. By 1840, there were more than 70 institutions of higher education, offering both theological and more practical training. Oberlin College in Ohio was the first coeducational college in America, opening its doors to women in 1833. Other opportunities for adult education included lectures, speeches, seminars, discussions, and publications.
You can learn even more about the education movement in another lesson in this course that focuses on education in early America.
Likewise, early America had very few prisons. If you were caught stealing in the early 1700s, you would have been publicly whipped and, if you kept up the habit, hanged. One hundred years later, you would have been thrown into a large common cell where your neck was your own problem. Reformers, influenced by the ideals of transcendentalism, believed there had to be a better way to rehabilitate criminals. Many early experiments in prison reforms failed, but some lasting reforms began in the 1830s, including literacy programs, prison libraries, and less physical punishment such as whipping.
Americans with all kinds of disabilities had also been kept in prison-like warehouses, and it was during this era of reform that asylums were first established. In 1843, Dorothea Dix (later known for her work establishing the nursing corps in the Civil War), told the Massachusetts legislature that the mentally ill were kept 'in cages, closets, cellars, stalls, pens! Chained, naked, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience!' Dix and other reformers helped in the creation of public institutions dedicated to the treatment of mental illness. Though their methods might be considered downright scary by modern standards, these asylums were taking steps to understand mental illness and treat the insane with dignity.
The best-known of the social reform movements of the antebellum era may be abolition - the effort to end slavery in the United States. There had been abolitionists since colonial days, notably the Quakers, and a vocal minority had tried to abolish slavery with the founding of the nation. But slavery itself had changed with the invention of the cotton gin and the fabulous wealth earned from 'King Cotton.' While Southerners became more committed to maintaining and even expanding the peculiar institution, many Northerners began to see slavery as a moral evil.
In the first half of the 19th century, there were many different voices calling for the end of slavery. The American Colonization Society advocated purchasing all existing slaves and then relocating them back to Africa; they even established the colony of Liberia in 1822. On the other hand, abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison suggested that slaves should immediately be set free without compensation to owners and the freedmen granted full rights and citizenship within America. A number of former slaves helped generate momentum for the abolition movement mid-century, and another push came from Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852.
So many Americans sent petitions to Congress advocating so many theories about abolition that a so-called 'gag rule' had to be instituted in order for them to be able to talk about anything else. The movement was finally successful with the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1865.
You can learn more about this issue in another lesson in this course on the important people involved with the abolitionist movement.
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In 1840, the General Anti-Slavery Convention (also sometimes called the World Anti-Slavery Convention) met in London to advance the cause of blacks, not just in America, but worldwide. Unfortunately, six of the delegates were excluded from the proceedings because of their gender; the men in charge of the event were afraid that their presence would tie women's rights to black rights and thus distract from the convention's general focus. In early America (as in most parts of the western world), women had virtually no political rights, being unable to own property when married, make contracts, vote, or bring a lawsuit. Yet they were outspoken leaders in many of the 19th century social reforms, especially abolition.
Two of the ladies who were excluded from the Anti-Slavery Convention in London - Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton - became friends and, eight years later, organized their own convention in Seneca Falls, New York, to bring attention to women's rights. About 300 women turned out for the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, where they heard Stanton read her Declaration of Sentiments, echoing the words of Thomas Jefferson, 'We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal...'
The convention's organizers, including Stanton, Mott, and Susan B. Anthony, called for improved legal status, economic opportunity, and the right to vote. The Seneca Falls Convention is widely considered the start of the modern feminist movement. And though it was eventually successful in many ways (including suffrage with the 19th amendment), the movement for women's rights was overshadowed by the issue of slavery until after the Civil War.
Let's review. In the decades before the Civil War, transcendentalists (inspired by their belief in human goodness) and Christians from the Second Great Awakening began a number of reform movements in an effort to improve American society. Temperance was the movement to ban alcohol. Other reformers worked to establish public schools and expand higher education throughout the states, including Oberlin College, which opened its doors to women.
Prison conditions were improved and asylums for the mentally ill were established under the direction of Dorothea Dix. Abolition, which wasn't a new movement, took on a new urgency in the first half of the 19th century, with a number of different efforts ultimately leading to the end of slavery with the 13th amendment. Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton led the fight for women's rights after working together in the abolition movement.
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