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13.3: American Antebellum Reform

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    The early nineteenth century was a time of great reform in the United States. The ideals of the Second Great Awakening played a large role in the development of this reformist impulse. Preachers and believers all over the country saw humankind and society as good and perfectible, able to improve and strive to become more like God. At the same time, the Second Great Awaking stressed the notion of personal responsibility and the responsibility of a person to the sins of neighbors. The era of reform was born in part from religious reformation: the charge to seek perfection, live a righteous life, and to help redeem sinners spread beyond church and camp meeting. The antebellum reform movements were based in a network of voluntary, church-affiliated reform organizations. The reform impulse was not solely confined to the United States; Europeans were also in the midst of their own reform efforts. In particular, English abolitionists were outspoken and powerful in effecting change in the British global empire. Many types of reform movements existed during this period in the United States, and groups and causes only grew more splintered over time. Many different kinds of Americans worked in the reform movement. In particular, women played a large role in various aspects of reform. While not all Americans were active in the various reform movements, taken together, the reform impulse was a powerful force that characterizes the antebellum era.

    Temperance Movement

    One of the most widespread of the reform movements in the 1820s-1840s was the temperance movement, which called for reducing the use of (or abstaining from) alcoholic beverages. Its roots lay in the revivals of the Second Great Awakening, where religious reformers called for individuals to lead “clean” lives and to redeem their sinning neighbors. The reformist impulse also stemmed from new social conditions. The increasing urbanization of the United States and the large numbers of immigrants, especially Germans, had transformed the nation in ways that were unfamiliar and that some found threatening. Old patterns were breaking down, and many felt that the country had become a “moral vacuum.” Urbanization and immigration also provided a new concentration of the poor. The emerging American middle class participated in reform not only for religious reasons, but also to confirm their new social status. By helping others, they asserted their worth while at the same time alleviating social ills.

    Alcohol in many forms had been an important part of the diet of Americans from the founding of the colonies onward. The Mayflower carried barrels upon barrels of beer for its passengers. Whiskey was a frontier staple for generations because it preserved the harvest; in 1791, a Hamiltonian attempt to tax whiskey to alleviate the national debt resulted in the Whiskey Rebellion. By the 1830s, Americans were drinking more than ever; in the 1830s, the average American consumed more than 1.5 bottles of liquor a week. Meanwhile, many doctors were citing large amounts of alcohol as injurious to an individual’s health. Chief among these physicians was Dr. Benjamin Rush of Pennsylvania. Ministers such as Connecticut Presbyterian Lyman Beecher also spoke out against alcohol as a societal evil.

    The response to these conditions was the 1826 creation of the American Temperance Society in Boston, Massachusetts. The Society grew quickly and soon had spread across the country. Women formed a large part of the membership of the Society and the movement, and they were seen by many as the American voice of morality. Much of this perception stems from the “Cult of Domesticity.” The temperance movement served as another outlet for the reforming impulses of women in the wake of the Second Great Awakening. Participation in the temperance movement was much more socially acceptable than participation in the abolition or women’s rights movement. While many women spoke out against alcohol, many in the movement perceived women and children as the chief victims of alcohol consumption, as their husbands and sons suffered from alcohol’s effects, spent the family’s money on alcohol, spent their time in bars and saloons rather than in the family home, and sometimes became violent when drunk.

    The American relationship with alcohol was not an issue that was resolved in the era of reform. The temperance movement and organizations had more than a million supporters who enthusiastically held rallies and distributed pamphlets on the evils of “demon rum.” By the 1860s, their efforts had indeed slowed, but certainly did not stop, the average American’s consumption of alcohol. Over the course of the nineteenth century, many towns and counties became “dry.” Perhaps the greatest legislative victory for the temperance movement during the era of reform was Maine’s shortlived total ban on alcohol from 1851-1856.

    Reform of Prisons, Asylums, and Schools

    Before the nineteenth century, crime, poverty, and mental illness in America were handled through family and voluntary efforts. Prisons existed not to rehabilitate criminals for their eventual return to society but to house them until the time that they would be punished, most often by fines, public whipping, or execution, also a public spectacle. Debtors were punished by imprisonment. Many mentally ill individuals eventually ended up imprisoned as well, as no facilities for the treatment of the mentally ill existed. Reformers worked to create public institutions to deal with the social problems. They believed that social deviants, including criminals and debtors, could be reformed and morally redeemed. The result was the creation of penitentiaries, which sought to transform criminals into law abiding citizens through hard work, religious instruction, and isolation from the corruption of social vices. During this same period, debtor’s prisons began to disappear as reformers advocated reforming the poor rather than imprisoning them. Workhouses were established to keep the poor from drunkenness, idleness, and gambling. Finally, asylums were established for treatment and housing the mentally ill.

