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America's History in the Making

Antebellum Reform

Unit Overview

Am I not a man and a brother?

Change has always defined the United States, but the years between 1800 and 1860 brought about unusually profound social changes. Sheer growth accounted for much of the shift: the population expanded sixfold during this these years — or about 35 percent a decade — the greatest rate of expansion in America’s history.

Technological innovations spawned economic and social change. Steam-powered factories, boats, and trains made it much easier to create and move everything from wheat to iron, which in turn fostered wealth and the growth of the middle and working classes. Immigrants from Ireland and Germany flocked to the United States in unprecedented numbers, and the proportion of Americans who lived in cities and worked in factories increased substantially. In the South, though, an explosion in the growth of cotton benefited only a small minority and depended on the expansion of slavery, an institution that some Americans had expected to wither and die.

As the South became more conservative, determined to protect its traditional institutions, the North became more dynamic and reform-minded. The reform impulse sprang from religious revivals in which people sought spiritual salvation in the 1820s and 1830s; the injunction to lead a clean, holy life and seek perfection soon spread far beyond the church.

The growing economy provided both a motive and a means for reform. White, middle-class Northerners in particular were concerned over the unprecedented levels of urban disorder and immigration that accompanied early industrialization. Yet the discipline of producing market goods created a more clock-oriented and self-controlled society: rates of violence and alcohol consumption fell, and schools became more numerous and regimented. But growing numbers of reformers wanted more than a well- disciplined society. They saw no reason why the nation could not drive out all of its impurities: intemperance and sloth, certainly, but also all manner of unhealthy habits, greed, slavery, and even male dominance.

Americans were far from united in their reform impulses, which grew more splintered and ambitious with time. But the combination of economic transformation and religious reformation produced a seedbed for bold expectations and experiments.

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