The 1820s and 1830s saw a great rise in popular politics,
as free white males achieved universal suffrage. Women, blacks,
and Native Americans, however, remained excluded from the political
process and were often neglected by politicians. In protest, these
marginalized groups and their sympathizers organized reform movements
to heighten public awareness and to influence social and political
policy. Many reformers believed that they were doing God’s work,
and the Second Great Awakening did much to encourage them in their
These reform movements, like many issues of the day, quickly
became sectional in nature. New England and Midwestern areas settled
by New Englanders were most likely to be reformist. Southerners,
by contrast, actively opposed the abolition of slavery, pursued
temperance and school reform only halfheartedly, and largely ignored
Perhaps the most prominent and controversial reform movement
of the period was abolitionism, the anti-slave movement. Although
abolitionism had attracted many followers in the revolutionary period,
the movement lagged during the early 1800s. By the 1830s, the spirit
of abolitionism surged, especially in the Northeast. In 1831, William
Lloyd Garrison launched an abolitionist newspaper, The
Liberator, earning himself a reputation as the most
radical white abolitionist. Whereas past abolitionists had suggested
blacks be shipped back to Africa, Garrison worked in conjunction
with prominent black abolitionists, including Fredrick Douglass,
to demand equal civil rights for blacks. Garrison’s battle cry was
“immediate emancipation,” but he recognized that it would take years
to convince enough Americans to oppose slavery. To spread the abolition
fervor, he founded the New England Anti-Slavery Society in 1832
and the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. By 1840, these organizations
had spawned more than 1,500 local chapters. Even so, abolitionists
were a small minority in the United States in the 1830s and 1840s,
often subjected to jeering and physical violence.
William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper, The
Liberator, spoke for the most extreme abolitionists. Along
with Frederick Douglass, Garrison called for emancipation of slaves
and full civil rights for blacks.
Opposed to abolitionism, Southern congressmen
succeeded in pushing the gag rule through Congress
in 1836. This rule tabled all abolitionist petitions in Congress
and thereby served as a preemptive strike against all anti-slavery
discussions. The gag rule was not repealed until 1844, under increased
pressure from Northern abolitionists and others concerned with the
restriction of the right to petition granted by the Constitution.
The position of American women in the early 1800s was
legally and socially inferior to men. Women could not vote and,
if married, could not own property or retain their own earnings.
The reform movements of the 1830s, specifically abolition and temperance,
gave women a chance to get involved in the public arena. Women reformers
soon began to agitate not just for temperance and abolition, but
also for women’s rights. Activists such as Angelina and Sarah Grimké, Elizabeth
Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott argued that
men and women are created equal and should be treated as such under
the law. These advocates allied with abolitionist William Lloyd
Garrison, also an ardent feminist, merging the powers of the abolition
and the women’s rights movements. Other advocates of both causes include
Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass.
In 1848, Mott and Stanton organized a women’s rights convention
in Seneca Falls, New York. The Seneca Falls Convention issued
a Declaration of Sentiments, modeled on the Declaration of Independence,
that stated that all men and women are created equal. The Declaration
and other reformist strategies, however, effected little change.
While some states passed Married Women’s Property Acts to allow
married women to retain their property, women would have to wait
until 1920 to gain the vote.
The movement to reform public schools began in rural areas,
where one-room schoolhouses provided only minimal education. School
reformers hoped to improve education so that children would become
responsible citizens sharing common cultural values. Extending the
right to vote to all free males no doubt helped galvanize the movement,
since politicians began fearing the affects of an illiterate, ill-educated
In 1837, Horace Mann of Massachusetts became
secretary of that state’s board of education. He reformed the school
system by increasing state spending on schools, lengthening the
school year, dividing the students into grades, and introducing
standardized textbooks. Much of the North reformed its schools along
the lines dictated by Horace Mann, and free public schools spread
throughout the region. The South, however, made little progress
in public education, partly owing to its low population density
and a general indifference toward progressive reforms.
The production and consumption of alcohol in the United
States rose markedly in the early 1800s. The temperance movement
emerged as a backlash against the rising popularity of drinking.
Founded in 1826, the American Temperance Society advocated total
abstinence from alcohol. Many advocates saw drinking as an immoral
and irreligious practice that caused poverty or mental instability.
Others saw it as a male indulgence that harmed women and children
who often suffered abuse at drunkards’ hands. During the 1830s,
an increasing number of workingmen joined the movement in concern
over the ill effects of alcohol on job performance. By 1835, about
5,000 temperance societies were affiliated with the American Temperance
Society. Owing largely to this association’s impact, consumption
of liquor began to decrease in the late 1830s and early 1840s, and
many states passed restrictions or bans on the sale of alcohol.
Prisons, Poorhouses, and Asylums
Beginning in the 1820s, social activists pressed for prison
reform. These reformers argued that prisons, instead of simply confining
criminals, should focus on rehabilitation through instruction, order,
and discipline. Believing crime was largely the result of childhood neglect
and trauma, prison reformers hoped that such methods would counteract
the effects of a poor upbringing and effectively purge criminals
of their violent and immoral tendencies.
Further rehabilitative efforts were directed
at the poor and the insane. To combat poverty, almshouses were built
for poor invalids. Workhouses were built for the able-bodied poor
in the hopes that a regimented environment would turn them into
productive citizens. Until the early 1840s, the insane were confined
in these poorhouses or in prisons, living in miserable conditions
that often exacerbated their illnesses. In 1843, Dorothea
Dix, a Massachusetts schoolteacher, described to the state
legislature the conditions of the insane in prison and encouraged the
construction of insane asylums to better rehabilitate the mentally
ill. In the following years, asylums opened throughout the United
The most extreme reform movement in the United
States was the utopian movement, founded in the first half of the
1800s on the belief that humans could live perfectly in small experimental societies.
Though utopian communities varied in their philosophies,
most were designed and founded by intellectuals as alternatives
to the competitive economy. Utopian communities aimed to perfect
social relationships; reform the institutions of marriage and private
property; and balance political, occupational, and religious influences.
Most utopian communities did not last beyond the early 1850s, but
one, the Oneida community in New York, survived from 1848 to 1881.