The United States Expands: 1815 – 1880

By John E. Hansan, Ph.D.

Editor’s Note: The introduction is from the American Memory Timeline.  It is available at: Library of Congress>Teachers>Classroom Materials>Presentations and Activities>Time Line. The remainder represents portions of existing entries posted on the Social Welfare History Web site.

Introduction: The small republic founded by George Washington’s generation became the world’s largest democracy. All adult, white males received the right to vote. With wider suffrage, politics became hotly contested. The period also saw the emergence–and demise–of a number of significant political parties, including the Democratic, the Whig, the American, the Free Soil, and the Republican Parties.

Meanwhile, the young republic expanded geographically from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The Stars and Stripes were raised over Texas, Oregon, California, and the Southwest. Expansion, however, proved to be a mixed blessing for Americans. While many white settlers found new opportunities to the West, their settlement displaced other groups including Indian tribes and Mexicans. In addition, territorial expansion gave African-American slavery a new lease on life and led to increasing conflict between North and South.

Democracy and territorial expansion led most Americans to feel optimistic about the future. These forces, reinforced by widespread religious revivals, also led many Americans to support social reforms. These reforms included promoting temperance, creating public school systems, improving the treatment of prisoners, the insane, and the poor, abolishing slavery, and gaining equal rights for women. Some of these reforms achieved significant successes. The political climate supporting reform declined in the 1850s, as conflict grew between the North and South over the slavery question.

The Temperance Movement

Temperance efforts existed in antiquity, but the movement really came into its own as a reaction to the pervasive use of distilled beverages in modern times. The earliest organizations in Europe came into being in Ireland in the 1820s, then swept to Scotland and Britain. Norway and Sweden saw movements rise in the 1830s. In the United States, a pledge of abstinence had been promulgated by various preachers, notably John Bartholomew Gough, at the beginning of the 1800s. Temperance associations were established in New York (1808) and Massachusetts (1813). The American Society for the Promotion of Temperance (1826) was interdenominational. Thanks largely to the lead from the pulpit, some 6,000 local temperance groups in many states were up and running by the 1830s.

The temperance movement existed in a matrix of unrest and intellectual ferment in which such other social ills as slavery, neglect and ill-treatment of marginalized people, were addressed by liberals and conservatives alike. Sometimes called the First Reform Era, running through the 1830s and ’40s, it was a period of inclusive humanitarian reform.

The first statewide success for the temperance movement was in Maine, which passed a law on June 2, 1851, which served as model for other states. Proponents suggested that it was motivated by a justified concern for the public welfare, but not all agreed.

Public Schools

Horace Mann, Founder of the Common School Movement

Horace Mann (1796-1859), “The Father of the Common School Movement,” was the foremost proponent of education reform in antebellum America. An ardent member of the Whig Party, Mann argued that the common school, a free, universal, non-sectarian, and public institution, was the best means of achieving the moral and socioeconomic uplift of all Americans. The reform movement he led sought to create the virtuous republican citizenry needed to sustain American political institutions, the educated workforce required to expand the American economy, and the disciplined generation necessary to forestall the social disorders so common in American cities in the decades before the Civil War.

Brother-in-law of Nathaniel Hawthorne and close friend of Samuel Gridley Howe, Mann was well connected to the cultural and political elite of New England. Mann held numerous political offices in Massachusetts state government in 1820s and 1830s, and he represented Massachusetts as an anti-slavery Whig in the House of Representatives from 1848 to 1853, taking the seat vacated by the death of John Quincy Adams.

The most influential post he occupied, however, was that of Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education. From that pulpit, to which he was appointed in 1837, Mann would spread the gospel of education as social redemption. The common school would mitigate class conflict, circumvent anarchy, enhance civic engagement, and perhaps most importantly inculcate moral habits, all by molding society’s most malleable members. Like his friend Howe, Mann was a Unitarian, and his inclusion of the Bible in school curriculum was based on Unitarian doctrine. Children were to be exposed to the words and moral teachings of the Bible but would not be indoctrinated to any specific denomination. Such openness merely reflected the liberal theology of his Unitarianism. The orthodox Congregationalists of New England opposed many of Mann’s reforms.

Mann’s ideas reached far beyond the borders of the Bay State. A national spokesman for education reform, he wrote numerous books and founded and edited “The Common School Journal,” a periodical that successful spread the message that public schools should be more open and nurturing, with a wider curriculum delivered by professional teachers. He visited Massachusetts schools to determine their needs and went to Europe in 1843 to research educational institutions there.

Prison Reform

In the history of the criminal justice system of the United States there is considerable evidence that social welfare reformers and progressives helped improve the conditions of local jails, reformatories and prisons and the treatment of prisoners. For example, presentations and reports of standing committees at the annual meetings of the National Conference of Charities and Correction during the late 19th century reveal that social welfare leaders and progressives were actively involved in efforts to reform the nation’s criminal justice system.  It was at these annual meetings where leaders of state boards and experts in penology gave presentations and reports describing conditions in prisons and jails and offering proposals for improving them.

