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Current R., Williams T. H., Freidel F., Brinkley A. American History: a survey. 7th edition; New York, 1987.


 

Chapter 12 . An Age of Reforms

The American people in the mid-nineteenth century lived in a society in transition. Their nation was growing rapidly in geographical extent, in the size and diversity of its population, and in the dimensions and complexity of its economy. And like any people faced with such rapid and fundamental alterations in their surroundings, Americans reacted with ambiguity. On the one hand, they were excited by the new possibilities that economic growth was providing. On the other hand, they were painfully aware of the dislocations that it was creating: the challenges to traditional values and institutions, the social instability, the uncertainty about the future.

The result of these conflicting attitudes was the emergence of a bewildering array of movements intended to adapt society to its new realities, to "reform" the nation. These reform efforts took so many different shapes that generalizations about them are difficult, but in general they reflected one of two basic impulses, and at times elements of both. Many of these movements rested on an optimistic faith in human nature, a belief that within every individual resided a spirit that was basically good and that society should attempt to unleash. This assumptionwhich spawned in both Europe and America a movement known, in its artistic aspects at least, as romanticism stood in marked contrast to the traditional Calvinist assumption that human impulses and instincts were evil and needed to be repressed. Instead, reformers no,v argued, individuals should strive to give full expression to the inner spirit, should work to unleash their capacity to experience joy and to do good.

A second impulse, which appeared directly to contradict the first but in practice often existed alongside it, was a desire for order and control. With their society changing so rapidly, with their traditional values and institutions being challenged and eroded, many Americans yearned above all for a restoration of stability and discipline to their nation. Often, this impulse embodied a conservative nostalgia for better, simpler times. But it also inspired efforts to create new institutions of social control, suited to the realities of the new age.

The reforms that flowed from these two impulses came in many guises and embraced many different groups within the population. But the heart of reform activity remained always the Northeast, in particular New England; and in the course of the 1840s, the focus of this core group of reformers began to shift to one issue that came to overshadow all others: slavery. Not all Northern reformers agreed on how precisely to deal with the existence of slavery in their nation, but virtually all came to believe that the institution was an evil that must ultimately be eliminated. And in taking this position, they added another powerful force to the many that were driving a wedge between America's two major sections.

Culture and Liberation

"In the four quarters of the globe," wrote the English wit Sydney Smith in 1820, "who reads an American book? or goes to an American play? or looks at an American picture or statue?" The answer, he assumed, was obvious: no one.

American intellectuals were painfully aware of the low regard in which their culture was held by Europeans; and they continued in the middle decades of the century to work for a liberation of their nation's culturefor the creation of an American artistic life independent of Europe, one that would express their own nation's special virtues. At the same time, however, the nation's cultural leaders were beginning to strive for another kind of liberation, one that would gradually come almost to overshadow their self-conscious nationalism. That impulse, which was ironicallylargely an import from Europe, was the spirit of romanticism. In literature, in philosophy, in art, even in politics and economics, American intellectuals were committing themselves to the liberation of the human spirit.

A Literary Flowering

The effort to create a distinctively American literature, which Washington Irving and others had advanced in the first decades of the century, bore important fruit in the 1820s with the emergence of the first great American novelist: James Fenimore Cooper. The author of over thirty novels in the space of three decades, Cooper was known to his contemporaries as a master of adventure and suspense. What most distinguished his work, however, was its evocation of the American frontier. Cooper had grown up in central New York, at a time when the wilderness was not far away; and he retained throughout his life a fascination with man's relationship to nature and with the challenges (and dangers) of America's expansion westward. His most important novels the "Leatherstocking Tales," among them The Last of the Mohicans (1826) and The Deerslayer (1841) explored the American frontiersman's experience with Indians, pioneers, violence, and the law.

Cooper's novels were a continuation, in many ways a culmination, of the early nineteenth-century effort to produce a truly American literature. But they also served as a link to the concerns of later intellectuals. For in the "Leatherstocking Tales" could be seen not only a celebration of the American spirit and landscape but an evocation, through the character of Natty Bumppo, of the ideal of the independent individual, with a natural inner goodness. There was also evidence of the second impulse that would motivate American reform: the fear of disorder. In portraying other characters, who exemplified the vicious, grasping nature of some of the nation's Western settlers, Cooper was suggesting a need for social discipline even in the wilderness.

Emerging on the heels of Cooper was another group of important American writers who displayed even more clearly the grip of romanticism on the nation's intellectual life. Walt Whitman, the self-proclaimed poet of American democracy, was the son of a Long Island carpenter and lived for many years roaming the country doing odd jobs. Finally, in 1855, he hired a printer and published a first, thin volume of work: Leaves of Grass. His poems were an unrestrained celebration of democracy, of the liberation of the individual, and of the pleasures of the flesh as well as of the spirit. In these poems, as well as in a large body of other work spanning nearly forty more years until his death in 1892, Whitman not only helped liberate verse from traditional, restrictive conventions but helped express the questing spirit of individualism that characterized his age.

But the new literary concern with the unleashing of human emotions did not always produce optimistic and exuberant works. Herman Melville is a case in point. Born in New York in 1819, Melville ran away to sea as a youth and spent years sailing the world (including the South Seas) before returning home to become the greatest American writer of his era. The most important of his novels was Moby Dick, published in 1851. His portrayal of Ahab, the powerful, driven captain of a whaling vessel, was a story of courage and of the strength of individual will; but it was also a tragedy of pride and revenge. Ahab's maniacal search for a great white whale, Moby Dick, who had maimed him, suggested how the search for personal fulfillment and triumph could not only liberate but destroy. The result of Ahab's great quest was the annihilation of Ahab himself.

