Chapter Eleven: 19th century thought
1. What were some of the characteristics of American religious revivalism during the 1830s and 1840s?
2. What were some of the other social reform movements (outside of American Christianity) that were popular during the 1830s and 1840s?
3. What were some of the characteristics of transcendentalism during the 1830s and 1840s?
4. What were some of the characteristics of communitarianism during the 1830s and 1840s?
5. What were some of the characteristics of abolitionism during the 1830s and 1840s?
Reformers and worshippers sought to transform Northern society from about 1830-1850. In response to the social disorder and moral confusion associated with the emerging free-labor economy, with the market revolution and the changes it brought in family life, in where people lived and how, in the changes that resulted from increased immigration in the North. Four distinct types of movements emerged: 1) religious revivals, 2) reform movements, particularly with regard to gender and humanitarianism, 3) through transcendentalism, and 4) with communitarianism. Collectively, reformers and worshippers sought to transform Northern society from about1830-1850.
I. Religious revivalism
Religious revivals, especially those of the Methodists and Baptists, offered a solution to the social disorder and moral confusion associated with the emerging free-labor economy. A new religious revival swept through the Northern states in the early 1830s, seeking to “Christianize” the world, to instill faith in Christ, sobriety, and moral behavior that would bring about the millennium, Christ’s reign on earth. One effect of the movement was that conversion and sobriety became the keys to economic success. In Rochester, New York, for example, employers often forced their workers to attend church, because the values of evangelicalism fit well with the demands of the market economy. New York State was especially affected.
A. Religion and Class
Religion and social class were linked. Preachers like Elias Smith and Lorenzo Dow led the way, expressing anger at the traditional churches and at their oppression of the lower classes. Revivalism thus gave the message that everyone was equal in the eyes of God, and also that simple circumstances did not make one any less in the long run. The Baptists and the Methodists especially increased their presence.
Preachers tended to be self-trained, from poor families, they gradually emerged for their charisma and for their ability to move people. The preachers relied on their speaking skills, and for provoking emotional responses from their audiences. Often in large camp meetings, they represented the sense of democracy spreading across the country. The camp meeting included people from a variety of religious backgrounds. They featured converts speaking in tongues, dancing, shouting, and experiencing convulsions. Preachers used humor, sarcasm, and easy to understand language. Preaching was full of passion, simplicity, drama. Storytelling techniques and jokes often appealed to the common people. Salvation was immediately accessible and available, and common people should be able to shape their own faith and should be able to choose their own leaders.
With the emergence of folk music, religious hymns often took the music of popular songs and rewrote the words. Moreover, ordinary people crafted songs that expressed many emotions.
Presbyterian Charles G. Finney, a preacher, changed the church by using crude speech and revivalist-preacher like tactics. His preaching set an example of being more informal. He involved women and had frenzied services to spruce up the Presbyterian Church and make it more active. He used any talent or method he could think of to inspire his audience.
Nathan Bangs tried to promote the Methodist Church in New York City. He toned it down a little bit to make it respectable so that middle class city people would join.
Preachers like Billy Graham, Oral Roberts—they follow a long tradition and share similarities with the preachers of the Second Great Awakening. Contemporary fundamentalism reflects the same democratic spirit and populist impulses. It is a grassroots movement with democratic structure and spirit, opposed to ecclesiastical authority, and it is built upon the Second Great Awakening’s goal to make Christianity fully accessible to common people. It draws upon millenarian and restorationist themes. It is centered on popular communication, often appealing to the poor. Fundamentalism is available to everyone. Fundamentalists also opened educational and leadership opportunities to common people, founding 250 bible schools, and embraced preachers with the common touch. It built a subculture. Fundamentalist leaders excelled as communicators and entrepreneurial organizers, with energetic, resourceful and inventive personalities. Fundamentalists retained the right to think for themselves. All this shows that American Christianity continues to be powered by ordinary people.
B. Second Great Awakening
The Second Great Awakening also saw the founding of New Churches such as the Mormons. Mormons claimed that their leader Joseph Smith, Jr. had received a special revelation from God. Mormons believed that Christ had appeared to Native Americans and that North America was the center of Christian history. Mormonism gained many followers for other reasons. It stressed the importance of family values and of the family, however, encouraged polygamy as one way to increase the population and as a man and woman’s duty (more actually of a burden for women) to bring as many people as possible into the world who could then live as Mormons.
Persecuted by Protestants, Smith and his followers moved from New York to Illinois. Persecuted in Illinois (Smith was arrested and lynched by a mob in Illinois), the Mormons realized that to practice their religion freely, they would have to completely withdraw from society.
