Podcast # 19: Second Great Awakening and the Reform Movements of the 1830s and 1840s

Before we continue to move along into the 1850s and the events that will lead up to The Civil War, it is important to rewind the clock a bit and discuss some social changes that helped to shape the history of The United States.

To understand how much of a game changer, the Second Great Awakening was for society we have to discuss the Religious beliefs of Colonial America. The first English Settlers were made up of English Dissenters. When talking about New England Colonies we are of course referring to The Pilgrims and Puritans. The Puritans wanted to purify the Church of England. They felt it had held onto too many Roman Catholic traditions. Puritans were followers of John Calvin. Calvinists believed in Predestination. The idea that God has already chosen who has been saved. It was predetermined. God is all knowing. As a result of Predestination, one’s behavior had to consistently prove you were part of the elect or the chosen.

New England Settlers came in families. They Placed high importance on education – especially being able to read the Bible. Harvard was established mostly for the training of ministers and church leaders. Church attendance was mandatory. Only male church members had a say in local governments or could attend town meetings.

Their strict religious beliefs make it a bit easier to wrap your head around some of the severe punishments the Puritans and Pilgrims were known for. Forcing adulterers to wear a scarlet letter, the Salem witch trials, Branding the hand with the letter T for thief, B for Burglary, F for Forgery, and my own personal favorite; the ducking stool.

The Second Great Awakening began in the 1790s and by the 1820s spread throughout the Northern States. During this time, you have these Camp style revival meetings. Passionate sermons preaching the notion that people who have sinned could be saved. One’s fate was NOT predetermined. It led to mass gatherings and converts. This went against the beliefs of Calvinism and Puritanism. With Puritanism there was no grey area. You were saved or you weren’t and then you had to prove your piety by outdoing everyone else with your religious zeal. This revolutionary notion that one through good behavior and moral standing could determine their own fate was a game changer.

In the 1830s, Transcendentalism, the belief in an ideal spiritual state that goes beyond the basic senses began to gain popularity. Ralph Waldo Emerson is considered the father of Transcendentalism. Transcendentalists wanted Utopian social change.

These new ideas led to what becomes known as The Age of Reform The goal of these reform movements was to create a society where humanitarianism and social justice prevailed. Now if you consider the status of American Society, this posed a conflict to a number of institutions and conditions within society.

The major reform movements that gain steam during this time are the Temperance, Women’s Suffrage and Abolitionist movements as well as the movements to improve conditions for the mentally ill and to establish Free Appropriate Public Education.

Dorothea Dix helped to found 30 hospitals that were dedicated to treating those with mental illness. Even today, there is such a stigma around mental illness, how we treat it, how we discuss it. Imagine how difficult it was to talk about mental illness in the 1800s. You were considered mad and locked away. Her parents both suffered from depression and there is evidence that her father was an alcoholic. Her difficult early years and her own bout with depression set her on a course to improve the conditions of those in similar circumstances. She was sent to live with her Grandmother who was fairly well off. She was educated and became a teacher. She wrote a teaching manual of sorts that was called “Conversations on common things or guide to knowledge with questions. It was very popular at the time. You can purchase a copy on amazon and there is a digital copy on archive.gov that you can read. It is a very quick read and if you have the time, I recommend it. It is written in a style of conversation between a mother and her daughter – they discuss a variety of topics. The basic principles of American Government, salt mines, how you can get salt from sea water, porcelain – how it is made where it originated from, spices and where they come from around the world. She worked as a Nanny for William Ellery Channing who was a Transcendentalist poet and through him, met people like Ralph Waldo Emerson. So all of these ideas, her own struggle with depression where she was encouraged to go to England to rest and recover – she has the opportunity to meet a number of reformers like Elizabeth Fry and Samuel Tuke – whose family established York retreat hospital. It was a pioneer in the field of mental health. At York Retreat Hospital – shackles, chains, physical punishment, starvation and all the other usual treatments for those with mental illness were taken away and replaced with an approach that the Tuke family called The Moral Treatment. The patients were treated with kindness, the rooms were kept clean, they had access to beautiful grounds and were encouraged to take walks, read books etc. The hospitals had the typical safety precautions in place, but it was done in a way which made the facility feel more like a home and less like a prison.

When she returned to Massachusetts, she took a teaching position in an East Cambridge Jail. It was there that she saw for herself the horrible conditions. It led her to try to visit as many institutions and jails as she was allowed into. Those visits led her to conclude that the conditions of the jail in East Cambridge were not unique. She took copious notes with detailed descriptions of the conditions people were living in. The mentally ill were kept in cages, starved, naked, beaten, kept in cells with violent criminals. In the report she submitted to the Massachusetts legislature it detailed the horrors of what she saw. In the report, she talks of a woman kept in a cage. Wearing filthy rags covered in her own waste which she would eat as quickly as she would the food given to her. Her body was so disfigured because she would peel off her own skin. She argued that the current conditions were no place for the insane as there was no way they could be helped and it was also a disservice to the criminals in the jail as they were forced to listen to their screams. If you are looking for resources to teach this topic, I highly recommend going disabilitymuseum.org – the site has a ton of primary source material and great lesson plan ideas for educators. As a woman in the mid-1800s, there were limits to what Dorothea Dix was allowed to do. With the help of male allies within the legislative branch, a bill called the “Bill for the benefit of the indigent insane passed both houses of Congress in 1854. It was vetoed by President Franklin Pierce. He felt that social welfare programs were not the responsibility of the federal government but that of state governments. The goal of the bill was to set aside millions of acres of federal land to build hospitals for the insane and allow for the sale of lands “for the use of groups such as the blind, deaf and dumb” – the proceeds of those sales would go to help states maintain the facilities. While the Federal Government, didn’t take this on, many individual states did through the use of state tax dollars, 30 hospitals were established for the treatment of the mentally ill.