Similarly bleak were the works of one of the few Southern writers of the time to embrace the search for the essence of the human spirit: Edgar Allan . In the course of his short and unhappy life (he died in 1849 at the age of forty), produced stories and poems that were primarily sad and macabre. His first book, Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827), received little recognition. But later works, including his most famous poem, "The Raven" (1845), established him as a major, if controversial, literary figure. Through it all, evoked images of individuals rising above the narrow confines of intellect and exploring the deeper world of the spirit and the emotions. Yet that world, he seemed to say, was one of pain and horror.

Other American writers were contemptuous of Poe's work and his message, but he was ultimately to have a profound effect on European poets such as Baudelaire.

, however, was something of an exception in the world of Southern literature. The South experienced a literary flowering of its own in the mid-nineteenth century, and it produced writers and artists who were, like their Northern counterparts, concerned with defining the nature of American society and of the American nation. But Southerners tended to produce very different images of what that society was and should be.

Southern novelists of the 1830s (among them Beverly Tucker, William Alexander Caruthers, and John Pendleton Kennedy), some of them writers of great talent, many of them residents of Richmond, produced historical romances or romantic eulogies of the plantation system of the upper South. In the 1840s, the Southern literary capital moved to Charleston, home of the most distinguished of the region's men of letters: William Gilmore Simms. For a time, his work expressed a broad nationalism that transcended his regional background; but by the 1840s he had become a strong defender of Southern institutions especially slaveryagainst the encroachments of the North. There was, he believed, a unique quality to Southern life that it was the duty of intellectuals to defend.

One group of Southern writers, however, produced works that were more distinctively American and less committed to a glorification of the peculiarities of Southern life. These were the writers of the frontier, who depicted the society of the backwoods rural areas. Writers such as Augustus B. Longstreet, Joseph G. Baldwin, and Johnson J. Hooper focused not on aristocratic "cavaliers," but on ordinary people and poor whites. Instead of romanticizing their subjects, they were deliberately and sometimes painfully realistic. And they seasoned their sketches with a robust, vulgar humor that was something new in American literature. These Southern realists established a tradition of American regional humor that was ultimately to find a supreme exponent in Mark Twain.

The Transcendentalists

The outstanding expression of the romantic impulse in America came from a group of New England writers and philosophers known as the transcenden-talists. Borrowing heavily from German philosophers such as Kant, Hegel, and Schelling, and from the English writers Coleridge and Carlyle, the transcen-dentalists embraced a theory of the individual that rested on a distinction (first suggested by Kant) between what they called "reason" and "understanding." Reason, as they defined it, was the highest human faculty; it was the individual's innate capacity to grasp beauty and truth by giving full expression to the instincts and emotions. Understanding, by contrast, was the use of intellect in the narrow, artificial ways imposed by society; it involved the repression of instinct and the victory of externally imposed learning. Every person's goal, therefore, should be liberation from the confines of "understanding" and cultivation of "reason." Each individual should strive to "transcend" the limits of the intellect and allow the emotions, the "soul," to create an "original relation to the Universe."

Transcendentalist philosophy emerged first among a small group of intellectuals centered in Concord, Massachusetts. Their leader and most eloquent voice was Ralph Waldo Emerson. A Unitarian minister in his youth, Emerson left the church in 1832 to devote himself entirely to writing and teaching the elements of transcendentalism. He produced a significant body of poetry, but he was most renowned for his essays and lectures. In "Nature" (1836), one of his best-known essays, Emerson wrote that in the quest for self-fulfillment, individuals should work for a communion with the natural world: "in the woods, we return to reason and faith. . . . Standing on the bare ground,my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,all mean egotism vanishes. ... I am part and particle of God." In other essays, he was even more explicit in advocating a commitment of the individual to the full exploration of inner capacities. "Nothing is at last sacred," he wrote in "Self-Reliance" (1841), perhaps his most famous essay, "but the integrity of your own mind." The quest for self-reliance, he explained, was really a search for communion with the unity of the universe, the wholeness of God, the great spiritual force that he described as the "Oversoul." Each person's innate capacity to become, through his or her private efforts, a part of this essence was perhaps the classic expression of the romantic belief in the "divinity" of the individual.

Almost as influential as Emerson was another leading Concord transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau went even further than his friend Emerson in repudiating the repressive forces of society, which produced, he said, "lives of quiet desperation." Each individual should work for self-realization by breaking all ties with organized civilization, by attempting to create a private world in which he or she communed only with nature. Thoreau's own effort to create such a worldimmortalized in his most famous book, Walden (1854) led him to build an isolated cabin in the Concord woods on the edge of Walden Pond, where he lived for two years as simply as he could. "I went to the woods," he explained, "because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." Thoreau's rejection of what he considered the artificial constraints of society extended as well to his relationship with government. In 1846, he went to jail (briefly) rather than agree to pay a poll tax. He would not, he insisted, give financial support to a government that permitted the existence of slavery. In his 1849 essay "Resistance to Civil Government," he explained his refusal by claiming that the individual's personal morality had the first claim on his or her actions, that a government which required violation of that morality had no legitimate authority. The proper response was "civil disobedience," or "passive resistance"a public refusal to obey unjust laws.

Visions of Utopia

Although transcendentalism was above all an individualistic philosophy, it helped to spawn the most famous of all nineteenth-century experiments in communal living: Brook Farm. The dream of the Boston transcendentalist George Ripley, Brook Farm was established as an experimental community in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, in 1841. There, according to Ripley, individuals would gather to create a new form of social organization, one that would permit every member of the community full opportunity for self-realization. All residents would share equally in the labor of the community so that all could share too in the leisure; for it was leisure that was the first necessity for cultivation of the self. (Ripley was one of the first Americans to attribute positive connotations to the idea of leisure; most of his contemporaries equated it with laziness and sloth.) Participation in manual labor served another purpose as well: It helped individuals bridge the gap between the world of the intellect and the world of the flesh, thus aiding them to become whole people. The obvious tension between the ideal of individual freedom and the demands of a communal society took their toll on Brook Farm. Increasingly, individualism gave way to a form of socialism. Many residents became disenchanted and left; when a fire destroyed the central building of the community in 1847, the experiment dissolved. Among the original residents of Brook Farm was the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, who expressed his disillusionment with the experiment and, to some extent, with transcendentalism in a series of notable novels. In The Blithedale Romance (1852), he wrote scathingly of Brook Farm itself, portraying the disastrous consequences of the experiment on the individuals who submitted to it. In other novelsmost notably The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of Seven Gables (1851)he wrote equally passionately about the price individuals pay for cutting themselves off from society. Egotism, he claimed (in an indirect challenge to the transcendentalist faith in the self), was the "serpent" that lay at the heart of human misery.

