Most Americans saw the ownership of property as the key to economic independence—and, therefore, to freedom—and marriage as the foundation of the social order. Few were likely to join communities that required them to surrender both. Far more typical of the reform impulse were movements that aimed at liberating men and women either from restraints external to themselves, such as slavery and war, or from forms of internal “servitude” like drinking, illiteracy, and a tendency toward criminality. Drinkers, proclaimed one reformer, could not be considered free: they were “chained to alcohol, bound to the demon rum.” Many of these reform movements drew their inspiration from the religious revivalism of the Second Great Awakening, discussed in Chapter 9. If, as the revivalist preachers maintained, God had created man as a “free moral agent,” sinners could not only reform themselves but could also remake the world.

The revivals popularized the outlook known as “perfectionism,” which saw both individuals and society at large as capable of indefinite improvement. Regions like upstate New York and northern Ohio became known as “burned-over districts” because of the intense revivals they experienced in the 1820s and 1830s. Such areas became fertile soil for the era’s reform movements and their vision of a society freed from sin. Under the impact of the revivals, older reform efforts moved in a new, radical direction. Temperance (which literally means moderation in the consumption of liquor) was transformed into a crusade to eliminate drinking entirely. Criticism of war became outright pacifism. And, as will be related below, critics of slavery now demanded not gradual emancipation but immediate and total abolition.

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