The Age of Cultural Reforms

Movements and Reforms

Transcendentalism was among the more radical social philosophies of the nineteenth century.

Learning Objectives

Identify some of the key figures, writings, and institutions associated with the transcendentalist movement

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Originating in New England, transcendentalists were idealistic and focused on the value of insight over logic, as well as on the individual's relationship with God.
  • Rooted in the transcendental philosophy of Immanuel Kant, the movement developed as a reaction against eighteenth-century rationalism, John Locke 's philosophy of sensualism, and the Manifest Destiny of New England Calvinism. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were among the most prominent of the transcendentalists, and Emerson's 1836 essay "Nature" is considered the watershed moment of the movement.
  • Individualism, which Emerson's work also emphasized, is the doctrine that stresses the moral worth and value of the individual.

Key Terms

  • Second Great Awakening: A Christian revival movement during the early nineteenth century in the United States.
  • transcendentalism: A movement of writers and philosophers in New England in the nineteenth century whose members were loosely bound together by adherence to an idealistic system of thought based on the belief in the essential supremacy of insight over logic and experience for the revelation of the deepest truths.

Transcendentalism of the Nineteenth Century

Transcendentalism was America's first notable intellectual and philosophical movement. It developed in the 1830s and 1840s in the New England region of the United States as a protest against the general state of culture and society. In particular, transcendentalists criticized the state of intellectualism at Harvard University and the doctrine of the Unitarian church taught at Harvard Divinity School.

Core Beliefs

Transcendentalism became a movement of writers and philosophers who were loosely bound together by adherence to an idealistic system of thought based on the belief in the essential supremacy of insight over logic and experience for the revelation of the deepest truths. Among the transcendentalists' core beliefs was the inherent goodness of both man and nature. Transcendentalists believed that society and its institutions—particularly organized religion and political parties—ultimately corrupted the purity of the individual. They had faith that man is at his best when truly "self-reliant" and independent. It was believed that only from such real individuals could true community be formed. Rooted in the transcendental philosophy of Immanuel Kant (and of German idealism, more generally), the movement developed as a reaction against eighteenth-century rationalism, John Locke's philosophy of sensualism, and the Manifest Destiny of New England Calvinism. Its fundamental belief was in the unity and immanence of God in the world.

The publication of Ralph Waldo Emerson's 1836 essay "Nature" is usually considered the watershed moment at which transcendentalism became a major cultural movement. Emerson closed the essay by calling for a revolution in human consciousness to emerge from the new idealist philosophy. In the same year, on September 8 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, transcendentalism became a coherent movement with the founding of the Transcendental Club by prominent New England intellectuals including Emerson, George Putnam, and Frederick Henry Hedge. From 1840, the group published frequently in its journal The Dial and other venues. Early in the movement's history, critics use the term "transcendentalist" as a pejorative, and suggested that the members' position was beyond sanity and reason.

Portrait of Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson: Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803–April 27, 1882) was an American essayist, lecturer, and poet who led the transcendentalist movement of the mid-nineteenth century.

The transcendentalists varied in their interpretations of the practical aims of will. Some among the group linked it with utopian social change; Orestes Brownson connected it with early socialism, while others such as Emerson considered it an exclusively individualist and idealist project. In his 1842 lecture "The Transcendentalist," Emerson suggested that the goal of a purely transcendental outlook on life was impossible to attain in practice. The transcendentalists desired to ground their religion and philosophy in transcendental principles that were not based on, or falsifiable by, physical experience, but that were derived from the inner spiritual or mental essence of the human. In contrast, they were intimately familiar with the English romantics, and the transcendental movement may be partially described as an American outgrowth of romanticism.

By the late 1840s, Emerson believed the movement was dying out, and even more so after the death of Margaret Fuller in 1850. Fuller was an American journalist, critic, and women's-rights advocate closely associated with the movement; according to Emerson, "she represents an interesting hour and group in American cultivation." A second wave of transcendentalists emerged, however, including Moncure Conway, Octavius Brooks Frothingham, Samuel Longfellow, and Franklin Benjamin Sanborn.

Emerson's Influence

Ralph Waldo Emerson, an American essayist, lecturer, and poet, was seen as a champion of individualism and a prescient critic of the countervailing pressures of society. He disseminated his thoughts through dozens of published essays and more than 1,500 public lectures across the United States. Emerson gradually moved away from the religious and social beliefs of his contemporaries, formulating and expressing the philosophy of transcendentalism in his 1836 essay "Nature." Following this groundbreaking work, he gave a speech entitled, "The American Scholar" in 1837.

