Digital History

Pre-Civil War Reform

Social Reform and the Problem of Crime in a Free Society Previous Next
Digital History ID 3534



The nation’s first reformers tried to improve the nation’s moral and spiritual values by distributing Bibles and religious tracts, promoting observance of the Sabbath, and curbing drinking. Beginning in the 1820s a new phase of reform--social reform--spread across the country, directed at crime, illiteracy, poverty, and disease. Reformers sought to solve these social problems by creating new institutions to deal with them--including prisons, public schools, and asylums for the deaf, the blind, and the mentally ill.

The Problem of Crime in a Free Society

Before the American Revolution, punishment for crimes generally involved some form of corporal punishment, ranging from the death penalty for serious crimes to public whipping, confinement in stocks, and branding for lesser offenses. Jails were used as temporary confinement for criminal defendants awaiting trial or punishment. Conditions in these early jails were abominable. Cramped cells held large groups of offenders of both sexes and all ages; debtors were confined with hardened criminals. Prisoners customarily had to pay the expenses of food and lodging.

During the pre-Civil War decade, reformers began to view crime as a social problem--a product of environment and parental neglect--rather than the result of original sin or innate human depravity. Reformers believed it was the duty of a humane society to remove the underlying causes of crime, to sympathize and show patience toward criminals and to try to reform them, instead of whipping or confining them in stocks.

Revulsion over the spectacle of public punishment led to the rapid construction of penal institutions in which the ‘disease’ of crime could be quarantined and inmates could be gradually rehabilitated in a carefully controlled environment. Two rival prison systems competed for public support. After constructing Auburn Prison, New York State authorities adopted a system in which inmates worked in large workshops during the day and slept in separate cells at night. Convicts had to march in lockstep and refrain from speaking or even looking at each other. In Pennsylvania’s Eastern State Penitentiary, constructed in 1829, authorities placed even greater stress on the physical isolation of prisoners. Every prison cell had its own exercise yard, work space, and toilet facilities. Under the Pennsylvania plan, prisoners lived and worked in complete isolation from each other. Called ‘penitentiaries’ or ‘reformatories,’ these new prisons reflected the belief that hard physical labor and solitary confinement might encourage introspection and instill habits of discipline that would rehabilitate criminals.

The legal principle that a criminal act should be legally punished only if the offender was fully capable of distinguishing between right and wrong opened the way to one of the most controversial aspects of American jurisprudence--the insanity defense. The question arose dramatically in 1835 when a deranged Englishman named Richard Lawrence walked up to President Andrew Jackson and fired 2 pistols at him from a distance of 6 feet. Incredibly, both guns misfired, and Jackson was unhurt. Lawrence believed that Jackson’s attack on the Second Bank of the United States had prevented him from obtaining money that would have enabled him to claim the English throne. The court, ruling that Lawrence was clearly suffering from a mental delusion, found him insane and not subject to criminal prosecution; instead, he was confined to an asylum for treatment of his mental condition.

Another major effort in social reform was the drive to outlaw capital punishment. Before the 1830s, most states reduced the number of crimes punishable by death and began to perform executions out of public view, lest the public be stimulated to acts of violence by the spectacle of hangings. In 1847 Michigan became the first modern jurisdiction to outlaw the death penalty; Rhode Island and Wisconsin soon followed.

Imprisonment for debt also came under attack. As late as 1816, an average of 600 residents of New York City were in prison at any one time for failure to pay debts. More than half owed less than $50. New York’s debtor prisons provided no food, furniture, or fuel for their inmates, who would have starved without the assistance of relatives or the charity of humane societies. In a Vermont case, state courts imprisoned a man for a debt of just 54 cents, and in Boston a woman was taken from her three children as a result of a $3 debt.

Increasingly, reformers regarded imprisonment for debt as irrational, since imprisoned debtors were unable to work and pay off their debts. Piecemeal reform led to the abolition of debtor prisons, as states eliminated the practice of jailing people for trifling debts, and then forbade the jailing of women and veterans.

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