C. The Black Church
Because black Methodists in other middle Atlantic communities encountered racism and desired religious freedom, a former slave from Delaware, Richard Allen called them to meet in Philadelphia to form a new denomination, the African-Methodist-Episcopal Church (AME), in 1816. The AME continued to increase its membership throughout the antebellum period. Even in the South, African churches emerged, but found themselves banned and illegal in Charleston after the Denmark Vesey conspiracy in 1822.
Pause for 60-second Quiz #1: What were some of the characteristics of American religious revivalism during the 1830s and 1840s? Which answer is NOT correct?
a. Belief in the idea of Christians’ equality in the eyes of God
b. Reliance on informal, open access to Christian teachings for the uneducated
c. Tendency to use persuasive speaking techniques
d. Belief in the idea of Christians’ equality of African-Americans to white Americans
II. Reform Movements
A. Revival and Reform
Revivalism closely related to a number of active reform movements.
Spurred on by religious revivals, the 1830s saw the rapid growth of American reform movements. Alarmed by immoral behavior, reformers tried to remake their society along Christian and middle-class lines.
One example was the temperance movement. The average man in the 1830s drank 3 times what modern people do in a year. Working men even drank through the day. The American Temperance Society, organized in 1826, grew to include 5,000 local chapters in less than ten years. In 1851, the state of Maine made it illegal to purchase or buy alcohol in the state (since repealed). In ten years, the Temperance Society claimed that it reduced average alcohol consumption in half.
Revivalism also greatly influenced the antebellum efforts to shape the meaning of gender. The New York Female Moral Reform Society aimed to convert urban prostitutes to Protestantism, to shut down brothels, and to fight the sexual double-standard and male sexual license.
Reformers also stressed the importance of education. If people were educated, it was believed that they would not fall into sin and trouble. Beginning in the 1830s, Horace Mann instituted a number of reforms in Massachusetts schools. Massachusetts schools became highly structured, funded by the state through taxes, attendance was required, students were placed into grades where possible based upon age and ability, textbooks were standardized, and the school year was firmly established. Children were expected to learn similar lessons on responsibility, hard work, and American values.
Through ostracism and education, the movement emphasized women’s value—particularly their moral superiority to males—to educate their children and to instill proper morals in their family. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a religiously-based book, also presented a view of women that asserted the sanctity of the home, the god-like nature of women, and the ideal of matriarchy, and it placed women as the crucial catalyst in the future of the nation.
Humanitarianism constituted another of the major reform movements. As John Thomas asserts, evangelicals established voluntary associations that formed a vast network of reform movements that aimed to reform the morals of society. A belief in the outcome of inevitable and infinite perfectibility and improvement characterized the movement. Reformers criticized poverty and profusion and urban life. They advocated the better treatment and education of the handicapped and criminals. Many humanitarian reformers declared pain intolerable, unacceptable, and obscene. Many attempted to abolish corporal and capital punishment, and demanded that virtuous people treat criminals and the insane better. Prison reformers believed that people could be made good.
Led by Dorothea Dix, a Massachusetts teacher, reformers worked to improve conditions for the mentally ill.
Given an opportunity to express their opinions and to effect changes in society, women were not eager to return to the world of domesticity. Two women in particular emerged as leaders in a new campaign for equal women’s rights: Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In 1848, Mott, Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony called a convention at Seneca Falls New York which issued the famous Declaration of Sentiments stating that “All men and women are created equal.”
The Seneca Falls Declaration, which listed forms of discrimination women faced, recorded the severe limitations on women's legal rights in America at this time: women could not vote; they could not participate in the creation of laws that they had to obey; their property was taxed; and a married woman's property and wages legally belonged to her husband. Further, in the relatively unusual case of a divorce, custody of children was virtually automatically awarded to the father; access to the professions and higher education generally was closed to women; and most churches barred women from participating publicly in the ministry or other positions of authority.
Stanton's Declaration of Sentiments proclaimed that "all men and women were created equal" and that the undersigned would employ all methods at their disposal to right these wrongs. Ultimately the document was adopted and signed with hardly any alterations and was to be published as a pamphlet for the whole world to digest.
While the Seneca Falls convention did not lead to any immediate changes, it nevertheless provided the basis for a future generation of women to question the inequalities in their world and to do something about it.
Pause for 60-second Quiz #2: What were some of the other social reform movements (outside of American Christianity) that were popular during the 1830s and 1840s? Which answer is NOT correct?
a. The temperance movement
b. The sexual reform movement
c. The women’s right to vote movement
d. The African-Americans’ right to vote movement
A third type of reformer, the transcendentalist, believed that the self-contained individual could best hold society together. Transcendentalism constituted an alternate route to the millennium.
