Printer friendly version Print this page

Historical Text Archive © 1990 - 2014
Printer friendly version of: http://historicaltextarchive.com/sections.php?action=read&artid=618


Reform and Romanticism, 1830-40

    In the early 19th century, some Americans revolted against the classical formalism of the Age of Reason or the Enlightenment in favor of the belief that humankind was inherently good and just needed awakening to reach its full potential. Rather than the cold reasoning so common among the founding Fathers, romanticism appealed to the emotions. education and scientific evidence were not as important in life as drawing upon the "common sense" of the people. It affected religion and social concerns as well as literature (the most important being transcendentalism).
    Given this propensity, it was becoming harder to see God either as so awfully powerful and man so sinful that only God's love could save Man or to see the God of the Deists,increasingly Americans turned to the belief that God was reasonable and favorably disposed to all men. This phenomenon occurred, in part, because the existing churches were not meeting the emotional/spiritual needs of the people. When that occurs in Christianity, religious movements, mysticism, arise. This was the Second Great Awakening, which began in the early part of the 19th century and lasted about 25 years.
    This romantic Christianity brought a majority of Americans into the Protestant churches for the first time. In some ways, there was an Eastern and a Western Great Awakening. People went to camp meetings and "got religion" as evangelists did their work. These meetings in Kentucky spread to other Western areas. The Baptists and Methodists benefitted. In New England, President Timothy Dwight of Yale University and Lyman Beecher led the evangelical movement in the East.
    They argued that love was the essence of the Christian life. That God was Love and that God freely offered his love to all who would accept it. Charles Finney of New York was a very influential and evangelical preacher. "It was this act of repentance, surrender, and dedication to serving his will that Finney meant when in his most famous sermon he insisted that 'sinners [are] bound to change their own hearts.'"
    Romantic Christianity rejected the stern Calvinism, the old time religion, conservative religion of the Puritans who had settled New England, the theology of Jonathan Edwards whose sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."
    Fundamental to the Second Great Awakening was the conversion experience, an experience of being "born again," shedding the old sinful self as one surrendered oneself totally to the will of God who would save on from being human, for all humans were selfishness; they all wanted to believe that they were the most important thing in creation.
    Another way of seeing this kind of religiosity is that it meant that all men could be saved through Christ's atonement for man's sinful nature. That all would not become perfect was a foregone conclusion because some would harden their hearts against God's grace. That was besides the point. Those who underwent the conversion experience were saved. This was not a rational approach but an emotional one.
    Wherever the Great Awakening burned, it left behind a glowing bed of embers which could be fanned into all kinds of evangelical and perfectionist movements, usually millennialist. For example, William Miller believed that the Second Coming would be in Spring, 1844. His followers gave away their possessions and otherwise prepared to meet this maker. When it did not seem to occur, he redid his calculations and decided October 21, 1844 was the date. Although Miller died in 1848 a discredited man, the Seventh Day Adventist Church emerged from his teachings.
    John Humphreys Noyes created the Oneida Community in upstate New York. These "Perfectionists" believed that they had to approximate heaven on earth. Thus, the Oneida community was a socialist/communist community. Based on Christ's teaching that there would be no marriage in Heaven, the people in Oneida practiced "complex marriage," whereby all women were married to all men and vice versa. The children of these unions belonged to the entire community but Noyes always knew who the fathers were because he required that the males control when they impregnated women. His Confession of Religious Experience: Including a History of Modern Perfectionism (Oneida Reserve: Leonard and Company Printers, 1849) explain his views.
    The Shakers, as the Shaking Quakers sect became known, believed in complete celibacy as a way to prepare for the Second Company. Led by Mother Ann, this movement spread from New England into the western states of Ohio and Kentucky. It relied upon converts. This religious cult, socialist/communist in nature, was persecuted by whatever neighbors it had.
    The Society of Jesus of the Later Day Saints originated in upstate New York and had a theology similar to Christianity. The original church was established in western New York state on 6 April 1830 in the Township of Manchester, Ontario County, New York by Joseph Smith who had been having visions.He argued that an angel, Moroni, had revealed him God's will and how people should live the prepare for Christ's Second Coming.