Emerson's first two collections of essays, published in 1841 and 1844, represent the core of his thinking. His work includes such well-known essays as "Self-Reliance," "The Over-Soul," "Circles," "The Poet," and "Experience." Together with "Nature," these essays made the decade from the mid-1830s to the mid-1840s Emerson's most fertile period.

Emerson wrote on a number of subjects, never espousing fixed philosophical tenets but developing certain ideas and themes such as individuality, freedom, humankind's ability to realize almost anything, and the relationship between the soul and the surrounding world. While his writing style can be seen as somewhat impenetrable, Emerson's essays remain among the linchpins of American thinking and have greatly influenced the thinkers, writers, and poets who have followed him.

Thoreau's Influence

Henry David Thoreau was an American author, poet, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister, development critic, surveyor, historian, and leading transcendentalist. He is best known for his book Walden, a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings, and his essay "Civil Disobedience," an argument for individual resistance to civil government in moral opposition to an unjust state.

Among Thoreau's lasting contributions were his writings on natural history and philosophy, in which he anticipated the methods and findings of ecology and environmental history, two sources of modern day environmentalism. His literary style interweaves close natural observation, personal experience, pointed rhetoric, symbolic meanings, and historical lore. He was also deeply interested in the idea of survival in the face of hostile elements, historical change, and natural decay. At the same time, he advocated abandoning waste and illusion in order to discover life's true essential needs.

He was a lifelong abolitionist, delivering lectures that attacked the Fugitive Slave Law while praising the writings of Wendell Phillips and defending abolitionist John Brown. Thoreau's philosophy of civil disobedience later influenced the political thoughts and actions of such notable figures as Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Focus on Individualism

Individualism is the moral stance, political philosophy, ideology, or social outlook that stresses the moral worth and value of the individual. Individualists promote the exercise of one's goals and desires and so value independence and self-reliance while opposing external interference upon one's own interests by society or institutions such as the government. Liberalism, existentialism, and anarchism are examples of movements that take the human individual as a central unit of analysis. Individualism is associated with artistic and bohemian interests and lifestyles in which there is a tendency towards self-creation and experimentation as opposed to tradition or popular mass opinions and behaviors, and also with humanist philosophical positions and ethics.

Emerson championed individuality, freedom, and humankind's ability to realize almost anything. In his essay "Nature," Emerson asserted that because God's presence is inherent in both humanity and nature, all people contain seeds of divinity. His essay "Self-Reliance" thoroughly emphasizes the need for each individual to avoid conformity and false consistency and to follow his or her own instincts and ideas.

Women's Rights

Women's rights in the nineteenth century focused primarily on women's suffrage, or the right to vote.

Learning Objectives

Describe the campaigns for women's rights in the nineteenth century

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The beginning of the women's-rights movement in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century gave rise to a vocal and courageous group of women who argued for social and legal equality with men.
  • "First-wave feminism" refers to the feminist movement of the nineteenth through early twentieth centuries, which focused mainly on women's suffrage, or right to vote.
  • In 1848, the Seneca Falls Convention met in upstate New York and brought together a large number of women to discuss how to argue for women's rights.
  • The National Women's Rights Convention was first organized in 1860 and became a recurring meeting at which reformers discussed strategy and clarified goals.
  • Women gained increasing legal rights during the nineteenth century, including the right to sue for divorce in some states.

Key Terms

  • Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American social activist, abolitionist, and leading figure of the early women's movement.
  • Seneca Falls Convention: An early and influential meeting of women's-rights activists held in New York on July 19–20, 1848.

Women's Rights of the Nineteenth Century

The movement for women's rights in the United States can be traced back to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. "First-wave feminism" refers to the feminist movement of the nineteenth through early twentieth centuries, which focused mainly on women's suffrage, or right to vote.

During the early part of the nineteenth century, agitation for equal suffrage was attempted by only a few individuals. The first of these was Frances Wright, a Scottish woman who came to the country in 1826 and advocated women's suffrage in an extensive series of lectures. In 1836, a Polish woman named Ernestine Rose came to the United States and undertook a similar campaign so effectively that she obtained a personal hearing before the New York Legislature, though her petition bore only five signatures. In 1840, Lucretia Mott and Margaret Fuller became active in Boston, the latter authoring the book The Great Lawsuit; Man vs. Woman. Gerrit Smith, who was the Liberty Party's candidate for president in 1848, successfully championed a plank in his party's position calling for women's equal rights.

