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American Antebellum Reform

The antebellum period is one of the most dynamic and vivid in American history. The industrial,
transportation, and market revolutions, unprecedented urban growth and its accompanying problems,
religious revivals spawning such diverse figures as Charles Finney and Joseph Smith, and reform
movements tackling social ills ranging from prostitution to slavery are just part of the story. Territorial
expansion and increasing sectional tensions undermined the two party system and led to the rise of the
Republican Party, pushing the country toward civil war.
To reform, means to take action to improve a condition or institution understood by an individual or
group to be flawed or unjust. In this unit we will be asking the following questions: Who advocated
reform? What conditions or institutions required reform? Why did these need reform? How did
reformers attempt to make changes? Were they successful?
Dening the Period:
Historians usually define the antebellum years as 18151860from the successful conclusion of the
War of 1812 through the onset of the Civil War. Traditionally historians have demarcated historical eras
by wars because these armed conflicts usually indicate a significant shift in or challenge to political
power or national identity. This is the case for the antebellum period because the War of 1812 solidified
Americas independence from Britain and contributed to an increased sense of nationhood. 45 years
later, the American Civil War nearly ruptured that fragile union. Between these conflicts, the country
doubled its size through forced Indian removal and wars on its southwestern border, even as it struggled
to diffuse growing sectional anxiety over how those lands would be governed. Determining the best
balance between federal and state power proved a significant challenge in the face of tariffs,
nullification, Indian sovereignty, and slavery; universal white male suffrage. The rise and demise of
political parties came to characterize the young nations experiment with democracy.
Historians also use these approximate dates to delineate the shift from localized home production,
especially of textiles, to large-scale manufacturing. To maximize the gains to be made from this change
required not merely rivers and roads but canals and railroads to transfer raw materials and finished
goods to the increasingly far-flung farms, plantations, and towns of the Mississippi River Valley and
beyond, as well as to the cities that attracted immigrants from both within and outside of the countrys
borders. Despite, or perhaps because of, this economic expansion, this period was also marked by
financial depressions in 1819, 1837, and 1857 and the emergence of a distinct middle class. Historians
also track the social and cultural changes within this 45-year period, including religious revivals and the
clergys decreasing authority during the Second Great Awakening, as well as the proliferation of secular
reform movements. From both revivals and reform, many middle-class women in particular acquired a
new sense of purpose as their responsibilities transitioned from home production to social reproduction.
They gained experience in organizing, running, and leading associations to provide Bibles and tracts,
end drunkenness, abolish slavery, build orphan asylums and training schools, improve the moral and
physical condition of prostitutes, establish utopian communities, transform Americans practices of
eating, healing, dressing, and educating, and raise womens status. While some of these efforts involved
self-reform, many were directed at the growing working, especially immigrant, class. As gradual
emancipation of slavery in states like New York and New Jersey went into effect, the northern free black
population grew in numbers. However, free blacks also faced the loss of civil and political rights in

many northern states. Despite efforts to marginalize them politically and economically, reform-minded
blacks established associations to ameliorate poverty and provide education in their communities, and
spoke publicly against slavery and gave assistance to runaway slaves on their way to Canada.
Weighing Causes: The Market Revolution
Although historians generally agree that the changes described above occurred, they disagree on either
the relative importance of those changes to shaping antebellum America or the motivations of the
reformers who both experienced and influenced those changes. Much of the debate over these issues was
provoked by Charles Sellerss The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 18151846 (1991). Sellers
views capitalism as a hegemonic force that shaped Americas political economy by involving state and
local governments in market development as sponsors of commercial infrastructure by funding the
building of roads, bridges, and canals as well as chartering banks and corporations. It also drove the rise
and fall of political parties. Federalists, National Republicans, and Whigs championed not only
individual entrepreneurship but also an activist state overseeing tariff s and taxes through government
intervention in state and federal economies. More suspicious of state involvement in these economies,
Democratic Republicans and eventually Jacksonian Democrats espoused limited government so it would
not become a tool of wealthy merchants, manufacturers, and bankers. Even as government leaders
wrestled with the political consequences of the market revolution, the Protestant clergy of the Northeast
split over how to respond to it and its socioeconomic consequences of rapid urbanization, increased
immigration, single-minded pursuit of gold rather than God, and perceived immorality within the
increasing ranks of impoverished wage laborers. Unitarian rationality among the wealthy, along with
evangelical, democratic revivals in agrarian areas in the East and new settlements of the West, inspired
citizens and established a multitude of reform organizations.
