Making of Middle Class America
In May 12, 1831, two French aristocrats, Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont, arrived in New York City from Le Havre. They came, as Tocqueville explained, "to see what a great republic is like."
Tocqueville and Beaumont were perhaps the most insightful of dozens of Europeans who visited the United States in the early nineteenth century to study the 11 natives." Their visit, for example, overlapped with that of Frances Trollope, whose Domestic Manners of Americans (1834) advised English readers that Americans were just as uncouth as they had imagined. A decade later Charles Dickens made what by then had become for foreigners an almost obligatory pass through this crude outpost of civilization, before publishing his report on his "sharp dealing" cousins in American Notes (1842).
Tocqueville and Beaumont in America
Unlike Trollope and Dickens, Tocqueville and Beaumont believed that Europe was passing from its aristocratic past into a democratic future. How better to prepare for the change, they believed, than by studying the United States, where democracy was already the "enduring and normal state" of the land. They traveled from New York to Boston, then back through New York in order to inspect the state prison at Auburn, then on to Ohio. They examined conditions on the frontier in Michigan Territory, then sailed down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, where they heard an opera good enough to make them imagine they were back in France. From New Orleans they went on to "semi-barbarous" Alabama before turning north to Washington. They sailed for
France from New York on February 20, 1832. All told, they had met and interviewed some 250 individuals, ranking from President Jackson-Beaumont insisted on referring to Old Hickory as "Monsieur"-to a number of Chippewa Indians.
It had indeed been a "useful" trip for the two Frenchmen. Above all else, the visit provided the material for Tocqueville's classic De la Democratie en Amerique, published in France in 1835 and a year later in an English translation. Democracy in America has been the starting point for virtually all subsequent writers who have tried to describe what Tocqueville called "the creative elements" of American institutions.
Tocqueville in Judgment
The gist of Democracy in America is contained in the book's first sentence: "No novelty in the United States struck me more vividly during my stay there than the equality of conditions." Tocqueville meant not that Americans lived in a state of total equality, but that the inequalities that did exist among white Americans were not enforced by institutions or supported by public opinion. Moreover, the inequalities paled when compared with those of Europe. "In America," he concluded, "men are nearer equality than in any other country in the world." The circumstances of one's birth meant little, one's education less, and one's intelligence scarcely anything. Economic differences, although real and certainly "paraded" by those who enjoyed "a preeminence of wealth," were transitory. "Such wealth," Tocqueville assured his readers, "is within reach of all."
These sweeping generalizations were simplification. Few modern students of Jacksonian America would accept them without qualification. In the 1830s and 1840s, a wide and growing gap existed between the rich and poor in the eastern cities. The wealthiest 4 percent of the population of New York controlled about half the city's wealth in 1828, about two-thirds in 1845. A similar concentration of wealth was occurring in Philadelphia and Boston.
Moreover, there was substantial poverty in Jacksonian America. Particularly in the cities, bad times forced many unskilled laborers and their families into dire poverty. Tocqueville took little notice of such inequalities. He also had little interest in how industrialization and urbanization were affecting society. When he did take notice of working conditions, he remarked that wages were higher in America than in Europe and the cost of living was lower.
Despite his blind spots, Tocqueville realized that America was undergoing some fundamental social changes. These changes, he wrote, were being made by "an innumerable crowd who are . . . not exactly rich nor yet quite poor [and who] have enough property to want order and not enough to excite envy." In his notes he put it even more succinctly: "The whole society seems to have turned into one middle class."
A Restless People
"In America, men never stay still," Tocqueville noted; "Something is almost always provisional about their lives." Frances Trollope thought their "incessant bustling" of a piece with their eating too fast and spitting too often. It stemmed from their "universal pursuit of money," she claimed.
One reason Americans seemed continually on the move was that every year there were more of them. The first federal census in 1790 recorded that there were 3.9 million people in the country. In the early 1850s there were six times as many. The population was doubling every 22 years, just about what Franklin had predicted in 1751.
Yet by European standards, even the settled parts of the United States were sparsely populated in the 1830s and 1840s. But for people accustomed to the wide open spaces, the presence of more than a handful of neighbors was reason enough for moving on. Abraham Lincoln's father Thomas (1778-1851) was typical. He grew up in Kentucky, pioneered in Indiana, and died in Illinois.
The urge to move had an urban dimension as well. For every "young man" who followed the advice of the New York newspaperman Horace Greeley to "go West," several young men and women went instead to town. By the tens of thousands they exchanged the rigors of farming for the uncertain risks and rewards of city life. Boston had 40,000 residents in 1820, nearly 140,000 in 1850. Philadelphia grew even more rapidly, from just under 100,000 in 1820 to almost 400,000 in 1850. New York, which had forged ahead of Philadelphia around 1810, grew from 125,000 in 1820 to more than 500,000 in 1850.
In 1820 the Northeast contained 5 cities with populations above 25,000 and 13 with populations above 10,000. Thirty years later, 26 cities had more than 25,000 residents and 62 had more than 10,000. Although the Old Northwest remained primarily agricultural, its towns grew as fast as its farms. Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Louisville, and Lexington attracted settlers in such numbers that by 1850 all but Lexington had populations of over 35,000.