Conventions and Resolutions

The first women's-rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York, in July of 1848. The Seneca Falls Convention was hosted by Lucretia Mott, Mary Ann McClintock, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Some 300 attended, including Frederick Douglass, who stood up to speak in favor of women's suffrage. After two days of discussion and debate, 68 women and 32 men signed a "Declaration of Sentiments," which outlined grievances and set the agenda for the women's-rights movement. A set of 12 resolutions was adopted, calling for equal treatment of women and men under the law and voting rights for women.

Portrait of Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, ca. 1880: Elizabeth Cady Stanton was an important early figure in the women's-suffrage movement in the mid-nineteenth century. Her "Declaration of Sentiments," presented at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, is often credited with initiating the first organized women's-suffrage movement in the United States.

Another advocate of women's rights was Lucy Stone. In 1850, she met with Paulina Kellogg Wright Davis, Abby Kelley Foster, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and six other women to organize the larger National Women's Rights Convention. This national convention brought together for the first time many of those who had been working individually for women's rights. On the closing day, Stone gave a stirring speech to the 1,000-strong audience, which is said to have inspired Susan B. Anthony to join the cause.

While conventions provided places where women could support each other, they also highlighted some of the challenges of unifying many different leaders into one movement. Women's-rights activists faced difficult questions, such as: Should the movement include or exclude men? Who was to blame for women's inequality? What remedies should they seek? How could women best convince others of their need for equality? One goal, however, was clear: Attendees resolved to secure legal and social equality for women on par with men.

Portrait of Lucy Stone

Lucy Stone, ca. 1840: Lucy Stone, the first American woman recorded to have retained her own name after marriage, was an important figure in the women's-rights movement of the nineteenth century and an organizer of the National Women's Rights Convention.

Progress and Gains

By 1860, women's-rights advocates had made some headway. In Indiana, divorces could be granted not only on the basis of adultery, but also on desertion, drunkenness, and cruelty. In New York, Indiana, Maine, Missouri, and Ohio, women's property rights had expanded to allow married women to keep their own wages. In 1860, New York passed a revised Married Women's Property Act, which gave women shared ownership of their children, allowing them to have a say in their children's wills and wages and granting them the right to inherit property.

The movement experienced further advances and setbacks in New York and other states, but feminists were able to use each new win as an example to apply more leverage on unyielding legislative bodies. Clearly there was still much to be done; however, reformers had given a name to women's oppression and had set into motion the movement that would continue to change American attitudes for years to come.


The earlier forms of feminism have been criticized for being geared toward and focused on white, middle-class, educated women, to the exclusion of the diverse experiences of other women. Second- and third-wave feminist movements followed this initial first wave, working to further combat social, cultural, and political inequalities.

Abolitionists and the American Ideal

The abolitionist movement intensified in the first half of the nineteenth century, and tensions between the North and the South continued to rise.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the varied commitments, principles, and strategies of the abolitionist movement

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Antislavery sentiment grew during the years leading up to the Civil War; however, slavery was strongly supported in the South and was intertwined with the national economy and lifestyle.
  • Abolitionists were divided between those who wanted immediate freedom and those who favored gradual emancipation.
  • The abolitionist movement was led by social reformers such as Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Some abolitionists worked to transport freed slaves to Africa, calling it "colonization"; however, colonization ignored the fact that many freed African Americans considered America their home, having lived there for several generations.
  • In 1821, the American Colonization Society established the colony of Liberia in Africa, which became a resettling place of former African-American slaves.

Key Terms

  • Liberia: A country in western Africa established by citizens of the United States as a colony for former African-American slaves.
  • Frederick Douglass: An American social reformer, orator, writer, and statesman who, after escaping from slavery, became a leader of the abolitionist movement and gained notoriety for his dazzling oratory and incisive antislavery writing.
  • repatriation: The process of returning a person to his or her country of origin or citizenship.

The Rise of Abolitionism

Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, abolitionism—a movement to end slavery—intensified throughout the United States. In the 1850s, slavery was established legally in the 15 states constituting the American South. It remained especially strong in plantation areas where crops such as cotton, sugar, tobacco, and hemp were essential exports. By 1860, the slave population in the United States had grown to 4 million. While American abolitionism strengthened in the North, support for slavery held strong among white southerners, who profited so greatly from the system of enslaved labor that slavery itself became intertwined with the national economy. The banking, shipping, and manufacturing industries of New York City all had strong economic interests in slavery, as did other major cities in the North.

