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The Pre-Civil War Era (1815–1850)

History SparkNotes

The Spirit of Reform: 1820–1850

Religious Revivalism: 1800–1850

Study Questions & Essay Topics

1822 Demark Vesey leads slave revolt in South Carolina Republic of Liberia is founded in Africa
1826 American Temperance Society is founded
1831 Nat Turner leads slave rebellion in Virginia William Lloyd Garrison begins publishing The Liberator
1833 Garrison and Theodore Weld found American Anti-Slavery Society
1834 Female Moral Reform Society forms in New York
1836 House of Representatives passes “Gag Resolution”
1837 Abolitionist Elijah P. Lovejoy is killed Oberlin College opens as a coeducational institution Mary Lyon founds Mount Holyoke Seminary for women
1840 Liberty Party is formed
1843 Dorothea Dix crusades for prison and insane asylum reform
1845 Frederick Douglass publishes A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
1848 Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention is held
1854 T. S. Arthur publishes Ten Nights in a Barroom and What I Saw There
Key People
Susan B. Anthony -  Ardent women’s rights advocate and suffragette
Elizabeth Cady Stanton -  Feminist and women’s rights advocate; organized Seneca Falls Convention along with Susan B. Anthony
Frederick Douglass -  Freed slave who was a leader in the abolitionist movement
William Lloyd Garrison -  Radical abolitionist; published magazine The Liberator
Horace Mann -  Public education advocate; pushed for education reforms in Massachusetts
Dorothea Dix -  Massachusetts schoolteacher who campaigned for publicly funded asylums to help the mentally ill

The Rise of Social Reform

The revivalism that spread across the country during the antebellum era also gave rise to numerous social reform movements, which challenged Americans to improve themselves and their communities. Because revivalism and reform went hand in hand, many prominent reformers were women. Denied roles in politics or in the new market economy, women found that they could make a difference through championing social change. These women reformers often fought for a variety of causes at the same time: for instance, the women’s suffrage movement was closely tied to the abolitionist movement.


The abolitionist movement sought to eradicate slavery in the United States. Prominent leaders in the movement included Theodore Weld, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Elijah P. Lovejoy, and William Lloyd Garrison, among others. Garrison, a radical abolitionist who called for immediate emancipation, became infamous when he started an antislavery newspaper, The Liberator, in 1831. His articles were so vitriolic that warrants for his arrest were issued in the South. Garrison and Weld also founded the American Anti-slavery Society in 1833.

Anti-Abolitionism in the North

Although the North was the hotbed of the abolitionist movement, not all northerners were abolitionists: many felt ambivalent toward emancipation or were downright against it. Trade unions and wage workers, for example, feared that if slavery were abolished, they would have to compete with free blacks for jobs (an argument also used by pro-slavery southerners). Most public figures and politicians shunned abolitionists for their radicalism and unwillingness to compromise. Even the “Great Emancipator” Abraham Lincoln, though more open to abolitionism, was wary of radical abolitionists.

Slave Uprisings

The antebellum period was marked by several major slave uprisings. In 1822, a former slave named Denmark Vesey planned to lead eighty slaves in a revolt in Charleston, South Carolina. Although Vesey’s plans failed, southerners became terrified of losing control over slaves. In 1831, another slave, Nat Turner, led a bloody slave uprising in Virginia.

Abolitionist Propaganda and Politics

Because William Lloyd Garrison published the first edition of The Liberator the same year as Turner’s uprising, many southerners jumped to the conclusion that Garrison had incited the rebellions with his antislavery rhetoric. Furthermore, former slave Frederick Douglass became a celebrity in the North when he published his experiences in A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in 184 5.

As the abolitionist movement grew, it became more of an organized political force. The movement grew to be so noisome that the House of Representatives actually passed a gag resolution in 1836 to squelch all further discussion of slavery. Several years later, in 1840, the abolitionists organized into a party, the Liberty Party.