Transcendental, referred to the belief that reality transcended reason, that man (and woman) could perceive reality through intuition. The Transcendentalist emphasized intuition as a source of knowledge superior to the senses (remember Locke?).
Transcendentalist drew on three sources:
1) It was a reaction against New England Unitarianism. Unitarianism was a rejection of traditional religion, more based on individual reason, the power of one’s own mind and will Transcendentalists, then, were former Unitarians who left the Unitarian Church. These people included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, and George Ripley. Over time Unitarianism had become the church of the conservative upper classes, and to Emerson and the others, the services were dull and boring. Moreover, they believed that religion was a personal thing and that it was not necessary to have an organized church in order to be a religious person.
2) Transcendentalism also drew its inspiration from the Romantic Movement in literature. Romanticism emphasized spontaneous and emotional sensibility, a love of nature, and an appreciation of feeling and emotion.
3) Third, Transcendentalism drew upon European philosophy. Emmanuel Kant went on to say that humans had an innate or intuitive kind of moral predisposition. In any given situation they knew intuitively what they ought to do and then used reason to determine whether they should do what they felt they ought to do. The point that made its way into transcendental thinking was that humans could rely on themselves and their felt perceptions to determine their moral conduct.
Transcendentalists believed in a God whom they perceived as dwelling everywhere. God was in nature and in men and women; men and women could experience God in nature or within themselves. The Bible represented intuitive insight from the past but, for the present, such insight could only come from within. They referred to God by various special terms to represent his universality: the Over soul, the Universal Spirit, the Supreme Mind, the Universal Power, the Universal Consciousness.
The Transcendentalist often found himself in conflict with society. Henry David Thoreau believed that to pay a tax to support the Mexican American War was wrong, and he refused to pay. Thrown in jail, he wrote the essay “Civil Disobedience.” The Transcendentalists became abolitionists, believing that all people were equal, and all people should be free to develop their own skills and their own lives.
The Transcendentalists also developed a utopian experiment, Brook Farm. Founded by George Ripley in 1841 outside of Boston, about 80-100 residents lived in an unsuccessful farming community for about 5 years.
Transcendentalism took two literary forms: the sermon and the essay. The two most famous short Transcendentalist works are essays: Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “On Self Reliance” and Thoreau’s essay “On Resistance to Civil Government.”
According to “Self Reliance,” Emerson wrote:
“To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius.”
“Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.”
“To be great is to be misunderstood.”
Emerson is also credited with the statement, “let every man walk to the beat of his own drummer.”
C. Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau wrote “On Resistance to Civil Government” during the Mexican War, when in 1846, the state of Massachusetts imposed a head tax on its citizens to support the war effort. To many the war was a war to extend slavery which they say as an evil. Thoreau refused to pay the tax, was arrested and spent a night in jail. When a friend paid the tax for him, he was released. The event led Thoreau to write his famous essay “On Resistance to Civil Government” which has influenced a number of movements against oppression, including the movement in India for independence from British rule and Martin Luther King’s doctrines of passive disobedience.
Criticizing the government, he believed that he did not have to pay taxes that he did not agree with. “The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.…”
In the essay, he criticized the U.S. for allowing slavery to continue and for encouraging its spread. “It is disgraceful to be associated with the United States government. “I cannot for an instant recognize as my government [that] which is the slave’s government also.” “There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them.” By passive action rather than violence, he hoped to make a statement.
Pause for 60-second Quiz #3: What were some of the characteristics of transcendentalism during the 1830s and 1840s? Which author and summary statement is NOT correct?
a. Emerson = self-reliance
b. Thoreau = self-reliance
IV. Communitarianism/Utopian Communities
A fourth type of reform movement, communitarianism, offered a belief that to break from society without disrupting it was the best way to effect change. While the Transcendentalists had an unsuccessful utopian community, Brook Farm, it was not the reformers, the humanitarians, or the Transcendentalists who were known for their utopian communities.
Rather, it was a group of individuals who wanted to create a new meaning of the family and who hoped to create perfect societies. The family was under attack from changes in society, the breakup of families who had to move away to get land, or who had to go to the cities just to survive. Dealing with the changes in society and in American culture, these utopian communities were quite novel. Yet almost all collapsed when reformers realized that their ideas would never work in the long run, or when they could not keep the populations going.