The trek to town that was transforming the Northeast did not occur in the South. There were four cities of respectable size in the region-Mobile, Savannah, Charleston, and Baltimore-and one large city, New Orleans, which had a population of 120,000 in 1850. Neither Virginia nor North Carolina had an urban center of even modest dimensions. Charleston, the oldest and most typically southern city, scarcely grew at all after 1830.
Off to Work
"It is as if all America were but one gigantic workshop," the Austrian Francis Grund remarked in 1838. However enlightening to European readers, the fact that practically all Americans worked for their living must have struck Americans as a blinding glimpse of the obvious. Ever since John Smith's assurances to the Jamestown settlers that if they did not work they would not eat, they had always done the one to assure themselves of the other. What was changing in the 1830s was that they worked outside their homes.
In 1820, despite the growth of cities, three out of every four Americans were still engaged in agriculture. An efficient farming family used the labor of all its members, with chores assigned according to age, strength, and experience. Parents, children, and sometimes grandparents lived in the same house, or in adjoining houses. Except on large southern plantations run by overseers, farming remained a family enterprise.
By 1850, however, fewer than two out of three workers were farmers; in Massachusetts it was one of three. Outside the South, the way people earned a living had been transformed. Until the 1820s and 1830s, the household was also the focus of most nonagricultural pursuits. The typical urban worker was a self-employed artisan who had been apprenticed to a master while still a lad. After five to seven years of training, he became a journeyman and began to earn wages. Eventually, if he was reasonably talented, frugal, and industrious, he could open a shop of his own.
Because an apprentice lived and worked under the same roof as his master and his family, it was natural for the master to have familial as well as occupational authority over him. So intertwined did the life of an apprentice and his master become that the words employee and employer do not describe the' relationship accurately. Apprentices were sometimes exploited and even physically abused, but just as often strong, personal bonds developed.
Forced reliance on domestically manufactured goods during the embargo and the War of 1812 and the improvements in transportation that were steadily taking place in the 1820s and 1830s prompted many master craftsmen and artisans to expand production. They took on more workers, in some cases as apprentices, more often as relatively unskilled wage earners. Work was broken down into separate simple tasks that the unskilled help could learn easily. As a business grew bigger and the division of labor became more complex, the master-turned-businessman spent less time working with his employees and more marketing the product. Elaborate rules evolved regulating the hours of labor and the on-the-job behavior of workers. Drinking on the job, which in an earlier day had been considered normal and even desirable, was by 1850 almost universally forbidden.
Larger operations required more work space, and the need to locate near suppliers, customers, or a source of water power meant that the owner's home could no longer serve as a workplace. During the second quarter of the nineteenth century, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and other cities sorted themselves into commercial and residential districts. By the 1830s the shoe manufacturers of Lynn, Massachusetts, had shifted from making finely finished shoes for individual customers to mass producing the rough brogans worn by slaves and other farmers. Custom-fitted shoes required the attention of a skilled craftsman, but brogans were made by several unskilled laborers.
The Family Recast
The factory system and the growth of cities undermined the importance of home and family as the unit of economic production. This happened first in the cities of the Northeast, then in the West, and eventually wherever nonagricultural jobs occupied a substantial percentage of the work force. More and more people did their work in shops, in offices, or on factory floors. Whether a job was skilled or unskilled, it took the family breadwinner out of the house during working hours six days a week. The labor of the father and any children with jobs came home in the form of cash, thus at least initially in the custody of the individual earners. The social consequences of this change were enormous.
Because he was away so much, the husband had to surrender to his wife some of the power in the family that he had formerly possessed, if for no other reason than the fact that she was always there. This explains why Tocqueville concluded that "a sort of equality reigns around the domestic hearth" in America. It also explains why American men began to place women on a pedestal, presuming them to be by nature selflessly devoted to the care of others.
The new power and prestige that wives and mothers enjoyed was not obtained without cost. Because they were exercising day-to-day control over household affairs, they were expected to tend only to those affairs. Anything that might take them away from the family hearth was frowned on. Where the typical wife had formerly been a partner in a family enterprise, she now left earning a living entirely to her husband. Time spent away from home or devoted to matters unrelated to the care of husband and family was, according to the new doctrine of "separate spheres," time misappropriated.
This trend widened the gap between the middle and lower classes. For a middle class wife and mother to take a job or, still worse, to devote herself to any "frivolous" activity outside the home was considered a dereliction of duty.
Some women objected to the discrimination implicit in what has been called "the cult of true womanhood." Others escaped its more suffocating aspects by forming close friendships with other women. But most women, including such forceful proponents of women's rights as the educator Catharine Beecher and Sarah Hale, the editor of Godey's Ladies Book, subscribed in their writing to the view that a woman's place was in the home. "The formation of the moral and intellectual character of the young is committed mainly to the female hand," Beecher wrote in A Treatise on Domestic Economy for the Use of Young Ladies (1841). "The mother forms the character of the future man."
Another reason for the switch in power and influence from husbands to wives was that women began to have fewer children. People married later, probably because prospective marriage partners were becoming more choosy. On average, women began having their children two or three years later than their mothers had, and they stopped two or three years sooner.
Having fewer children led parents to value children more highly, or so it would seem from the additional time and affection they lavished on them. Here again, the mother provided most of both. Child rearing fell within her "sphere" and occupied the time that earlier generations of mothers had devoted to such tasks as weaving, sewing, and farm chores.
