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The Reform Impulse
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The Events of 1831 Key Events Maps Transcript Webography

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A New Social and Moral Order

With explosive growth, frenetic expansion, and political conflict, it was no surprise that many Americans trembled for the fate of their nation. One minister even listed the evils that he thought threatened the nation. He pointed to the vast extent of territory, a numerous and increasing population, the diversity of local interest, the power of selfishness and the fury of sectional jealousy and hate.

Tocqueville, too, recognized the potentially fatal problem embedded in the American character. He admired American independence and mobility. He marveled at the Americans' love of trade and their passion for making money. He even coined a word to describe the essential characteristic he witnessed: "individualism."

But what happened when self-interest turned to selfishness and mobility resulted in rootlessness and restlessness? What would save Americans from themselves? The answer, he thought, was voluntary associations and reform organizations. Individualism, to be sure, could lead to isolation and solitude. And these associations created instead a sense of community and belonging.

America was a nation of joiners where individuals bonded and banded together for anything and everything. There were trade groups and literary gatherings, political meetings and religious societies. The power of association, Tocqueville thought, offset the dismembering effects of a nation of individuals, and it allowed Americans to accomplish great works.

There were an endless number of moral reform and benevolent associations--the American Bible Society, the American Tract Society, the American Female Moral Reform Society--all of which extended the missionary impulse to the domestic front. Other causes as well won their adherence: the American Temperance Society, the American Peace Society, the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism. Indeed, there were so many groups being organized that someone even created an association for those who were opposed to reform associations. Name a social evil--crime, poverty, prostitution, intemperance, ignorance--and Americans tried to combat it with some organized effort.

Here was a particular vision of a social order in which Americans were expected to internalize a set of middle-class values that fit with the new economic landscape: sobriety, industry, self-discipline, moral order. They not only created societies in order to promote these values, but designed new institutions, all of which had the goal behind them of creating citizens who would adhere to the new moral order.

[Picture of an early prison]

Penitentiaries, the institutions that de Tocqueville and Beaumont had come to visit in the first place, were created in this period. Inmates were placed in solitary confinement and forced to work in silence. Here was a shift in penal regimes from the public, external, physical world of punishments that characterized the 18th Century to private, internal, and psychological modes of discipline. The institution embodied the belief that the environment shaped behavior and that Americans need not suffer from the disordering effects of a society on the move.

The middle-class vision of social and moral order can be seen most clearly in a popular lithograph of the time, "The Way of Good and Evil." Before the three great institutions of society, the home, the church, and the school, citizens embark on one of two paths. Obedience to parents and teachers leads through education and religion to purity, salvation, and eternal life. The other path, which begins with disobedience to authorities, leads to drinking, lying, fighting, and the commissions of crimes that ends with everlasting damnation and eternal punishment.

Temperance was one of the key objectives of the moral reform enterprise. Drinking was a critical part of American culture. And the consumption of whisky, rum, and hard cider exceeded six gallons per person per year. But the new workplace demanded sobriety, and alcohol was condemned as an evil that destroyed morals and wrecked homes. The American Temperance Society had more than 200,000 members by the 1830s, and alcohol consumption fell dramatically.

[Picture of Horace Mann]

In addition to temperance, activists promoted changes in education. Reformers such as Horace Mann, a legislator from Massachusetts who oversaw the first Board of Education in the nation, were instrumental in reorganizing the nature of education in society. Children began to be grouped by age, and curricula were developed. Bells now rang to indicate when class should begin and when it should end. And states passed compulsory attendance laws requiring children to go to school.

It is important to note that reform such as temperance and education, were not culturally neutral. The new immigrants brought traditions and religious beliefs that violated the norms of the Protestant temperance ethos. And some working class Americans resisted the use of the classroom to impose new standards of behavior on their children.

Further Progressive Reform

Without question, the reform ethos offered a conservative view of an ordered, disciplined society; but at the same time, it fueled radical challenges to the status quo. Laborers, for example, united together and formed working men's associations. They promoted the abolition of imprisonment of debtors. They asked for the equal distribution of property. And they wanted the tax laws rewritten.

Women, too, began to organize and agitate for equal rights. Here they sought to break free from the domestic ideal that held the home as a hallowed place, and dictated the role of mothers and daughters as the keepers of virtue and morality. The public world of commerce occupied by men was seen as disordering and corrupting; therefore the private sphere governed by women was held up as a sanctuary. Some women emerged from that private moral sphere into the public, political realm.

[Picture of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott]

A women's rights convention, held at Seneca Falls in July 1848, was organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. They issued a declaration of sentiments, which pronounced that "the history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her."

Women begin to fight for changes in laws regarding property, marriage. They want educational and professional opportunities, and they especially want the right to vote. "Either the theory of our government is false," proclaimed Lydia Child, "or women have a right to vote."

Sarah and Angelina Grimpké, sisters from a South Carolina slaveholding family, announced that men and women were created equal. Whatever is right for a man to do is right for a woman. They spoke out publicly, and they demanded that sinners reform themselves. And like all moral and social reformers, they were driven by a religious commitment to the moral government of God and to individual salvation.

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