There were several communitarian experiments:
A. The Shakers
The Shakers, an offshoot of Quakerism, peaked during the 1830s-1850s, reaching a membership of about 6,000 people. They believed in celibacy—no sex. As a result, they adopted orphans into the community and attracted converts. At age 21, people were free to go on their way if they wanted to, but most stayed. Women held leadership positions in the community, but there were sharply defined gender roles. Males and females lived in separate homes. Shakers were known for a style of furniture, known as Shaker furniture. It was plain in style, durable, and functional. Shaker chairs were usually mass-produced since a great number of them were needed to seat all the Shakers in a community. Around the time of the American Civil War, the Shakers at Mount Lebanon, NY, greatly increased their production and marketing of Shaker chairs. They were so successful that several furniture companies produced their own versions of "Shaker" chairs. Because of the quality of their craftsmanship, original Shaker furniture is costly. One Shaker chair, actually a tall stool, sold for just under US $100,000
Today there are very few remaining Shakers left, in Sabbathday Lake, Maine.
B. The Oneida
The Oneida Community, in the Finger Lakes region of New York is known for its system of “complex marriage.”
1. Complex marriage
The Oneida Community believed that monogamy was bad because it made women property and subjugated them as slaves and prostitutes; in theory, every male was married to every female. In practice, this meant that most adults had continuous sexual access to a partner. Community members were not to have an exclusive sexual or romantic relationship with each other, but were to keep in constant circulation. To help prevent a "special love" from forming, each Community member had his or her own bedroom. This extended even to couples who came to the Community already married. A married couple entering the Community was not required or even encouraged to legally dissolve their union, but rather to extend the borders of it to the rest of the Community in complex marriage. The average female Community member had three sexual encounters, or "interviews", a week.
However, the cult was not based on sex-sex-sex. Rather, neither partner was expected to climax, because not doing so was a sign of self control and discipline, another of their values. By doing so, sexual encounters could last for a while, and both partners would be satisfied.
Further, in the Oneida Community, there was a goal of perfection—both as individuals and as a community, to create an isolated community of perfection that would be a kingdom of God on earth, almost like the “city on a hill” mission. Every member of the community was subject to criticism by committee or the community as a whole, during a general meeting. The goal was to eliminate bad character traits.
Another type of utopian community was actually the Mormon Church.
Joseph Smith, a New York farmer, proclaimed a vision which led to the establishment of the Mormon Church. Plural marriage was seen as a necessary condition for salvation. The Mormons encouraged huge families. In the early years, men traveled extensively seeking converts, and women were involved in politics, business, and medicine.
These four above movements all met over the issue of slavery, and by the 1820s-1830s, great attention was placed on slavery. What follows here is a brief history of abolitionism in the Northern United States. Next time, when we discuss Southern life, we’ll see how the South responded to the growing popularity of abolitionism.
A. Slow growth
Abolitionism was slow to catch on. In America, the first opponents of slavery were the Quakers. John Woolman and Anthony Benezet were Quakers, among the first opponents of slavery, writing in the colonial period. Woolman, from New Jersey, argued that slavery was not Christian, and asked people to put themselves in slaves’ shoes—how would you feel if that were you, his message was. Anthony Benezet, writing a little later, wrote that Africans were civilized and successful in Africa, and highly capable of great things in America if given opportunities. Few Americans noticed the Quaker abolitionists.
B. Increasing pace
During the Revolution, many Northern states freed their slaves, some gradually, and by the 1820s, all the Northern states except Delaware were free of slavery. In 1808, Congress abolished the slave trade. But it was the Missouri Compromise, and British abolitionism that led to an American movement to end slavery throughout the United States by the early-1830s. To elaborate on the British point, in 1823, the British Society for Mitigating and Gradually Abolishing the State of Slavery throughout the British Dominions, put pressure on the House of Commons. The House of Commons passed laws making manumission easier, allowing for slaves to purchase their freedom and then to purchase property and to save money in banks, and prevented slave families from being split up. In 1833, the House of Commons abolished slavery in British territories and it took effect in 1834. So obviously these developments influenced Americans who thought that America should follow that example.
During the 1820s, Americans supported the American Colonization Society. Founded by John Marshall, James Madison, James Monroe, and Henry Clay, the Society purchased land in Liberia by 1821. They encouraged voluntary emancipation and voluntary resettling outside the United States for slaves. The American colonization society was supposed to please the South in that it would eliminate white southerner’s fears of free blacks everywhere in the South. Most members assumed that there would be too many prejudices on both sides if the slaves were freed, and that blacks and whites simply could not live together. The Society, which went out of business in 1860, shipped a total of 10,000 African Americans to Liberia, yet 4 million remained. The Society controlled the colony of Liberia until 1847 when, under the perception that the British might annex the settlement, Liberia was proclaimed a free and independent state, and provided with a constitution that was said to be fashioned after the American model. They did not become reintegrated into an African society. Once in Africa, they referred to themselves as "Americans" and were recognized as such by local Africans and by British colonial authorities in neighboring Sierra Leone. The symbols of their state — its flag, motto, and seal — and the form of government that they chose reflected their American background and diaspora experience.