As families became smaller, relations within them became more caring. Parents ceased to think of their children mostly as future workers. The earlier tendency even among loving parents to keep their children at arm's length, yet within reach of the strap, gave way to more intimate relationships. Gone was the Puritan notion that children possessed "a love of what's forbid," and with it the belief that parents were responsible for crushing all juvenile resistance to their authority. In its place arose the view described by Lydia Maria Child in The Motber's Book (1831) that children "come to us from heaven, with their little souls full of innocence and peace." Bronson Alcott, another proponent of gentle child-rearing practices, banished "the rod and all its appendages" from his household, and urged other parents to follow his example.
The Second Great Awakening
Belief in the innate goodness of children was, of course, in direct conflict with the Calvinist doctrine of infant damnation, to which most American Protestant churches subscribed. The inclination to set aside other Calvinist tenets, such as predestination, became more pronounced as a new wave of revivalism took shape in the 1790s. This Second Great Awakening began as a counteroffensive to the deistic thinking that New England Congregationalists and southern Methodists alike identified with the French Revolution. Prominent New England ministers, who considered themselves traditionalists but also revivalists, men such as Yale's president, Timothy Dwight, and Dwight's student, the Reverend Lyman Beecher, placed less stress in their sermons on God's arbitrary power over mortals and more on the salvation of sinners because of God's mercy and "disinterested benevolence."
Calvinism came under more direct assault from Charles Grandison Finney. In 1821 Finney abandoned a promising career as a lawyer and became an itinerant preacher. His most spectacular successes occurred during a series of revivals conducted in towns along the Erie Canal, a region Finney called "the burned-over district" because it had been the site of so many revivals before his own.
Finney exhorted his listeners to take their salvation into their own hands. He insisted that people could control their own fate. He dismissed Calvinism as a "theological fiction." But the day of judgment was just around the corner; there was little time to waste. During and after Finney's efforts in Utica, New York, conversions increased sharply. In Rochester, church membership doubled in six months. Elsewhere in the country, churches were packed.
The success of the evangelists of the Second Great Awakening stemmed from the timeliness of their assault on Calvinist doctrines and even more from their methods. Finney, for example, consciously set out to be entertaining as well as edifying. The singing of hymns and the solicitation of personal testimonies provided his meetings with emotional release and human interest. Prominent among his innovations was the "anxious bench," where leading members of the community awaited the final prompting from within before coming forward to declare themselves saved.
But the impact of economic changes on family life had as important effects on the Second Awakening as did the evangelists. The growth of industry and commerce that followed the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 led hundreds of young men to leave family farms to seek their fortunes in towns along the canal. There, uprooted, buffeted between ambition, hope, and anxiety, they found it hard to resist the comfort promised by the revivalists.
But middle-class women were especially receptive to the evangelical message. If salvation was ultimately dependent on human beings rather than God, then no task was more important than guiding people along the path to heaven. Women felt particularly responsible for the Christian education of their children, which fell within their sphere.
Paradoxically, this caused many of them to venture out of that sphere, and in doing so they moved further out of the shadow of their husbands. They did most of the organizing and a good deal of the financing of the climactic years of the Second Awakening. The Female Missionary Society of Oneida County, New York, raised more than $1,000 a year (no small sum at that time) to support the revival in the burned-over district.
The Era of Associations
A third pillar of the emerging American middle class was the voluntary association. Unlike the other two, it had neither colonial precedents nor contemporary European equivalents. The leaders of these associations tended to be ministers, lawyers, or merchants, but the rank and file consisted of tradesmen, foremen, clerks, and their wives. Some of these associations were formed around a local cause that some townspeople wished to advance, such as the provision of religious instruction for orphaned children. Others were affiliated with associations elsewhere for the purposes of combating some national evil, such as drunkenness. Some, such as the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions, founded in Boston in 1810, quickly became large and complex enterprises. Others lasted only as long as it took to accomplish a specific good work, such as the construction of a school or a library.
In a sense, the associations were assuming functions previously performed in the family, such as caring for old people and providing moral guidance to the young, but without the paternalistic discipline of the old way. They constituted a "benevolent empire," eager to make society over into their members' idea of how God wanted it to be.
Americans frequently belonged to several associations at the same time, and more than a few made reform their life's work. The most adventuresome tested their reform theories by establishing experimental communities. The "communitarian" point of view aimed at "commencing a wholesale social reorganization by first establishing and demonstrating its principles completely on a small scale." The first communitarians were religious reformers. In a sense the Pilgrims also fall into this category, along with a number of other groups in colonial times. But only in the nineteenth century did the idea flourish.
The Shakers, founded by an Englishwoman, Ann Lee, who came to America in 1774, were among the most important millennial. sects. With a handful of followers she established a community near Albany, New York. The group grew rapidly, and by the 1830s her followers had established about 20 successful communities.
The Shakers practiced celibacy; believing that the millennium was imminent, they saw no reason for perpetuating the human race. Each group lived in a large Family House, the sexes strictly segregated. Property was held in common. Much stress was placed on equality of labor and reward and on voluntary acceptance of the rules.
The Shaker religion, joyful and fervent, was marked by much group singing and dancing, which provided the members with emotional release from their tightly controlled regimen. An industrious, skillful people, they made a virtue of simplicity; their designs for buildings and, especially, furniture achieved a classic beauty seldom equaled among untutored artisans.
