Antebellum Culture and Reform p.314-336 

              William Loyd Garrison                                                       Fredrick Douglas                                                          Susan B Anthony

Chapter 12 Study Guide

Having examined the social, political, and economic characteristics of the South in Chapter 11 and of the North in Chapter 10, we now look more closely at the variety of ways in which Northerners responded to the changes brought by industrialization and urbanization in the early nineteenth century. The religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening was the response of people who perceived a spiritual breakdown within society. This response, which was evangelistic and emotional in character and perfectionist in orientation, provided the catalyst for myriad reform movements, all of which had the goal of perfecting the human condition. Some of the reform movements, i. e., the American Female Moral Reform Society and the temperance movement, were attempts to perfect the human condition by cleansing society of perceived moral evils and, by doing so, hasten the Second Coming. Others, such as the utopian communities associated with the era, attempted to create a sense of community in an increasingly impersonal society. Whether the sexual abstention of the Shakers or the transcendentalism of Brook Farm, the philosophies of these communities were usually a mix of old and new values and emphasized cooperation over competition. The search for belonging also led in new spiritual and religious directions, i.e., the Mormon movement. In addition, those associated with the penitentiary movement and the asylum movement wanted to create a system by which the victims of a turbulent and unstable society could be rehabilitated.

Cities also began to provide education to their citizens through public schools. Because of the reform work of Horace Mann, who advocated equality of educational opportunity, the school curriculum became more secular in orientation and, therefore, more appropriate to would-be workers in a market-oriented economy. The public school curriculum no longer included direct religious indoctrination, but it did include indoctrination in moral values deemed important by the Protestant political leaders who controlled urban government and urban schools. Such indoctrination, undertaken with the intent of creating a society of like-minded citizens, was one response to the divergent belief systems brought by newcomers to the urban environment.

The reform impulse caused some Americans to redefine the ideal of equality and resulted in the abolitionist movement and the feminist movement. We contrast the characteristics and goals of early abolitionists with those of the new abolitionists of the 1830s. In the process we discover that new abolitionism, which advocated an immediate end to slavery, was, like so many of the moral reform movements of the age, built on the base of evangelical Christianity. We also find that abolitionism during the 1830s became, especially for women, a bridge between reform and activism in the public arena and between reform and politics.

The Benevolent Empire; Religion and Reform, 1825-1846

1790-1800 Beginning of the Second Great Awakening.

1818 Disestablishment of Connecticut's state church.

1823 James Fenimore Cooper publishes his first "Leatherstocking" novel.

1824 Robert Owen brings perfectionism to America from Scotland.

1825-37 Charles Grandison Finney leads his evangelical crusade.

1826 American Temperance Society founded.

1830 National Negro Convention Movement established. Joseph Smith publishes The Book of Mormon.

1831 William Lloyd Garrison begins publishing The Liberator.

1833 Disestablishment of Massachusetts's state church. Parliament outlaws slavery in the British West Indies. Antislavery debates at Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati. American Anti-Slavery Society founded.

1836 House of Representative enacts its "gag rule" forbidding discussion of slavery. Ralph Waldo Emerson publishes his essay "Nature."

1837 Elijah Lovejoy murdered by an anti-abolitionist mob in Illinois.

1840 American Anti-Slavery Society divides.  American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society founded. Liberty Party nominates James G. Birney for president.

1841-58 Fourierist phalanxes spread across America.

1844 Mormon leader Joseph Smith is murdered by a mob in Illinois.

1845 Irish potato famine begins.

1846 Nathaniel Hawthorne publishes his short story "The Celestial Railroad."

1847 John Humphrey Noyes founds the Oneida community in New York.

1848 Frederick Douglass begins publishing North Star.

1851 Herman Melville publishes Moby Dick.

1853 New York's Crystal Palace exhibition.

1854 Henry David Thoreau publishes Walden.


Culture: A cultural outpouring characterizes antebellum America. Building upon patriotism and nationalism of the early republic, romanticism awakened visions of unlimited human potential on the grand American landscape. In both literature and visual arts optimism was the theme.

Environment: Americans began to view the environment differently at this time. Rather than viewing it as an obstacle to be overcome, tamed, or destroyed, intellectuals found power, wonder, and grandeur in nature. Transcendentalists believed nature to be the medium through which one could find one's inner self and truth.

Reform: Social changes brought about by industrialization were unsettling to many Americans and optimistic movements to improve society and perfect individuals arose. Fueled by simultaneous but contradictory impulses seeking to liberate people from social tyranny and to impose order on an increasingly chaotic social system, grassroots movements arose. Major movements addressed temperance, health, education, rehabilitation, Native Americans, feminism, and abolition.

Religion: The Second Great Awakening was another protestant revival with strong evangelical underpinnings. It absorbed optimistic impulses and preached that every individual was capable of achieving salvation, and that individual efforts at redemption could pave the way. This evangelical strain entered the American mainstream, and was a powerful incentive for American reform.

Digital History

Religion in the Early Republic

Two currents in religious thought--religious liberalism and evangelical revivalism--had enormous impact on the early republic. Religious liberalism was an emerging form of humanitarianism that rejected the harsh Calvinist doctrines of original sin and predestination. Its preachers stressed the basic goodness of human nature and each individual's capacity to follow the example of Christ. At the same time, enthusiastic religious revivals swept the nation in the early 19th century. The revivals inspired a widespread sense that the nation was standing close to the millennium, a thousand years of peace and brotherhood when sin, war, and tyranny would vanish from the earth. In addition, the growth of other religions--African American Christianity, Catholicism, Judaism, the Mormon Church--reshaped America's religious landscape.

Pre-Civil War Reform

During the first half of the 19th century, reformers launched unprecedented campaigns to reduce drinking, establish prisons, create public schools, educate the deaf and the blind, abolish slavery, and extend equal rights to women. Increasing poverty, lawlessness, violence, and vice encouraged efforts to reform American society. So, too, did the ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, the philosophy of the Enlightenment, and liberal and evangelical religion. Reform evolved through three phases. The first phase sought to persuade Americans to lead more Godly daily lives. Moral reformers battled profanity and Sabbath breaking, attacked prostitution, distributed religious tracts, and attempted to curb the use of hard liquor. Social reformers sought to solve the problems of crime and illiteracy by creating prisons, public schools, and asylums for the deaf, the blind, and the mentally ill. Radical reformers sought to abolish slavery and eliminate racial and gender discrimination and create ideal communities as models for a better world.

Biography of America 

The Reform Impulse  (series 8)

The Industrial Revolution has its dark side, and the tumultuous events of the period touch off intense and often thrilling reform movements. Professor Masur presents the ideas and characters behind the Great Awakening, the abolitionist movement, the women's movement, and a powerful wave of religious fervor. 

Lecture Outlines

Antebellum Reform


The First Age of Reform