US History: “Ante-bellum Reform” lecture, 15 November 2010

Ante-Bellum Reform, 1815-1860

1. Strong role of reform in shaping American society in this era

role of voluntary institutions – idea of Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America vol. 1 1835.

this ties in with the theme of American exceptionalism– US as prototype civil society — the state is weak in the area of social welfare

2. The sheer variety of reforms:

education; temperance, prison reform; anti-slavery; Indian missions; opposition to prostitution (coyly called the Social Evil); child refuges and orphanages; women’s rights (1848 Seneca Falls Convention); women’s health reform (such as hydropathy), vegetarianism; sex reform of John Humphrey Noyes (Oneida)

for this reason the textbooks talk in clichéd terms as an era of reform or a ferment of reform

3. The traditional interpretation– rise of democracy — common man, egalitarianism but many of these reforms were:-

a. not truly democratic — often involved coercion and the organized power of elites – a minority led and others followed, or, alternatively, were coerced because they disagreed.

b. paralleled in other countries that lacked a white male suffrage; even in the US, voting never reached more than 80 percent of the white male electorate.

4. alternative explanations
Reform as a response to social problems — disruptive effects of social change, e.g., emigration, industrialisation — this would explain the incidence of reformers across national boundaries to some extent

So– you have a social problem;

But (and here I would adopt social movement analysis) the problem must be perceived, then mobilized through leaders and a cadre of workers. Part of understanding both the mobilization of reform in a trans-Atlantic context and the perception of the need for reform can be seen in the building of trans-Atlantic communications networks.

5. Transnational connection- reform networks, esp. Quaker;
facilities by more regular sailing patterns, the expansion of trade routes across the Atlantic.

this helps to explain the existence of reform across national boundaries and the perceptual changes that helped to turn social problems into issues and crusades for change.

6. Perceptions/framework/ideology. An important transatlantic connecting link in this regard was the devt of evangelical religion—role of Charles Grandison Finney and Second Great Awakening revivalism.

Contribution of this?
These reform social problems were conceptualised in different ways, by and through different world-views; there was now more emphasis on the possibility of improvement and even perfectibility in human environments; the tactic of emphasising the individual conversion to moral and social reform, and the strategy of locating sin in specific material practices, such as slavery or drinking

But the incidence of reform movements differs- clearly some of these are stronger in the US. As is evangelical religion – takes us to

7. Class. These new perceptions of the need and possibility of reform were not evenly shared—note the class basis of reform; its middle class basis, against both upper class and lower class. U.S. middle class hegemony in reform needs to be noted.

8. That doesn’t mean Reform was conservative– some historians believe reform did not reflect so much the social problems of the era as a whole, but the anxieties of certain conservative social groups– but many reforms were not really conservative– they were often quite radical disruptions of the social order, esp. abolitionism but also teetotalism (the radical form of temperance reform, against all alcohol)

9. An overview of reform: I would stress

change over time in the nature and incidence of reforms

a. gradualism through elitist institutions 1800-1830
b. radical “improvement” — change through the free and democratic individual effecting moral change– 1830s and 1840s

c. consolidation or synthesis — 1850s– reliance on coercive institutions of the law enforced through popular will — e.g., prohibition; culminates in the most coercive act of all– the Civil War as a solution to the problem of slavery

In producing the shift in tactics, note the strong role of religion– particularly perfectionism in the 1830s

10. The differences between N. and S. (with temperance being much stronger in the North) reinforce the idea that the social problems of poverty, drunkenness etc tended to be associated with urban and industrial development as well as geographical mobility, and that these changes were further advanced and more intensely felt in the north.

11. Temperance- did not mean moderation after about 1830, but rather total abstinence from hard liquor;>>> teetotalism;>>> local option;>>, prohibition;
temperance was the most powerful of all antebellum reform movements– expressed the ethic of self-improvement and individualism which was also present in revivalistic religion

12. Women and reform—a Women’s New York State Temperance society 1852); role in this of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony
Woman’s Christian Temperance Union 1874

13. The impact on antebellum politics

at first in the north in the 1830s and 1840s

devt of prohibition as a goal in the north after about 1845 >>> state prohibition in Maine in 1851

13 states and territories

Impact on the Whig and Democratic parties of temperance; cumulative effect in disorganizing the major parties when the nativist, anti-Catholic Know-Nothing movement is added in 1852-55 to the mix.

The lecture concluded with remarks on how the new Republican party was able to capitalise on these political upheavals.

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