The Lost Museum Archive

Reform and Reformers in the Antebellum Era

by Nancy A. Hewitt

This 800 word essay offers an overview of the many reform causes in which men and women of all races became involved during the decades prior to the Civil War.

In May 1837, members of an array of reform organizations descended on New York City to hold their annual “Anniversary” meetings. Their leaders proclaimed crime, poverty, prostitution, alcohol, ignorance, or slavery as the death knell of the family and the republic, and demanded change. For an entire week, women and men from throughout the Northeast and Midwest attended speeches, rallies, prayer vigils, and business meetings to alert the public to the dangers that plagued the young nation. These activists often embraced different religious beliefs, different goals and strategies, and different visions of the ideal society. Still, they joined in believing that the United States could be improved, uplifted, perhaps even perfected.

It was a difficult year: a financial panic had erupted earlier in 1837 that threatened the work of many reform organizations as wealthy supporters declared bankruptcy, and middle-class advocates cut donations. Passing empty shops and ragged beggars on the streets of New York, prison reformer Catharine Sedgwick noted the “confusion and dismay produced here by the bursting of bubbles.” Still, increases in unemployment, hunger, homelessness, crime, and prostitution only made the need for reform more urgent.

The societies that met in New York in May 1837 had emerged over the past quarter century. Some began as local benevolent or missionary groups; many members of these organizations eventually turned their energy to temperance or prison reform in an effort to address the root causes of poverty and irreligion. By the 1830s, most sought to increase their clout by forming national organizations. For instance, the New York Female Moral Reform Society, whose members sought to eradicate prostitution and the sexual double standard in the city, spawned auxiliaries in dozens of towns and cities and then a national organization.

Other movements, such as antislavery, developed in various places and in different guises. Black women and men organized abolition societies in a number of cities in the 1820s and early 1830s, and some white Quakers also embraced the antislavery movement early on. William Lloyd Garrison drew on the support of these groups when he began publication of The Liberator newspaper in Boston in 1831. By the mid-1830s, an array of antislavery groups had come together under the umbrella of the Garrison-led American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS). The AASS advocated rights for free blacks as well as immediate abolition and viewed churches and the government as supporters of the slave system.

Debates over gender and race erupted time and again among antebellum reformers. Charitable, temperance, and moral reform societies were almost always segregated by race and sex, while the most radical peace and abolitionist organizations allowed women and men, black and white, to join, speak, vote, and hold office. In these latter organizations, free blacks joined forces with white Quakers, Unitarians, and Free Will Baptists to challenge the status quo.

Class issues, too, shaped competing visions of antebellum reform. Affluent white women and men dominated most charitable and reform organizations. They generally considered themselves superior to those they sought to help, and thus framed their efforts in terms of education and uplift. When the less fortunate asserted their own views, they challenged the idea that social problems could be alleviated within the existing order. During the 1820s and 1830s, the first unions of maritime workers, seamstresses, and factory operatives; African American mutual aid societies; even the Washingtonian Temperance Society, composed of former alcoholics, questioned whether those with money and power could adequately address the needs of those without such resources.

In addition, reformers changed their views and strategies over time, and carried ideas from one movement into others. The AASS divided at its 1839 Anniversary meeting over a variety of issues, including the role of women. Those who walked out of the AASS formed the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, an all male organization that advocated working with churches and the government to abolish slavery. In the 1840s, more politically minded members of both the AASS and its rival formed the Liberty Party and ran candidates for office. In the same period, another group of AASS stalwarts helped establish the woman’s rights movement. Its first convention, held at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, attracted many abolitionists, but also advocates of moral reform, temperance, peace, religious reform, and married women’s property rights.

The debates and divisions among reform organizations have often been viewed as hindering efforts at social change. It is likely, however, that the array of issues, strategies, and organizational styles attracted more advocates for reform than any single issue or approach could have. Moreover, debates by and within reform organizations put critical questions about race, class, and gender on the public agenda and forced Americans, activists and non-activists alike, to come to terms with the meaning of our democratic and republican heritage.

Also see these primary documents:

Proceedings of the Woman's Rights Convention, 1853

The Constitution of the American Anti-Slavery Society

Declaration of the National Anti-Slavery Convention, 1833

An address to the free people of color in the state of Maryland, 1859

Factory Tracts. Factory Life As It Is, by an Operative, 1845

Barnum as a Temperance Speaker