The Pre-Civil War Era (1815–1850)

by: History SparkNotes

The Spirit of Reform: 1820–1850


1822Demark Vesey leads slave revolt in South CarolinaRepublic of Liberia is founded in Africa
1826American Temperance Society is founded
1831Nat Turner leads slave rebellion in VirginiaWilliam Lloyd Garrison begins publishing The Liberator
1833Garrison and Theodore Weld found American Anti-Slavery Society
1834Female Moral Reform Society forms in New York
1836House of Representatives passes “Gag Resolution”
1837Abolitionist Elijah P. Lovejoy is killedOberlin College opens as a coeducational institutionMary Lyon founds Mount Holyoke Seminary for women
1840Liberty Party is formed
1843Dorothea Dix crusades for prison and insane asylum reform
1845Frederick Douglass publishes A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
1848Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention is held
1854T. 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 1845.

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.