    Brook Farm was an experimental farm at West Roxbury, Massachusetts founded in 1841 based on cooperative living. It attracted numerous leading lights of Transcendentalism. It was to a phalanx in 1844 under the influence of the French socialist, Charles Fourier. It ended in 1847.
    New Harmony, Indiana housed two different experiments in utopian living. The first, led by George Rapp, was composed of some 800 German Lutherans. They had come with Rapp to the New World because he believed that the Second Coming was imminent. First living in Pennsylvania, they had come to the banks of the Wabash River to get more land and isolation. They believed in celibacy and hard work. In 1824, they went back to Pennsylvania and Rapp sold the Indiana settlement to Robert Owen, a successful industrialist from Scotland. Owen wanted to establish economic and social equality, in other words, socialism. The Owens settlement only survived two years abut had an impact on US society.
    Charles Fourier inspired the creation of phalanxes, socialist communities where people tried to escape the evils of capitalism which has the virtue selfishness as its core tenet and create a more perfect society based on cooperation.
    This drive to create perfect societies also meant the desire to solve social ills. Horace Mann of Massachusetts, like most liberals, believed that a common school education would create equality if opportunity in the US, so he pushed for the creation of such schools. In addition, he persuaded the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to fund a teaching training institute (normal school) and to require a six month minimum school year in 1839. He also pushed for the establishment of high schools. Education, he believed, would reduce poverty and crime. Dorothea Dix worked tirelessly to improve the treatment of the mentally ill. Penal reform sought to improve the horrible conditions that prevailed. Others tried to help the deaf, dumb, and blind.
    The first women's rights movement began, in part because they began to raise questions about the status of women in light of the anti-slavery or abolitionist movement. They began to ask why men were willing to free slaves and demanded that they be treated as full human beings when they, women, were treated so badly. Male abolitionists tended to be conservative when it came to women and their role in society. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott led women at the 1848 women's rights meeting in Seneca Falls, NY meeting. The Declaration of Sentiments demanded equal rights, including the right to vote.
    Characteristic of US society was its high consumption of alcoholic beverages. As David Musto says in The American Disease, people in the US have longed abused alcohol. In the 19th century, they also used a lot of opium but its use was more accepted in part because physicians prescribed it. Henry Ward Beecher founded the American Society for the Promotion of Temperance in 1826. The temperance people did not want temperance; they wanted total prohibition. Not believing that people were capable of making their own decisions, in part because they believed that women and children should be protected from male drunks, they pushed for government intervention. They got a local option law passed in Massachusetts in 1838 and a statewide prohibition law in Maine in 1846. This prohibition movement was more a northern than a southern phenomenon.
    The state of New York became a center for reform movements, especially the western part of the state. This "burned over district" produced many of the reform and religious movements mentioned above as well as others.
    Abolitionism, however, was more general. Before 1830, abolitionism was a very small movement in which Quakers predominated. There were a few manumission societies. The American Colonization Society sent freed slaves to the new African country which it had founded. It was the British Parliamentary debates over emancipation, prompted by British liberals including Methodists, that created interest in the US. In 1930, Arthur and Lewis Tappan of New York helped organize the Anti-Slavery Society.
    William Lloyd Garrison created the newspaper The Liberator in Boston in 1831.Garrison and his followers were militants. Theodore Dwight Weld, who had been converted by Finney. Weld, the young convert, enrolled in Lane Seminary (founded by the Tappans) in 1833. He talked against slavery. Provoked a debate which lasted for 18 days and nights. Almost all the students were converted. They withdrew, went to northern Ohio, and created Oberlin College. Oberlin was the first institution to admit both blacks and whites and both women and men. It had a strong social reform impulse. The American Anti-Slavery Society employed Weld and these converts to speak against slavery in the East and old Northwest.
    Weld and his group took the position that slavery was immoral and that moral men must work to abolish it immediately. By defining abolitionism as a moral question, it could not be compromised. Sin was something one was for or against. And they bombarded the South and Congress with tons of anti-slavery propaganda. Congress.