Leading Activists

Notable African-American activists included former slaves such as Frederick Douglass and David Walker and free African Americans such as brothers Charles Henry Langston and John Mercer Langston, who helped found the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society. Other abolitionists included writers such as John Greenleaf Whittier and Harriet Beecher Stowe. The white abolitionist movement in the North was led by social reformers, especially William Lloyd Garrison, founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society. The Society fragmented in the 1830s and 40s into groups that included the Liberty Party, the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, the American Missionary Association, and the Church Anti-Slavery Society. A few abolitionists, such as John Brown, favored the use of armed force to encourage uprisings among slaves. Brown led two actions for the purpose of abolishing slavery—the Pottawatomie Massacre in Bleeding Kansas in 1856 and an unsuccessful raid at Harpers Ferry in 1859.

Abolitionist Arguments

Antislavery as a principle was far more than simply the wish to limit slavery. Most northerners recognized that the Constitution did not allow the federal government to intervene in the slavery-laden South. Historians traditionally distinguish between "gradualists," moderate antislavery reformers who concentrated on stopping the spread of slavery, and "immediatists," or radical abolitionists (such as William Lloyd Garrison) whose demands for unconditional emancipation often merged with their concern for African-American civil rights.

Most abolitionists tried to raise public support by citing the unlawfulness of slavery. Some abolitionists claimed that slavery was not only criminal, but also a sin. Additionally, they criticized slave owners for using black women as concubines. This movement to tout the immorality of slavery gained momentum with the widespread publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin in the North in 1852.  The abolitionist movement was further strengthened by the efforts of free African Americans, especially in the black church, who argued that the old biblical justifications for slavery contradicted the New Testament. Abolitionists pointed to evidence of the abuses of slavery to strengthen their arguments.


Slavery abuses: Abolitionists used evidence such as the scars on the back of this former slave named Peter to speak eloquently about the abuses of slavery.

The Republican Party wanted to achieve the gradual extinction of slavery by market forces, based on the belief that free labor was superior to slave labor. Believing that restricting slavery to the South and refusing to let it expand would eventually cause the institution to die out, the party adopted  a "free soil" platform.

The heated sectional controversy between the North and the South reached new levels of intensity in the 1850s. Southerners and northerners grew ever more antagonistic as they debated the expansion of slavery in the West. The notorious confrontation between Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina and Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner illustrates the contempt between extremists on both sides. The “Caning of Sumner” in May 1856 followed a speech given by Sumner two days earlier, in which he condemned slavery in no uncertain terms, declaring: “[Admitting Kansas as a slave state ] is the rape of a virgin territory, compelling it to the hateful embrace of slavery; and it may be clearly traced to a depraved longing for a new slave state, the hideous offspring of such a crime, in the hope of adding to the power of slavery in the national government.” Sumner criticized proslavery legislators, particularly attacking a fellow senator and relative of Preston Brooks. Brooks responded by beating Sumner with a cane, a thrashing that southerners celebrated as a defense of gentlemanly honor and their way of life. The episode highlights the violent clash between pro- and antislavery factions in the 1850s, a conflict that would eventually lead to the traumatic unraveling of American democracy and civil war.

The Argument for Colonization

In the early part of the nineteenth century, a variety of organizations were founded that advocated for the moving of black people from the United States to locations where they would enjoy greater freedom. Some endorsed colonization in Africa, while others advocated emigration. During the 1820s and 30s, the American Colonization Society (ACS, or the Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color of America) was the primary advocate of returning free African Americans to what was considered greater freedom in Africa. The ACS was mostly composed of Quakers and slaveholders who disagreed on the issue of slavery but found common ground in supporting repatriation. Colonization ignored the fact that many freed slaves, having lived in America for several generations, considered it their home, and preferred full rights in the United States over emigration. Colonization also lost appeal based on the logistics of relocating millions of slaves outside of the country. In 1821, the ACS established the colony of Liberia in Africa and assisted the emigration of thousands of former African-American slaves and free blacks (with legislated limits) from the United States. Many white people deemed this preferable to emancipation in the United States.