The Temperance Movement

Another strong reform movement during this period was the temperance movement, which aimed to ban alcohol production and consumption. The movement was led primarily by women, who charged that drinking ruined family life and led to spousal and child abuse. Factory owners in the cities also lamented that alcoholism reduced worker output and caused on-the-job accidents.

The first chapter of the American Temperance Society formed in 1826 and grew into thousands of chapters nationwide over the following ten years. The society distributed propaganda and paraded abuse victims and reformed alcoholics through towns to preach against consumption. T. S. Arthur’s 1854 novel Ten Nights in a Barroom and What I Saw There, which portrayed the horrible effects of hard liquor on a previously quaint village, gained the movement even more attention.

Several cities and states went to far as to pass laws prohibiting the sale and consumption of alcohol. Maine was the first to do so, in 1851. The “Maine Law,” as it came to be called, encouraged many other northern states to follow suit.

Prohibiting Prostitution

Antebellum reformers also struck out against prostitution, which burgeoned as American cities grew larger due to the manufacturing, economic expansion, and immigration. Spearheaded almost entirely by upper- and middle-class women, antiprostitution societies fought not only to reduce the number of working girls on the streets but also to reform them. The Female Moral Reform Society, founded in New York in 1834, expanded to hundreds of other cities and towns by 1840. These societies also strove to end prostitution by decreasing demand: many newspapers began to publish customers’ names, while many states enacted laws to punish clients as well as the prostitutes themselves.

Prison Reform

Reformers during this era also launched campaigns against the prison system, where conditions were horrible. Debtors’ prisons were still common and housed the majority of American “criminals”—mostly the poor, who sometimes owed creditors only a few dollars. Over time, reformers were able to change the system. Debtors’ prisons gradually began to disappear, and activists succeeded in convincing many that the government should use prisons to help reform criminals, not just lock them away.

Reform for the Mentally Ill

Often working hand-in-hand with prison reform was the movement to help the mentally ill. The common belief during this era was that the mentally ill were willfully crazy or that they were no better than animals. As a result, thousands were treated as criminals and thrown into prisons. The leader of the reform cause was Dorothea Dix, who compiled a comprehensive report on the state of the mentally ill in Massachusetts. The report claimed that hundreds of insane women were chained like beasts in stalls and cages. Dix’s findings convinced state legislators to establish one of the first asylums devoted entirely to caring for the mentally ill. By the outbreak of the Civil War, nearly thirty states had built similar institutions.

Education Reform

Reformers also sought to expand public education during the antebellum era, because many at the time considered public schooling to be only for the poor. Wealthier Americans could pay for their children to attend private schools and academies but disdained the idea of paying higher taxes to educate the poor. Over the course of the antebellum period, however, more and more cities and states began to realize that education was essential to maintain a democracy.

Horace Mann was one of the greatest champions of public schools. As secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education, Mann fought for higher teacher qualifications, better pay, newer school buildings, and better curriculum. Catherine Beecher, sister of novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe, also crusaded for education but believed that teachers should be women.

Women in Higher Education

American women gained their first opportunities for higher education during this period. In 1837, feminist Mary Lyon established Mount Holyoke Seminary, the first college for women. That same year, Oberlin College became the first institution of higher learning to open on a coeducational basis.

Women’s Suffrage

In addition to educational opportunities, many women began to demand political rights, especially the right to vote, or women’s suffrage. Under leaders Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony, the movement gained substantial momentum during the antebellum era. Stanton and Mott astounded Americans and Europeans alike when they organized the Seneca Falls Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. There, women leaders heard Stanton’s Declaration of Sentiments, in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence, declaring that women were equal to men in every way. Of the many sentiments declared, the most shocking was the call for full suffrage for all women.

Legacy of the Reform Movements

Although there were a wide variety of reform movements in the antebellum period, they shared common characteristics. Most were rooted in the religious revivalism and new moralist beliefs of the age. Second, women dominated most reform movements. Finally, reformists were generally centered in the North, while the conservative South once again generally lagged behind. This disparity between North and South contributed further to the social and political tensions of the pre–Civil War years.

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