Reform Movements in America
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.
What factors motivated antebellum reformers to take action?
- George Hosmer Address to the Erie County Common School Education Society, February 3, 1840 (Document)
- "I Tell What I Have Seen" — The Reports of Asylum Reformer Dorothea Dix, 1843 (Document)
- "The Drunkard's Progress," June 15, 1846 (Political Cartoon)
What were the common strategies antebellum reformers used?
- "Celebration of the Iowa Territorial Temperance Society," January 2, 1840 (Document)
- "The Prisoner's Friend" Advertisement, September 8, 1848 (Document)
- Excerpts from the Commissioners' Report of Recommendations for Iowa School Laws, 1856 (Document)
- "Lest We Forget - The Quaker Seedsmen of Long Ago" Article, April 21, 1909 (Document)
What did antebellum reformers achieve?
- Blueprint of Saint Elizabeths Hospital for the Mentally Ill, ca. 1853 (Map)
- Excerpts from Iowa Code about Education Reform, 1860 (Document)
- "The Amana Colony," October 14, 1869 (Document)
- "The Vanishing Shakers," January 18, 1917 (Document)
- 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, January 28, 1919 (Document)
- 21st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, December 5, 1933 (Document)
|Reform Movements in America Teaching Guide|
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George Hosmer Address to the Erie County Common School Education Society, February 3, 1840
"I Tell What I Have Seen" — The Reports of Asylum Reformer Dorothea Dix, 1843
"The Drunkard's Progress," June 15, 1846
"Celebration of the Iowa Territorial Temperance Society," January 2, 1840
"The Prisoner's Friend" Advertisement, September 8, 1848
Excerpts from the Commissioners' Report of Recommendations for Iowa School Laws, 1856
"Lest We Forget - The Quaker Seedsmen of Long Ago" Article, April 21, 1909
Blueprint of Saint Elizabeths Hospital for the Mentally Ill, ca. 1853
Excerpts from Iowa Code about Education Reform, 1860
"The Amana Colony," October 14, 1869
"The Vanishing Shakers," January 18, 1917
18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, January 28, 1919
21st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, December 5, 1933
- "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.