Reform, Social

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The great social reform movements in U.S. history took off in the 1790s. Movements for the abolition of slavery, temperance, education, assistance to poor people, voting rights for women, civil rights for African Americans, and land rights for Native Americans galvanized large numbers of women and men to their causes and demanded responses from elites, government officials, and businessmen alike. Though major northern cities such as New York, Boston, and Philadelphia were home to hundreds of organizations, news of reform activities circulated widely in newspapers and in person by activists, ministers, and others who traveled. From Akron, Ohio, to Baltimore, Maryland, from Rochester, New York, to Fredericksburg, Virginia, organizations of various structures and causes sprang up in towns everywhere—few were untouched by the prophetic zeal of those devoted to change.

Such well-organized, financed, and sustained efforts to alleviate pain, regulate behavior, attain rights, or in some other way alter the situation of a specific group of people were largely absent prior to the Revolutionary era. In the early eighteenth century, few people with the capacity to bring about change perceived poverty, slavery, crime, or drinking as social problems. The rigidly hierarchical social structure enabled the community elite to rest assured that poor people were merely needy, not threatening. Few organizations or social structures existed to assist people in their times of need. Tax dollars were the source of charity money in most locales, and it was offered on an individual basis to those in need, regardless of cause. Fundamentally changing social relations and structures was not on the agenda for much of the eighteenth century. Opposition to slavery on moral grounds grew among some religious groups before the Revolution. Quakers John Woolman and Anthony Benezet vehemently spoke out against slavery in the 1760s. Methodist leaders such as John Wesley also attacked slavery. The Declaration of Independence's promise "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," stimulated political opposition to slavery. During the Revolution abolitionist societies emerged in the North and the Upper South. In the North these societies helped lead the passage of gradual abolition acts in Pennsylvania and later New York and New Jersey.

the enlightenment

The fact that many social reform organizations began in the post-Revolutionary, newly formed nation of the 1790s is no coincidence. Historians point to the collusion of two great forces: the Enlightenment and the Great Awakening. Many speak of the Enlightenment as the "age of reason," or as philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) described it, a time characterized by the pursuit of truth. Rather than restrict the definition of the Enlightenment project to a handful of well-known European philosophers who published and spoke on such issues, many historians have a wider view that encompasses all who engaged in questioning the received teachings of religion, and particularly the focus on the afterlife as the driving force for human behavior. In an enlightened world, human progress would be achieved through advances in science, medicine, culture, education, technology, and even politics.

the great awakening

The Enlightenment empowered people to seek truth—and question the order of things. But it was the other powerful force of the eighteenth century—the Great Awakening—that inspired mass numbers of Protestants to do so. One of the most famous revivalists was English preacher George Whitefield, who toured America in 1739 and 1740. The staged revivals drew thousands and Whitefield, like Jonathan Edwards before him and others after him, appealed to their emotions, emphasized the value of spiritual rebirth and personal salvation, and downplayed the importance of religious doctrine. By encouraging people to reject the formal teachings of the churches and by re-centering the afterlife as the focus of human existence, the teachings of the Awakening appear to have challenged those of the Enlightenment. In reality, however, the Great Awakening may have furthered some beliefs at the heart of the Enlightenment—the values of human reason and of learning by experience. The growth of colleges and spread of education throughout the country was largely a result of Old Light Protestants who rejected the teachings of the New Light evangelical preachers and sought to further integrate knowledge and faith.

republicanism and reform

Just prior to the Revolution, the first movement to abolish slavery in the United States was initiated by the Quakers in Philadelphia, who made the buying or transfer of slaves grounds for disownment by the Quaker community in 1774. They formed the Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage in 1775, though it was soon disrupted by the Revolutionary War. Philadelphians concerned for the plight of prisoners organized in 1776 as the Philadelphia Society for Assisting Distressed Prisoners, but their efforts too were thwarted by the war. Like most of the first benevolent and reform associations, they were organized by men and restricted membership to men.

The Declaration of Independence of 1776 was followed by nearly a decade of war and even more years of political uncertainty and economic instability. Debates over the possible structure and function of a national government in the newly independent colonies resulted in the triumph of the political theory of republicanism. Republican theorists knew that the political, social, cultural, and familial spheres were not isolated units. In calling for the reform of human institutions, they instilled a responsibility for the success of the new nation in everyone. It turned out to be good timing—the period from the 1780s to the 1820s was one of great change and uncertainty. The post-Revolutionary era ushered in decades of economic, political, and social upheaval, with which many women and men—particularly middle- and upper-class white Protestants—took it upon themselves to deal. Responsibility for the fate and character of the nation and the manifestation of republican values seemed up for grabs—or at least up for the shaping by passionate individuals with a range of means and motives to do so.


The most pressing social issues to the first generation of post-Revolutionary reformers were poverty, slavery, and education. The antislavery cause picked up momentum after the Revolution. Some saw the hypocrisy of allowing African Americans to fight for the Revolution while denying them the right of liberty promised by the Declaration of Independence, not to mention their apparent exclusion from the phrase, "All men are created equal." Individuals spoke against the institution of slavery, from Abigail Adams to John Jay, the first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Organizations formed throughout the Northeast, namely the Pennsylvania Abolition Society (1784), the New York Manumission Society (1785) and the New Jersey Abolition Society (1793). Having already taken a position against the enslavement of Africans in their own community, Quakers turned to the larger society.