    Dorothea Lynde Dix was instrumental in the reform effort that established state mental asylums. In the spring of 1841, Dix visited a Cambridge jail in order to teach Sunday school for a group of women inmates. There she found the inmates, some of them mentally ill (whom Dix refers to as lunatics), housed in filthy conditions in unheated cells. Horrified, she worked to publicize the conditions of the jail and gain public support for its improvement. She conducted an eighteen month study of the jails and almshouses of Massachusetts and, in 1843, made a presentation to the Massachusetts legislature, reporting that the mentally ill were housed in “cages, closets, cellars and pens…Chained, naked, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience.” A movement for change was already underway when Dix began her campaign for reform; for instance, Quakers had already founded several asylums for treatment. Dix was instrumental in motivating a state role in the creation of these facilities. Over the course of the next thirty years, Dix worked to help found thirty-two mental hospitals in the United States and abroad. Moreover, her reports on jails also aided in the efforts to reform prisons.

    American reformers also sought to implement school reform. Before the early 1800s, education for most Americans was very basic. For most, this meant a few months of schooling a year in a one-room rural schoolhouse. The wealthy engaged private tutors and academies. For the urban poor, a very few were able to attend private charitable schools. Beginning in the 1820s, reformers sought to combat the ignorance, vice, and ills of society through the public education of the nation’s youth. Moreover, the rising numbers of immigrants in the northeast combined with near-universal white male suffrage convinced cities and states that education was essential to maintain a democracy. Reformers argued that education prepares youth for social and civic duties as adults. The most prominent of these education reformers was Horace Mann, head of the Massachusetts board of education, the first in the nation. Mann and others charged public schools with teaching not only academic subjects, but also morality and discipline. One means of teaching these values was through the series McGuffey’s Readers, a series of texts that taught not only spelling and vocabulary, but also punctuality, frugality, and temperance. Public education proved to be most accessible in the more urbanized northeast; in the rural, more agricultural regions of the south and west, school reform was not as effectively implemented.

    Women played a large role in education reform. Young female teachers staffed many of the schools. It is also during this time that higher education began to open to women. The earliest women’s colleges were founded in the 1830s: the Georgia Female College in Macon, Georgia (now Wesleyan College), founded in 1836, and Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley, Massachusetts (Now Mount Holyoke College), founded in 1837. Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio became the first co-educational institution when it admitted four women in 1837.

    Abolitionism and the Women’s Rights Movements

    Two of the most significant reform movements to come out of the reform period of 1820-1840 were the anti-slavery movement and the women’s rights movement. Each of these movements worked for freedom and emancipation and to grant a greater body of rights to two of the groups on the periphery of American society. The movements shared a common support base: many abolitionists supported or were active in the women’s rights movement, or vice versa. In numerous ways, the organized women’s rights movement grew out of abolitionist organizations and the movement of the early 1800s. Although neither group saw their cause’s ultimate goals achieved during the era of reform, each movement saw great advances. Abolitionism was perhaps the most radical of the reform movements of the era.

    The struggle to end slavery has a long history both globally and in the United States; indeed, the struggle to end slavery emerged at roughly the same time as slavery itself. However, abolitionism developed significantly over the 1800s. In the early decades of the century, several groups emerged as “colonizationists.” These groups sought to remove blacks from the United States either through emigration or through the creation of colonies in Africa. The end of slavery would come about gradually under this ideal. For the most part, colonizationists accepted the idea of black inferiority. For some members of the movement, the idea meant the end of slavery; for others, it was an answer for racial tensions in the United States. Kentucky Congressional representative Henry Clay argued for colonization because of the “unconquerable prejudice” against blacks in the United States. Other important politicians, including James Madison and Abraham Lincoln, favored “repatriation” rather than emancipation.

    For the most part, the African American community did not see colonization or repatriation as a viable alternative to emancipation and abolition. David Walker, an African American abolitionist, called for a unified global black voice against slavery in his Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World. Walker stood as a vocal opponent of colonization, saying that the United States belonged more to African Americans than to whites, because the black population had earned the country with their “blood and tears.”