It is at this point in the narrative of the market revolution, the rise of political parties, the Second Great
Awakening, and the origins of antebellum reform that historians diverge. According to Sellers, reform
organizations financed and headed by the new middle class attempted to solve all human problems,
establishing a Benevolent Empire. By the 1830s, economically successful middle-class men faced two
profound challenges in their personal and public lives. First, their wives flocked to evangelical revivals
and ministers, such as Charles Grandison Finney, who empowered the women to reform themselves,
their children, their husbands, and a society polluted by excessive greed and immorality by establishing
voluntary associations. Second, middle-class men met with social disorder fomented by wage laborers
be they immigrant, Catholic, and/or transientwho no longer adhered to the patriarchal discipline that
had characterized the pre-market economy. To ameliorate their anxiety about unrepentant and
undisciplined laborers, Sellers argues, the middle classes expected ministers and leaders in law,
medicine, education, business, and intellectualism to instruct members of all socioeconomic classes in a
pansectarian middle- class culture of effortful character and self-improvement. Although much of the
working class withstood the reform initiatives intended to convince them to abide by middle-class
values, the financial Panic of 1837 and its economic fallout caused many to adopt middle- class
disciplines, although others intentionally scorned reform and instead pursued a culture based on
competition, camaraderie, and boisterous entertainment. In sum, Sellers presents antebellum reform
efforts as tools of the middle class to impose capitalism and morality on a freewheeling laboring class
and establish bourgeois hegemony.

In the 15 years since its publication, The Market Revolution has been a catalyst for the continued study
of the effects of the market revolution on antebellum America. To name just two, in 1997 an edited
collection of essays, The Market Revolution in America: Social, Political, and Religious Expressions,
18001880 testifies to the depth and breadth of influence of Sellerss book. Although the volume
contains essays that criticize parts of Sellerss analysis or attempt to move beyond it, it does not
seriously challenge that analysis. A more recent edited volume, Cultural Change and the Market
Revolution in America, 17891860 (2005), contains essays that examine the cultural dimensions,
ramifications, and reactions to market expansion, including a thought-provoking essay by Patrick Rael.
He points out the irony of the market revolution as the catalyst for the expansion of slavery as well as
the organized, and sometimes competing, efforts to end slavery through radical abolition, political
antislavery, and black protest thought. Rael notes that northern African American leaders adopted reform
as the vehicle for their activism in the 1830s, explaining that even after many black activists declared
their independence from radical abolitionism, but the flavor of reform never left the movement, and
even the most militant black activists of the 1850s never stopped calling for moral reformation,
especially when articulating their strategy of
individual uplift to counteract racial prejudice.
The Role of Gender
Sellers was not the first historian to attempt to analyze antebellum America and the tremendous changes
that took place over the course of the era. More than a decade before The Market Revolution, two
community studies situated in the Erie Canal corridor of upstate and western New York examined the
connections between the Second Great Awakening, the rise of a middle class, and reform. In A
Shopkeepers Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 18151837 (1978), Paul E.
Johnson characterizes middle-class social reforms as means of social control by middle-class capitalists
over their employees. Specifically, newly evangelized Christian employers, recognizing the financial
benefits that would accrue from a workshop of orderly and sober employees, dispensed or withheld
patronage and jobs on the basis of workers willingness to forgo drink, to behave industriously, and to
embrace the revivalists brand of evangelical Protestantism. Johnsons tale of social reform based on
class conflict overlooks gender as a factor in both class conflict and social reform, whereas Mary P.
Ryan places women, if not gender, at the center of her study Cradle of the Middle Class: The Family in
Oneida County, New York, 17901865 (1981). Ryan traces the development of the middle-class family
with womens and young mens participation in voluntary associations and religious reforms as a step
toward the creation of the Victorian middle-class family. Indeed, womens involvement in voluntary
associations outside of the home signified middle-class status because it meant their families did not
require their productive labor. As Cindy S. Aron explains, Over the course of the antebellum period . . .
such women established and reaffirmed their middle-class identity as they differentiated themselves
from the less-fortunate women who were oft en objects of their ministering and charity. Laura F.