    As far as we can tell, most adults in the US were against abolitionism; they wanted not to be bothered with such issues. If anything, they would physically attack abolitionists. Undaunted the abolitionists petitioned Congress to abolish slavery and the salve trade in the District of Columbia. In 1836, Congress adopted a gag rule to stop the constant petitions. In 1837, Elijah Lovejoy, an anti-slavery editor was murdered.Ex-president John Quincy Adams, angered by the anti-democratic position that Congress had taken lobbied it to list the gag rule. It did in 1844.
    Abolitionism forced Southerners to examine their attitudes toward slavery, which existed almost entirely in the South. They professed Christianity, for the most part, and had to reconcile slavery with the Golden Rule. They were part of the liberal tradition which had produced the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution. The liberal leadership of the early republic was Southern, men such as Thomas Jefferson. Liberal Southerners had hoped that the institution would die out. In fact, as late as the 1820s, few Southern thinkers would defend slavery in the abstract. They argued that it had been around almost since the beginning of the colonies and, therefore, was difficult to end because it was so much a part of life in much of the South.
    The rise of commercial agricultural--raising crops to be sold in national and international markets--changed the role of slavery in the US economy. This market revolution whereby goods, be they agricultural or industrial, were produced for markets and the markets, in term, greatly influenced production and the means of production. It was not that the South had no commercial farms before the market revolution, for it did, but the new commercial farming resembled factories instead of the family farm. They employed large numbers of unskilled and semi-skilled workers. This factory system was used to grow cotton, a crop which was in high demand in national and international markets. Because of the difficulty of separating the seeds from the blossom (boll) by hand, cotton had been a relatively expensive fiber but the invention of the cotton gin allowed machines to do the work, thus making it a mass consumption fiber. The demand for cotton grew exponentially as factories in the US, great Britain, and France demanded more and more of it. Now, earning money from cotton was a matter of how much cotton land one and how many workers one could acquire.
    Slavery and the expansion of slavery into new territory became important. Although states like Virginia suffered soil exhaustion, they could participate by selling slaves to the cotton-producing states. Most white southerners worked small farms and had no slaves. Those white Southerners who owned 50 or more slaves, the large planter class, numbered less that 11,000 people or .0075% of whites. Those who owned 19-49 slaves numbered 100,00. Those who owned less than 10 numbered about 270,000. Only 25% of white Southerners belonged to a salve-owning family. In fact, having to compete against slave labor hurt the vast majority of Southern whites. Nevertheless, they supported it.
    Their attitudes prevented them from recognizing their reality. There was a growing conviction that free whites and free blacks could not live together. The black rebellion in Haiti which began in 1791 (and resulted in independence in 1801) scared whites, in general, and slave owners, in particular. The Denmark Vesey Rebellion in South Carolina in 1822 and the Nat Turner Rebellion in 1831 brought the possibility of slave uprisings, which seemed to mean the killing of whites, closer to home. Whites tended to close ranks against blacks.
    For Southerners, however, the defense of slavery caused problems for it was counter to the political trends of the time which were emphasizing democracy and egalitarianism. Although the Jeffersonians (Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe as presidents) were liberals in their epoch, the political spectrum had shifted further left to emphasize the common man. Jeffersonianism was tinged by elitism and many of them were unhappy with the new emphasis on egalitarianism, the every man was as good as any man. For the pro-slavery faction in US life this view was particularly dangerous. They had to argue that blacks were not the equal of whites, that they were subhuman, or else the pro-slavery argument would mean that some whites should also be enslaved. The John C. Calhoun school argued that slavery was a positive good drawing upon Aristotle and anticipating the class struggle doctrine of Karl Marx (some call Calhoun the Marx of the master class. Their anti-democratic views were seen in their abridgment of freedom of speech and of the press in an effort to present anyone from reading or hearing anti-slavery views. In some states, they made it a felony, with the death penalty possible, to teach black people how to read and write.

Donald J. Mabry
062303