The headway society has made in treating mental illness has been remarkable. It all started with Dorothea Dix and her tireless advocacy. I reached out to some people I know who work in the mental health field. Many are psychologists – some in hospitals, some in jails. A few of the sentiments they felt I should touch on:

The wide variety of therapies that exist now that teach people with mental illness and their loved ones with how to navigate life living with a mental illness. The explosion of research into various medications that have allowed people to live within society that otherwise would have had to be hospitalized. Patients are no longer locked in their rooms and restraints such as strait jackets and bed nets have been outlawed since the 1990s. Lock seclusion – if patient is out of control and needs to be restrained and kept away from others – they are brought into a padded room but only for an hour at a time and they have to be given bathroom breaks, water and under constant supervision.

Staff are trained to deescalate situations when a patient becomes violent. When individuals with mental illness do commit crimes, they are kept in separate units. Guards are given mental health training. A variety of therapies are utilized. When treating people with mental illness, it is always better to come from a place of compassion.

For individuals who do need to be hospitalized, the goal is to be able to discharge patients.

I asked these Mental Health professionals what the Biggest obstacles were for individuals with mental illness and for mental health professionals. The answers across the board were the same – the need for better follow up – once patients are discharged there aren’t services to encourage patients to remain in treatment. The services that do exist, are limited in how many people they can reach. On a professional level it often leads to burn out. One mental health professional I spoke to discussed how they had treated someone for over 6 months – got the patient to the point where they were able to leave the hospital and be able to live in the community with support. People often fall through the cracks. It can be disheartening as a mental health professional to then have that same patient come back into the hospital within a few weeks’ time and be just as worse off as when they first came 6 months or a year ago. When I asked these mental health professionals what they needed to better serve the mentally ill – more funding, more awareness to help breakdown the stigmas of mental illness. Mental illness doesn’t always mean dangerous and those with mental illness deserve our compassion and to be treated with respect. Remember that this is someone’s child, someone’s sibling, mother or father.

Horace Mann and Education Reform

In 1840, Horace Mann gave a lecture on the importance of education and libraries. In it he stated “unless a man knows that there is something more to be known, his inference is, of course that he knows everything” he went on to say that “to know how much there is that we do not know is one of the most valuable parts of our attainments” He argued that children need to learn about other places, different cultures, societies, because when they don’t, they tend to think that everyplace is just like where they live and if it isn’t the same, it is wrong. He believed that the mere existence of a library taught people that there was more to learn. Each of the books creating a multitude of lessons to be learned.

Horace Mann helped to establish what became known as Common schools. He believed education should be for all children regardless of the socioeconomic status they were born into. Education at this point was a privilege for the wealthy few. For most, especially for children of farmers. Schooling was sporadic. Breaks were given so that children could work on the farms at harvest time. Schools in the United States when they were first created for the most part were those one room school houses with one teacher teaching a variety of grade levels at the same time. Think Little House and The Prairie and Miss Beadle or my personal favorite Miss Eliza Jane Wilder. Typically, you had school teachers who were teenage girls with an 8th grade education. What Horace Mann hoped to do was set an Educational Norm. He advocated for teacher training programs that would teach a basic proficiency in reading, writing, arithmetic, history and geography. For students in the seeing and hearing impaired communities, they would not be helped by this movement. It would take other pioneers and innovators to advocate for the education of exceptional learners. It would take until as recently as 1975 for the Individuals with disabilities act which is often referred to as IDEA to be passed for children with disabilities to be provided a Free Appropriate Public Education as well.

Temperance Movement

Temperance Movement was a social and religious campaign against the consumption of alcohol that began in the early 1800s.

It’s important to understand that drinking alcohol was safer than drinking water in the early years of the United States as many water sources were contaminated. There was no understanding of water purification and bacteria. People just knew that when they drank the water it made them sick. They thought it was unhealthy. As a result, most people drank alcohol instead. By the 1830s, statistics show that on average, Americans were drinking around 7 gallons of alcohol a year. That’s a lot.

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was created in 1873 and still exists today. You can go to their website WCTU.org and learn more about them. Its most famous President, Francis Willard advocated a “Do anything” policy. Its members and chapters could support the move movements of their choice. Many of course advocated for Temperance. Women were seen as children under the eyes of the law. Women didn’t have the right to vote and lacked the political influence needed. They had to start on a grass roots level. Creating local chapters and slowly and steadily gained support.

The Prohibition Party established in 1869, worked to have a constitutional amendment passed that would ban the creation, consumption and sale of alcohol.

In 1840 – The Washington Movement was created by 6 men who were battling alcoholism. The theory was that if they could get together regularly discuss their problems and encourage each other not to drink; they could stop drinking. This was the precursor to Alcoholics Anonymous or AA

The Anti-Saloon league was established in 1893 and worked to promote the temperance movement through various forms of propaganda like stories, poems, songs and fliers describing the goals of the movement.

One of my favorite leaders of the Temperance Movement was a woman named Carrie Nation. She was a member of the WCTU in Kansas but felt as though their approach wasn’t heavy handed enough. Carrie Nation was known for going to into local saloons with a hatchet and smashing the bottles and the bar.

Arthur’s 10 nights in a Bar Room – written in 1854 was the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the Temperance Movement. In the book the tavern is depicted as the ruination of society. Drinking shops corrupt men’s body and soul. Women believed their male children weren’t safe. The book was turned into a play and was used to promote temperance.

It would not be until The Progressive Era and WWI that the temperance advocates and supporters would reach their goal with the passage of the 18th Amendment in 1919. The victory would be short lived as it was overturned by the 21st Amendment in 1921. We will get into that more in a future podcast.

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