Sidestepping the issue of slavery, groups formed to determine the future of Africans in America who were freed from enslavement. The American Colonization Society (ACS), formed in 1816, advocated the removal of blacks to Africa. The ACS even purchased land, named it Liberia, and sent freed slaves there beginning in 1822. The colonization movement was spearheaded by white men, particularly in the North. Antislavery groups, however, fought against colonization efforts. Abolitionist women, black and white, including members of the Philadelphia Female Anti Slavery Society (1833), allied with the free black community in opposition to colonization. These more radical abolitionists wanted freedom and equality for African Americans in the United States, the land where most of them were born. Exile to Africa seemed like a racist compromise and an unfair proposition for people who had labored without reaping its benefits for generations in the American colonies.

The most significant difference between southern and northern organizations was the absence of explicitly antislavery associations run by women in the South. The Virginia Abolition Society formed in Richmond (1790) and Quakers spearheaded abolition activism in North Carolina. Such activism persisted in the face of great local resistance. Southern women were more likely to participate in the less radical female colonization societies that organized petitions in favor of removing African Americans to Liberia premising their arguments on the racist notion of protecting white women from blacks. Southern women's organizations were also less likely to challenge class inequalities among women than their northern counterparts. Providing education for those Africans who did move to Liberia, however, appeared to be a less politically charged issue, and both northern and southern organizations worked for this end.


While men spearheaded major reform organizations for abolition, colonization, prison reform, temperance, and education, the 1790s were a critical decade in the establishment of permanent women's organizations, laying the groundwork for future generations to collectively mobilize for political, social, and religious purposes. The promotion of radical social reform was on the agenda of very few of the new organizations, which can be classified as religious, benevolent, charitable, mutual aid, and reform projects. Leaders of women's reform organizations combined the traditional female role of concern for the health and well-being of others with the evangelical zeal that defined Protestantism in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Nowhere is this more apparent than in efforts to help poor people.

From the 1780s until around 1815, Protestants largely viewed the poor with sympathy and as deserving of assistance. Dozens of benevolent organizations were formed as people directed their religious convictions to relieving the plight of the poor. They included the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children (1797) and the Orphan Asylum Society (1806), both in New York; the Boston Female Asylum (1800) and the Fragment Society (1812), also in Boston; and the Female Society for the Relief of the Distressed (1795) in Philadelphia. While some individuals may have taken aim at the structures that perpetuated poverty, most organizations were satisfied to raise funds; distribute resources such as food, clothing, and supplies; and visit homes of the sick, widowed, and disabled. This work was perceived as an outgrowth of Christian piety until an economic downturn and rising numbers of poor people and immigrants to the cities led many to reconsider the purpose of poor relief and the cause of poverty. The 1820s marked a turn away from concern for the material needs of the poor toward the belief that a spiritual bankruptcy often led to a financial one.

Women's benevolent and reform associations were less common in the South than in the North, in part because southern ministers were less supportive of benevolence work in the name of religion. The wealthy women of Charleston, South Carolina, and Wilmington, North Carolina, however, did form several organizations, and one of them became a pioneer in the area of public education. Incorporated in 1817, the Wilmington Female Benevolent Society aimed to educate "poor children and destitute orphans" and apparently was quite successful over the years.


In the aftermath of the Revolution, state and community leaders in many states relished the opportunity to revise the common laws and what they believed to be an outdated penal code. Influenced by the writings of Cesare Beccaria, the Italian author of On Crimes and Punishments (1764), many became convinced that crime was the result of an ineffective punishment scheme, writing, "that a punishment may not be an act of violence, of one, or of many against a private member of society, it should be public, immediate and necessary; the least possible in the case given; proportioned to the crime, and determined by the laws." An Englishman, John Howard, wrote a widely circulated book on prison abuses and model prison practices called The State of the Prisons in England and Wales (1777). Greatly influenced by both Beccaria and Howard, leading religious, scientific, and political figures in Philadelphia formed the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons in 1787 to implement a series of changes to the penal system. Similar societies formed later in Boston (Boston Prison Discipline Society, 1825) and in New York (Prison Association of New York, 1844). Prison reform organizations are one of the few social reform movements that restricted the participation of women during this period. Women were not admitted to the Philadelphia Society until the famed reformer and philanthropist Dorothea Dix was granted corresponding membership in 1844.

women and political power

Political and social reform often went hand in hand. After Washington became the nation's capital in 1800, some women had unusual access to the political sphere through their husbands, fathers, and brothers. Though they were relegated to the sidelines of official business, they were active observers in Congress and chief organizers of the social sphere in which a great amount of politicking was done. Elite women with ties to powerful men were not denied access to the public political sphere in a way that is commonly thought for this period. The public sphere that emerged in the coffeehouses, reform societies, and reading libraries of the new republic was a predominantly male phenomenon. Women were sometimes able to secure legislative votes they desired by networking with female family members of congressmen. Occasionally, they applied their energies and skills to benevolent associations, such as the Washington Female Orphan Asylum, which was started in 1815 by Marcia Burnes Van Ness, with significant help from Dolley Madison. Unlike similar organizations in other cities, their organization received extensive publicity for its services and the organizers held their meetings in the House chamber in the Capitol building.


The temperance movement was at first an initiative of a small group of ministers to regulate the drinking of working-class men. Founded by men in 1826, the American Temperance Society began to characterize drinking as representative of and responsible for all that was decaying in American life, specifically deference by workers to employers, by women and children to men, and by everyone to ministers. Images of abused and neglected wives were widely circulated to bolster the arguments for temperance, playing on fears that were all too justified for some women. Leaders recruited women to the cause as the organization blossomed to about 100,000 members by 1836. In later years, women became prominent leaders of their own temperance organizations, which would lead some to the more radical antislavery and women's rights movements.

See alsoAbolition Societies; Alcohol Consumption; Domestic Violence; European Influences: Enlightenment Thought; Revivals and Revivalism; Women: Female Reform Societies and Reformers .


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Jennifer Manion

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Reform, Social

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