Westward Expansion and Reform in America

Westward Expansion and the Growth of Sectionalism

Westward Expansion and Reform in America (1820-1850)

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From 1820-1850, America grew — geographically, it sprawled out into the Western territories, and economically, industrialism and immigration in the North created a more prosperous, but also a more diverse and divided society. In the wake of these changes, political reform movements tried to shape the evolving nation into a more compassionate society. Concerns about increasing the number of representative slave states in the legislature, questions about who would be politically influential in the America of the future (immigrants, women, or African-Americans), and concerns about the most helpless members of society, such as the mentally ill and the imprisoned, became thrust to the forefront of the American political consciousness. America began to define its value system, and this self-definition did not come easily, as the Southern half of the nation had a very different vision than the Northern part of the nation as to what constituted American morality and justice.

The rise of evangelicalism, or popular religious Protestantism gave birth to two of the most influential reform movements of antebellum America, that of the temperance movement and the anti-slavery crusade. Although America is technically a secular nation, the legal wall between church and state has never prevented ideology from affecting political life. The temperance movement began in the North, partly as a result of the industrialization that had created a tavern culture in the region. People who had been displaced from their rural towns or immigrants such as the Irish seeking a form of connection in the new, lonely urban landscape found solace in pubs. The temperance movement was dominated by women who stressed the ungodly influence of drink, which the alleged kept fathers from their wives and children and encouraged cruelty and spousal abuse.

Although these charges certainly had factual basis, there may also have been a strong anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant current to the movement, as many of the new immigrants that came to the city were predominantly Catholic, a new ethnic ‘mix’ that was foreign to America at the time. For many immigrants alcohol was a positive aspect of their culture, and not everyone indulged to excess. Still, “the first chapter of the American Temperance Society formed in 1826 and grew into thousands of chapters nationwide over the following ten years. The society distributed propaganda and paraded abuse victims and reformed alcoholics through towns to preach against consumption” (“The Pre-Civil War Era 1820-1850,” 2007, Sparknotes).

Another crusading moral movement at the time dominated by evangelical women was the attempt to stem the rise in prostitution in the cities, which many women ‘fell into’ when jobs proved scarce in cities, and in the Western towns where morals were more lax. “The Female Moral Reform Society, founded in New York in 1834, expanded to hundreds of other cities and towns by 1840. These societies also strove to end prostitution by decreasing demand: many newspapers began to publish customers’ names, while many states enacted laws to punish clients as well as the prostitutes themselves” (“The Pre-Civil War Era 1820-1850,” 2007, Sparknotes).

However, not all crusading movements were censoriously moralistic in their emphasis. Industrialization gave rise to concerns about exploitation of workers who were forced to labor for long hours, child labor, and dangerous conditions in factories (one of the more practical concerns of the Temperance Movement was that workers who drank on the job often got in accidents). The growing institutionalization of American life and the expansion of the penal system and homes for the mentally ill sparked a call for these institutions to treat their inhabitants humanely. Especially in the North there was a growing a recognition that, in contrast to the spread-out communities that characterized America in the previous century, now individuals were forced to live closer to one another to survive, both in institutions and as a consequence of city life in general.

Mercifully, this period oversaw the end of the horrible Catch-22 known as debtor’s prison, were people were imprisoned for debt, and then kept in the prisons for life because they had no way of earning money to free themselves from their financial obligations. Also, Dorothea Dix “compiled a comprehensive report on the state of the mentally ill in Massachusetts. The report claimed that hundreds of insane women were chained like beasts in stalls and cages. Dix’s findings convinced state legislators to establish one of the first asylums devoted entirely to caring for the mentally ill. By the outbreak of the Civil War, nearly thirty states had built similar institutions (“The Pre-Civil War Era 1820-1850,” 2007, Sparknotes).The appeal of Dix’s movement and the end of debtor’s prisons showed that America increasingly wished to see itself as a compassionate society, and also a fair society that treated its most vulnerable citizens with compassion.

Massachusetts proved to be at the forefront of creating a more socially responsible nation once again in the educational reform movement. Before, virtually anyone could walk into a schoolroom, especially in rural areas in the West, and claim the right to teach. But secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education Horace Mann fought for “higher teacher qualifications, better pay, newer school buildings, and better curriculum” for all teachers, (“The Pre-Civil War Era 1820-1850,” 2007, Sparknotes). Mann believed that quality public education was essential for America to become a true meritocracy in the future, and for workers to fulfill increasingly complex job requirements.

Interestingly, “Catherine Beecher, sister of novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe, also crusaded for education but believed that teachers should be women” (“The Pre-Civil War Era 1820-1850,” 2007, Sparknotes). This debate over who ought to be teachers highlights one of the paradoxes of the female movement for equal rights and suffrage. Some women like the Beechers stressed the ability of women to lend softness and tenderness to the political landscape, and to create a more moral, sober, and God-fearing nation. A few suffragettes argued that female suffrage would infuse the loving spirit into the political heart of the new nation. Other women stressed to their female brethren that they could best act as advocates of compassion from the home front. And still other women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton advocated universal suffrage as a basic human right.

Women also dominated the ranks of the anti-slavery movement. Even while American women were denied a formal political vote, women such as the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin Harriet Beecher Stowe, kept the issue at the forefront of the public debate in mainstream society. Stowe’s novel and the writings of the freed slave Frederick Douglass began to create a wellspring of support in the North for the end of slavery, or at least the end of incorporating new states permitting slavery into the nation. For fear of dividing the nation further, “the House of Representatives actually passed a gag resolution in 1836 to squelch all further discussion of slavery,” but undaunted “several years later, in 1840, the abolitionists organized into a party, the Liberty Party (“The Pre-Civil War Era 1820-1850,” 2007, Sparknotes). The question of slavery would not go away, nor would the question of what would be the new America — industrialized under the hand of a strong, federal government, or remaining a land of agricultural gentleman farmers in a loose federation of different cultures. Rather than attempt to leave the question for future generations to settle, the reform movements of America demanded that Americans answer such pressing questions now.

Works Cited

The Pre-Civil War Era 1820-1850.” Sparknotes. Retrieved 22 May 2007 at http://www.sparknotes.com/history/american/precivilwar/section9.rhtml

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