What Were the Major Movements and Goals of Antebellum Reform?
The antebellum period was full of social reform movements based on the urge to eradicate evil and improve human conditions in society. Despite the attempt to deal with a wide variety of reforms to provide positive changes to society these reform movements were met with varying degrees of success. This essay will focus on five of the major social reform movements of that era discussing their accomplishments, failures and impacts on America as a whole. They are the reforms of abolition, women’s suffrage, temperance, institutional and educational reforms.
The abolition of slavery was one of the most powerful reform movements. Quakers and many churches in New England saw slavery as an evil that must be abolished from society. They targeted slave owners who profited off of enslaved people's labor. Harriot Tubman, who helped people escape, and Frederick Douglass, a self-educated and forceful orator and writer, proved be powerful speakers. Abolitionists came to the defense of African Americans accused of running from their masters when law officials threatened to return them. Abolitionism was anathema to Southerners and not popular in many areas of the North, but they moved slavery to a central focus in American political life. The temperance crusade also had its roots in American Protestant churches, often in tandem with abolition. In slavery, the slave owners oppressed their human property. In the temperance perspective, saloon owners took advantage of human weakness (primarily men's weakness) to profit off customers' inability to avoid strong drink. Alcohol ruined families and bred crime, especially in the growing urban centers of the East. Drinking was sinful, and it was the government's responsibility to remove this temptation, in the view of the temperance advocates. They ran candidates on the Prohibition Party in elections, who were rarely successful, and pressured elected officials to make the manufacture and sale of alcohol illegal. In Iowa, temperance was one of the major issues dividing the two parties from the Civil War through the early 20th century. The state almost passed an amendment enshrining temperance into the constitution. The 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution imposed temperance standards across the nation, but slightly more than a decade later, the 21st amendment repealed it. Enforcement had become too great a burden on law enforcement, and too many people objected to this restriction.
The agricultural plantations in the south were focused on the owners’ residences. This is where all the necessary business was conducted. Planters owned huge tracks of land and they used the services of their slaves to cultivate and conduct all agricultural business. A good number of the slave holders used to keep a limit of 10 slaves. The slaves were mostly expected to do domestic works and a few other works in the farms. It is only the huge planters who held more than 20 slaves for their farming activities (Douglas 23). Women constituted the majority of factory labors in Lowell, Massachusetts. The textile industry employed more women compared to men. About three quarters of the work force was predominantly female. This was a very unique thing at that time considering how gender insensitive the society was. Because of the nature of this unique phenomenon, it affected the society to begin examining the moral behavior of women. This also caused an agitation in the labor industry (Bagley 9). The women were very active in terms of being involved in labor related issue. Just like in any other industry, laborers formed petition and joined unions. They several articles to the local news paper in Lowell protesting and demanding their labor rights. They participated in strikes as well.
Summing up, the Seneca Falls Convention was the first of many similar gatherings promoting women’s rights across the northern states. Yet the women’s rights movement grew slowly, and experienced few victories: few states reformed married women’s property laws before the Civil War, and no state was prepared to offer women the right to vote during the antebellum period. At the onset of the Civil War, women’s rights advocates temporarily threw all of their support behind abolition, allowing the cause of racial equality to temporarily trump that of gender equality. But the words of the Seneca Falls convention continued to inspire activists for generations.
Bagley, Sarah G. The Condition of the Operatives, from Voice of Industry. Lowell: Voice of the Industry, 1847.
Douglas, Fredrick. A general suyvey of the slave plantation. Fredrick Douglas Autobiography, 1883.
Fitzhugh, George. From The Blessings Of Slavery. 1857.
Maier, Pauline, et al. Inventing America: A History Of The United States. New York: W. W Norton & Company, 2006.