Edwards, encapsulating scholars findings regarding women and antebellum reform in the past 25 years,
points out that reformers, visiting the homes of poor women in cities, gave advice about motherhood
and housekeeping, and distributed material aid to those deemed worthy and deserving, and even
confronted the sensitive issue of prostitution, linking it to womens economic marginality and their
exploitation by men. In Women in Antebellum Reform (2000), Lori D. Ginzberg has crafted the most
succinct yet comprehensive explanation of women and reform. She begins with the origins of reform,
reminding readers, Reform movements do not spring up from nowhere nor do they emerge
simultaneously with a particular social problem. Like Sellers, Ginzberg asserts that the economic
changes in the first half of the nineteenth century sparked anxiety and fear; however, she distances

herself from Sellerss cynical stance toward middle-class reform, discussing how reform movements
represent optimism about the potential for social change. For many women, this meant that they must
protect and improve their homes and families by promoting reform beyond the walls of their homes.
How they went about this duty varied considerably. Ginzberg points out that more conservative charity
work attracted members of the upper classes; more radical activities, including abolitionism, drew
women and men from lower social groups. Working-class reformers were less integral to such
movements. Although divided by class, religious affiliation, and marital status, these reformers
emphasized womens uniquein their mindscapacity to aid others, which they translated into moral
superiority over men. However, this claim of moral superiority hampered attempts to improve womens
legal, political, and economic position because they would call into question the respectability of
women reformers. To avoid this, most of these women operated within a framework that accepted a
deeply gendered, Protestant mandate to better their society. Bruce Dorsey, in his Reforming Men and
Women: Gender in the Antebellum City (2002), also emphasizes the gendered nature of reform. Like
Ginzberg, he offers a variation on Sellerss market revolution thesis. Dorsey identifies the end of
bound laborindentured servitude and northern slaverythe rise of a market-driven and wage-labor
economy, and conflicts over the nature of the citizenry as the backdrop for nearly all the reform
movements that appeared in the North before the Civil War. In doing so, he makes not only gender and
class but also race and nationalism central to his analysis. Dorsey argues that male and female reformers
experienced their lives as gendered beings in a cultural milieu in which they also invoked concepts and
symbols of the masculine and the feminine to fashion and advance their reform agendas. For example,
the concepts of independence and dependence held gendered meanings, the former ascribed to men and
the latter to women. Dorseys nuanced reading of gender as a central feature of reformers experiences,
assumptions, and actions adds another layer to the historical literature on antebellum reform.
Religion and the Second Great Awakening
A different vein of the historiography of antebellum reform examines its religious components,
especially its roots in the Second Great Awakening. Catherine Brekus, in her overview of religious
history in the nineteenth century, explains that those scholars who have focused on religious change
have differed over whether religious revivals were orderly, rational, and marked by very few
extravagances or were anti-intellectual, emotional, and even crude at times. Regardless of
interpretation, she avers, religious scholars agree that revivals were a crucial part of American nationbuilding, [as] a religious response to the political upheavals of the early national period. T. Gregory
Garvey takes this a step further in his Creating the Culture of Reform in Antebellum America (2006). He
asserts that divisions between the more orthodox clergy and liberal evangelicals not only led to a
liberalization and democratization of public discourse about theology but also to the creation of a
culture of reform through which people debated moral and ethical questions outside of the courtroom,
the market, and the political podium. This culture of public debate, Garvey argues, has not only
enabled Americans continually to mediate deep divisions in the society but also profoundly influenced
their understanding of equality and citizenship. More directly concerned with the motivations of
reformers, religious historians continue to debate whether the market revolution and the materialism it
generated or a religious vision in its own right (not as the reflexive vehicle for articulating underlying
material concerns) stimulated religious reformers. In Cosmos Crumbling: American Reform and the
Religious Imagination (1994), Robert H. Abzug recognizes the importance of the market revolution but
argues that a religious vision was promulgated by religious virtuosos who tried to reconcile their
beliefs in Gods intentions for America with the daily realities of life in antebellum America. These
religious virtuosos explored and experimented with a wide array of social reforms as ways to

accomplish this reconciliation environmentalism, temperance, body reforms, transcendentalism, social

utopias, and abolition, among others. However, these reform movements proved transitory or, in the case
of abolition, were adopted by reformers with political rather than religious vision.
