Official State of Iowa Website Here is how you know

How can citizens of a country affect change for the common good?

The French commentator on American society in the 1830s, Alexis de Toqueville, observed that Americans are very quick to join together to promote whatever causes they favor. There was certainly evidence around him. Reforms on many issues — temperance, abolition, prison reform, women's rights, missionary work in the West — fomented groups dedicated to social improvements.

Often these efforts had their roots in Protestant churches. In addition to their efforts to convert new members based on their religious beliefs, several denominations were willing to turn to the government to make the entire population comply with their version of morality. Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Baptists were among the most prominent in the reform movements. Often advocates called for conventions to draft resolutions to present to government officials and followed up with letter writing campaigns. They formed local societies that wrote letters to newspapers and sponsored speakers to try to broaden support for the cause. While it was usually not women's place to speak in public at the time, reform movements frequently called on women who could set aside social customs when it was in a good cause.

Reform Movements in America

The abolition of slavery was one of the most powerful reform movements. Quakers and many churches in New England saw slavery as an evil that must be abolished from society. They targeted slave owners who profited off of enslaved people's labor. Harriot Tubman, who helped people escape, and Frederick Douglass, a self-educated and forceful orator and writer, proved be powerful speakers. Abolitionists came to the defense of African Americans accused of running from their masters when law officials threatened to return them. Abolitionism was anathema to Southerners and not popular in many areas of the North, but they moved slavery to a central focus in American political life.

The temperance crusade also had its roots in American Protestant churches, often in tandem with abolition. In slavery, the slave owners oppressed their human property. In the temperance perspective, saloon owners took advantage of human weakness (primarily men's weakness) to profit off customers' inability to avoid strong drink. Alcohol ruined families and bred crime, especially in the growing urban centers of the East. Drinking was sinful, and it was the government's responsibility to remove this temptation, in the view of the temperance advocates. They ran candidates on the Prohibition Party in elections, who were rarely successful, and pressured elected officials to make the manufacture and sale of alcohol illegal. In Iowa, temperance was one of the major issues dividing the two parties from the Civil War through the early 20th century. The state almost passed an amendment enshrining temperance into the constitution. The 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution imposed temperance standards across the nation, but slightly more than a decade later, the 21st amendment repealed it. Enforcement had become too great a burden on law enforcement, and too many people objected to this restriction.

Other reforms attracted similar attention, though never to the degree of prohibition and abolition. Some groups advocated for better treatment of the insane and more humane prisons. Advocates for women's rights used tactics similar to the prohibition and abolition movements to demand the right to vote. In fact, many of the same people participated in several reform causes.

Reform movements bring issues into public discussion. One set of reformers will usually generate opposing groups who often use the same techniques to persuade public opinion and elected officials. Debates over abortion and same-sex marriage are modern equivalents of some 19th century reform movements and often employ the same tactics. Demands for reform inject energy and new ideas into political debate and can keep the landscape shifting.

Supporting Questions

What factors motivated antebellum reformers to take action?

What were the common strategies antebellum reformers used?

What did antebellum reformers achieve?

George Hosmer Address to the Erie County Common School Education Society, February 3, 1840

Image
George Hosmer delivered this address in 1840 to persuade people in Erie County, New York that free, common schools would provide numerous benefits to people and to society.

Download Resource

Description

The Erie County Common School Education Society met in Buffalo, New York, and heard this address in 1840 from George Washington Hosmer, an educator at Antioch College and noted preacher in the Unitarian church. The address highlights the benefits of the common schools, as…

Read More

"I Tell What I Have Seen" — The Reports of Asylum Reformer Dorothea Dix, 1843

Image
Dorthea Dix toured prisons and asylums and then reported the deplorable conditions she observed to the Massachusetts legislature in 1843 calling for reform.

Download Resource

Description

Dorothea Dix was an activist in the antebellum period (after the War of 1812 and before the Civil War began in 1861) of the United States. She was a crusader for the reform of prisons and asylums throughout the country. She toured facilities and made reports, or memorials,…

Read More

"The Drunkard's Progress," June 15, 1846

Image
This political cartoon from 1846 showed the progress of an individual from taking one drink to a slide into alcoholism and ruin.

Download Resource

Description 

During the antebellum period (after the War of 1812 and before the Civil War), temperance societies sprang up throughout the United States. Their goal was a prohibition on alcohol which they believed negatively impacted everyone. Temperance societies used political cartoons…

Read More

"Celebration of the Iowa Territorial Temperance Society," January 2, 1840

Image
The Iowa Hawk-eye and Iowa Patriot published the minutes of the Iowa Territorial Temperance Society meeting early in 1840.

Download Resource

Description

This newspaper article from 1840 was a report on the Iowa Territorial Temperance Society. The Society included high-profile members like Territorial Governor Robert Lucas. The minutes of this meeting show a highly-organized civic group that was connected to the national…

Read More

"The Prisoner's Friend" Advertisement, September 8, 1848

Image
In 1848, the Anti-Slavery Bugle printed an advertisement for a publication called “The Prisoner’s Friend urging readers to subscribe to it.

