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article number 274
article date 10-01-2013
copyright 2013 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
We Develop Local & National Movements: Spiritual and Political 1820-1850
by James Truslow Adams

From the 1932 book, The March of Democracy.

Among the more or less fantastic movements were those which led to the formation of communities to carry out various forms of life, mostly communistic in principle, based on the ideas of reformers, such as that of Robert Owen, who had founded New Harmony in Indiana in 1824. More than forty communities of all sorts were established in the decade from 1840 to 1850, of which that at Brook Farm was one of the most famous, including at times among its members such men as George William Curtis, George Ripley, Charles A. Dana, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and among its visitors Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, Emerson, and others equally distinguished.

RALPH WALDO EMERSON From a photograph by J. J. Hawes. HENRY D. THOREAU From a crayon drawing by Rowse.

Following the teachings of the French philosopher Fourier, many communistic associations, called “Phalanxes,” were formed and spread over New Jersey, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and other States.

Some of the communities founded were distinctly religious, and others, like that of Oneida established by the “Perfectionist” John Humphrey Noyes, combined sexual with communistic experiments, in his theory of “complex marriage,” a system between ordinary marriage and polygamy. The latter was openly advocated and practised by the followers of the new religion of Mormonism which we shall note below.

Especially in New England and the frontier from New York westwards, the break-down of the old religion to some extent, and the narrowness of emotionally starved lives, provided a hotbed for, the rapid spread of new religious ideas no matter how crude.

About 1833 William Miller of western New York had begun to preach the immediate second coming of Christ, and gathered communities which finally spread from Maine to Wisconsin. Miller was but one of scores of self-appointed prophets who preached doctrines to the sort of minds impervious to the new teachings of Unitarianism which under the leadership of such men as William Ellery Channing were appealing to thousands of the intellectual New Englanders and transforming the religious atmosphere of the old Puritan colonies.

An annual religious camp meeting at Sing Sing New York. From a drawing in “Harper’s Weekly,” September 10, 1859.

In 1823 an otherwise unsuccessful youth of seventeen, Joseph Smith of Wayne County, New York, claimed that he had been visited by an angel from God, who returned four years later and delivered to Smith a holy book written on plates of gold, which Smith translated as “the Book of Mormon.”

On the basis of the doctrines of this revelation he began to gather disciples, organizing them under the title of “the Church of the Latter Day Saints,” Smith himself acting as its “Prophet.” A community was formed at Kirtland, Ohio, and the doctrine of polygamy, which had already been practised by Smith and some of the other leaders, was declared to have been received in a written revelation from God, which disconcerting revelation the original Mrs. Smith is said to have put in the fire with considerable display of personal feeling.

Forced from Kirtland by the hostility of their neighbors, the community moved to Missouri, where after a time they were barbarously treated by the Missourians and driven from the State, settling again at Nauvoo, Illinois, where their community grew faster than even the rising city of Chicago. Polygamy evidently had its attractions.

When Smith was murdered at Nauvoo, Brigham Young succeeded him, and as a result of a missionary visit to England, brought over 4000 converts, mostly from Liverpool.

Illinois after some years became too hot for the community, and in 1846, Young, who was an exceedingly able man and a genuine empire-builder, led the 12,000 Mormons across the plains, spending the winter near Council Bluffs, while Young himself with a chosen group of followers went on to the valley of the Great Salt Lake in Utah.

Although many refused to go so far, 5000 followed in the spring and the great Mormon State had been founded. Under the iron, and it may be said, the very efficient and on the whole wise, rule of Young, the new community prospered. The waste country was made to bloom by irrigation and “the busy bees of Deseret,” as they later called themselves, grew in numbers and in wealth. Hard work, shrewd business sense, and the fruits of polygamy quickly developed a commonwealth, in which, however, there was no system of irrigation planned for the mind.

Mormon migration.

The movements of the time, however, were far from being limited to these aberrations. There were strong crusades against both capital and unusual punishments. It was a time when the hangings of criminals were still too frequently conducted in public, and were sometimes made festive holidays on the theory that the sight would act as a deterrent.

In some States, lashings with whips, branding on the face, and other relics of barbarism were legal punishments, and these were fought, and to a considerable extent abolished, by the reformers of this period.

The treatment of the insane was unbelievably cruel, and their cause was pleaded in State after State by Dorothea Dix, one of the most modest, noble, and competently efficient and successful women our country has known. In eight years she travelled over 60,000 miles, visiting all the States but three, and in many of them secured great reforms by simply presenting the picture of conditions as she had found them.

The eighteenth century had been notably one of hard drinking, both in England and America, and even in the period of which we are writing not only drinking but drunkenness was common among classes and in situations where public opinion would not tolerate it today, nor for a long time past.

Not only was whiskey considered a necessity for workmen and laborers at their work but clergymen drank heavily at their meetings and not seldom fortified themselves with a good stiff drink before they began to preach.

Lawyers of national reputation were sometimes drunk when pleading cases in court, as were leading senators of the United States in the Senate chamber.

Poor grades of whiskey were so cheap that it was said that a man could get drunk twice for sixpence, and the evil was serious and widespread, especially among the working classes.

Temperance societies had been formed in many places and much missionary work by temperance lecturers had been done for several decades. The great attack, however, came with the rest of the humanitarian movements toward the middle of the century.

In 1830 the State of Ohio passed laws providing for partial prohibition, and in 1846 Neal Dow, of Maine, secured the passage of the first complete prohibition law in any of the States, partially modified five years later. Before 1857, thirteen States, all in the North and West, had enacted legislation regulating drinking and the liquor traffic more or less completely.

Nevertheless, on the whole, the aim was temperance and not enforced abstinence, the leading organization, the Washington Society, being opposed strongly to any prohibitory laws, and the movement as a whole was based, like the others of the day, on the belief in the essential moral goodness of the individual.