The founding fathers of the National Conference of Charities and Correction (1874 – 1898) were governor-appointed secretaries or executives of a State Board of Charities, and therefor responsible for oversight and reporting on the conditions of public institutions, including prisons. As a result, conditions and architecture of state and local correctional facilities and the treatment of both juvenile and adult felons were among some of the most important topics presented and discussed at the early meetings of the National Conference. This presentation from 1878 is an example.

Z. R. Brockway, 1853

Zebulon Reed Brockway (1827-1920) was a progressive penologist and originator of the indeterminate sentence and parole system.  In 1870, based on his experience and reputation, the National Prison Association selected him to be one of the nationally recognized penologists to author the Association’s acclaimed “Declaration of Principles.”  In May 1876, Brockway was sworn in as superintendent of the newly constructed Elmira Reformatory in Elmira, New York, the nation’s first correctional institution for male felons between the ages of sixteen and thirty. Under his leadership and direction, the “Elmira System” he developed transformed American corrections by putting into practice the innovations espoused in the 1870 “Declaration of Principles.”

The Insane

Dr. Benjamin Rush, painted by Charles Willson Peale, c. 1818

In the United States, the first proponent of moral treatment of the insane was Benjamin Rush. A Philadelphia physician, Rush had been one of the signers of the American Declaration of Independence. For Rush, the hustle and bustle of modern life contributed to mental diseases. Such diseases could best be treated in a hospital setting away from the stresses of modern life. Rush employed blood-letting for some conditions and invented the “tranquilizer chair” as a restrain for agitated patients. Several decades after Rush’s death, Dorothea Dix in 1841 began her quest to bring humane treatment to the insane. Dix insisted that hospitals for the insane be spacious, well ventilated, and have beautiful grounds. In such settings, Dix envisioned troubled people regaining their sanity. In the 1840s and 1850s there was much optimism for the cure of insanity through kind treatment without restraints. This perspective held that a highly structured, highly regimented environment that was also bucolic and peaceful would help to facilitate cure.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, the optimism surrounding moral treatment began to wane. With the advent of industrialization along with the growth of immigration into the United States, pressures were placed on mental hospitals to admit more and more clientele. Soon the visions of small facilities where mentally ill people would receive individual treatment degenerated into large facilities where little attention was given to the individual. Soon also the mere upkeep of buildings and expansion of buildings took up increasingly more of the time of hospital administrators.

The Poor

“…Here we see one reason why outdoor relief is everywhere and always more common than indoor relief, –for the same sum of money a much greater number of the poor can be aided. But another cogent reason is that there never has been anywhere, and perhaps never will be, almshouses, workhouses, hospitals, and other places of indoor relief in sufficient number to contain all the poor at any season, or half of them in seasons of special destitution. Outdoor relief has, therefore, always existed, as the Tennessee lawyer observed in another connection, “from the ex necessitate rei of the thing.” It would be idle to expect the farmer to barrel all his apples if he could only find barrels enough for half of them; and it is equally unreasonable to expect a community to put all its paupers into public buildings, if there is room in those buildings for less than a third part of them, which is the fact.

The “workhouse test,” as it used to be called in England, by which a poor man was compelled either to go to the workhouse or go without public relief altogether, cannot be applied in these modern times very strictly for another reason. Not only are there not workhouses enough to hold them, if all should go, but there are whole classes for whom it would be a bad place. It would be bad for children, for the insane in general, for idiotic women, for the sick who require nourishing and stimulating treatment, for the blind and the deaf, for the epileptics, and so on. Establishments for these special classes, and many more, have sprung up, where a hundred years ago only the workhouse or almshouse could be found. Perhaps we do not realize how large a part of our public poor are insane, and that this part is increasing faster than any other. Among 10,525 paupers fully supported in Massachusetts in 1888 (January), 4,316 were insane; and out of 10,453 in July, 1889, 4,709 were insane. The proportion of the insane to the sane poor is here about as four to five; while twenty-five years ago it was much less than this. If all the idiotic and mentally defective poor were added to the insane, the whole number in Massachusetts would be found quite equal to that of the sane poor who are fully supported. But, of those partially supported, the largest number are children; and comparatively few of them are insane or idiotic….

Abolishing Slavery

Group of “Contrabands”, May 14, 1862

From about 1619 until 1865, people of African descent were legally enslaved in the United States. The economic prosperity of early America and the accumulation of wealth by some families was made possible in large part by the free labor afforded by slavery. Over a half million Africans were brought over from Africa during the slave trade, but because laws declared the children of slaves to be slaves, the slave population in the United States grew to 4 million by the 1860 Census.

In the southern states, slaves were an essential part of the economic system (e.g., working on large plantations that produced cotton, tobacco and rice). Slaves were considered “property” and men, women and children were sold or traded, without regard to his/her family.