The Temperance Movement

The temperance movement of the early nineteenth century advocated for alcohol moderation or complete abstinence from alcohol.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the central commitments of and factions within the nineteenth-century temperance movement

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The origins of the temperance movement can be found in Benjamin Rush's 1784 tract, "An Inquiry Into the Effects of Ardent Spirits Upon the Human Body and Mind," which judged the excessive use of alcohol as being injurious to physical and psychological health.
  • Economic change and urbanization in the nineteenth century were accompanied by increasing poverty, which, along with other factors, contributed to an increase in alcohol use.
  • The temperance movement of the early nineteenth century advocated for alcohol moderation, or a more level attitude toward alcohol, rather than complete abstinence.
  • The movement gained popularity in the 1820s with a renewed emphasis on religious reform.
  • Lyman Beecher was a charismatic preacher and important leader of the temperance movement. The American Temperance Society was formed in 1826 and spread quickly, with thousands of chapters being established throughout the country.
  • The temperance movement gave rise to a new kind of theater, which told stories of lives ruined through drink and provided powerful examples for the public.

Key Terms

  • abstinence: The practice of restraining oneself from engaging or indulging in something, such as intoxicating/alcoholic beverages.
  • temperance: Habitual moderation in regard to the indulgence of the natural appetites and passions; restrained or moderate indulgence; specifically, moderation, and sometimes abstinence, in respect to using intoxicating liquors.

The Rise of the Temperance Movement

In the late eighteenth century, the early temperance movement sparked to life with Benjamin Rush's 1784 tract, "An Inquiry Into the Effects of Ardent Spirits Upon the Human Body and Mind," which judged the excessive use of alcohol as injurious to physical and psychological health. Influenced by this inquiry, about 200 farmers in a Connecticut community formed a temperance association in 1789 to ban the making of whiskey. Similar associations formed in Virginia in 1800 and New York in 1808.

Over the next decade, other temperance organizations formed in eight states, some of which were state-wide. Economic change and urbanization in the early nineteenth century were accompanied by increasing poverty, and various factors contributed to a widespread increase in alcohol use. Advocates for temperance argued that such alcohol use went hand in hand with spousal abuse, family neglect, and chronic unemployment. Americans increasingly drank more strong, cheap alcoholic beverages such as rum and whiskey, and pressure for inexpensive and plentiful alcohol led to relaxed ordinances on alcohol sales, which temperance advocates sought to reform.

The movement advocated temperance, or levelness, rather than abstinence. Many leaders of the movement expanded their activities and took positions on observance of the Sabbath and other moral issues. The reform movements met with resistance from brewers and distillers; many business owners were even fearful of women having the right to vote because it was expected that they would tend to vote for temperance.

Some leaders persevered in pressing their cause forward. Americans such as Lyman Beecher, a Connecticut minister, had started to lecture fellow citizens against all use of liquor in 1825. The American Temperance Society was formed in 1826 and benefited from a renewed interest in religion and morality. Within 12 years it claimed more than 8,000 local groups and more than 1,500,000 members. By 1839, 18 temperance journals were being published. Simultaneously, some Protestant and Catholic church leaders were beginning to promote temperance.

Portrait of Lyman Beecher

Lyman Beecher, ca. 1855: Lyman Beecher was a charismatic and influential preacher during the first half of the nineteenth century who championed, among other moral reforms, the temperance movement.

The movement split along two lines in the late 1830s between moderates, who allowed some drinking, and radicals, who demanded total abstinence. A split also formed between voluntarists, who relied on moral persuasion alone, and prohibitionists, who promoted laws to restrict or ban alcohol. Radicals and prohibitionists dominated many of the largest temperance organizations after the 1830s, and temperance eventually became synonymous with prohibition.

Temperance in Popular Culture

The movement gained momentum to the point that it inspired an entire genre of theatre. This was first seen in 1825, as The Forgers, a dramatic poem written by John Blake White, premiered at the Charleston Theatre in Charleston, South Carolina. The next significant temperance drama to debut was titled Fifteen Years of a Drunkard's Life, written by Douglas Jerrold in 1841. As the movement began to grow and prosper, these dramas became more popular among the general public. The Drunkard by W. H. Smith premiered in 1841 in Boston, running for 144 performances before being produced at P.T. Barnum's American Museum on lower Broadway. The play was wildly popular and is often credited with the entrance of the temperance narrative into mainstream American theatre. It continued to be a staple of New York's theatre scene until 1875. The Drunkard follows the typical format of a temperance drama: The main character has an alcohol-induced downfall, and he restores his life from disarray after he denounces drinking for good at the play's end.