There were many other religious colonies, such as the Rappites in western Pennsylvania; the Amana Community, which flourished in New York and Iowa in the 1840s and 1850s; and John Humphrey Noyes's Oneida Community, where the members practiced "complex" marriage-a form of promiscuity based on the principle that every man in the group was married to every woman. They prospered by developing a number of manufacturing skills.
The most important of the religious communitarians were the Mormons. A young farmer, Joseph Smith, founded the religion in western New York in the 1820s. Smith saw visions; he claimed to have discovered and translated an ancient text, the Book of Mormon, written in hieroglyphics on plates of gold, which described the adventures of a tribe of Israelites that had populated America from biblical times.
With his small group of followers, Smith established a community in Ohio in 1831. The Mormons' dedication and economic efficiency attracted numbers of converts, but their unorthodox religious views and their exclusivism, a product of their sense of being a chosen people, caused resentment among unbelievers. The Mormons were forced to move first to Missouri and then back to Illinois, where in 1839 they founded the town of Nauvoo.
Nauvoo flourished-by 1844 it was the largest city in the state-but once again the Mormons ran into trouble. They quarreled among themselves, especially after Smith secretly authorized polygamy (he called it "celestial marriage") and a number of other unusual rites for the top leaders of the church.* Smith announced that he was a candidate for president of the United States and created a paramilitary organization, the Nauvoo Legion.
Rumors circulated that the Mormons intended to take over the entire Northwest for their "empire." Local "gentiles" rose against them. Smith was arrested, then murdered by a mob.
Under a new leader, Brigham Young, the Mormons sought a haven beyond the frontier. In 1847 they marched westward, pressing through the mountains until they reached the desolate wilderness on the shores of the Great Salt, Lake. There, at last, they established their Zion and began to make a significant impact on American history. Irrigation made the desert flourish, precious water wisely being treated as a community asset. Hard, cooperative, intelligently directed effort spelled growth and prosperity; more than 11,000 people were living in the area when it became part of Utah Territory in 18 5 0. In time the communal Mormon settlement broke down, but the Mormon church remained the most powerful single influence in Utah.
Despite many common characteristics, these religious communities varied enormously. Their sexual practices, for example, ranged from the "complex marriage" of the Oneidans through Mormon polygamy and ordinary monogamy to the reluctant acceptance of sexual intercourse by the Amana Community and the celibacy of the Rappites and Shakers. The communities are significant as reflections of the urgent reform spirit of the age.
The communities also influenced reformers who wished to experiment with social organization. When Robert Owen, a British utopian socialist who believed in economic as well as political equality and who considered competition debasing, decided to create an ideal community in America, he purchased the Rappite settlement at New Harmony, Indiana. But Owen's advocacy of free love and "enlightened atheism" did not add to the stability of his group or to its popularity among outsiders. The colony was a costly failure.
The Age of Reform
The communitarians were the most colorful of the reformers. More effective, however, were the many individuals who took upon themselves responsibility for caring for the physically and mentally disabled and for the rehabilitation of criminals. The work of Thomas Gallaudet in educating deaf people reflects the spirit of the times. Gallaudet's school in Hartford, Connecticut, opened its doors in 1817; by 1851 similar schools for the deaf had been established in 14 states.
Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe did similar work with the blind, devising means for making books with raised letters and operating a school for the blind in Boston, the pioneering Perkins Institution, which opened in 1832. Howe's success in educating 12-year-old Laura Bridgman, who was deaf, mute, and blind, attracted wide attention. "Every creature in human shape should command our respect," Howe insisted. "The strong should help the weak, so that the whole should advance as a band of brethren."
One of the most striking aspects of the reform movement was the emphasis reformers placed on establishing special institutions for dealing with social problems. In the colonial period, orphans, indigent persons, the insane, and the feebleminded were usually cared for by members of their own families or boarded in a neighboring household. They remained part of the community. Criminals were commonly punished by whipping, being placed in stocks in the town square, or (for serious crimes) by execution. But once persuaded that people were primarily shaped by their surroundings, reformers demanded that deviant and dependent members of the community be placed in institutions where they could be trained or rehabilitated. Almshouses, orphanages, prisons, and lunatic asylums sprang up throughout the United States like mushrooms in a forest after a summer rain.
The rationale for this movement was scientific, the motivating spirit of the founders humane (though many of the institutions seem anything but humane to the modern eye). The highly regarded Philadelphia prison system was based on strict solitary confinement, which was supposed to lead culprits to reflect on their sins and then reform their ways. The prison was literally a penitentiary, a place to repent.
In fact, the system drove some inmates mad, and soon a rival Auburn system was introduced in New York, which allowed for some social contact among prisoners and for work in shops and stone quarries. Absolute silence was required at all times. The prisoners were herded about in lockstep and punished by flogging for the slightest infraction of the rules. Regular "moral and religious instruction" was provided, which the authorities believed would lead inmates to reform their lives. Tocqueville and
Beaumont, in their report on American prisons, concluded that the Philadelphia system produced "the deepest impression on the soul of the convict," whereas the Auburn system made the convict "more conformable to the habits of man in society."
The hospitals for mental patients were intended to cure inmates, not merely to confine them. The emphasis was on isolating them from the pressures of society, on control but not on punishment. The unfortunates were seen as deranged; the task was to arrange their lives in a rational manner. In practice, shortages of trained personnel, niggardly legislative appropriations, and the inherent difficulty of managing violent and irrational patients often produced deplorable conditions in the asylums.