The failure of Brook Farm did not, however, prevent the formation of other experimental communities. Some borrowed, as Ripley had done, from the ideas of the French philosopher Charles Fourier, whose ideas of socialist communities organized as cooperative "phalanxes" received wide attention in America. Others drew from the ideas of the Scottish industrialist and philanthropist Robert Owen. Owen himself founded an experimental community in Indiana in 1825, which he named New Harmony. It was to be a "Village of Cooperation," in which every resident worked and lived in total equality. The community was an economic failure, but the vision that had inspired it continued to enchant Americans. Dozens of other "Owenite" experiments began in other locations in the ensuing years.

Redefining Sexual Rotes

One of the principal concerns of many of the new Utopian communities (and of the new social philosophies on which they rested) was the relationship between men and women. In transcendentalism and other movements of this period can be seen expressions of a kind of feminism that would not gain a secure foothold in American society until the late twentieth century. Margaret Fuller, a leading transcendentalist, suggested the important relationship between the discovery of the "self" that was so central to antebellum reform and the questioning of sexual roles: "Many women are considering within themselves what they need and what they have not," she wrote in 1845. "I would have Woman lay aside all thought, such as she habitually cherishes, of being taught and led by men."

A redefinition of sexual roles was crucial to one of the most enduring of the Utopian colonies of the nineteenth century: the Oneida Community, established in 1848 in upstate New York by John Humphrey Noyes. The Oneida "Perfectionists," as residents of the community called themselves, rejected traditional notions of family and marriage. All residents, Noyes declared, were "married" to all other residents; there were to be no permanent conjugal ties. But Oneida was not, as its horrified critics often claimed, an experiment in unrestrained "free love." It was a place where the community carefully monitored sexual behavior; where women were to be protected from unwanted childbearing; in which children were raised communally, often seeing little of their own parents. The Oneidans took special pride in what they considered the liberation of their women from the demands of male "lust" and from the traditional bonds of family.

The Shakers, even more than the Oneidans, made a redefinition of traditional sexual roles central to their society. Founded by "Mother" Ann Lee in the 1770s, the society of the Shakers survived throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. (A small remnant survives today.) But the Shakers attracted a particularly large following in the antebellum period and established more than twenty communities throughout the Northeast and Northwest in the 1840s. They derived their name from a unique religious rituala sort of dance, in which members of a congregation would "shake" themselves free of sin while performing a loud chant.

The most distinctive feature of Shakerism, however, was its commitment to complete celibacy which meant, of course, that no one could be born to Shakerism; all Shakers had voluntarily to choose the faith. Shaker communities attracted about 6,000 members in the 1840s, more women than men, and they lived in communities in which contacts between men and women were very limited. They openly endorsed the idea of sexual equality; they even embraced the idea of a God who was not clearly male or female. Within the Shaker society as a whole, it was women who exercised the most power. Mother Ann Lee was succeeded as leader of the movement by Mother Lucy Wright. Shakerism, one observer wrote in the 1840s, was a refuge from the "perversions of marriage" and "the gross abuses which drag it down."

The Shakers were not, however, motivated only by a desire to escape the burdens of traditional sexual roles. They were trying as well to create a society separated and protected from the chaos and disorder that they believed had come to characterize American life as a whole. They were less interested in personal freedom than in social discipline. And in that, they were much like other dissenting religious sects and other Utopian communities of their time. Another example was the Amana Community, founded by German immigrants in 1843, which moved to Iowa in 1855; the Amanas attempted to realize Christian ideals by creating an ordered, socialist society.

The Mormons

But the most important of all efforts to create a new and more ordered society within the old was that of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saintsthe Mormons. Mormonism began in upstate New York as a result of the efforts of Joseph Smith, a young, energetic, but economically unsuccessful man, who had spent most of his twenty-four years moving restlessly through New England and the Northeast. Then, in 1830, he published a remarkable document the Book of Mormonwhich was, he claimed, a translation of a set of golden plates he had found in the hills of New York, revealed to him by an angel of God. The Book of Mormon told the story of an ancient civilization in America, whose now vanished kingdom could become a model for a new holy community in the United States.

Gathering a small group of believers around him, Smith began in 1831 an effort to find a sanctuary for his new community of "saints," an effort that would continue, unhappily, for more than twenty years. Time and again, the Mormons attempted to establish their "New Jerusalem." Time and again, they met with persecution from surrounding communities suspicious of the radical religious doctrineswhich included polygamy (the right of men to take several wives), a rigid form of social organization, and most damaging of all, an intense secrecy, which gave rise to wild rumors among their critics of conspiracy and depravity.

Driven from their original settlements in Independence, Missouri, and Kirtland, Ohio, the Mormons moved on to the new town of Nauvoo, Illinois, which in the early 1840s became an imposing and economically successful community. In 1844, however, Joseph Smith was arrested, charged with treason (for conspiring against the government to win foreign support for a new Mormon colony in the Southwest), and imprisoned in Carthage, Illinois. There an angry mob attacked the jail, forced Smith from his cell, and shot and killed him. The Mormons now abandoned Nauvoo and, under the leadership of Smith's successor, Brigham Young, traveled across the deserta society of 12,000 people, in one of the largest group migrations in American historyand established a new community in Utah, the present Salt Lake City. There, at last, the Mormons were able to create a permanent settlement. And although they were not always to remain as completely isolated from the rest of American society as they were at the beginning, never again were they to be dislodged.

