Antebellum Reform Movements (Group F)

I. Politics of Social Reform
From the 1820s-1840s, the Whig evangelicals believed that with God’s help they could improve the world by improving the individuals within it, and they felt they could use the government to improve individual morality and discipline. During this antebellum period, many social reforms were taken to improve the lives of individuals. Reforms that took place included reforming public schools, prisons, and asylums.

In the 19th century, public schools were known as “common” schools, schools that local and state governments built that were supported by taxes. Before being sent to these “common” schools, children were being educated at home where they learned reading, writing, and arithmetic, or in charity schools that were supported by churches or other benevolent organizations. In the 1830s, both Whigs and Democrats felt that providing common schools was a proper function of government, both agreeing that schools could equalize opportunity. The more radical Democrats felt public schools would erase snobbery, and newspapers in 1828 felt children of the rich and the poor would receive a national education that would rid the country of aristocrats and create democrats. Several reformers included Horace Mann,
Horace Mann:
Henry Barnard, and Calvin Stowe. All three reformers emphasized the value of character building rather than the three Rs, believing it was a schools’ duty to train children to respect authority, property, hard work, and social order. They felt schools would downplay class divisions and were less interested in democratizing wealthy children than in civilizing the poor.
The Whigs and Democrats differed on how schools were organized. The Whigs wanted state-level centralization, proposed state superintendents, state boards of education, normal schools, texts, and uniform school terms. Democrats would rather give power to individual school districts, following the standard Democratic social policy of inexpensive government and local control. Whigs also hired young female teachers, although their salaries were much lower than their male coworkers.

There was a debate, however, on the mixing of religion, ethnicities, and school. Because child labor was high in immigrant families, the attendance of children at schools was very irregular, and many immigrants were Catholics. Catholics were uncomfortable with sending their children to school, demanding changes in textbooks, the elimination of the King James Bible, tax-supported Catholic schools, and at least tax relief for parents who sent their children to parish schools. Whigs felt Catholic complaints were assaults on the Protestantism they believed was at the heart of American republicanism.

Before the antebellum period, prisons were institutions built by the government to house the poor, the insane and criminals, all in one building, rather than taking care of each one individually. The whole idea of placing everyone in the same institution was to cure them in a controlled setting, teaching them work and discipline and turning them into useful citizens. Whigs liked institutions for rehabilitation, but Democrats liked institutions that isolated the insane, warehoused the dependent poor, and punished criminals. An example of a strict prison was the Auburn system, where prisoners slept in solitary cells and marched in military formation to meals and workplaces, also being forbidden to speak to one another at any time. This system was designed to reform criminals and to reduce expenses. Whigs favored rehabilitation and Democrats favored profit-making workshops, and in order to ensure profit, they favored lower operating costs and lower taxes.

Asylums were also set up during the antebellum period, the leading advocate for humane treatment for the insane being Dorothea Dix. She believed in what reformers called “moral treatment”, demanding that asylums should be clean and pleasant places, preferably outside cities, and the inmates were to be treated humanely. By 1860, the legislatures of 28 out of 33 states had established state-run insane asylums, the Whig party approving appropriations for the more expensive and humane moral treatment facilities.

Economically, the southern and northern states were divided along this line: Whigs wanted government participation in the economy and Democrats did not. The South has always been the rural, culturally conservative region of America that saw every attempt at government intervention as a threat to their independence. They believed “social improvement” was expensive and wrongheaded, and in their state school systems, they saw little need for schools to enforce a common culture. Due to their conservative, Bible-based acceptance of suffering and human imperfection and devotion to white supremacy, the South felt any kind of social reform was doomed to fail, and that many reforms were the works of well-funded and well-organized missionaries from the Northeast who wanted to mold the south into the North’s righteous image.

II. Moral Reform

Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, the founders of the transcendentalist movement started questioning their society. From religion, to the market, questioning everything would help to gain a new way of thinking. Both founders believed in discovering one’s self and god in nature, and challenging all daily life to reach the point of self knowledge. More than self knowledge, knowledge in general was a main goal- hence the questioning of society and life. Transcendentalists also believed in social changes, moral reform, from abolition to the end of materialism.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

"We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds..."

Probably the most famous transcendentalist, Emerson believed in individuality. Individualistic thinking, ‘Self Reliance’ (Self Reliance is his most famous essay), and even an individualistic culture different from European cultures. Emerson, like most other transcendentalists, was also an abolitionist.

Henry David Thoreau

"I heartily accept the motto, "That government is best which governs least"; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. "

Henry David Thoreau had all the same ideas as Emerson, in addition to a few. Thoreau extended his view on questioning society by actually conducting a two year experiment observing nature by himself. Thoreau is most well known for his book, Walden, on his found truths about life from his experiment and on his essay Civil Disobedience. This essay presented the idea of not following laws one believed to be unjust and to stand up for one’s self when in this position. Thoreau has influenced many from Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr.

Utopian communities
During the Antebellum period, a number of groups found it fitting to leave society and start anew on the fertile, uncivilized land of the west.

Brook Farm
Brook Farm was a whole community based off of the Transcendentalist ideas. Headed by George Ripley, a minister, the goal was to create a union of people combining intellectual and manual labor. Many leading individuals from the era: Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and others. However, Brook Farm died after a fire and debt in 1849.