    Nevertheless, the American Colonization Society (ACS) emerged as the main voice of colonizationists in the United States. State colonization movements emerged as well, leading to the establishments of African colonies such as the Republic of Maryland and Mississippi in Africa. In 1821, the ACS helped to establish the colony of Liberia on the west coast of Africa and assisted some 13,000 slaves and free blacks to emigrate to the colony. The experiment in Liberia proved to be, in many ways, a failure; hundreds died from disease soon after emigrating. Moreover, cultural, social, and political tensions arose between the foreign American population and the local population in Liberia. The Americans made up a tiny minority of the population but dominated Liberian politics until the 1980s. Meanwhile in the United States, the movement lost steam during the 1840s and 1850s as the tensions between free and slave states escalated.

    One of the most prominent abolitionists of the era was William Lloyd Garrison, publisher of the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator. Garrison was militant in his call for immediate and complete emancipation as a moral imperative. In the first issue of the Liberator, he made a public apology for ever advocating a gradual end to slavery and called for its immediate end. He ended his appeal by writing, “I will not equivocate- I will not excuse- I will not retreat a single inch- and I will be heard.” Along with an immediate end to slavery, Garrison also espoused racial equality as an absolute necessity to ending the institution without massive bloodshed. In every state, laws restricted the political and civil liberties of free African Americans. Many Americans found this radical notion of racial equality and the call to end these restrictive laws intimidating or even frightening. Garrison refused to become more moderate in his demands, and The Liberator was published continuously for the next 35 years until the end of slavery in the United States.

    In 1833, Garrison was among the group that founded the American Anti-Slavery Society. They were inspired in part by the success of British abolitionists. Abolitionists differed in their ideas about how to effectively bring about the end of slavery. Some, like Garrison, favored fiery calls and “no moderation”; at a rally in 1854, Garrison asserted that there could be “no union with slaveholders” and called the U.S. Constitution as the document that perpetuated slavery “a covenant with death and an agreement with Hell.” Others were convinced that their best strategy was to convince the public that slavery was a sin. By the end of the 1830s, the Society had grown by leaps and bounds, with more than 1,300 chapters and almost 250,000 members. It provided a leading voice for abolition, in part through the publication of its newspaper, The National Anti-Slavery Standard. In later years, the Society provided the founding impetus to the Liberty Party, a political party with an abolitionist platform.

    The Anti-Slavery Society was home to white and black abolitionists. Many prominent African American abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass were members of the Society. Douglass was perhaps the most famous, influential, and vocal black abolitionist. Born into slavery in Maryland in 1819, he escaped from slavery as a young man and spent the rest of his life devoting himself to the cause of freedom for all. Douglass was a skilled orator and a prolific writer. His many autobiographies, including Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, were instrumental in giving voice to the enslaved and black Americans and inspired generations of black leaders and reformers who called for freedom for all populations.

    Screenshot (256).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Fredrick Douglass (1879) | Frederick Douglass, author, orator, and abolitionist, was a leading voice in the abolitionist movement of the early nineteenth century. Author: Frank W. Legg Source: National Archives

    Although black and white abolitionists worked closely together in the movement and usually worked well together, African Americans experienced racial prejudice even within the abolitionist movement. Some of this came from a lack of understanding; in other cases, it was overt prejudice. White abolitionists tended to see free and slave as two polar opposites; black abolitionists knew that there were varying degrees of freedom and slavery. Often, white abolitionists knowingly or unknowingly exploited stereotypes in their abolitionist efforts. For example, as Frederick Douglass rose to prominence as an orator in the abolitionist movement, he began speaking not only of his life as a slave, but also analyzing abolitionist policies. White abolitionists warned him that people would cease to believe that he had ever been enslaved if he sounded too educated and advised him to leave the complex analysis to the whites. Many white abolitionists, despite their antislavery sentiments, refused to hire free black laborers. Even anti-slavery and abolitionist groups refused to grant full rights to black members. Eventually, the American Anti-Slavery Society itself split into factions over social issues.

    The abolitionist sentiment was also present in the South. An important example of the abolitionist voice in the South came from sisters from Charleston, South Carolina who had migrated north and become Quakers because of their abolitionism. The Grimké sisters, Sarah and Angelina, spoke out against the system of slavery in many forums. In 1837, Angelina wrote to William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator. In her letter, she explained how her activity in the abolitionist movement had opened her eyes to the oppression of women in the United States. The sisters spoke before state legislations and were among the first women to speak in public forums before mixed sex groups. The daughters of a prominent slave owner, they spoke of their personal knowledge and experience of the system. Angelina later married Theodore Dwight Weld, a prominent abolitionist preacher. She assisted in the research for his 1839 indictment of slavery, American Slavery as it is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses. The Grimké sisters were one example of the overlap in the reformist impulse between abolitionism and women’s rights.