Like other experiments in social organization of the era, Mormonism reflected a belief in human perfectibility. God had once been a man, the church taught; and thus every man or woman could aspire to becomeas Joseph Smith had donea god. But unlike other new communities, the Mormons did not embrace the doctrine of individual liberty. Instead, they created a highly organized, centrally directed, even militarized social structure, a refuge against the disorder and uncertainty of the secular world. The original Mormons were, for the most part, men and women who felt displaced in their rapidly changing societyeconomically marginal people left behind by the material growth and social progress of their era. In the new religion, they found security and order.

Remaking Society

The simultaneous efforts to liberate the individual and impose order on a changing world did not simply produce efforts to escape from society and create alternatives to it. They also helped to create a wide range of new movements to remake societymovements in which, to a striking degree, women formed the real rank and file and often the leadership as well. By the 1830s, such movements had taken the form of organized reform societies. "In no country in the world," Tocqueville had observed, "has the principle of association been more successfully used, or more unsparingly applied to a multitude of different objects, than in America. . . . for there is no end which the human will, seconded by the collective exertions of individuals, despairs of attaining."

The new organizations did indeed work on behalf of a wide range of goals: temperance; education; peace; the care of the poor, the handicapped, and the mentally ill; the treatment of criminals; the rights of women; and many more. Few eras in American history have witnessed as wide a range of reform efforts. And few eras have exposed more clearly the simultaneous attraction of Americans to the ideas of personal liberty and social order.

Revivalism, Morality, and Order

The philosophy of reform arose from two distinct sources. One was the optimistic vision of those who, like the transcendentalists, rejected Calvinist doctrines and preached the divinity of the individual. These included not only Emerson, Thoreau, and their followers, but a much larger group of Americans who embraced the doctrines of Unitarianism and Univer-salism and absorbed European romanticism.

The second, and in many respects more important, source was Protestant revivalismthe movement that had begun with the Second Great Awakening early in the century and had, by the 1820s, evolved into a powerful force for social reform. Although the New Light revivalists were theologically far removed from the transcendentalists and Unitarians, they had come to share the optimistic belief that every individual was capable of salvation. According to Charles Grandison Finney, a Presbyterian minister who became the most influential revival evangelist of the 1820s and 1830s, traditional Calvinist doctrines of predestination and individual human helplessness were both obsolete and destructive. Each person, he preached, contained within himself or herself the capacity to experience spiritual rebirth and achieve salvation. A revival need not depend on a miracle from God; it could be created by individual effort.

Finney enjoyed particular success in upstate New York, where he helped launch a series of passionate revivals in towns along the Erie Canala region so prone to religious awakenings that it was known as the "burned-over district." It was no coincidence that the new revivalism should prove so powerful there, for this region of New York was experiencing largely as a result of the construction of the canala major economic transformation. And with that transformation had come changes in the social fabric so profound that many men and women felt baffled and disoriented. (It was in roughly this same area of New York that Joseph Smith first organized the Mormon church.)

Finney's doctrine of personal regeneration appealed strongly to those who felt threatened by change. In Rochester, New York, the site of his greatest success, he staged a series of emotionally wrenching religious meetings that aroused a large segment of the communityparticularly the relatively prosperous citizens, who were enjoying the economic benefits of the new commercial growth but who were also uneasy about the introduction into their community of a new, undisciplined pool of transient laborers. For them, revivalism became not only a means of personal salvation but a mandate for the reform (and control) of the larger society. In particular, Finney's revivalism became a call for a crusade against personal immorality. "The church," he maintained, "must take right ground on the subject of Temperance, and Moral Reform, and all the subjects of practical morality which come up for decision from time to time."

Evangelical Protestantism added major strength, therefore, to one of the most influential reform movements of the era: the crusade against drunkenness. No social vice, argued some reformers (including, for example, many of Finney's converts in cities such as Rochester), was more responsible for crime, disorder, and poverty than the excessive use of alcohol. Women, who were particularly active in the temperance movement, claimed that alcoholism placed a particular burden on them: men spent money needed by their families on alcohol, and drunken husbands often beat and abused their wives. Although advocates of temperance had been active since the late eighteenth century, the new reformers gave the movement an energy and influence it had never known. In 1826, the American Society for the Promotion of Temperance emerged as a coordinating agency among various groups; it attempted to use many of the techniques of revivalism in preaching abstinence. Then, in 1840, six reformed drunkards in Baltimore organized the Washington Temperance Society and began to draw large crowds to hear their impassioned and intriguing confessions of past sins. By then, temperance advocates had grown dramatically in numbers; more than a million people had signed a formal pledge to forgo hard liquor.

As the movement gained in strength, it also became divided in purpose. Some temperance advocates now urged that abstinence include not only liquor but beer and wine; not everyone agreed. Others began to demand state legislation to restrict the sale and consumption of alcohol (Maine passed such a law in 1851); but others insisted that temperance must rely on the conscience of the individual. Whatever their disagreements, however, most temperance advocates shared similar motives. By promoting abstinence, reformers were attempting to promote individual moral self-improvement; but they were also trying to impose discipline on society.

The latter impulse was reflected particularly clearly in the battle over prohibition laws, which pitted established Protestants against new Catholic immigrants. The arrival of the immigrants was profoundly disturbing to established residents of many communities; and the restriction of alcohol seemed to them a way to curb the disorder that they believed the new population was creating.