Temperance and the Civil War

The Civil War dealt the movement a crippling blow. Temperance groups in the South were weaker than their northern counterparts and too voluntarist to gain any statewide prohibition law, and the few prohibition laws in the North were repealed by the war's end. Both sides in the war made alcohol sales a part of the war effort by taxing brewers and distillers to finance much of the conflict. The issue of slavery crowded out the argument about temperance, and temperance groups largely fell by the wayside until they found new life in the 1870s.

Prisons and Asylums

In the nineteenth century, a series of important social movements sought to reform both prisons and asylums in the United States.

Learning Objectives

Describe America's prison and asylum system in the early nineteenth century

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In the early nineteenth century, New York State sought to reform the lax prison system by implementing the Auburn system, in which prisoners were kept in separate cells and forbidden from socializing.
  • Increasing numbers of prisoners serving long sentences for violent offenses, many of them new immigrants, threatened to overwhelm the prison system in the middle of the century.
  • Advocates for prison reform, such as Enoch Wines and Theodore Dwight, worked to make sure prisons were focused on reform and rehabilitation, not punishment.
  • In the early part of the nineteenth century, individuals contracted with towns to act as caregivers for those people with mental illnesses who had no family and friends who could could help care for them; this system, however, was rampant with abuse.
  • Dorothea Dix worked with state legislatures to provide funding for statewide mental hospitals with professional staff and treatment.
  • Dix's efforts to pass a national bill for the support of the mentally ill were frustrated by President Franklin Pierce, who vetoed the bill because he believed that states, not the federal government, should be responsible for social welfare.

Key Terms

  • Dorothea Dix: An American activist who, through a vigorous program of lobbying state legislatures and the U.S. Congress, advocated on behalf of the mentally ill and created the first generation of mental asylums in the United States.
  • rehabilitation: A process of restoring to useful life, as through therapy and education, or of restoring to good condition, operation, or capacity.
  • Auburn system: A penal method of the nineteenth century in which prisoners worked during the day in groups and were kept in solitary confinement at night, with enforced silence at all times.

Prisons in the United States

Imprisonment as a form of criminal punishment became widespread in the United States just before the American Revolution, though penal incarceration efforts had been ongoing in England since as early as the 1500s, and prisons in the form of dungeons and various detention facilities had existed since long before then. Prison-building efforts in the United States during the Jacksonian Era led to widespread use of imprisonment and rehabilitative labor as the primary penalty for most crimes in nearly all states by the time of the American Civil War.

By the second decade of the nineteenth century, every state except North Carolina, South Carolina, and Florida had amended its criminal code to provide for incarceration (primarily at hard labor) as the primary punishment for all but the most serious offenses. Provincial laws in Massachusetts began to prescribe short terms in the workhouse for deterrence throughout the eighteenth century and, by mid-century, the first statutes mandating long-term hard labor in the workhouse as a penal sanction appeared. This replaced earlier, more traditional forms of community-based punishment such as penal servitude, banishment, and public shaming such as the pillory.

By 1820, faith in the efficacy of legal reform was steadily declining. Statutory changes had had no noticeable effect on the level of crime, and prisons had become riotous and vulnerable to escapes. In response, New York developed the Auburn system in which prisoners were confined in separate cells and prohibited from talking when eating and working together. This penal method, where prisoners worked during the day in groups and were kept in solitary confinement at night, was implemented at Auburn State Prison and Sing Sing at Ossining.

The aim of this method was rehabilitative: The reformers talked about the penitentiary serving as a model for the family and the school. The assumption of rehabilitation was that people were not permanently criminal and that it was possible to restore a criminal to a useful life in which they could contribute to themselves and to society. Most states followed suit, although Pennsylvania went even further in separating prisoners. By the 1860s, however, overcrowding became common, partly due to long sentences given for violent crimes. Prisons saw increasing severity and often cruel methods of gagging and restraining prisoners. An increasing proportion of prisoners were new immigrants.

As a result of a tour of prisons in 18 states, Enoch Wines and Theodore Dwight produced a monumental report describing the flaws in the existing system and proposing remedies. Notably, they found that not a single state prison was seeking the reformation of its inmates as a primary goal. In 1870, they set out an agenda for reform which was endorsed by a National Congress in Cincinnati. These ideas were put into practice in the Elmira Reformatory in New York in 1876 run by Zebulon Brockway. At the core of the design was an educational program, which included general subjects and vocational training for the less capable. Instead of fixed sentences, prisoners who did well could be released early.

