Religion and Social Reform

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Digital History ID 3842

Interpreting Primary Sources

Roots of Reform

From 1801 for years a blessed revival of religion spread through almost the entire inhabited parts of the West....The Presbyterians and Methodists in a great measure united in this work, met together, prayed together, and preached together....

They would erect their camps with logs or frame them, and cover them with clapboards or shingles. They would also erect a shed, sufficiently large to protect five thousand people from wind and rain, and cover it with boards or shingles; build a large stand, seat the shed, and here they would collect together from forty to fifty miles around, sometimes further than that. Ten, twenty, and sometimes thirty ministers of different denominations would come together and preach night and day, four or five days together....

A new exercise broke out among us, called the jerks, which was overwhelming in its effects upon the bodies and minds of the people. No matter whether they were saints or sinners, they would be taken under a warm song or sermon, and seized with a convulsive jerking all over, which they could not by any possibility avoid, and the more they resisted the more they jerked....I have seen more than five hundred persons jerking at one time in my large congregations....The first jerk or so, you would see their fine bonnets, caps, and combs fly; and so sudden would be the jerking of the head that their long loose hair would crack almost as loud as a wagoner's whip.

Peter Cartwright

Questions To Think About

1. Why did the early 19th century witness the first secular efforts in history to improve society through social reform?

2. What were the sources of the reform impulse?

3. Describe the basic characteristics of revivalistic religion?

4. Why do you think church membership increased rapidly during the early 19th century?

Social Reform

Reading 1:

The elementary schools throughout the state are irresponsible institutions, established by individuals, from mere motives of private speculation or gain, who are sometimes destitute of character, and frequently of the requisite attainments and abilities. From the circumstance of the schools being the absolute property of individuals, no supervision or effectual control can be exercised over them; hence, ignorance, inattention, and even immorality, prevail to a lamentable extent among their teachers.

Working Man's Advocate, 1830

Reading 2:

The scheme of Universal Equal Education at the expense, is virtually "Agrarianism." It would be a compulsory application of the means of the richer, for the direct use of the poorer classes; and so far an arbitrary division of property among them....One of the chief excitements to the hope of earning the means of educating their children respectably ...that incentive would be removed, and the scheme of state and equal education be a premium for comparative idleness, to be taken out of the pockets of the laborious and conscientious.

Philadelphia National Gazette, 1830

Reading 3:

I believe in the existence of a great, immortal, immutable principle of natural law...which proves the absolute right to an education of every human being that comes into the world; and which, of course, proves the correlative duty of every government to see that the means of that education are provided for all....

Massachusetts is parental in her government. More and more, as year after year rolls by, she seeks to substitute prevention for remedy, and rewards for penalties. She strives to make industry the antidote to poverty, and to counterwork the progress of vice and crime by the diffusion of knowledge and the culture of virtuous principles.

Horace Mann, 1846

Reading 4:

I proceed, gentlemen, briefly to call your attention to the present state of insane persons confined within this Commonwealth, in cages, closets, cellars, stalls, pens! Chained, naked, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience....

I have seen many who, part of the year, are chained or caged. The use of cages all but universal....I encountered during the last three months many poor creatures wandering reckless and unprotected through the country.

Dorothea Dix, 1843

Reading 5:

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. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise.
He has compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice....
He has made her, if married, in the eyes of the law civilly dead.
He has taken from her all right in property, even to the wages she earns....
He has monopolized nearly all the profitable employment, and from those she is permitted to follow, she receives but a scanty remuneration.
He closes against her all the avenues to wealth and distinction, which he considers most honorable to himself....
He has denied her the facilities for obtaining a thorough education--all colleges being closed against her....
He has created a false public sentiment, by giving to the world a different code of morals for men and women, by which moral delinquencies which exclude women from society, are not only tolerated but deemed of little account in man....
He has endeavored, in every way that he could, to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.

"Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions" of the 1848 Seneca Falls, New York, Women's Rights Convention

Reading 6:

Intemperance is the sin of our land, and, with out boundless prosperity, is coming in upon us like a flood; and if anything shall defeat the hopes of the world, which hang upon our experiment of civil liberty, it is that river of fire, which is rolling through the land, destroying the vital air, and extending around an atmosphere of death.

