Reform Movements of the 19th Century

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  • 0:15 Social Reform
  • 0:48 Temperance
  • 1:50 Education
  • 3:08 Prisons and Asylums
  • 4:32 Abolition
  • 6:14 Feminism
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

Inspired by the Second Great Awakening and Transcendentalism, Americans started a number of social reform movements in the antebellum era, including the fight against alcohol and slavery, as well as the fight for public schools, humane prisons and asylums, and women's rights.

Social Reform

It is one of the beautiful compensations in this life that no one can sincerely try to help another without helping himself. - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson was considered the leader of the transcendentalists, an American philosophical movement that believed all humans, like all nature, were born good. If people became corrupt, it was because some institution of society had ruined them. This philosophy had a strong influence on American society in the 1830s and 40s, and many adherents turned their attention to making America into a better place. The transcendentalists, along with Protestants from the Second Great Awakening, initiated many successful reform movements in the antebellum era.


The temperance movement sought to limit or even ban the consumption of alcohol. Strongly supported by American Protestants, there were thousands of individual temperance societies at the local level by the 1830s. Temperance group members could be affiliated with any political party - the movement was not structured around partisanship.

Alcohol was considered a social evil and was blamed for more of society's problems than any other vice. Many supporters of the movement believed that if alcohol were restricted, there would be less crime, vagrancy, child abuse, poverty, and suicide. Since the movement was opposed by many of the new Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Germany, temperance also became linked to some degree with nativism and anti-immigrant sentiments.

Although it took nearly a century, the temperance movement was finally successful with the ratification of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1919. Commonly called 'Prohibition,' the measure caused a set of unforeseen problems and was repealed during the Great Depression.


In early America, few schools existed outside of Massachusetts; children were taught at home by parents or tutors or were sent away to a boarding school.

By the 1830s, a growing number of concerned Americans began to advocate at all levels for free public education, at least for white boys. In 1837, Horace Mann took control of the new Massachusetts Board of Education and pursued free, equal, non-religious schooling for all social classes, provided by trained, well-paid, professional teachers. His reforms set the standard for public education in the United States, and by 1870, all states had at least some free elementary schools.

Horace Mann initiated free, non-religious public schooling in Massachusetts
Photo of Horace Mann

College opportunities were also expanding beyond the few, exclusive, religious-based universities of the colonial era. By 1840, there were more than 70 institutions of higher education, offering both theological and more practical training. Oberlin College in Ohio was the first coeducational college in America, opening its doors to women in 1833. Other opportunities for adult education included lectures, speeches, seminars, discussions, and publications.

You can learn even more about the education movement in another lesson in this course that focuses on education in early America.

Prisons and Asylums

Likewise, early America had very few prisons. If you were caught stealing in the early 1700s, you would have been publicly whipped and, if you kept up the habit, hanged. One hundred years later, you would have been thrown into a large common cell where your neck was your own problem. Reformers, influenced by the ideals of transcendentalism, believed there had to be a better way to rehabilitate criminals. Many early experiments in prison reforms failed, but some lasting reforms began in the 1830s, including literacy programs, prison libraries, and less physical punishment such as whipping.

Americans with all kinds of disabilities had also been kept in prison-like warehouses, and it was during this era of reform that asylums were first established. In 1843, Dorothea Dix (later known for her work establishing the nursing corps in the Civil War), told the Massachusetts legislature that the mentally ill were kept ''in cages, closets, cellars, stalls, pens! Chained, naked, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience!'' Dix and other reformers helped in the creation of public institutions dedicated to the treatment of mental illness. Though their methods might be considered downright scary by modern standards, these asylums were taking steps to understand mental illness and treat the insane with dignity.


The best-known of the social reform movements of the antebellum era may be abolition - the effort to end slavery in the United States. There had been abolitionists since colonial days, notably the Quakers, and a vocal minority had tried to abolish slavery with the founding of the nation. But slavery itself had changed with the invention of the cotton gin and the fabulous wealth earned from 'King Cotton.' While Southerners became more committed to maintaining and even expanding the peculiar institution, many Northerners began to see slavery as a moral evil.

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