Social Reform

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Social Reform


The Push for Reform. As rapid economic development, urbanization, and westward expansion altered the social fabric of American society, many Americans perceived a decline in public morality and civic-minded behavior and a rise in antisocial activities such as drinking, dueling, gambling, and prostitution. If such tendencies were not curbed, they believed, the republic itself, based as it was on notions of responsible citizenship, was threatened with corruption and eventual extinction. The revivals of the Second Great Awakening fed into this current of concern and encouraged people to take action against vice. The primary concern of most revival preachers was to exhort their listeners to follow the way of Christ in their hearts and in their individual conduct. But a true convert, they argued, would be more than simply a pious individual; he or she would also be an upstanding and responsible citizen who would actively seek to better the world. This sentiment was given impetus by the optimistic notion of Charles Grandison Finney and other revivalists that both individual human beings and society as a whole could progress to a state of perfection. If Americans could be converted and convinced to abandon their sins, it was believed, then Christ would return to earth to inaugurate the thousand-year period of peace and harmony known as the millennium. Thus it was with a measure of fear as well as an optimistic belief in human potential that tens of thousands of Americans in the early and mid nineteenth century committed their energies to movements for social and moral reform.


Despite the avowedly Christian character of the United States many Americans in the early nineteenth century continued to believe in forms of supernaturalim and divine knowledge that fell beyond the bounds of Christianity. It was not unusual for people to believe in witches demons, and spells or to practice alchemy or consult fortune tellers. Treasure hunting was a common practice among those who thought that supernatural guidance through dreams, seer stones, and divining rods might point the way to untold wonders buried in the earth. Folk magic was practiced for a variety of purposes, from healing illness to enticing chickens to lay eggs. Many educated men of the middle and upper classes who might scorn such popular beliefs were proud to belong to the Ancient Free and Accepted Masons, a secretive organization that claimed to offer its members access to ancient sources of divine wisdom and spiritual power. Between 1790 and 1840 as many as one hundred thousand men became Freemasons. Although most Masons continued to attend church and expressed reverence for Christ, many Christians condemned them as heretical for their interest in magic and their belief that all people, Christian or non-Christian, would eventually be saved.

Source: Jon Butter, Awash in a sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University press, 1990).

Temperance. The first and most enduring moral crusade was the battle against intemperance. For some, intemperance meant the excessive consumption of alcohol, but for others it meant any drinking at all. While opponents thought temperance advocates were overzealous, concerns about drinking were certainly not unfounded: in the 1820s annual per capita consumption of alcohol was about three times what it is today. The fight against alcohol was institutionalized as early as 1813, when Congregationalist minister Lyman Beecher founded the Connecticut Society for the Reformation of Morals. Initial attacks were based on a civic- and business-minded rationale, which argued that drinking made workers unhealthy and less productive and made people in general less capable of responsible behavior toward their families and community. As revivalists took up the cause over the succeeding decades, alcohol consumption came to be increasingly associated not only with irresponsibility and ill health, but also with sin. Hundreds of local temperance societies were organized, as well as national ones such as the American Society for the Promotion of Temperance, founded in 1826, and the American Temperance Union, founded in 1836. These organizations sponsored revivals, newspaper advertisements, and public lectures on the evils of alcohol and provided statistics demonstrating the harm caused by drink. While some temperance advocates hoped to make alcohol illegal (and in some states succeeded), others simply opted to use moral tactics to make people ashamed and unwilling to drink. Efforts were particularly aimed at businessmen, who were encouraged to end their long-standing practice of providing drink for their employees. Many complied and even went further, watching to see if their workers drank off the job and remonstrating with them when they did. Others, however, showed little interest in following evangelical dictates. These resisters often experienced the full force of evangelical

opinion when temperance advocates organized successful boycotts of their businesses.

Sabbatarianism. Conflict between evangelicals and unconvinced, resentful businessmen also emerged over the issue of Sabbatarianism, or opposition to the conduct of worldly affairs on Sundays. As the American economy became increasingly market-oriented and competitive, entrepreneurs frequently found it necessary to do business seven days a week. Many evangelicals believed that working rather than worshiping on the Sabbath was a sin that threatened the moral foundation of society. In the busy canal town of Rochester, New York, Sabbatarians attempted to put pressure on the shipping industry, which operated both freight and passenger boats seven days a week, by announcing we will give our business and patronage to such lines as do not travel on the Sabbath. Leading evangelicals Lyman Beecher and Lewis Tappan worked together to oppose transportation and delivery of mail on Sundays. Sabbatarianism was highly controversial and was opposed by many leading Christians. Some were angered by the use of boycotts, which they found unduly coercive. Others found the Sabbatarian campaigns downright un-American since they mandated religious observance rather than allowing the exercise of individual conscience.

Other Causes. Evangelical reformers pursued many other causes in their efforts to create moral order and to perfect society. In the 1810s and 1820s they founded hundreds of societies for the distribution of Bibles and religious tracts and the establishment of Sunday schools and missions. Religious instruction was to be extended to all levels of society, from the urban poor to the well-educated members of sects whose beliefs were deemed dangerous or immoral. Other reformers founded organizations to promote peace, and still others worked for health reform, believing that the perfection of humanity and society had to include attention to the human body. Most famous among health reformers was Sylvester Graham, inventor of the graham cracker, who emphasized self-mastery, arguing that improper eating and sexual indulgence hindered both individual salvation and social progress. The reform movement of the most lasting significance was the struggle against slavery, which emerged as a national force in the 1830s. Many prominent participants in the movement were evangelical Protestants whose motivations were religious as well as humanitarian. Slavery supplanted intemperance as the national sin and was portrayed by many evangelicals as the ultimate obstacle to the perfection of American society. Disagreement about the proper tactics for securing an end to slavery, however, ultimately brought discord to the evangelical community. In the late 1830s the established churches came under fire for their unwillingness to take action against slaveholders. Their refusal to take a clear stance against this greatest of all sins resulted in the departure of many of the most radical abolitionists from evangelical ranks.