With roots in religious revivalism and dramatic socioeconomic change, antebellum reform touched on
the full spectrum of nineteenth-century Americans lives: personal reforms like diet and dress;
institutional reforms for schools, prisons, and asylums; moral reforms to counteract prostitution,
drunkenness, and poverty; cultural reforms like religious revivals and protest thought; and reforms that
moved into the realm of politics like abolition and womens rights. Aft er this cursory overview of recent
scholarship, hopefully Antebellumreform has been replaced with Antebellum Reforma
complicated, contested, and yet crucial part of nineteenth-century history.
Religious Revival
The term antebellum, before the war, is often used by historians to refer to the decades before the Civil
War in the United States. Antebellum creates an image of a time when slavery was not only legal but
an integral part of life in the South, when the first spurt of industrialization occurred in the United States,
and when Americans explored and settled the trans-Mississippi West. The antebellum decades were also
a period during which another religious revival swept the country, reformers sought to address many of
the social questions that the politicians would not or could not, and American culture, defined through its
literature and art, came into its own.
Beginning in the 1790s and continuing into the 1840s, evangelical Christianity once again became an
important factor in American life. Revivalism began in earnest at the edge of the frontier with circuit
riders, or itinerant preachers, bringing their message to isolated farms and small settlements. Open-air
camp meetings, which could last as long as four days and attract more than ten thousand people from the
surrounding countryside, were often characterized by emotional outburstswild gestures and speaking
in tonguesfrom the participants. The number of women who converted at these meetings was much
larger than the number of men, an indication of women's increasing role as defenders of the spiritual
values in the home. The Methodist denomination, which was the driving force behind this so-called
Second Great Awakening, grew from seventy thousand members in 1800 to more than one million in
1844, making it the largest Protestant group in the country.
The Burned-Over District.
After its first sweep along the frontier, revivalism moved back east. So many fiery revivals were held in
western New York during the 1820s that the region became known as the Burned-Over District.
Foremost among the New York preachers was Charles G. Finney, who found a receptive audience in the
rapidly growing and changing communities along the Erie Canal. Finney rejected such formal doctrines
as predestination and original sin and emphasized that every person is free to choose between good and
evil. Conversion to him was not just an individual decision to avoid drunkenness, fornication, and other
sins; if enough people found salvation, Finney believed, society as a whole would be reformed. Despite
its gains for the church rolls, the Second Great Awakening was not without its critics. The Unitarians,
who included the well-educated and wealthy elite of New England among their members, declared the
revivals far too emotional and questioned the sincerity of the conversion experience. While the
Methodists emphasized the heart over the head, Unitarianism stressed reason, free will, and
individual moral responsibility.

The Mormons:
A new religious group also came out of the Burned-Over District: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints, whose supporters were called Mormons. Its founder was Joseph Smith, who claimed that he
was led by the angel Moroni to decipher the Book of Mormon, which told of the migration of ancient
Hebrews to America and the founding of the true church. Smith and his followers faced persecution
wherever they went because of their radical teachings, particularly their endorsement of polygamy. The
Mormons settled in Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1839, but Smith and his brother were killed by an angry mob in
1844. Leadership of the church passed to Brigham Young. In 1847, Young led about fifteen thousand
Mormons to the valley of Great Salt Lake and began to develop what he called the state of Deseret,
which was organized as the Utah Territory by Congress in 1850. Young became the territorial governor,
and although he was removed from the position during his second term because of an ongoing dispute
between the Mormons and the federal government over polygamy, he remained the political as well as
religious leader of the Mormons until his death.
The Shaker community: Founded in England in the 1770s by Mother Ann Lee, the Shakers opposed
materialism and believed in an imminent Second Coming. They found converts in the Burned-Over
District and, during their heyday from the 1820s to the 1840s, established communities from
Massachusetts to Ohio. The Shakers did not believe in marriage or the family, and the ultimate decline
of the group was due to their practicing celibacy. The Shakers are remembered for their spiritual values
and their craftsmanship, particularly in their simple furniture designs, but their otherworldliness set them
apart from the Protestant sects that accepted material success as compatible with religion.
