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Digital History ID 3532


The decades before the Civil War saw the birth of the American reform tradition. Reformers--female and male, black and white--launched unprecedented campaigns to educate the deaf and the blind, rehabilitate criminals, extend equal rights to women, and abolish slavery. Our modern systems of free public schools, prisons, and hospitals for the infirm and the mentally ill are all legacies of this first generation of American reform.

What factors gave rise to the reform impulse and why was it unleashed with such vigor in pre–Civil War America? Reformers had many different reasons for wanting to change American society. Some hoped to remedy the distresses created by social disorder, violence, and widening class divisions. Others found motivation in a religious vision of a godly society on earth.

During the early 19th century, poverty, lawlessness, violence, and vice appeared to be increasing at an alarming rate. In New York, the nation’s largest city, crime rose far faster than in the overall population. Between 1814 and 1834, the city’s population doubled, but reports of crime quadrupled. Gangs, bearing such names as Plug Uglies and Bowery B’hoys, prowled the streets, stealing from warehouses and private residences. Public drunkenness was a common sight. By 1835, there were nearly 3,000 drinking places in New York--one for every 50 persons over the age of 15. Prostitution also generated concern. By 1850, a reported 6,000 “fallen women” strolled the city streets. Mob violence evoked particular fear. In a single decade, 1834–1844, 200 incidents of mob violence occurred in New York. Adding to the sense of alarm were scenes of heart-wrenching poverty, such as children standing barefoot outside hotels, selling matches.

Social problems were not confined to large cities like New York. During the decades before the Civil War, newspapers reported hundreds of incidences of duels, lynchings, and mob violence. In the slave states and southwestern territories men frequently resolved quarrels by dueling. In one 1818 duel between two cousins, the combatants faced off with shotguns at four paces! Lynchings too were widely reported. In 1835, the citizens of Vicksburg, Mississippi, attempted to rid the city of gambling and prostitution by raiding gaming houses and brothels and lynching five gamblers. In urban areas, mob violence increased in frequency and destructiveness. Between 1810 and 1819 there were 7 major riots; in the 1830s there were 115.

A nation in which the vice president had to carry a gun while presiding over the Senate--lest senators attack each other with knives or pistols--seemed to confirm criticism by Europeans that democracy inevitably led to anarchy. Incidents of crime and violence led many Americans to ask how a free society could maintain stability and moral order. Americans sought to answer this question through religion, education, and social reform.

More than anxiety over lawlessness, violence, and vice sparked the reform impulse during the first decades of the 19th century. America’s revolutionary heritage, the philosophy of the Enlightenment, and religious zeal all contributed to a sensitivity to human suffering and a boundless faith in humankind’s capacity to improve social institutions.

Many pre–Civil War reformers saw their efforts as an attempt to realize the ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. Invoking the principles of liberty and equality set forth in the Declaration, abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison attacked slavery and feminists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton called for equal rights for women.

The philosophy of the Enlightenment, with its belief in the people’s innate goodness and with its rejection of the inevitability of poverty and ignorance, was another important source of the reform impulse. Those who espoused the Enlightenment philosophy argued that the creation of a more favorable moral and physical environment could alleviate social problems.

Religion further strengthened the reform impulse. Almost all the leading reformers were devoutly religious men and women who wanted to deepen the nation’s commitment to Christian principles.



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