This situation led Dorothea Dix, a woman of almost saintlike selflessness, to devote 30 years of her life to a campaign to improve the care of the insane. She traveled to every state in the Union and as far afield as Turkey and Japan, inspecting asylums and poorhouses. Insane persons in Massachusetts, she wrote, were being kept in cages and closets, "chained, naked, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience!' Her reports led to some improvement in conditions in Massachusetts and other states, but in the long run the bright hopes of the reformers were never realized. Institutions founded to uplift the deviant and dependent soon became places where "misfits" might safely be kept out of sight.
Reformers must of necessity interfere with the affairs of others; thus there is often something of the busybody about them. How they are regarded usually turns on the observer's own attitude toward their objectives. Consider the temperance movement, the most widely supported and successful reform of the age of reform.
Americans in the 1820s consumed prodigious amounts of alcohol. Because neither political nor religious leaders considered drinking dangerous, there was no alcohol "problem." Most doctors recommended the regular consumption of alcohol as healthy. John Adams, certainly the soul of propriety, drank a tankard of hard cider every day for breakfast.
However, alcohol consumption increased markedly in the early years of the new republic, thanks primarily to the availability of cheap corn and rye whiskey distilled in the new states of Kentucky and Tennessee. Many women drank, if mostly at home, and reports of carousing among 14-year-old college freshmen show that youngsters did too. But the bulk of the heavy drinking occurred when men got together-at taverns or grogshops and at work.
Artisans and common laborers regarded their twice-daily "dram" of whiskey as part of their wages. In 1829 Secretary of War John Eaton estimated that three-quarters of the nation's laborers drank at least four ounces of hard liquor a day. Many prominent politicians, including Clay and Webster, were heavy consumers. Webster is said to have kept several thousand bottles of wine, whiskey, and other alcoholic beverages in his cellar.
The foundation of the American Temperance Union in 1826 signaled the start of a national crusade against drunkenness. Employing lectures, pamphlets, rallies, essay contests, and other techniques, the union set out to persuade people to "sign the pledge" not to drink liquor. Primitive sociological studies of the effects of drunkenness (reformers were able to show a high statistical correlation between alcohol consumption and crime) added to the effectiveness of the campaign.
In 1840 an organization of reformed drunkards, the Washingtonians, set out to reclaim alcoholics. One of the most effective Washingtonians was John B. Gough, rescued by the organization after seven years in the gutter. "Crawl from the slimy ooze, ye drowned drunkards," Gough would shout, "and with suffocation's blue and livid lips speak out against the drink!"
Revivalist ministers like Charles Grandison Finney argued that alcohol was one of the great barriers to conversion. Employers announced that their businesses would hence forward be "cold-water" enterprises. Soon the temperance movement claimed one million members.
The temperance people aroused bitter opposition, particularly after they moved beyond calls for restraint to demands for the prohibition of all alcoholic beverages. German and Irish immigrants, for the most part Catholics, and members of Protestant sects where wine was used in religious services, objected to being told by reformers that their drinking would have to stop. By the early 1840s, however, the reformers had secured legislation in many states that imposed strict licensing systems and heavy liquor taxes. In 1851 Maine passed the first effective law prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages, and by 1855 a dozen other states had passed laws based on the Maine statute.
The Abolitionist Crusade
No reform movement of this era was more significant, more ambiguous, or more provocative of later historical investigation than the drive to abolish slavery. That slavery should have been a cause of indignation to reform-minded Americans was inevitable. Humanitarians were outraged by the master's whip and by the practice of disrupting families. Democrats protested the denial of political and civil rights to slaves. However, well into the 1820s, the abolitionist cause attracted few followers because there seemed to be no way of getting rid of slavery short of revolution. Most people believed that under the Constitution the institution was not subject to federal control.
Particularly in the wake of the Missouri Compromise, antislavery northerners neatly compartmentalized their thinking. Slavery was wrong; they would not tolerate it in their own communities. But because the Constitution obliged them to tolerate it in states where it existed, they felt no responsibility to fight it. People who advocated any kind of forced abolition in states where it was legal were judged irresponsible in the extreme. In 1820 presidential hopeful John Quincy Adams called slavery "the great and foul stain upon the North American Union." "If the Union must be dissolved," he added, "slavery is precisely the question upon which it ought to break." But Adams expressed these opinions in the privacy of his diary, not in a public speech. Most critics of slavery therefore confined themselves to urging "colonization" or persuading slave owners to treat their property humanely.
One of the few Americans in the 1820s to go further was Benjamin Lundy, editor of a Baltimore newspaper, The Genius of Universal Emancipation. Lundy was no fanatic; he urged the use of persuasion rather than interference by the federal government. But he refused to mince words, and consequently he was subject to frequent harassment.
Even more provocative and less accommodating to local sensibilities was Lundy's youthful assistant, William Lloyd Garrison of Massachusetts. Garrison pronounced himself for "immediate" abolition. When his extreme position made continued residence in Baltimore impossible, he returned to Boston, where in 1831 he established his own newspaper, The Liberator. "I am in earnest," he announced in the first issue. "I will not equivocate-I will not excuse-I will not retreat a single inch-and I will be heard."