    Women’s Rights Movement

    To the eyes of many reformers, the movements in abolition and women’s rights had much in common; many who worked to end slavery also called for the “emancipation of women.” Indeed, the women’s rights movement had largely grown out of the anti-slavery movement. Women joined and actively participated in abolitionist organizations such as the Anti-Slavery Society; they sponsored events such as the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women. A key moment came in 1840, when the Anti-Slavery Society split after a woman, Abigail Kelley, was nominated to serve on one of the Society’s committees. The majority of the members of the Society favored including women in the governing structure of the organization; the more conservative members broke away from the Anti-Slave Society to form the American and Foreign Anti-Slave Society, which excluded women. Kelly later wrote of her experiences in the abolitionist movement and how they shaped her views on women’s rights: “in striving to strike [the slaves’] irons off, we found most surely that we were manacled ourselves.”

    Two of the leading figures of the women’s rights movement met at the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention in London. There, the convention refused to seat the American female delegates. Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, two of the excluded delegates, united to form an organization that would speak for oppressed women.

    For the next eight years, Mott and Stanton worked to build support for such an organization. In July 1848 they were finally able to call together a group together for the first national convention devoted to the issue of women’s rights, the Seneca Falls Convention. Three hundred delegates, both men and women, attended the meeting. Over the course of two days, the delegates discussed the role of women in society and debated the issue of women’s right to vote. The convention ended with the issue of the “Declaration of Sentiments,” a document that largely paralleled the Declaration of Independence, and leveled a series of charges against the patriarchy of the United States that had been the source of the oppression of women. It declared that “all men and women are created equal,” and went on to list the “repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward women,” including that “He has compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice,” and “He has taken from her all right in property, even to the wages she earns.” The Declaration of Sentiments formed the basis of the goals of the women’s rights movement that lasted throughout the rest of the century. The first and foremost of these goals was achieving the right to vote as an inalienable right of full, republican citizenship. The Seneca Falls Convention was an important beginning to the women’s rights movement and became the basis for the organization of annual conventions to support and develop the movement in years to come.

    Screenshot (257).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton | These two women were instrumental in organizing the Seneca Falls Convention and writing the Declaration of Sentiments, which would articulate the goals of the women’s rights movement. Author: Unknown (Mott), Carol M. Highsmith (Stanton) Source: Library of Congress

    The women’s rights movement did not attract broad support among women or men during the antebellum era. Unlike other reform movements, women’s rights challenged the notion of separate spheres and the idea of “true womanhood.” Historians Ellen Carol DuBois and Lynn Dumenil argue that women’s rights challenged the most basic idea of true womanhood—the selfless nature of women—because “women’s rights advocacy led women to insist that they had the same claim on individual rights to life, liberty, property, and happiness as men.” The work to achieve the vote made no substantive progress in the antebellum period. The most significant success was that by 1860, more than a dozen states had granted women greater control over the wages they earned, and some even allowed women to sue husbands and fathers who tried to deprive them of their wages.


    Early nineteenth-century America was a time of reform. Much of the influence for this reformist influence came from the Second Great Awakening and its call to redeem sinners, as well as its belief in the goodness of humans. Like the preachers of the revivals, the temperance movement reformers called for individuals to lead “clean” lives and to redeem their sinning neighbors. Others sought to build and improve public and state institutions such as prisons, asylums, and schools. Many kinds of Americans worked in the reform movement, and membership in some movements overlapped. Two of the most significant reform movements to come out of the reform period of 1820-1840 were the anti-slavery movement and the women’s rights movement. Each of these movements worked for freedom and emancipation and to grant a greater body of rights to two of the groups on the periphery of American society. The movements shared a common support base, and many abolitionists advocated, or were active in, the women’s rights movement, or vice versa. In many ways, the organized women’s rights movement grew out of abolitionist organizations and the movement of the early 1800s. Although neither group saw their cause’s ultimate goals achieved during the era of reform, each movement saw great advances. Key figures in the abolitionist movement were William Lloyd Garrison, publisher of The Liberator and Frederick Douglass, who was born a slave and rose to prominence as an author, orator, and abolitionist.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    The colonizationist scheme of the early 1800s proved to be popular among black abolitionists.

    1. True
    2. False


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    The Seneca Falls Convention worked to establish____

    1. women’s rights.
    2. a utopian community.
    3. the end of slavery.
    4. a national temperance society.

    Add texts here. Do not delete this text first.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    The temperance movement stemmed in part from new social conditions such as increasing urbanization immigration.

    1. True
    2. False

    Add texts here. Do not delete this text first.

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