Robert Abzug, Cosmos Crumbling: American Social Reformers and the Religious Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994);

Paul Johnson, A Shopkeepers Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 18151837 (New York: Hill & Wang, 1978);

Ronald G. Walters, American Reformers 18151860 (New York: Hill & Wang, 1978).

Poverty and Social Reform: New York and Philadelphia

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Poverty and Social Reform: New York and Philadelphia


New York . By the 1760s immigrants were entering New York in large numbers, overloading the almshouse, and bankrupting the city treasury. In 1776 the Patriot government attempted to employ the poor in industrious pursuits, but when the British threatened to invade the city, Washington had the poor removed to the surrounding countryside so as not to distract the troops with their shrieks and cries. They were replaced by a flood of Loyalist refugees whom the British occupiers quartered in the almshouse.

Philadelphias Poor . Philadelphia, a major clearing-house for immigrants and refugees, also developed a permanent underclass in the second half of the eighteenth century. Laborers, merchant seamen, and tailors composed the lowest ranks of the working population. Below these groups were widows, the disabled, and the elderly who remained in the grasp of public and private relief. In the bad times that regularly disrupted the citys trade, members of these groups would end up on the relief rolls. A particularly cold winter could cause the Delaware River to freeze, throwing sailors and dockworkers onto the public charity. In 1776 the Overseers of the Poor ob-served that most of those admitted to the almshouse were naked, helpless and emaciated with Poverty and Disease to such a Degree that some have died in a few days after their admission. More than one-half of the inmates of the almshouse suffered from some form of ailment though some may have only feigned an illness, such as sore legs, which reached epidemic proportions among aid recipients.

A Permanent Underclass . The development of a permanent underclass is suggested by the steady increases of robberies in Philadelphia, which accounted for about 80 percent of all crimes and were committed, it was said, mainly by Irish and African Americans. In the later years of the eighteenth century the poor were a more or less fixed group, consisting of one-fourth of the citys sailors, one-sixth of cordwainers, and one-eighth of the tailors, weavers, and breechmakers.

The Bettering House . As in Boston, Philadelphia tried employment schemes for its swelling underclass: a linen manufactory failed as resoundingly as its Boston counter-part. The prominent Philadelphian Benjamin Franklin expressed the opinion in 1753 that nothing was more responsible for creating poverty than the availability of public relief for the poor. In 1766, with 220 paupers subsisting in an overcrowded almshouse, a group of Quaker merchants embarked on a privately funded scheme to build the Bettering House, a combined almshouse for the elderly and disabled and workhouse for the able-bodied poor. The poor were set to picking oakum (hemp fibers coated with tar and used for caulking seams) and other menial tasks, which the house managers contracted out to local manufacturers. This new program differed from other workhouse programs in that it was administered by a private group, to whom the city had granted the authority to compel the poor to cooperateor face a complete cutoff of relief. Franklin had a hand in the new venture, asserting that Frugality and Industry will go a great way towards indemnifying us. The Bettering House was a total privatization of public relief and an attempt to turn it into a profit-making, or at least a break-even, venture. The managers of the Bettering House worked hard to eliminate disbursements of charity to those residing in private homes, so-called out-door relief. They instead tried to force those in need of relief into the Bettering House, where their labor would repay the system. The poor resisted these changes, as did the overseers of the poorwho were mainly from the artisan class. The poor evaded service in the house, and the overseers neglected to enforce confinement and also were lax in collecting poor taxes for the support of the Bettering House.

Revolutionary Poor Relief. Artisans and merchants had their own plans for making useful citizens of paupers. They too supported spinning and weaving programs for the poor, but they turned a more sensitive ear to the needs of the poor themselves. Also, they avoided the moralistic tone of the Bettering House managers and treated the poor as citizens with a vital role to play in the fight against British imports. Their efforts met with only limited success but with a great deal of popularity for a few years during the nonimportation drives of the 1760s. In New York the Society for Promoting Arts, Agriculture and Economy capitalized on popular support for home manufactures and brought above three hundred poor and necessitous persons into their cloth-manufacturing operation in 1768.

The United Company of Philadelphia. In Philadelphia radical artisans led by Daniel Roberdeau set up the United Company of Philadelphia for Promoting American Manufactures. They operated under the same principles as William Molineux in Boston, allowing the poor to work at home, and achieved the greatest success of any of the prewar manufacturing schemes. The United Company prospered while the Bettering House floundered, with its rigid discipline and Quaker moralism.


John K. Alexander, Render Them Submissive: Responses to Poverty in Philadelphia, 1760-1800 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1980);

Robert E. Cray, Paupers and Poor Relief in New York City and Its Rural Environs, 1700-1830 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988);

Gary B. Nash, The Urban Crucible: Social Change, Political Consciousness, and the Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979);

Billy G. Smith, The Lower Sort: Philadelphias Laboring People, 1750-1800 (Ithaca, N.Y. & London: Cornell University Press, 1990).

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