Garrison's position, and that espoused by the New England Anti-Slavery Society, which he organized in 1831, was absolutely unyielding: Slaves must be freed immediately and treated as equals; compensated emancipation was unacceptable, colonization unthinkable. Because the United States government countenanced slavery, Garrison refused to engage in political activity to achieve his ends. Burning a copy of the Constitution-that "agreement with hell"-became a regular feature at Society sponsored public lectures.
Few white Americans found Garrison's line of argument convincing, and many were outraged by his confrontational tactics. Whenever he spoke in public, he risked being mobbed. In 1835 an angry crowd dragged him through the streets of Boston. In 1837 Elijah Lovejoy, a Garrisonian newspaper editor in Alton, Illinois, first saw his press destroyed by fire and then was himself murdered by a mob.
In the wake of this violence some of Garrison's backers had second thoughts about his strategy of immediatism. The wealthy New York businessmen Arthur and Lewis Tappan, who had subsidized The Liberator, turned instead to Theodore Dwight Weld, a young revivalist minister. Weld and his followers spoke of "immediate" emancipation "gradually" achieved, and they were willing to engage in political activity to achieve that goal.
In 1840 the Tappans and Weld broke with Garrison over the issue of involvement in politics and the participation of female abolitionists as public lecturers. Garrison, ever the radical, supported the women; Weld thought they would needlessly antagonize would-be supporters. The Tappans then organized the Liberty Party, which nominated as its presidential candidate James G. Birney, a Kentucky slaveholder who had been converted to evangelical Christianity and abolitionism by Weld. Running on a platform of universal emancipation to be gradually brought about through legislation, Birney received only 7,000 votes.
Many blacks were abolitionists long before the white movement began to attract attention. In 1830 some 50 black antislavery societies existed, and thereafter these groups grew in size and importance, being generally associated with the Garrisonian wing. White abolitionists eagerly sought out black speakers, especially runaway slaves, whose heartrending accounts of their experiences aroused sympathies and who, merely by speaking clearly and with conviction, stood as living proof that blacks were neither animals nor fools.
Frederick Douglass, a former slave who had escaped from Maryland, was one of the most remarkable Americans of his generation. While a bondsman he had received a full portion of beatings and other indignities; but he had been allowed to learn to read and write and to master a trade, opportunities denied the vast majority of slaves. Settling in Boston, he became an agent of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and a featured speaker at its public meetings.
Douglass was a tall, majestically handsome man who radiated determination and indignation. Slavery, he told white audiences, "brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretense, your Christianity as a lie." In 1845 he published his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, one of the most gripping autobiographical accounts of a slave's life ever written.
Douglass insisted that freedom for blacks required not merely emancipation but full equality, social and economic as well as political. Not many white northerners accepted his reasoning, but few who heard him or read his works could afterward maintain the illusion that all blacks were dull-witted or resigned to inferior status.
At first Douglass was, in his own words, "a faithful disciple" of Garrison, prepared to tear up the Constitution and destroy the Union to gain his ends. In the late 1840s, however, he changed his mind, deciding that the Constitution, created to "establish justice ... and secure the Blessings of Liberty," as its preamble states, "could not well have been designed at the same time to maintain and perpetuate a system of rapine and murder like slavery." Thereafter he fought slavery and race prejudice from within the system, something Garrison was never willing to do.
Garrison's importance cannot be measured by the number of his followers, which was never large. Unlike more moderately inclined enemies of slavery, he recognized that abolitionism was a revolutionary movement. He also understood that achieving racial equality, not merely "freeing" the slaves, was the only way to reach the abolitionists' professed objective: full justice for blacks. And he saw clearly that few whites, even among abolitionists, believed that blacks were their equals.
At the same time, Garrison seemed utterly indifferent to what effect the "immediate" freeing of the slaves would have on the South. He said he would rather be governed by "the inmates of our penitentiaries" than by southern congressmen, whom he characterized as "desperadoes." The life of the slave owner, he wrote, is "one of unbridled lust, of filthy amalgamation, of swaggering braggadocio, of haughty domination, of cowardly ruffianism, of boundless dissipation, of matchless insolence, of infinite self-conceit, of unequaled oppression, of more than savage cruelty."
Both Garrison's insights into the limits of northern racial egalitarianism and his blind contempt for southern whites led him to the conclusion that American society was rotten to the core. He was hated in the North as much for his explicit denial of the idea that a constitution that supported slavery merited respect as for his implicit denial of the idea that a professed Christian who tolerated slavery for even an instant could hope for salvation. He was, in short, a perfectionist, a trafficker in moral absolutes who wanted his Kingdom of Heaven in the here and now. By contrast, most American reformers were willing to settle for perfection on the installment plan.
The question of slavery was related to the crusade for women's rights. The relationship was personal and ideological, direct and indirect, simple and profound. Superficially, the connection can be explained in this way: Women were as likely as men to find slavery offensive and to protest against it. When they did so, they ran into even more adamant resistance, the prejudices of those who objected to abolitionists being reinforced by their feelings that women should not speak in public or participate in political affairs. Thus female abolitionists, driven by the urgencies of conscience, were almost forced to become advocates of women's rights. "We have good cause to be grateful to the slave," the feminist Abby Kelley wrote. "In striving to strike his irons off, we found most surely, that we were manacled ourselves."
