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Learn About Pre-Civil War Reform

During the decades preceding the Civil War, reformers launched unprecedented campaigns to educate the deaf and the blind, to rehabilitate cure the mentally ill, extend equal rights to women, and abolish slavery.  Inspired by the Declaration of Independence, the Enlightenment’s faith in reason, and liberal and evangelical religious principles, educational reformers created a system of free public education; prison reformers constructed specialized institutions to rehabilitate criminals, temperance reformers sought to end the drinking of hard liquor; and utopian socialists established ideal communities to serve as models for a better world. Our modern systems of free public schools, prisons, and hospitals for the infirm and the mentally ill are products of this first age of American reform.

During the early 19th century, and especially after the War of 1812, American society was profoundly transformed. These years witnessed rapid economic and territorial expansion; the extension of democratic politics; the spread of evangelical revivalism; the rise of the nation's first labor and reform movements; the growth of cities and industrial ways of life; radical shifts in the roles and status of women; and deepening sectional conflicts that would bring the country to the verge of civil war.

Until 1821, Spain ruled the area that now includes Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah. The Mexican war for independence opened the region to American economic penetration. Government explorers, traders, and trappers helped to open the West to white settlement. In the 1820s, thousands of Americans moved into Texas, and during the 1840s, thousands of pioneers headed westward toward Oregon and California, seeking land and inspired by manifest destiny, the idea that America had a special destiny to stretch across the continent. Between 1844 and 1848 the United States expanded its boundaries into Texas, the Southwest, and the Pacific Northwest. It acquired Texas by annexation; Oregon and Washington by negotiation with Britain; and Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming as a result of war with Mexico.

How is it with the slave?
William Lloyd Garrison, 1830
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More documents in the our collection. Scroll down to "Pre-Civil War Reform."
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Handouts and fact sheets:

Religion and Social Reform
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Recommended lesson plan:

The Age of Reform
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Quiz on Pre-Civil War Reform, Answers to the Quiz on Pre-Civil war Reform
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Recommended books:

Steven Mintz, Moralists & Modernizers: America's Pre-Civil War Reformers
An overview and interpretation of the major reforms of the era, including abolition, temperance and women's rights.

Recommended film:

Steven Spielberg’s flawed recreation of the 1839 incident in which kidnapped Africans overcame their captors and were subsequently put on trial in the United States for piracy. The film downplays the extent of racism in the North and distorts the role of religion in motivating antislavery.

Comprehensive reviews of this movie

Recommended Website:

Religion and the Founding of the American Republic
A succinct history of the role of religion in stimulating organized benevolence.
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