Education and Rehabilitation

One of the outstanding reform movements of the mid-nineteenth century was the effort to produce a system of universal public education. As of 1830, no state could yet boast such a system, although some such as Massachusettshad supported a limited version for many years. Now, however, interest in public education grew rapidlya reflection of the new belief in the innate capacity of every person and of society's obligation to tap that capacity; but a reflection, too, of the desire to expose students to stable social values as a way to resist instability.

The greatest of the educational reformers was Horace Mann, the first secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education, which was established in 1837. To Mann and his followers, education was the only way to "counterwork this tendency to the domination of capital and the servility of labor." It was also the only way to protect democracy, for an educated electorate was essential to the workings of a free political system. Mann reorganized the Massachusetts school system, lengthened the academic year (to six months), doubled teachers' salaries (although he did nothing to eliminate the large disparities between the salaries of male and female teachers), enriched the curriculum, and introduced new methods of professional training for teachers. Other states experienced similar expansion and development: building new schools, creating teachers' colleges, and offering vast new groups of children access to education. Henry Barnard helped produce a new educational system in Connecticut and Rhode Island. Pennsylvania passed a law in 1835 appropriating state funds for the support of universal education. Governor William Seward of New York extended public support of schools throughout the state in the early 1840s. By the 1850s, the principle of tax-supported elementary schools had been accepted in all the states; and all, despite continuing opposition from certain groups, were making at least a start toward putting the principle into practice.

Yet the quality of the new education continued to vary widely. In some placesMassachusetts, for example, where Mann established the first American state-supported teachers' college in 1839, and the first professional association of teachers was created in 1845educators were usually capable men and women, often highly trained, and with an emerging sense of themselves as career professionals. In other areas, however, teachers were often barely literate, and funding for education was so limited as to restrict opportunities severely. In the newly settled regions of the West, where the population was highly dispersed, many children had no access to schools at all. In the South, the entire black population was barred from education (although approximately 10 percent of the slaves managed to achieve literacy anyway); and only about a third of all white children of school age were actually enrolled in schools in 1860. In the North, the percentage was 72 percent; but even there, many students attended classes only briefly and casually.

Despite all the limitations and inequities, the achievements of the school reformers were impressive by any standard. By the beginning of the Civil War, the United States had the highest literacy rate of any nation in the world: 94 percent of the population of the North and 83 percent of the white population of the South (58 percent of the total population).

The conflicting impulses that underlay the movement for school reform were visible in some of the different institutions that emerged. In New England, for example, the transcendentalist Bronson Alcott established an experimental school in Concord that reflected his strong belief in the importance of complete self-realization. He urged children to learn from their own inner wisdom, not from the imposition of values by the larger society. Children were to teach themselves, rather than relying on teachers. A similar emphasis on the potential of the individual sparked the creation of new institutions to help the handicapped, institutions that formed part of a great network of charitable activities known as the Benevolent Empire. Among them was the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston, the first such school in America. Nothing better exemplified the romantic impulse of the era than the belief of those who founded Perkins that even society's least-favored membersthe blind and otherwise handicappedcould be helped to discover an inner strength and wisdom. One teacher at the school expressed such attitudes when he described to the visiting English writer Charles Dickens the case of a blind, deaf, and speechless young woman who had been taught to communicate with the world. Although the "darkness and the silence of the tomb were around her," the teacher explained, "the immortal spirit which had been implanted within her could not die, nor be maimed nor mutilated." Gradually, she had learned to deal with the world around her, even to sew and knit, and most importantly, to speak through sign language. No longer was she a "dog or parrot." She was "an immortal spirit, eagerly seizing upon a new link of union with other spirits!"

Far more typical of educational reform, however, were efforts to use schools to impose a set of social values on childrenthe values that reformers believed were appropriate for their new, industrializing society. These values included thrift, order, discipline, punctuality, and respect for authority. Horace Mann, for example, spoke frequently of the role of public schools in extending democracy and expanding individual opportunity. But he spoke, too, of their role in creating social order. "The unrestrained passions of men are not only homicidal, but suicidal," he said in words that directly contradicted the emphasis of Alcott and other transcendentalists on instinct and emotion. "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it."

Similar impulses helped stir another powerful movement of reform: the creation of "asylums," as they were now called for the first time, for criminals and for the mentally ill. On the one hand, in advocating prison and hospital reform, Americans were reacting against one of society's most glaring ills. Criminals of all kinds, debtors unable to pay their debts, the mentally ill, even senile paupersall were crowded together indiscriminately into prisons and jails, which in some cases were literally holes; one jail in Connecticut was an abandoned mine shaft. Beginning in the 1820s, numerous states replaced these antiquated facilities with new penitentiaries and mental institutions designed to provide a proper environment for inmates. New York built the first pentitenti-ary at Auburn in 1821; in Massachusetts, the reformer Dorothea Dix began a national movement for new methods of treating the mentally ill. Imprisonment of debtors and paupers was gradually eliminated, as were such traditional practices as public hangings. But the creation of asylums for social deviants was not simply an effort to curb the abuses of the old system. It was also an attempt to reform and rehabilitate the inmates. New forms of rigid prison discipline were designed to rid criminals of the "laxness" that had presumably led them astray. Solitary confinement and the imposition of silence on work crews (both instituted in Pennsylvania and New York in the 1820s) were meant to give prisoners the opportunity to meditate on their wrongdoings. Some reformers argued that the discipline of the asylum could serve as a model for other potentially disordered environmentsfor example, factories and schools. But penitentiaries and even many mental hospitals soon fell victim to overcrowding, and the original reform ideal was gradually lost. Most prisons ultimately degenerated into little more than warehouses for criminals, with scant emphasis on rehabilitation. The idea, in its early stages, had envisioned far more.

The Rise of Feminism

The reform ferment of the antebellum period had a particular meaning for American women. They played central roles in a wide range of reform movements and a particularly important role in the movement on behalf of the abolition of slavery. In the process, they expressed their awareness of the problems that women themselves faced in a male-dominated society. The result was the creation of the first important American feminist movement, one that laid the groundwork for more than a century of agitation for women's rights.