Public schools movement
Education in the United States had long been a local affair with schools governed by locally elected
school boards. As with much of the culture of the United States, education varied widely in the North
and the South. In the New England states public education was common, although it was often classbased with the working class receiving little benefits. Instruction and curriculum were all locally
determined and teachers were expected to meet rigorous demands of strict moral behaviour. Schools
taught religious values and applied Calvinist philosophies of discipline which included corporal
punishment and public humiliation. In the South, there was very little organization of a public education
system. Public schools were very rare and most education took place in the home with the family acting
as instructors. The wealthier planter families were able to bring in tutors for instruction in the classics
but many yeoman farming families had little access to education outside of the family unit.The reform
movement in education began in Massachusetts when Horace Mann started the common school
movement. Mann advocated a statewide curriculum and instituted financing of school through local
property taxes. Mann also fought protracted battles against the Calvinist influence in discipline,
preferring positive reinforcement to physical punishment. Most children learned to read and write and
spell from Noah Webster's Blue Backed Speller and later the McGuffey Readers. The readings
inculcated moral values as well as literacy. Most states tried to emulate Massachusetts, but New England
retained its leadership position for another century. German immigrants brought in kindergartens and the
Gymnasium (school), while Yankee orators sponsored the Lyceum movement that provided popular
education for hundreds of towns and small cities.

Asylum movement
The social conscience that was raised in the early 19th century helped to elevate the awareness of mental
illness and its treatment. A leading advocate of reform for mental illness was Dorothea Dix, a
Massachusetts woman who made an intensive study of the conditions that the mentally ill were kept in.
Dix's report to the Massachusetts state legislature along with the development of the Kirkbride Plan
helped to alleviate the miserable conditions for many of the mentally ill. Although these facilities often
fell short of their intended purpose, reformers continued to follow Dix's advocacy and call for increased
study and treatment of mental illness.
The temperance movement:
By the early nineteenth century, the per capita consumption of hard liquor (whiskey, brandy, rum, and
gin) had grown dramatically to more than five gallons a year. The high level of consumption was blamed
for poverty: workingmen spent their wages on alcohol instead of rent or food and were frequently absent
from their factory jobs. Alcohol abuse also contributed to the abuse of wives and children. In 1826, the
American Temperance Society began a persistent campaign against the evils of drinking. Although
focusing at first on persuading individuals to abstain, the advocates of temperance soon entered the
political arena and sought laws to limit the sale and manufacture of alcohol. The movement caught on
particularly in New England but much less so in the Southand by the 1840s, national consumption had
dropped to half of what it had been two decades earlier. The reformers were not satisfied, however, and
they continued to press for a complete ban on the sale and use of all intoxicating liquor, an effort that
culminated in the 1919 passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, ushering in the era of Prohibition.
The movement portrayed alcohol as a threat to home and the lives of an alcoholics family (and society
at large).
1. 1830 saw the highest level of alcohol consumption in U.S. history.
2. The average American drank 5 gallons of distilled spirits per year.
B. Advocates saw excessive drinking as a waste of money and harm to the family.
C. Advocates portrayed it as a male problem because women didnt go into bars; it became a
way to criticize domestic violence, lack of support by drunken men, and (only thinly disguised) lower
classes and immigrants (particularly the Irish).
D. Reformers stressed the means for women to contribute to the bettering of American
society as a whole by acting as the moral compass of the nation.
The abolitionist movement.
Congress considered slavery so controversial that in 1836, the House of Representatives, largely at the
insistence of southerners, passed a gag rule prohibiting discussion or debate of the subject. This move
was a reaction to numerous petitions submitted to Congress that called for the abolition of slavery and
the slave trade in the District of Columbia, a reflection of a growing anti-slavery movement in the
United States. Not all Americans who opposed slavery favored simply putting an end to it. Some
considered slavery to be wrong but were unwilling to take action against it, while others accepted
slavery in the states where it already existed but opposed its expansion into new territories. An early
antislavery proposal was to repatriate slaves to Africa. Farfetched as it seems, in 1822, under the
auspices of the American Colonization Society, the first freed slaves departed for what would become
the independent nation of Liberia in West Africa. Over the next forty years, however, only about fifteen
thousand blacks emigrated to Liberia, a number far below the natural increase in the slave population
that accounted for most of the population's growth before the Civil War.