At a more profound level, the reference that abolitionists made to the Declaration of Independence to justify their attack on slavery radicalized women with regard to their own place in society. Were only all men created equal? For many women the question was a consciousness-raising experience; they began to believe that, like blacks, they were imprisoned from birth in a caste system, legally subordinated and assigned menial social and economic roles that prevented them from developing their full potentialities. Such women considered themselves in a sense worse off than blacks, who had at least the psychological advantage of confronting an openly hostile and repressive society rather than one concealed behind the cloying rhetoric of romantic love.
Nearly all the leading advocates of equal rights for women began their public careers in the abolitionist movement. Among the first were Sarah and Angelina Grimke, South Carolinians who abandoned their native state and the domestic sphere to devote themselves to speaking out against slavery. (In 1841 Angelina married Theodore Dwight Weld.) Male objections to the Grimkes' activities soon made them advocates of women's rights. Similarly, the refusal of delegates to the World Anti-Slavery Convention held in London in 1840 to let women participate in their debates precipitated the decision of two American abolitionists, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to turn their attention to the women's rights movement.
Slavery aside, there were other aspects of feminist consciousness-raising. Some women rejected the idea that they should confine themselves to a "sphere" consisting of child rearing and housekeeping. The very effort to enforce this kind of specialization made women aware of their second-class citizenship and thus more likely to be dissatisfied. They lacked not merely the right to vote, of which they did not make a major issue, but if married, the right to own property or to make a will. Lydia Maria Child, a popular novelist, claimed that this last restriction excited her "towering indignation." "I was indignant for womankind made chattels personal from the beginning of time."
When women sought to involve themselves in reform, they became aware of perhaps the most serious handicap that society imposed on them-the conflict between their roles as wives and mothers and their urge to participate in the affairs of the larger world. Elizabeth Cady Stanton has left a striking description of this dilemma. When, stimulated by her interest in abolition and women's rights, she sought to become active in the movements, her family responsibilities made it almost impossible even to read about them.
"I now fully understood the practical difficulties most women had to contend with," she recalled in her autobiography, Eighty Years and More (1898). "The general discontent I felt with woman's portion as wife, mother, housekeeper, physician, and spiritual guide, the chaotic condition into which everything fell without her constant supervision, and the wearied, anxious look of the majority of women, impressed Me with the strong feeling that some active measures should be taken." Together with Lucretia Mott and a few others of like mind, she organized a meeting, the Seneca Falls Convention (July 1848), and drafted a Declaration of Sentiments patterned on the Declaration of Independence. "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal," it stated, and it went on to list the "injuries and usurpations" of men, just as Jefferson had outlined those of George III.
From this seed the movement grew. During the 1850s a series of national conventions was held, and more and more reformers, including William Lloyd Garrison, joined the cause. Of the recruits, Susan B. Anthony was the most influential, for she was the first to see the need for thorough organization if effective pressure was to be brought to bear on male-dominated society. The feminists achieved very few practical results during the age of reform. Their leaders, however, were persevering types, most of them extraordinarily long-lived. Their major efforts lay in the future.
Despite the aggressiveness of many reformers and the extremity of some of their proposals, little social conflict blighted these years. Most citizens readily accepted the need for improving society and showed a healthy tolerance for even the most harebrained schemes. When Sylvester Graham, inventor of the graham cracker, traveled up and down the land praising the virtues of hard mattresses, cold showers, and homemade bread, he was mobbed by professional bakers, but otherwise he was free to speak his mind.
Americans argued about everything from prison reform to vegetarianism, but they seldom came to blows. Even the abolitionist movement might not have caused serious social strife if the territorial expansion of the late 1840s had not dragged the slavery issue back into politics. When that happened, politics again assumed center stage, public discourse grew embittered, and the first great age of reform came to an end.
Architecture flourished in the northern cities chiefly as a result of the work of Charles Bulfinch and some of his disciples. Bulfinch was influenced by British architects, but he developed a manner all his own. His "Federal" style gave parts of Boston a dignity and charm equal to the finest sections of London. The State House, numerous other public buildings, and, best of all, many of Bulfinch's private houses-austere yet elegant, solid yet airy and graceful-gave the town a distinction it had lacked before the Revolution.
In the 1830s and 1840s, new techniques made it possible to weave colored patterns into cloth by machine and to produce rugs and hangings that looked like tapestries. Combined with the use of machine methods in the furniture business, these inventions had a powerful impact on public taste.
Wood-turning machinery added to the popularity of the elaborately decorated "Gothic" style of architecture. The irregularity and uniqueness of Gothic buildings suited the prevailing romanticism, their aspiring towers, steeples, and arches and their flexibility (a new wing or extension could always be added without spoiling the effect) made them especially attractive to a people enamored of progress. The huge pile of pink masonry of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, with its nine distinct types of towers, represents American Gothic at its most giddy and lugubrious stage. The building, which has confounded generations of architects, has aptly been called "the nation's attic."
Increasingly, Americans of the period were purchasing native art. George Catlin, who painted hundreds of pictures of Indians and their surroundings, displayed his work before admiring crowds in many cities. Genre painters (artists whose canvases told stories, usually drawn from everyday life) were wildly popular. The best were William Sidney Mount of New York and George Caleb Bingham of Missouri.