Women in the 1830s and 1840s suffered not only all the traditional restrictions imposed on members of their sex by society but a new set of barriers that had emerged from the transformation of the family. (See pp.315-318.) Those women who began to involve themselves in reform movements in the 1820s and 1830s came to look on such restrictions with rising resentment. Some began to defy them. Sarah and Angelina Grimke, sisters born in South Carolina who had become active and outspoken abolitionists, ignored attacks by men who claimed that their activities were inappropriate for their sex. "Men and women were CREATED EQUAL," they argued. "They are both moral and accountable beings, and whatever is right for man to do, is right for women to do." Other reformersCatharine Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe (her sister), Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Dorothea Dixsimilarly pressed at the boundaries of "acceptable" female behavior, chafing at the restrictions placed on them by men.

Finally, in 1840, the patience of several women snapped. A group of American female delegates arrived at a world antislavery convention in London, only to be turned away by the men who controlled the proceedings. Angered at the rejection, several of the delegatesnotably Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stantonbecame convinced that their first duty as reformers should now be to elevate the status of women. Over the next several years, Mott, Stanton, and others began drawing pointed parallels between the plight of women and the plight of slaves; and in 1848, they organized in Seneca Falls, New York, a convention to discuss the question of women's rights. Out of the meeting emerged a "Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions" (patterned on the Declaration of Independence), which stated that "all men and women are created equal," that women no less than men are endowed with certain inalienable rights. Their most prominent demand was for the right to vote, thus launching a movement for woman suffrage that would survive until the battle was finally won in 1920. But the document was in many ways more important for its rejection of the whole notion that men and women should be assigned separate "spheres" in society.

Progress toward these feminist goals was limited in the antebellum years, but certain individual women did manage to break the social barriers to advancement. Elizabeth Blackwell, born in England, gained acceptance and fame as a physician. Her sister-in-law Antoinette Brown Blackwell became the first ordained woman minister in the United States; and another sister-in-law, Lucy Stone, took the revolutionary step of retaining her maiden name after marriage. She became a successful and influential lecturer on women's rights. Emma Willard, founder of the Troy Female Seminary in 1821, and Catharine Beecher, who founded the Hartford Female Seminary in 1823, worked on behalf of women's education. Some women expressed their feminist sentiments even in their choice of costumeby wearing a distinctive style of dress (introduced in the 1850s) that combined a short skirt with full length pantalettesan outfit that allowed freedom of movement without loss of modesty. Introduced by the famous actress Fanny Kemble, it came to be called the "bloomer" costume, after one of its advocates, Amelia Bloomer. (It provoked so much controversy that feminists finally abandoned it, believing that the furor was drawing attention away from their more important demands.)

Yet there was an irony in this rise of interest in the rights of women. Feminists benefited greatly from their association with other reform movements, most notably abolitionism; but at the same time, they suffered as a result. For the demands of women were usually assignedeven by some women themselvesa secondary position to what many considered the far greater issue of the rights of slaves.

The Crusade Against Slavery

The antislavery movement was not new to the mid-nineteenth century. There had been efforts even before the Revolution to limit, and even eliminate, the institution, efforts that had helped remove slavery from most of the North by the end of the eighteenth century. There were powerful antislavery movements in England and Europe that cried out forcefully against human bondage. But American antislavery sentiment remained relatively muted in the first decades after independence. Not until 1830 did it begin to gather the force that would ultimately enable it to overshadow virtually all other efforts at social reform.

Early Opposition to Slavery

In the early years of the nineteenth century, those who opposed slavery were, for the most part, a calm and genteel lot, expressing moral disapproval but engaging in few overt activities. To the extent that there was an organized antislavery movement, it centered on the concept of colonizationan effort to encourage the resettlement of American blacks in Africa or the Caribbean. In 1817, a group of prominent white Virginians organized the American Colonization Society (ACS), which worked carefully to challenge slavery without challenging property rights or Southern sensibilities. The ACS proposed a gradual manumission of slaves, with masters receiving compensation (through funds raised by private charity or appropriated by state legislatures). The liberated blacks were then to be transported out of the country and helped to establish a new society of their own. The ACS was not without impact. It received some funding from private donors, some from Congress, some from the legislatures of Virginia and Maryland. And it arranged the shipment of several groups of blacks out of the country, some of them to the west coast of Africa, where in 1830 they established the nation of Liberia (which became an independent black republic in 1846, with its capital, Monrovia, named for the American president who had presided over the initial settlement). But the ACS was in the end a negligible force. Neither private nor public funding was nearly enough to carry out the vast projects its supporters envisioned. In the space of a decade, they managed to "colonize" fewer slaves than were born in the United States in a month. Nothing, in fact, would have been enough; there were far too many blacks in America in the nineteenth century to be transported to Africa by any conceivable program. And the ACS met resistance, in any case, from blacks themselves, many of whom were now three or more generations removed from Africa and had no wish to move to an alien land. (The Massachusetts free black Paul Cuffe had met similar resistance from members of his race in the early 1800s when he proposed a colonization scheme of his own.)

By 1830, in other words, the early antislavery movement was rapidly losing strength. Colonization was proving not to be a viable method of attacking the institution, particularly since the cotton boom in the Deep South was increasing the commitment of planters to their "peculiar" labor system. Those opposed to slavery had reached what appeared to be a dead end.