The utopian communities.

During the period from about 1820 to 1850, a number of people thought that creating utopian
communities, which would serve as models for the world, could solve society's ills better than the
reform movements. All of these utopian communities failed, usually because of the imperfections in
those seeking perfection. For example, British industrialist Robert Owen, who knew firsthand the evils
of the factory system, established New Harmony (Indiana) in 1825 as a planned community based on a
balance of agriculture and manufacturing. The nine hundred men and women who went there either
refused to work or quarreled among themselves, and New Harmony collapsed after just a few years.
French Socialist Charles Fourier's idea for small mixed-economy cooperatives known as phalanxes also
caught on in the United States. Brook Farm (184146) in Massachusetts, perhaps the best-known
utopian experiment because it attracted support from writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel
Hawthorne, combined manual labor with intellectual pursuits and became a phalanx in 1844. Utopian
communities were also founded by religious groups. John Humphrey Noyes, a product of the Second
Great Awakening, and disciples of the Society of Inquiry founded the Oneida Community in New York
in 1848. In contrast to the celibate Shakers, Noyes's followers accepted complex marriage, the idea
that every man and every woman in the community were married to each other. Boys and girls were
trained in sexual practices when they reached puberty, but only those who accepted Jesus Christ as their
savior were allowed to have sexual relations. Oneida prospered because it developed products known for
their quality, first steel traps and later silver flatware. When Noyes left Oneida to avoid prosecution for
adultery, the members abandoned complex marriage and formed a company to continue manufacturing
tableware. It remains in business today as Oneida Community, Ltd.
Impact of Romanticism on Antebellum Reform impulse?
Romantic Period in American Literature, 1830-1865.
Politically the time was ripe. The 18th century left a heritage of optimism about man's possibilities and
perfectability. The lofty ideals of democracy asserted the value of individuals, regardless of class, and
education. Of course, these values primarily applied to white males. In fact, tensions were building
which cried out for creative release. Inequality, not equality was the rule for many, especially women
and slaves. The clash of these realities with the idealistic rhetoric led writers to take extremes,
championing individualism yet also seeing the darker sides of a fragmenting society.
Economically America had never been wealthier. But the rising materialism and focus on business at the
cost of the mind and the spirit was spawning reform movements all over America. Over 150 intentional
communities--from the Shakers to Oneida to Brook Farm--were formed by people disillusioned by the
materialistic values and inequities of American society. Yet there was enough affluence for people to
develop and appreciate writing and reading, and a growing leisure class with cultural pretensions. There
was one period of crisis--the Panic of 1837--but that only increased the drive toward material values.
Religion, always a basic concern for Americans, was also ready for romanticism and its kind of
pantheistic religion. The stern dogmas of Calvinism had been replaced by rationalistic Unitarianism and
Deism. However, they were so rational and so determined to avoid the emotional excesses of the Great
Awakening that they seemed dry and cold, unable to satisfy deep spiritual yearnings. People, especially
Emerson, were looking for new spiritual roots, personally involving and meaningful, but not traditional.
Connected to this was the rise and professionalization of science, which seemed to many to conflict with
religion. Many felt a psychic dislocation, that the bottom had dropped out of their world since traditional
values and conventional reality were just not enough for them. They tried to impose meaning
individually, for institutions and dogmas seemed to possess little truth. Philosophically, they reacted

against the materialistic educational theories of Locke and rationalism. They found Truth more a matter
of intuition and imagination than logic and reason. They rejected the mechanistic view of the universe so
dear to Franklin and Deists and opted for a more organic view, seeing the world more as dynamic and
living. Aesthetically, the romantics were also in a state of revolt, primarily against the restraints of
classicism and formalism. Form, particularly traditional literary forms, mattered much less than
inspiration, enthusiasm, and emotion. Good literature should have heart, not rules, although it is never so
simple as that. There were specifically American components to the romanticism of our authors. They
were particularly aware of nature, especially its wild aspects, and were beginning to comprehend that it
was being lost as fast as they were appreciating it. The physical frontiers were being conquered in this
time of "manifest destiny" and there was little wilderness to explore (and exploit). They turned to
artistic, metaphysical, and intellectual frontiers to recapture the ecstasy of exploration and discovery.