Dorothea Dix and Asylum Reform

Attitudes toward the mentally ill also began to change during the time of the Enlightenment. In England and Europe, mental illness came to be viewed as a disorder that required compassionate treatment to aid in the rehabilitation of the victim. When the ruling monarch of the United Kingdom, George III, who suffered from a mental disorder, experienced a remission in 1789, mental illness also came to be seen as something that could be treated and cured. The introduction of moral treatment was initiated independently by the French doctor Philippe Pinel and the English Quaker William Tuke.

An important social justice reformer in American history, Dorothea Dix conducted a statewide investigation from 1840 to 1841 of how her home state of Massachusetts cared for the poor and mentally ill. In most cases, towns contracted with local individuals to care for people with mental disorders who could not care for themselves and who lacked family and friends to provide for them. Unregulated and underfunded, this system produced widespread abuse. After her survey, Dix published the results in a fiery report, "A Memorial," addressed to the state legislature. The outcome of her lobbying was a bill to expand the state's mental hospital in Worcester.

Portrait of Dorothea Dix

Dorothea Dix: Dorothea Dix was a crusader for the rights of the mentally ill and worked to improve conditions in asylums.

After her report, Dix traveled to states around the country, documenting the conditions of the poor and mentally ill and publishing memorials to state legislatures. She devoted enormous personal energy to working with committees to draft the enabling legislation needed to build asylums. Dix was influential in the establishment of Illinois's first state mental hospital and the construction of a hospital in North Carolina for the care of mentally ill patients, which was named in honor of Dorothea Dix and opened in 1856. She was also instrumental in the founding of the first public mental hospital in Pennsylvania, the Harrisburg State Hospital, and later in establishing its library and reading room in 1853.

The culmination of her work was the Bill for the Benefit of the Indigent Insane, legislation to set aside 12,225,000 acres of Federal land (10,000,000 acres for the benefit of the insane and the remainder for the "blind, deaf, and dumb"), with proceeds from its sale distributed to the states to build and maintain asylums. Dix's land bill passed both houses of Congress, but in 1854 President Franklin Pierce vetoed it, arguing that the federal government should not commit itself to social welfare, which was properly the responsibility of the states. In reaction to the defeat of her land bill, in 1854 and 1855 Dix traveled to England and Europe, where she conducted investigations of Scotland's madhouses that precipitated the Scottish Lunacy Commission. Dix continued to work for social reforms, focusing her energy on military hospitals during the Civil War.

Utopian Communities

After the Second Great Awakening, many religious groups formed utopian communities in which they attempted to live governed by their creeds.

Learning Objectives

Identify the central commitments of several utopian communities that developed in the nineteenth century

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • After the Second Great Awakening, many radical religious groups formed utopian societies in which all aspects of people's lives could be governed by their faith.
  • Many of the utopian communities were influenced by transcendentalism; others believed in millennialism, or the second coming of Christ.
  • One of the earliest and longest lasting of the utopian groups was the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, or the Shakers. The Shakers lived in communities that held property in common and forbade sexual activity, gaining new members by conversion only.
  • The perfectionist movement founded the Oneida Community, which favored unorthodox sexual practices. The Oneida Community supported itself through manufacturing, and a form of it continues today as a silverware company.
  • Other utopian societies included the Harmony Society, Fruitlands, the Woman in the Wilderness, and the Ephrata Cloister.

Key Terms

  • utopia: An ideal community or society possessing a perfect socio-politico-legal system.
  • Second Great Awakening: A Christian revival movement during the early 19th century in the United States.

Utopian Communities of the Nineteenth Century

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many radical religious groups formed utopian societies in which all aspects of people's lives could be governed by their faith. Experimental communities sprang up, created by men and women who hoped not only to create a better way of life but also to recast American civilization so that greater equality and harmony would prevail. Indeed, some of these reformers envisioned the creation of alternative ways of living that would allow people to attain perfection in human relations.

A number of religious utopian societies from Europe came to the United States beginning in the eighteenth century and continuing throughout the nineteenth century, including the Society of the Woman in the Wilderness (led by Johannes Kelpius), the Ephrata Cloister, the Shakers, and the Harmony Society. Communities such as Fruitlands were largely based on transcendentalist principles; others such as the Oneida Community were based on perfectionistic ideals and embraced unorthodox sexual practices. Many utopianist groups also believed in millennialism, or chiliasm in Greek. Millennialism is a belief held by some Christian denominations that there will be a "golden age" or "paradise on earth" in which Christ will reign for 1,000 years prior to the final judgment and future eternal state.