Garrison and Abolitionism

It was at this crucial juncture, with the antislavery movement seemingly on the verge of collapse, that a new figure emerged to transform it into a dramatically different phenomenon. He was William Lloyd Garrison. Born in Massachusetts in 1805, Garrison was in the 1820s an assistant to the Newjersey Quaker Benjamin Lundy, who published the leading antislavery newspaper of the timethe Genius of Universal Emancipationin Baltimore. Garrison shared Lundy's abhorrence of slavery, but he soon grew impatient with his employer's moderate tone and mild proposals for reform. In 1831, therefore, he returned to Boston to found his own weekly newspaper, the Liberator,

Garrison's philosophy was so simple as to be genuinely revolutionary. Opponents of slavery, he said, should view the institution from the point of view of the black man, not the white slaveowner. They should not, as earlier reformers had done, talk about the evil influence of slavery on white society; they should talk about the damage the system did to blacks. And they should, therefore, reject "gradualism" and demand the immediate, unconditional, universal abolition of slavery. Garrison spoke with particular scorn about the advocates of colonization. They were not emancipationists, he argued; on the contrary, their real aim was to strengthen slavery by ridding the country of those blacks who were already free. The true aim of foes of slavery, he insisted, must be to extend to blacks all the rights of American citizenship. As startling as the drastic nature of his proposals was the relentless, uncompromising tone with which he promoted them. "I am aware," he wrote in the very first issue of the Liberator,   "that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will   be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. ... I am in earnestI will not equivocateI will not excuseI will not retreat a single inchAND I WILL BE HEARD."

Garrison soon attracted a large group of followers throughout the North, enough to enable him to found the New England Antislavery Society in 1832 and a year later, after a convention in Philadelphia, the American Antislavery Society. Membership in the new organizations mushroomed. By 1835, there were more than 400 societies; by 1838, there were 1,350, with more than 250,000 members. Antislavery sentiment was developing a strength and assertiveness greater than at any point in the nation's history.

This success was in part a result of the similarity between abolitionism and other reform movements of the era. Like reformers in other areas, abolitionists were calling for an unleashing of the individual human spirit, the elimination of artificial social barriers to fulfillment. Who, after all, was more in need of assistance in realizing individual potential than the enslaved blacks? Theodore Dwight Weld, a prominent abolitionist (and husband of Angelina Grimke), expressed this belief in an 1833 letter to Garrison. Slavery was a sin, Weld wrote, because "no condition of birth, no shade of color, no mere misfortune of circumstances can annul the birthright charter, which God has bequeathed to every being upon whom he has stamped his own image, by making him a free moral agent."

Black Abolitionists

Abolitionism had a particular appeal, needless to say, to the free black population of the North, which in 1850 numbered about 250,000, mostly concentrated in cities. These free blacks lived in conditions of poverty and oppression often far worse than their slave counterparts in the South. An English traveler who had visited both sections of the country wrote in 1854 that he was "utterly at a loss to imagine the source of that prejudice which subsists against [the black man] in the Northern states, a prejudice unknown in the South, where the relations between the Africans and the European [white American] are so much more intimate." This confirmed an earlier observation by Tocqucville   that "the   prejudice which repels the Negroes seems to increase in proportion as they are emancipated." Northern blacks were often victimized by mob violence; they had virtually no access to education; they could vote in only a few states; and they were barred from all but the most menial of occupations. Most worked either as domestic servants or as sailors in the American merchant marine, and their wages were such that they lived, for the most part, in squalor. Some were kidnapped by whites and forced back into slavery.

For all their problems, however, Northern blacks were aware of, and fiercely proud of, their freedom. And they remained acutely sensitive to the plight of those members of their race who remained in bondage, aware that their own position in society would remain precarious as long as slavery existed. Many in the 1830s came to support Garrison. But there were also important black leaders who expressed the aspirations of their race. One of the most militant was David Walker, a resident of Boston, who in 1829 published a harsh pamphlet: Walker's Appeal . . . to the Colored Citizens. In it he declared: "America is more our country than it is the whites'we have enriched it with our blood and tears." He warned: "The whites want slaves, and want us for their slaves, but some of them will curse the day they ever saw us." Slaves should, he declared, cut their masters' throats, should "kill, or be killed!"

Most black critics of slavery, however, were less violent in their rhetoric. The greatest of them all one of the most electrifying orators of his time, black or whitewas Frederick Douglass. Born a slave in Maryland, Douglass escaped to Massachusetts in 1838, became an outspoken leader of antislavery sentiment, and spent two years lecturing in England, where he was lionized by members of that country's vigorous antislavery movement. On his return to the United States in 1847, Douglass purchased his freedom from his Maryland owner and founded an antislavery newspaper, the North Star, in Rochester, New York. He achieved wide renown as well for his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), in which he presented a damning picture of slavery. Douglass demanded for blacks not only freedom but full social and economic equality. Black abolitionists had been active for years; they had held their first national convention in 1830. But with Douglass's leadership, they became a far more influential force; and they began, too, to forge alliances with white antislavery leaders such as Garrison.

Antiabolitionism

The rise of abolitionism was a powerful force, but it provoked a powerful opposition as well. Almost all  white Southerners, of course, looked on the movement with fear and loathing. But so too did many Northern whites. Indeed, even in the North, abolitionists were never more than a small, dissenting minority. To its critics, the abolitionist crusade was a dangerous and frightening threat to the existing social system. It would, warned some whites (including many substantial businessmen), produce a destructive war between the sections. It might, others feared, lead to a great influx of free blacks into the North. And whatever the long-range consequences, this strident, outspoken movement seemed to many Northern whites a sign of the disorienting social changes that their society was experiencing. It was yet another threat to stability and order.

The result was an escalating wave of violence directed against abolitionists in the 1830s. When Prudence Crandall attempted to admit several girls to her private school in Connecticut, local citizens had her arrested, threw filth into her well, and forced her to close down the school. A mob in Philadelphia attacked the abolitionist headquarters, the "Temple of Liberty," in 1834, burned it to the ground, and began a bloody race riot. Another mob seized Garrison on the streets of Boston in 1835 and threatened to hang him. He was saved from death only by being locked in jail. Elijah Lovejoy, the editor of an abolitionist newspaper in Alton, Illinois, was victimized repeatedly by mob violence. Three times angry whites invaded his offices and smashed his presses. Three times Lovejoy installed new machines and began publishing again. When a mob attacked his office a fourth time, late in 1837, he tried to defend his press. The attackers set fire to the building and, as Lovejoy fled, shot and killed him.