As has been well said by Gilbert Seldes, the student of all the “isms” of this period, in the middle of the last century the word “reformer” meant one who was striving to give liberty to others, whereas today it connotes too much one who is seeking to take liberty away.

The “evils of alcohol” could affect family life. Temperance societies formed.

Drink had been closely linked, too much so probably, in the minds of many with the poverty of the periods following the War of 1812 and the panics of 1819 and 1837, and the condition of the poor was also attacked from another direction.

Before the 1830’s, sporadic efforts had been made to abolish imprisonment for debt but after 1835 State after State took action as a result of the propaganda against the barbarous custom. Indiana forbade the imprisonment of women debtors, Maine that of any one for sums owing of less than $10, and in varying forms similar restrictions or total abolition were passed by Ohio, Vermont, Connecticut, Louisiana, Delaware, and other States.

In many of the numerous humanitarian reforms, the women of the country had taken great interest as they had a direct stake in the results, but finding that their co-operation was often made difficult, if not impossible, on account of the prejudice against their sex taking part in public affairs, leaders among them began what has become known in all its various aspects as the “woman’s movement.”

One of the starting points had been the refusal to allow eight American women delegates to a World Anti-Slavery Convention in London to take their seats, merely because they were women.

Such leaders as Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Margaret Fuller, became ardent in the effort to secure fuller civil rights, and in a dozen years following 1839 succeeded in getting laws passed in seven States giving them control, even when married, over their own property.

A Currier and Ives print reflecting one phase of the public’s attitude toward women’s rights. Fron the Library of Congress.

They also began to insist upon their right to attend colleges, and in 1848 the first Woman’s Rights Convention of the world was held at Seneca Falls, at which resolutions were passed demanding equality with men in suffrage, before the law and in all opportunities for education and earning a living.

Annual conventions were thereafter held, in spite of almost universal condemnation, until the movement, like many others, was temporarily interrupted by the larger exigencies of the Civil War.

Reform, as we have said, was almost wholly directed toward securing a greater liberty for the individual and opportunity for expansion of all his powers and capacities against the pressure of legislation and society instead of securing hobby “reforms” of single groups by the imposition of pressure.

There was, of course, much of the crank influence in what was in reality a great surge of public feeling for humanitarianism, but on the whole the goal in each case, that of a better and enlarged life for the individual, was kept clearly in the forefront.

Obviously in a movement which was nation wide and which seemed to impinge on every side of our natures and on all classes, the problem of slavery was bound to be considered.

There had long been a certain amount of agitation against it, and the Quaker, Benjamin Lundy, had published from 1812 to 1836, his journal called The Genius of Universal Emancipation.

This, however, was too conservative for the fiery and unbalanced temper of one of his assistants, William Lloyd Garrison, who in 1831 started a paper of his own in Boston, the famous Liberator. In the first copy he struck the keynote which was to be that of the Abolitionists’ thought and crusade until war finally came.

“I shall strenuously contend,” he wrote, “for the immediate enfranchisement of our slave population. . . On this subject I do not wish to write, or speak, or think, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire, to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; but urge me not to moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—and I will be heard.”

HEADING OF THE LIBERATOR, GARRISON’S ANTI-SLAVERY PAPER, APRIL 23, 1831. From the original in the New York Public Library.

The Abolitionists became so involved with our national political history that their movement more properly belongs in the next chapter, and we need note here only that in 1832 the New England Anti-Slavery Society was formed in Boston with the objects of the abolition of slavery and the immediate emancipation of all slaves, followed the next year by the organization of the American Anti-Slavery Society.

The Abolitionist Crusade was greatly influenced by the currents of thought in Europe, as were our communities, the crusade against drink, that for woman’s rights, and other movements. Like all of them, again, Abolitionism exemplified the increasing organization of the people into societies and the admittance of all to a share in the struggle for any object of widespread interest.

Just as the old “caucus” in politics, where candidates had been chosen by a few leaders in secret, had given place in 1837 to the political convention, so was the use of the convention becoming universal in other departments of our life, as a result of the democratic spirit of the age.

We were, indeed, on the threshold of the mass-age, notable in many ways, but which was also leading to what has been called the “hysteria system.” The gathering together of herds of people in cities, the spread of the press and the greater ease and swiftness of communication of all kinds, were beginning to give us the mob spirit on a larger scale than anything we had yet known.

Greater swiftness of communication helped to organize people.

It was a period of passion and strong contagious emotions of all sorts, too little balanced by thought and individuality. The mass-emotion was to be felt in political conventions and Presidential elections, in the rapid spread and the emotional appeal of all the humanitarian movements, and in the great mass meetings of the religious revivalists.

Men like Charles G. Finney, “the brigadier-general of Jesus Christ,” and a little later Henry Ward Beecher, swept audiences of men and women with pure emotionalism, while swarms of lesser itinerant preachers relied solely upon excitement to produce temporarily in their hearers the sense of salvation and of release.

The fuller and better life which all craved, and of which humanitarianism was a sound social manifestation, was, in the religious sphere, all too much debased to the level of mere intoxication, and tended to increase the sense of nervous tension in which the nation was to live, politically and otherwise, during this period.

The great mass of our people in all sections were interested neither in things of the mind nor in healthy sports. There were few diversions either for those crowded into cities or living on lonely farms or clearings. The village was unutterably dull.

We were emotionally starved, and in many sections the camp meeting revival, with its gatherings of thousands who all let themselves go in common emotions, even sexual orgies, offered alone that release from a life of inhibitions which the normal human being craves.

We have to take into consideration this starved life and the ease with which any issue appealing to the emotions would spread like fire, to understand the decades leading to the war.

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