Most of those attracted to utopian communities had been profoundly influenced by evangelical Protestantism, especially the Second Great Awakening. However, their experience of revivalism had left them wanting to further reform society. The communities they formed and joined adhered to various socialist ideas and were considered radical because members wanted to create a new social order, not reform the old.

The Shakers

One of the earliest utopian movements was the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, more commonly known as the Shakers. Originating in England in the eighteenth century and moving to America shortly afterward, the Shakers are a Christian Protestant religious sect whose name was derived from the movements of the members in dancing, which forms a part of their worship. Ann Lee, a leader of the group in England, emigrated to New York in the 1770s, having experienced a profound religious awakening that convinced her that she was “mother in Christ.” She taught that God was both male and female; Jesus embodied the male side, while Mother Ann (as she came to be known by her followers) represented the female side. To Shakers in both England and the United States, Mother Ann represented the completion of divine revelation and the beginning of the millennium of heaven on earth.

In practice, men and women in Shaker communities were held as equals—a radical departure at the time—and women often outnumbered men. Equality extended to the possession of material goods as well; no one could hold private property. Shaker communities aimed for self-sufficiency, raising food and making all that was necessary, including furniture that emphasized excellent workmanship as a substitute for worldly pleasure.

Members of Shaker communities held all of their possessions in common and lived in a prosperous, inventive, self-supporting society. The defining features of the Shakers were their spiritual mysticism and their prohibition of sexual intercourse, which they held as an example of a lesser spiritual life and a source of conflict between women and men. Rapturous Shaker dances, for which the group gained notoriety, allowed for emotional release. The high point of the Shaker movement came in the 1830s, when about 6,000 members populated communities in New England, New York, Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky. New members only could come from conversions and from children brought to the Shaker villages. The Shakers persisted into the twentieth century and are mostly known today for their cultural contributions (especially their style of music and furniture) and their model of equality of the sexes.

This drawing depicts Shaker men and women dancing in a circular formation during the the height of the Shaker movement, sometime between 1820 and 1860.

Shaker dancing: Music and dance were important parts of Shaker community worship.

The Harmony Society

The Harmony Society was a Christian theosophy and pietist group founded in Iptingen, Germany, in 1785. Due to religious persecution by the Lutheran Church and the government in Württemberg, the society moved to the United States and settled in Pennsylvania in 1805, together with about 400 followers. They formally organized the Harmony Society, placing all of their goods in common. The Harmony Society made three attempts to effect a millennial society, with the most notable example being at New Harmony, Indiana. Later, Scottish industrialist Robert Owen bought New Harmony and attempted to form a secular utopian community there. The group lasted until 1905, making it one of the longest-running financially successful communes in American history.

The Oneida Community

The Oneida Community, founded by John Humphrey Noyes in Oneida, New York, was a utopian religious commune that lasted from 1848 to 1881. Although this utopian experiment is better known today for its manufacture of Oneida silverware, it was one of the longest running communes in American history. Also known as the "Perfectionist movement," the community believed that Jesus had already returned in 70 A.D., making it possible for them to bring about Jesus's millennial kingdom themselves, to be free of sin, and to be perfect in this world (a belief called "Perfectionism").

Noyes applied his idea of perfection to relationships between men and women, earning notoriety for his unorthodox views on marriage and sexuality. Beginning in his home town of Putney, Vermont, he began to advocate what he called "complex marriage": a form of communal marriage in which women and men who had achieved perfection could engage in sexual intercourse without sin. Noyes also promoted “male continence,” whereby men would not ejaculate, thereby freeing women from pregnancy and the difficulty of determining paternity when they had many partners. Intercourse became fused with spiritual power among Noyes and his followers.

The concept of complex marriage scandalized the townspeople in Putney, so Noyes and his followers moved to Oneida, New York. Individuals who wanted to join the Oneida Community underwent a tough screening process to weed out those who had not reached a state of perfection, which Noyes believed promoted self-control, not out-of-control behavior. The goal was a balance between individuals in a community of love and respect. The perfectionist community Noyes envisioned ultimately dissolved in 1881, although the Oneida Community itself continues to this day.


Fruitlands was a Utopian agrarian commune established in Harvard, Massachusetts, by Amos Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane in the 1840s, based on transcendentalist principles. Lane purchased what was known as the Wyman farm and its 90 acres, which also included a dilapidated house and barn. Residents of Fruitlands ate no animal substances, drank only water, bathed in unheated water, and did not use artificial light. Property was held communally, and no animal labor was used. The community was short-lived and lasted only seven months.

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