The Pre-Civil War Era (1815–1850)


The Spirit of Reform: 1820–1850

Summary The Spirit of Reform: 1820–1850

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.

Popular pages: The Pre-Civil War Era (1815–1850)