The more academic artists of the period were popular as well. The "luminists" and members of the romantic Hudson River school specialized in grandiose pictures of wild landscapes. In the 1840s Thomas Doughty regularly collected $500 each for his paintings. The works of Asher B. Durand, John Kensett, and Thomas Cole were in demand. The collector Luman Reed commissioned five large Cole canvases for an allegorical series, The Course of Empire, and crowds flocked to see another of Cole's series, The Voyage of Life, when it was exhibited in New York.
In 1839 the American Art-Union was formed in New York to encourage native art. The Art-Union hit on the ingenious device of selling what were in effect lottery tickets and using the proceeds to purchase paintings, which became the prizes in the lottery. Annual "memberships" sold for $5; 814 people subscribed in 1839, nearly 19,000 did 10 years later. The organization had to disband after a New York court outlawed the lottery in 1851, but in 1854 a new Cosmopolitan Art-Union was established in Ohio. In the years before the Civil War it boomed, reaching a peak of 38,000 members and paying as much as $6,000 for an individual work the sculptor Hiram Powers's boneless female nude, The Greek Slave.
Beginning in the late 1850s, the prints of the firm of Currier and Ives brought a crude but charming kind of art to a still wider audience. Currier and Ives lithographs portrayed horse racing, trains, rural landscapes, and "every tender domestic moment, every sign of national progress, every regional oddity, every private or public disaster from a cut finger to a forest fire." They were issued in very large editions and sold for as little as 15 cents.
Education for Democracy
Except on the edge of the frontier and in the South, most youngsters between the ages of 5 and 10 attended a school for at least a couple of months of the year. These schools, however, were privately run and charged fees. Attendance was not required and fell off sharply once children learned to read and do their sums. The teachers were usually young men waiting for something better to turn up.
All this changed with the rise of the common school movement, which resulted from the belief that a democratic government must provide the means, as Jefferson put it, to "diffuse knowledge throughout the mass of the people." This meant free tax-supported schools for all and thus an educational system administered on a statewide basis. It also made teaching a profession that required formal training.
The most effective leaders of the common school movement were Henry Barnard and Horace Mann. They shared an unquenchable faith in the improvability of the human race through education. Barnard served in educational posts in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York in the 1840s and 1850s. Mann drafted the 1837 Massachusetts law creating a state school board, and then became its first secretary.
Over the next decade Mann's annual reports carried the case for common schools to every corner of the land. Seldom given to understatement, Mann called common schools "the greatest discovery ever made by man." In his reports he criticized wealthy parents who sent their children to private academies rather than bring them into contact with their poorer neighbors in the local school. He encouraged young women to become teachers while commending them to school boards by claiming that they could get along on lower salaries than men.
By the 1850s every state outside the South provided free elementary schools and supported institutions for training teachers. Many extended public education to include high schools, and Michigan and Iowa even established publicly supported colleges.
Historians differ in explaining the success of the common school movement. Some stress the arguments Mann used to win support from employers by appealing to their need for trained and well- disciplined workers. Others see the schools as designed to "Americanize" the increasing numbers of non-English and non-Protestant immigrants who were flooding into the country. Still others argue that middle-class reformers favored public elementary school on the theory that they would instill the values of hard work, punctuality, and submissiveness to authority in children of the laboring classes.
All these reasons played a part in advancing the cause of the common schools. Yet the most compelling argument for common schools was cultural; more effectively than any other institution, they brought Americans of different economic circumstances and ethnic backgrounds into early and mutually beneficial contact with one another. They were, as Mann said, "the great equalizer."
Reading and the Dissemination of Culture
As the population grew and became more concentrated, popular concern for "culture" increased. Industrialization made it easier to satisfy this new demand for culture. Improved printing techniques reduced the cost of books, magazines, and newspapers. The first penny newspaper was the New York Sun (1833), but James Gordon Bennett's New York Herald, founded in 1835, brought the cheap new journalism to perfection. The penny newspapers depended on sensation, crime stories, and society gossip to attract readers, but they covered important national and international news too.
In the 1850s the moralistic and sentimental "domestic" novel entered its prime. The most successful writers in this genre were women, which prompted Hawthorne to complain bitterly that "a mob of scribbling women" was taking over American literature. Typical were Susan Warner's book The Wide, Wide World (1850), a sad tale about a pious, submissive girl who cried "more readily and more steadily than any other tormented child in a novel at the time," and Maria Cummins's book The Lamplighter (1854), the story of little Gerry, an orphan rescued by a kindly lamplighter, appropriately named Trueman Flint.
Philanthropists contributed large sums to charity and other good causes; Stephen Girard left $6 million for "educating poor white orphan boys" in his adopted Philadelphia; John Jacob Astor of New York and George Peabody of Massachusetts endowed libraries; John Lowell, son of the pioneer cotton manufacturer, left $500,000 to establish the Lowell Institute in Boston to sponsor free public lectures. Mechanics' libraries sprang up in every industrial center and attracted many readers. In 1848 Massachusetts led the way by authorizing the use of public money to back the Boston Public Library, and soon several states were encouraging local communities to found tax-supported libraries.
The desire for knowledge and culture in America is well illustrated by the success of the mutual improvement societies known as lyceums. The first was organized by Josiah Holbrook in 1826. Lyceums conducted discussions, established libraries, and lobbied for better schools. Soon they began to sponsor lecture series on topics of every sort. Many of the nation's political and intellectual leaders, such as Webster, Emerson, Melville, and Lowell, regularly graced their platforms.