Reaction was a major, but not the only, mode for these romantics. They confronted the distinctively
American pressures for conformity and definitions of success in terms of money. They spoke out, to
some degree, against slavery, promoting the ideals of Jacksonian democracy, that "any man can do
anything" (if he's white and educated). They sought to creative a distinctive American literary voice; it
was time for the cultural revolution to follow the political one. They felt compelled to declare cultural
and individual independence from Europe, even though they had little idea of what form that could take.
Matthiessen set the canon of American Renaissance writers: Poe, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne,
Melville, and Whitman. Indeed, for years any other works lived in their imposing shadows. Yet this was
a fairly tight group. Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Melville all knew each other well, were even
friends and neighbors, as was Margaret Fuller. They knew well the works of Poe (who died in 1849); he
in turn wrote about Emerson. Whitman claimed that Emerson brought his "simmering, simmering,
simmering" to a creative boil. Dickinson was devoted to Emerson's works, though she rarely agreed. It is
hard to understand any writer in this period without seeing numerous ties and influences, although they
would each, except for Whitman, assert their own individual vision and art and deny the most obvious
influences. They were, after all, romantic individualists!
Romanticism: a movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that marked the reaction in
literature, philosophy, art, religion, and politics from the neoclassicism and formal orthodoxy of the
preceding period. Romanticism arose so gradually and exhibited so many phases that a satisfactory
definition is not possible.The period between the "second revolution" of the Jacksonian Era and the
close of the Civil War in America saw the testings of a nation and its development by ordeal. It was an
age of great westward expansion, of the increasing gravity of the slavery question, of an intensification
of the spirit of embattled sectionalism in the South, and of a powerful impulse to reform in the North. Its
culminating act was the trial by arms of the opposing views in a civil war, whose conclusion certified the
fact of a united nation dedicated to the concepts of industry and capitalism and philosophically
committed to egalitarianism. In a sense it may be said that the three decades following the inauguration
of President Andrew Jackson in 1829 put to the test his views of democracy and saw emerge from the
test a secure union committed to essentially Jacksonian principles.
In literature it was America's first great creative period, a full flowering of the romantic impulse on
American soil. Surviving form the Federalist Age were its three major literary figures: Bryant, Irving,
and Cooper. Emerging as new writers of strength and creative power were the novelists Hawthorne,
Simms, Melville, and Harriet Beecher Stowe; the poets Poe, Whittier, Holmes, Longfellow, Lowell,
Dickinson, and Whitman; the essayists Thoreau, Emerson, and Holmes; the critics Poe, Lowell, and

The poetry was predominantly romantic in spirit and form. Moral qualities were significantly present in
the verse of Emerson, Bryant, Longfellow, Whittier, Holmes, Lowell, and Thoreau. The sectional issues
were debated in poetry by Whittier and Lowell speaking for abolition, and Timrod, Hayne, and Simms
speaking for the South. Poe formulated his theories of poetry and in some fifty lyrics practiced a
symbolist verse that was to be, despite the change of triviality by such contemporaries as Emerson, the
strongest single poetic influence emerging from pre-Civil War America, particularly in its impact on
European poetry....Whitman, beginning with the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, was the ultimate
expression of a poetry organic in form and romantic in spirit, united to a concept of democracy that was
pervasively egalitarian.
In essays and in lectures the New England transcendentalists-- Emerson, Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and
Alcott--carried the expression of philosophic and religious ideas to a high level....In the 1850s emerged
the powerful symbolic novels of Hawthorne and Melville and the effective propaganda novel of Harriet
Beecher Stowe. Poe, Hawthorne, and Simms practiced the writing of short stories through the period,
taking up where Irving had left off in the development of the form,,,,
At the end of the Civil War a new nation had been born, and it was to demand and receive a new
literature less idealistic and more practical, less exalted and more earthy, less consciously artistic and
more honest than that produced in the age when the American dream had glowed with greatest intensity
and American writers had made a great literary period by capturing on their pages the enthusiasm and
the optimism of that dream.