That so many men and women continued to embrace abolitionism in the face of such vicious opposition from within their own communities suggests much about the nature of the movement. Abolitionists were not people who made their political commitments lightly or casually. They were strong-willed, passionate crusaders, displaying enormous courage and moral strength, and displaying too at times a level of fervency that many of their contemporaries (and some later historians) found disturbing. Abolitionists were widely attacked, even by some who shared their aversion to slavery, as wild-eyed fanatics bent on social revolution. The antiabolitionist mobs, in other words, were only the most violent expression of a sentiment that many other white Americans shared.

Abolitionism Divided

By the mid-1830s, the abolitionist crusade had gained such influence that it was impossible to ignore. It had also begun to experience serious internal strains and divisions. One reason was the violence of the anti-abolitionists, which persuaded some members of the movement that a more moderate approach was necessary. Another reason was the growing radicalism of William Lloyd Garrison, who shocked even many of his own allies (including Frederick Douglass) by attacking not only slavery but the government itself, The Constitution, he said, was "a covenant with death and an agreement with hell." The nation's churches, he claimed, were bulwarks of slavery. In 1840, finally, Garrison precipitated a formal division within the American Antislavery Society by insisting that women be permitted to participate in the movement on terms of full equality. He continued after 1840 to arouse controversy with new and even more radical stands: an extreme pacifism that rejected even defensive wars; opposition to all forms of coercionnot just slavery but prisons and asylums; and finally, in 1843, a call for Northern disunion from the South. The nation could, he suggested, purge itself of the sin of slavery by expelling the slave states from the Union.

From 1840 on, therefore, abolitionism moved in many channels and spoke with many different voices. The Garrisonians remained influential, with their uncompromising moral stance. Others operated in more moderate ways, arguing that abolition could be accomplished only as the result of a long, patient, peaceful struggle"immediate abolition gradually accomplished," as they called it. At first, they depended on "moral suasion." They would appeal to the conscience of the slaveholders and convince them that their institution was sinful. When that produced no results, they turned to political action, seeking to induce the Northern states and the federal government to aid the cause wherever possible. They helped runaway slaves find refuge in the North or in Canada through the so-called underground railroad (although their efforts were never as highly organized as the term suggests). After the Supreme Court (in Prigg v. Pennsylvania, 1842) ruled that states need not aid in enforcing the 1793 law requiring the return of fugitive slaves to their owners, abolitionists secured the passage of "personal liberty laws" in several Northern states. These laws forbade state officials to assist in the capture and return of runaways. Above all, the antislavery societies petitioned Congress to abolish very in places where the federal government had isdictionin the territories and in the District of )lumbiaand to prohibit the interstate slave trade. it political abolitionism had severe limits. Few embers of the movement believed that Congress uld constitutionally interfere with a "domestic" in-itution such as slavery within the individual states themselves.

While the abolitionists engaged in pressure poli-cs, they never formed a political party with an ab-lition platform. Antislavery sentiment underlay the )rmation in 1840 of the Liberty party, which offered le Kentucky antislavery leader James G. Birney as :s presidential candidate. But this party, and its suc-essors, never campaigned for outright abolition (an Uustration of the important fact that "antislavery" ind "abolitionism" were not always the same thing). Ihey stood instead for "free soil," for keeping slavery out of the territories. Some free-soilers were concerned about the welfare of blacks; others were racists who cared nothing about slavery but simply wanted to keep the West a country for whites. Garrison dismissed free-soilism as "white-manism." But the free-soil position would ultimately do what abolitionism never could accomplish: attract the support of large numbers, even a majority, of the white population of the North.

The frustrations of political abolitionism drove some critics of slavery to embrace more drastic measures. A few began to advocate violence; it was a j group of prominent abolitionists in New England, [for example, who funneled money and arms to John Brown for his bloody uprisings in Kansas and Virginia. (See pp.384, 391.) Others attempted to arouse widespread public anger through propaganda. Abolitionist descriptions of slavery (for example, Theodore Dwight Weld and Angelina Grimke's American Slavery as It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses of 1839) presented what the authors claimed were careful, factual pictures of slavery but what were in fact highly polemical, often wildly distorted images.

The most powerful of all abolitionist propaganda, however, was a work of fiction: Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. It appeared first, in 1851-1852, as a serial in an antislavery weekly. Then, in 1852, it was published as a book. It rocked the nation. It sold more than 300,000 copies within a year of publication and was later issued again and again to become one of the most remarkable best sellers in American history. And it succeeded, as a result, in bringing the message of abolitionism to an enormous new audiencenot only those who read the book but those who watched dramatizations of its story by countless theater companies throughout the nation. The novel's emotional portrayal of good, kindly blacks victimized by a cruel system; of the loyal, trusting Uncle Tom; of the vicious overseer Simon

Legree (described as a New Englander so as to prevent the book from seeming to be an attack on Southern whites); of the escape of the beautiful Eliza; of the heart-rending death of Little Eva: all became a part of American popular legend. Reviled throughout the South, Stowe became a hero to many in the North. And in both regions, her novel helped to inflame sectional tensions to a new level of passion. Few books in American history have had so great an impact on the course of public events.

Even divided, therefore, abolitionism remained a powerful influence on the life of the nation. Only a relatively small number of people before the Civil War ever accepted the abolitionist position that slavery must be entirely eliminated in a single stroke. But the crusade that Garrison had launched, and that thousands of committed men and women kept alive for three decades, was a constant, visible reminder of how deeply the institution of slavery was dividing America.


 

 



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