Started by John Humphrey Noyes in 1848, the Oneida community, in New York, was a community where everything was equal and shared, including children and spouses. The Oneida community was often criticized for its communal and planned reproduction system. However, the Oneidas were incredibly successful economically, producing silverware.

New Harmony
Slyvester Graham's most famous invention!
Slyvester Graham's most famous invention!

Robert Owens (the founder of Socialism) created a community in Indiana, a secular utopia, hoping it to be the “city upon a hill” during the industrial revolution, with equality. However, disagreements and lack of money closed down New Harmony.

By the 1840’s the shakers already had several communities. A religious community, its population shared property but would keep men and women separate, even forbidding marriage and sex. It died out in the mid 20th century because of a lack of population. (Hey it’s hard to recruit without the appeal of sex!)

Appetite and sex
Evangelicals believed for a perfect world, the character of an individual was more important than the role of an institution (Such as government). Thus, it was up to every individual to control their “appetites” for money, vanity, leisure time, and luxury. Material comfort to the Evangelical middle class was what defined their class. Over indulgence of food and alcohol effected the over indulgence of sexual activity, both making the individual weak and diseased, and it destroyed one’s body. This idea, written by Sylvester Graham, spread over all topics. Trying to control the purity of women, the animalistic passions of women, prostitution, obscenity, seduction, and adultery, moral reform became the symbol of the middle class.

III. Temperance

Reformers focused on alcohol as the creator of social problems in the United States during the Antebellum. There was a high rate of alcohol consumption (five gallons of hard liquor per person in 1820). This is why temperance became the most popular of reform movements during the 1800's.
Temperance Movement

Temperance Societies

Protestant ministers and others, who were concerned about the high consumption of alcohol and its effect on American society, formed the American Temperance Society. It attempted to use moral arguments to persuade drinkers not just to drink in moderation but to pledge complete abstinence. The Washingtonians, another temperance group began in 1840 to help alcoholics recover. The organization believed alcoholism was a type of disease that required "practical, helpful treatment." By the 1840s, several temperance societies arose with more than a million members.

Temperance Movement

While Americans found the consumption of alcohol to be the major key to the ills of society, immigrants from Germany and Ireland were opposed to the temperance awareness and campaigns. However, immigrants did not have enough political power to speak up. Factory owners and politicians sided with reformers because they knew temperance measure would reduce crime and poverty and increase work hours and productivity levels of the workers. The temperance movements during the early 1800's gained much support, but died as the issue of slavery rose. However, the movement became powerful once again in the late 1870s with strong support from the Women's Christian Temperance Union. It achieved national success with the passage of the 18th Amendment in 1919.


IV.Women’s Rights

The movement for women’s rights was started in response to men not wanting women to take part in other reform movements (e.g. opposition to women actively supporting abolitionism).

Separate spheres
Men lived in the public sphere, and women lived in the private sphere. Politics, business… These were fields reserved for men. Women’s job as moral compasses was caring for the family and the home (the “cult of domesticity”). They also joined temperance, moral reform, and antislavery societies, advocating for others’ rights (another outlet for their “ethically correct nature”). Then they realized they could advocate for themselves too.

The First Women’s Rights Convention
At Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. Beginning with a Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions that stated “all men and women are created equal”, it focused on women’s suffrage.
Portrait of Elizabeth Cady Stanton at the Seneca Falls Convention.

Rights won in several states (1840-1860):
Property (led to New York’s Married Women’s Property Act, 1860)
Right to their own wages
Child custody

Famous suffragists/feminists:
Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Sarah Grimke
Angelina Grimke
Susan B. Anthony
Lucretia Mott

V. Antislavery and Abolition movements
Prior to 1831, the only major American organized anti-slavery group was the American Colonization Society started in 1816. It was comprised of wealthy Chesapeake churchmen and gentlemen that stood for the gradual emancipation of slaves and the transport of free blacks back to West Africa. Other than the actual transport of some blacks to Liberia, this group was ultimately not a defined success.

Successful Abolition/ Emancipation movements prior to 1831

Quakers and Unitarians joined this movement the latter for their strong opposition to slavery and the former for mere “friendly” honor. Middle class Evangelicals and particularly the Whig evangelicals played a big role in the abolitionist movement when it was concluded that slavery led to the obliteration of the individual’s moral choice and encouraged temptations, something they strongly opposed.

Moderate abolitionists, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, primarily spoke of inherent racial characteristics and viewed blacks as benign to society, while radical abolitionists, such as Lydia Maria Child, dealt more with the general change of environment for blacks in the form of equal treatment.

Abolitionist Movements after 1831
While a minority throughout the 1830’s, the AASS did set forth its campaigns that led to the questioning of slavery in relation to political parties. In 1835 the AASS started a postal campaign throughout which the national postal system overran with abolitionist papers. Starting in 1836, the AASS petitioned Congress for the following: abolishment of slavery and the slave trade on the District of Columbia; and to deny the slaveholding Republic of Texas’s entrance to the Union. President Andrew Jackson, as a result, permitted the censorship of the postal system. Also, Democrats and southern Whigs abridged the right of petitioning Congress on
behalf of slavery.
Works Sited: LEP, AMSCO ,