• slaves with dark skins usually worked in the fields and slaves with lighter skins worked in the homes of the owners

• slaves could own nothing and were forced to live in shacks and eat whatever was given to them by their masters

• slaves received no education and could legally be punished for not following orders or not performing up to the standards of their masters

Slavery was eventually abolished in 1863-65 with President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation; it legally ended with the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1865.

Auction and Negro Sales, 1864

Radical Republican senator  Charles Sumner of Massachusetts introduced the Civil Rights Act in 1870 as an amendment to a general amnesty bill for former Confederates. The bill guaranteed all citizens, regardless of color, access to accommodations, theatres, public schools, churches, and cemeteries. The bill further forbid the barring of any person from jury service on account of race, and provided that all lawsuits brought under the new law would be tried in federal, not state, courts.

Sumner predicted that the Civil Rights Act would be the greatest achievement of Reconstruction. “Very few measures of equal importance have ever been presented,” he proclaimed. Unfortunately, Sumner did not live to see the fate of his bill. He died of a heart attack in 1874—just 63 years old. “Don’t let the bill fail,” the dying Sumner pleaded to Frederick Douglass and others at his bedside. “You must take care of [my] civil rights bill.”

In the months following Sumner’s death, Congress debated the bill. As another Republican senator from Massachusetts, George Boutwell,  explained, the Reconstruction Amendments (Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments to the Constitution) “did limit the power of the States; they did extend the power of the General Government,” but lawmakers in Washington failed to agree on how far the power of the federal government should be extended. After long and at times heated discussions on the Senate floor, the bill’s supporters agreed to drop one of the more contentious components of the bill, which would prohibit segregation in public schools. Another contentious debate in the Senate centered on the question of whether or not Congress had the constitutional right to define the composition of juries selected for state courts.

The Senate brought the bill to the floor for a vote in late February 1875. Perhaps as a last gesture of respect for the departed Charles Sumner, for whom securing civil rights had been a lifelong pursuit, the Senate passed the bill with a vote of 38 to 26 on February 27, 1875. The bill became law on March 1, 1875. The new law required: “That all persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges of inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters, and other places of public amusement; subject only to the conditions and limitations established by law, and applicable alike to citizens of every race and color, regardless of any previous condition of servitude.” The second section provided that any person denied access to these facilities on account of race would be entitled to monetary restitution under a federal court of law.

The Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional in 1883. In a consolidated case, known as the Civil Rights Cases, the court found that the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution granted Congress the right to regulate the behavior of states, not individuals. The decision foreshadowed the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision in which the Court found that separate but equal facilities for blacks and whites were constitutional.

Woman Suffrage

The resolution calling for woman suffrage had passed, after much debate, at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, convened by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. In “The Declaration of Sentiments,” a document based upon the Declaration of Independence, the numerous demands of these early activists were elucidated.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton holding her daughter Harriot — Source:Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

The 1848 convention had challenged America to a social revolution that would touch every aspect of life. Early women’s rights leaders believed suffrage to be the most effective means to change an unjust system.  By the late 1800s, nearly 50 years of progress afforded women advancement in property rights, employment and educational opportunities, divorce and child custody laws, and increased social freedoms.  The early 1900s saw a successful push for the vote through a coalition of suffragists, temperance groups, reform-minded politicians, and women’s social-welfare organizations.  Although Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton devoted 50 years to the woman’s suffrage movement, neither lived to see women gain the right to vote. But their work and that of many other suffragists contributed to the ultimate passage of the 19th amendment in 1920.

Portrait of Susan B. Anthony on Her 50th Birthday

Brief History:

Suffrage is the right or privilege of voting and is frequently incorporated among the rights of citizenship. However, just as not all people in the United States are necessarily granted the privilege of citizenship, not all U.S. citizens have been uniformly endowed with the right to vote. Written in 1787 and adopted the following year, the U.S. Constitution granted each state the power to decide the voting qualifications of its residents in all elections. Many states restricted voting rights to those who owned land or substantial taxable property. Given the property laws and economic status of citizens at that time, these restrictions meant that most women and persons of color could not vote, and only about “half of the adult white men in the United States were eligible to vote in 1787.”

Most women were prohibited from voting or exercising the same civil rights as men during this time based on the idea that “a married woman’s legal existence was incorporated into that of her husband”.  With so few rights, many women drew parallels between their social and political state and that of slaves. This comparison won support of greater numbers of women and men to their cause, among them were the famous suffragettes attributed with founding the woman suffrage movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott.

Dedicated abolitionists, Stanton and Mott returned to the United States in June of 1840 highly indignant that they had been denied the right to participate in the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention in London because they were women. Determined to overcome the social, civil, and religious disabilities that crippled women of their day, Stanton and Mott organized the first woman’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, on 19 July 1848. It drew over 300. Stanton drafted the “Declaration of Sentiments,” a document that stated “men and women are created equal.”

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