Lyman Beecher, 1826

Reading 7:

We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created temperate; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain natural and innocent desires; that among these are the appetite for cold water and the pursuit of happiness! that to secure the gratification of these propensities fountains and streams are gushing....

Manifesto of the Washington Total Abstinence Societies, 1841

Reading 8:

[How] will reformation and temperance be secured...? Never except through the instrumentality of the law. If it were possible to reason the drunkard into sobriety, it would not be possible to make the rumseller forego his filthy gains....The only logic he will comprehend, is some such ordinance...coming to him in the shape and with the voice of law--you shall not sell.

American Temperance Magazine, 1852

Reading 9:

We register our testimony, not only against all wars, whether offensive or defensive, but all preparations for war; against every naval ship, every arsenal, every fortification; against the militia system and a standing army; against all military chieftains and soldiers; against all monuments commemorative of victory over a fallen foe, all trophies won in battle, all celebrations in honor of military or naval exploits; against all appropriations for the defense of a nation by force and arms...every edict of government requiring of its subjects military service.

Declaration of Sentiments, Boston Peace Convention, 1838

Reading 10:

Under our system of isolated and separate households, with separate interests and separate pursuits, instead of association and combination among families, there is the most deplorable waste, which is one of the primary sources of the general poverty that exists; and discord, antagonism, selfishness, and an anti-social spirit are engendered. Woman is subjected to unremitting and slavish domestic duties...a dead rebuke to all pretensions to Democracy....A new social order [should] be established, based upon "Associated households"....

Albert Brisbane

Questions To Think About

1. What arguments were advanced in favor of public schools? How did opponents of public schools respond?

2. Describe the plight of the mentally ill in early l9th century America?

3. What disabilities to early l9th century American women live under according to pre-Civil War women's rights advocates?

4. Why did pre-Civil War temperance reformers consider drinking a cardinal sin?

5. Describe the aims of other pre-Civil War reformers.


Interpreting Primary Sources

Reading 1:

Assenting to the "self-evident truth" maintained in the American Declaration of Independence, "that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights"...I shall strenuously contend for the immediate enfranchisement of our slave population....

I am aware, 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....Tell a man whose house is on fire, to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen;--but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest--I will not equivocate--I will not excuse--I will not retreat a single inch--And I Will Be Heard.

William Lloyd Garrison

Reading 2:

That every American citizen, who detains a human being in involuntary bondage as his property is, according to Scripture, a man-stealer:

That the slaves ought instantly to be set free, and brought under the protection of the law....

That all those laws which are now in force, admitting the right of slavery, are therefore, before God, utterly null and void; being an audacious usurpation of the Divine prerogative, a daring infringement on the law of nature, a base overthrow of the very foundations of the social compact, a complete extinction of all the relations, endearments and obligations of mankind, and a presumptuous transgression of all the holy commandments; and that therefore they ought instantly to be abrogated.

American Anti-Slavery Society's Declaration of Sentiments

Reading 3:

It is not by argument that the abolitionists have produced the present unhappy excitement. Argument has not been the characteristic of their publications. Denunciations of slaveholding as man-stealing, robbery, piracy, and worse than murder; subsequent vituperation of slaveholders as knowingly guilty of the worst of crimes; passionate appeals to the feelings of the inhabitants of the northern States; gross exaggeration of the moral and physical condition of the slaves, have formed the staple of their addresses to the public....There is in this conduct such a strange want of adaptation of the means to the end which they profess to have in view, as to stagger the faith of most persons in the sincerity of their professions, who do not consider the extreme to which even good men may be carried, when they allow one subject to take exclusive possession of their minds.

Charles Hodge

Questions To Think About

1. Why was it not until the late eighteenth century that large numbers of individuals considered slavery to be morally wrong?

2. Why did abolitionists consider slavery to be wrong?

3. Are agitation and denunciation an effective way of opposing a social evil or do such methods simply breed resistance?

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