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 reform movements of the 1830’s and 1840’s were largely due to humanitarian reasons because of a period of Enlightenment in the previous century which emphasized rational over irrational thought linking ideas about a responsibility to God and society to always improve.
Christian morality, new ideas about liberty and human rights, economic changes, and as a result of the American and French Revolutions, abolitionism contributed to efforts among whites and blacks to end human bondage. The American Revolution fought for independence from Britain in the name of liberty and universal natural rights contradicted the continuation of slavery. William Lloyd Garrison was a white New Englander who published a weekly abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, in 1831. He was convinced slavery was a sin and brought together Quaker abolitionists, evangelical abolitionists and New England associates to form the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS) in 1833. Its’ goal was immediate, uncompensated emancipation and equal rights for blacks.
Frederick Douglas, Sojourner Truth and the Grimke sisters were also notable leaders in the abolitionist movement; though abolitionists were never more than a tiny minority of Americans, it caused the anti-slavery movement to spread rapidly across the North. The Quakers were the first to denounce slavery because of their religious belief that all people are equal in the eyes of God. In the South servitude and slavery were taken for granted as part of a time honored class system that promoted the “cottonocracy” with elitist wealth and privilege.
Black service in American armies during the revolution, black abolitionist petitions for emancipation and the actions of white anti-slavery societies all motivated the movement to the forefront of American politics. The movement had a negative impact on the South due to the growth of the cotton industry and the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793 making slavery an even more vital part of the Southern and national economies. This encouraged legislation that limited rights of free blacks which gave way to the Underground Railroad and the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850. Black unrest in the South inspired urgency among white abolitionists who feared that maintaining slavery would lead to more violence. As a result of the abolitionist movement the Liberty Party was formed with candidates running in every election...