Download Resource

Description

The Anti-Slavery Bugle printed a short advertisement about a fellow reform-minded publication. The advertisement explains the hopes of the publication and the means by which they want to achieve prison reform.

Read More

Excerpts from the Commissioners' Report of Recommendations for Iowa School Laws, 1856

Image
Horace Mann and Amos Dean were commissioned by the Iowa legislature in 1856 to study the education system in the state and recommend improvements.

Download Resource

Description

In 1856, the Iowa legislature determined that the school system in the state needed reform. To study Iowa's system and work toward improvement, they hired the most famous school reformer of the period, Horace Mann, and Amos Dean as commissioners to recommend measures for…

Read More

"Lest We Forget - The Quaker Seedsmen of Long Ago" Article, April 21, 1909

Image
This 1909 newspaper gave a history of the Shaker utopian society.

Download Resource

Description

This newspaper article recounted the utopian society knowns as the Shakers. The Shakers were one of a number of utopian communities that formed throughout the country. They practiced communal living, where all property was shared. Shakers were pacifists who had advanced…

Read More

Blueprint of Saint Elizabeths Hospital for the Mentally Ill, ca. 1853

Image
Dorthea Dix helped design the Government Hospital for the Insane in 1853 after her lobbying efforts compelled Congress to appropriate funds.

Download Resource

Description

Saint Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C., was built specifically for the mentally ill. Efforts by reformer Dorthea Dix led to the appropriation of funds by Congress to build the hospital in 1853. Dix was part of the committee that designed the hospital. Before Dix's…

Read More

Excerpts from Iowa Code about Education Reform, 1860

Image
The Iowa Code from 1860 includes the Iowa School Law of 1858 which was made based on recommendations from commissioners appointed by the Iowa legislature.

Download Resource

Description

The Iowa legislature passed the School Law of 1858 after studying the recommendations of a commission made up of education reformer Horace Mann and Amos Dean. The law incorporates a number of the commission's recommendations and is…

Read More

"The Amana Colony," October 14, 1869

Image
The Tipton Advertiser printed a short article about the Amana Colony and its history in 1969.

Download Resource

Description

The Tipton Advertiser printed this article in an issue of its 1869 paper. It gives a brief history of the Amana Colony in Iowa and explains how the colony operated. The Amana Colony was a successful communal society longer than others that were formed in the…

Read More

"The Vanishing Shakers," January 18, 1917

Image
This article from a Kentucky newspaper describes the failing Shaker community in 1917.

Download Resource

Description

This newspaper article gives a report about the state of the Shakers, a utopian society that spawned communities across the country. This article discusses the failing of the utopia and the author hypothesizes why most of the attempts at utopian communities failed.

Read More

18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, January 28, 1919

Image
The 18th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1919 and made the manufacture and sale of alcohol illegal in the United States.

Download Resource

Description

The 18th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1919, banned the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States. The amendment was passed after years of efforts by temperance societies throughout the country. Various counties and states had passed…

Read More

21st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, December 5, 1933

Image
The 21st Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1933 and repealed the 18th Amendment making alcohol legal in the United States.

Download Resource

Description

The 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1933. It repealed the 18th Amendment, which banned the manufacture and sale of alcohol in the United States. The era of prohibition had a significant impact on American society.

Read More

Additional Resources:

  • "A Penitentiary for Iowa," The Palimpsest
    This essay from The Palimpsest, which was a historical magazine published the State Historical Society of Iowa beginning in 1920, looks at how the first legislative assembly of Iowa enacted to implement a criminal code in the territory. This included created the first prisons in Iowa to hold offenders. 
  • "Utopia at Communia," The Palimpsest
    This scholarly article from The Palimpsest focuses on Iowa's utopian colonists, the sectarian Inspirationists of Amana and the secular French Icarians. The writing highlights the creation of the Clayton County town of Communia, approximately 50 miles northwest of Dubuque.
  • "The Ideology and Politics of Iowa Common School Reform," The Annals of Iowa
    This essay, written in 1997, researches the origins of Iowa's public school ideology, and the reforms that took place to make public education institutional to the foundation of Iowa. 
  • "'Architecture Of An Asylum' Tracks History Of U.S. Treatment Of Mental Illness"
    The article from National Public Radio dives into the work of 19th century advocate Dorothea Dix to reform the mental health facilities and care around the country. 
  • "The Mark of Horace Mann on Iowa Education," The Palimpsest
    This article from The Palimpsest tracks the influence of Horace Mann in Iowa. Mann, who was often called the Father of the Common School, began his career as a lawyer and legislator. When he was elected to act as Secretary of the newly-created Massachusetts Board of Education in 1837, he used his position to enact major educational reform that would impact the entire country, including Iowa. 

Iowa Core Social Studies Standards (8th Grade)

Listed below are the Iowa Core Social Studies content anchor standards that are best reflected in this source set. The content standards applied to this set are middle school-age level and encompass the key disciplines that make up social studies for eighth-grade students.

No. Standard Description
SS.8.13. Explain the powers and responsibilities of citizens, political parties, and the media in a variety of governmental and nongovernmental contexts.
SS.8.21. Analyze connections among early American historical events and developments in broader historical contexts.
SS.8.23. Explain how multiple causes and effects of events and developments in early American history.