Modern history

Organizing for Change

Both religious commitments and secular problems spurred social activism in the 1830s and 1840s. In cities, small towns, and rural communities, Northerners founded organizations, launched campaigns, and established institutions to better the world around them. Yet even those Americans who agreed that society needed to be reformed did not share a common sense of priorities or solutions. Moreover, while some activists worked to persuade Americans to follow their lead, others insisted that change would occur only if imposed by law.

Varieties of Reform

Middle-class Protestant women and men formed the core of many reform movements in the early to mid-nineteenth century. They had more time and money to devote to social reform than did their working-class counterparts and were less tied to traditional ways than were their wealthy neighbors. Nonetheless, workers and farmers, African Americans and immigrants, Catholics and Jews also participated in efforts to improve society. The array of causes reformers pursued was astonishing: charity to the poor and sick; establishing religious missions; prison reform, health reform, dress reform, and educational reform; eradicating prostitution; aid to orphans, the deaf, the blind, the mentally ill, and immigrants; the exclusion of immigrants; the rights of workers, of women, and of Indians; ending alcohol and tobacco abuse; abolishing capital punishment; racial justice; and the abolition of slavery.

Reformers used different techniques to pursue their goals. Since women could not vote, for example, they were excluded from direct political participation. Instead, they established charitable associations, distributed food and medicine, constructed asylums, circulated petitions, organized boycotts, arranged meetings and lectures, and published newspapers and pamphlets. Other groups with limited political rights—African Americans and immigrants, for instance—embraced similar modes of action. White men wielded these forms of activism but also organized political campaigns and lobbied legislators. The techniques employed were also affected by the goals of a particular movement. Moral suasion worked best with families, churches, and local communities, while legislation was more likely to succeed if the goal involved transforming people’s behavior across a whole state or region.

Reformers often used a variety of tactics to support a single cause, and many changed their approach over time. For instance, reformers who sought to eradicate prostitution began by praying in front of urban brothels and attempting to rescue “fallen” women. They soon launched The Advocate of Moral Reform, a newspaper that published morality tales, advice to mothers, and the names of men who visited brothels. Moral reform societies in small towns and rural areas worked to alert young women and men to the dangers of city life. Those in cities opened Homes for Virtuous and Friendless Females in the 1840s to provide safe havens for vulnerable women. But moral reformers also started to petition state legislators to make punishments for men who hired prostitutes as harsh as those for prostitutes themselves.

The Temperance Movement

Many moral reformers also advocated temperance. Organized temperance work began in 1826 with the founding of the American Temperance Society, an all-male organization led by clergy and businessmen who focused on alcohol abuse among working- class men. Religious revivals then inspired the establishment of some 5,000 local chapters with more than 100,000 members. Over time, the temperance movement changed the goal from moderation to total abstinence, targeted middle-class and elite as well as working-class men, and welcomed women’s support. Wives and mothers were expected to persuade family members to stop drinking, sign a temperance pledge, and commit their newly sober souls to God. To promote this work, women founded dozens of female temperance societies in the 1830s. African Americans, too, created their own temperance organizations.

Some white working men viewed temperance as a way to gain dignity and respect. For Protestants, in particular, embracing temperance distinguished them from Irish Catholic workers, who were caricatured as happy drunkards. Some working-class temperance advocates also criticized liquor dealers, whom they considered to be greedy capitalists overseeing “the vilest, meanest, most earth-cursing and hell-filling business ever followed.”

Despite the rapid growth of temperance organizations, moral suasion failed to reduce alcohol consumption significantly. As a result, many temperance advocates turned to legal reform in the 1840s, hoping to legislate where they could not persuade. In 1851 Maine passed legislation that prohibited the sale of all alcoholic beverages. By 1855 twelve states had joined Maine in restricting the manufacture or sale of alcohol. Yet these stringent measures inspired a backlash. Hostile to the imposition of middle-class Protestant standards on the population at large, Irish workers in Maine organized the Portland Rum Riot in 1855. It led to the law’s repeal the next year.

Legal strategies generally complemented rather than replaced moral arguments. Temperance advocates continued to publish short stories, magazine articles, sermons, and novels alerting Americans to the dangers of “demon rum.” Working-class families were often the subjects of didactic tales written by and for the middle class. But laboring men and women had their own ideas about how to deal with alcohol abuse. Small groups of men who abused alcohol gathered together in the 1840s and formed Washingtonian societies—named in honor of the nation’s founder—to help each other stop drinking. Martha Washington societies appeared shortly thereafter, composed not of female alcoholics but of the wives, mothers, and sisters of male alcoholics.

Temperance advocates thus used various strategies to limit alcohol abuse and its consequences. Over the course of the nineteenth century, these efforts gradually reduced the consumption of beer, wine, and spirits, although they did not eliminate the problem.

Utopian Communities

While most reformers reached out to the wider society to implement change, some activists withdrew into self-contained communities that they hoped would serve as models for other groups. The architects of these utopian societies turned to European intellectuals and reformers for inspiration as well as to American religious and republican ideals.

In the 1820s, Scottish and Welsh labor radicals such as Frances Wright, Robert Owen, and his son Robert Dale Owen established utopian communities in the United States. They believed that a young nation founded on republican principles would be particularly open to experiments in communal labor, gender equality, and (in Wright’s case) racial justice. Their efforts ultimately failed, but they did arouse impassioned debate. After founding the community of New Harmony, Indiana, in 1828 with his father, Robert Dale Owen returned briefly to Europe. He then joined Wright in New York City, where they established a reform newspaper, reading room, and medical dispensary. Resettling in New Harmony in 1833, Owen continued to advocate for workers’ rights, birth control, and the abolition of slavery. But he also embraced Jacksonian democracy and won election to the Indiana House of Representatives and then the U.S. Congress. Owen thus pursued both utopian communalism and political activism in the larger society.

Former Unitarian minister George Ripley also sought to bridge a critical divide— between physical and intellectual labor. He established a transcendentalist community at Brook Farm in Massachusetts in 1841. In 1845 the farm was reconfigured according to the principles of the French socialist Charles Fourier, who believed that cooperation across classes was necessary to temper the conflicts inherent in capitalist society. He developed a plan for communities, called phalanxes, where residents chose jobs based on their individual interests and were paid according to the contribution of each job to the community’s well-being. Fourier also advocated equality for women. More than forty Fourierist phalanxes were founded in the northern United States during the 1840s.

A more uniquely American experiment, the Oneida community, was established in central New York by John Humphrey Noyes in 1848. He and his followers believed that Christ’s Second Coming had already occurred and embraced the communalism of the early Christian church. But Noyes also advocated sexual freedom and developed a plan for “complex marriage” in which women were liberated from male domination and constant childbearing. Divorce and remarriage were permitted, children were raised communally, and a form of birth control was instituted. Despite the public outrage provoked by Oneida’s sexual practices, the community recruited several hundred residents and thrived for more than three decades.


• How did the temperance movement reflect the range of tactics and participants involved in reform during the 1830s and 1840s?

• What connections can you identify between utopian communities and mainstream reform movements in the first half of the nineteenth century?

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