D. New strategy
Two of the original supporters of the colonization movement, William Lloyd Garrison and T.D. Weld, a minister from Ohio, originally supported the movement, but they realized that owners were using society to transport free slaves, not to free new ones. Weld and Garrison thus saw the society as a cover to get rid of already free blacks. To Garrison and Weld, the colonization society was not freeing slaves, it was simply getting rid of free blacks in Southern cities.
In January of 1831, Garrison announced a new strategy in the brand new newspaper called the Liberator. It became the best and most known abolitionist newspaper in America. Garrison and others made radical demands—forget colonization, forget gradual emancipation, they said. They called for an immediate end to slavery. In 1833, Garrison and his like-minded friends met in Philadelphia and organized the American Antislavery Society, but far the most radical abolitionist group so far.
They demanded several things: 1) immediate emancipation, 2) nonviolence, 3) moral persuasion 4) local efforts—people gave speeches and organized local communities, newspapers, etc, to try to convince people that slavery was wrong.
E. Divided Reception
Slowly the Antislavery Society won support in the North, but few in the South joined them.
There were a few notable exceptions:
James Birney from Alabama freed his slaves and in 1840 and 1844 ran as a third party candidate of the Liberty Party. Birney, formerly the secretary of the American Antislavery Society, tried to make slavery a national political issue by demanding immediate abolition. Few Americans took notice and wrote him off as a crackpot. In 1845, Birney was seriously injured in a horseback riding accident, and was therefore erased from the public spotlight.
Two Quaker sisters from Charleston, SC, Sarah and Angelina Grimke, the daughters of a wealthy slave owner became active abolitionists and they went north and joined the antislavery society. Sarah said that she tried to board a steamer to a place where there was no slavery at age five after she saw a slave being whipped. Later, in violation of the law, she taught her personal attendant to read. At a time when women were not expected to take an active public role, they spoke out nonetheless.
Abolitionists were not necessarily popular in the North, though. Mobs led by gentlemen attacked abolitionists.
Northern pro-slavers did business with South, indirectly benefiting from slavery. Abolition movement threatened economic culture. The world class was scared that if the slaves were freed, they would come to the North and would take their jobs and their women. Angry mobs almost killed William Lloyd Garrison in 1835, and Elijah Lovejoy, an abolitionist newspaper editor, was forced out of his burning home and shot. Then his printing press was thrown into a river.
F. New Tactics
By 1835, despite these setbacks, the American Antislavery Society launched a great postal campaign to flood the country with pamphlets and publications. They sent their publications to influential citizens. President Andrew Jackson’s postmaster general, however, approved the right of the South to destroy and censor the mail. Jackson personally disapproved of the abolitionists and their mail campaign shut down.
Abolitionists tried a new tactic, circulating petitions in congress. Any chance they got, they presented petitions in Congress or made long speeches about the evils of slavery. Former President John Quincy Adams became one of the leaders of these efforts. They had petitions that demanded the abolition of the interstate slave trade, slavery in DC, and for congress to eliminate the 3/5 clause, etc.
However, Congress moved to shut down these abolitionists immediately; in 1836, it passed the Gag Rule, which specified that abolitionist petitions would be filed away but never discussed. Southerners did not want to debate slavery, and Northerners feared the possibility of divisions within political parties, within states, within the nation. The gag rule remained in effect until 1844, when the issue of Texas made it necessary to talk about slavery.
John Quincy Adams and Josiah Giddings, a representative from Ohio, forced the subject of slavery into debate at every possible chance. Congress could not be silent anymore.
The Gag rule transformed the antislavery movement, and by the late 1830s, the antislavery movement unraveled. The big reason was that it could not reach a national audience and it could not influence congress. However, there were internal divisions. Garrison attacked prominent ministers who refused to attack slavery. Garrison welcomed African Americans like the brilliant Frederick Douglass as equals into the movement. Douglas traveled to Antislavery Conventions throughout the North making speeches. Many people believed that blacks should not have an equal role in the movement. Garrison also wanted to treat women as equals within the movement, but women were discriminated against in the movement. Further, Garrison was outspoken and emotional; he criticized the federal government, the Constitution, and slave holders. He did not want to work within the system because he thought politicians were untrustworthy and slow to act.
The question of the annexation of Texas, and War with Mexico made slavery seem much stronger and brought a return to the slavery debate by the late-1840s, after several years of relative silence, or at least of little influence. This is something we’ll return to.