A second Great Awakening broke out around 1795
and lingered into 1837, always countering reason with faith. It drew
a million people into its momentary embrace, then released them
into about the same individual condition as before. (Probably, while
seized emotionally, many were kinder and gentler.) It was
millennialist: the Kingdom of God was about to take over, if not
tomorrow, then surely within the next generation (the millennialists
were not very patient).
The optimism of salvation permeated the soul of many Americans,
for the nonce, but possibly rendered them all the more anxious and
uncertain and prone to other movements, fads, hatreds, and
paranoia. In the end, the Awakening sent off unintentionally
hundreds of thousands of people into a hundred reform movements
that promised changes obviously needed right here and now on
earth. Faith, like logic, slips readily from one function to another.
The Awakening crossed denominational lines, excepting Catholics,
Unitarians, Universalists and a few other groups; these were often
preached against. Free-will Methodists and predestinarian
Presbyterians could be found in the same throngs. Occupational lines,
too, were crossed. Some breeding grounds for revivalists also became
breeders of reformers, like Oberlin College.
The United States was patriotically well-treated in the proceedings,
granted a special place in God's plans, even if its people were more
wicked than most. Revivalists often disagreed on small points, but
when it came to recognizing the degeneracy and vice of the American
West, they were all one, and in 1829 launched a great revivalist
campaign there, thus, to their mind,
saving the nation.
Direct communication with God, a conversion of the heart
rather than the mind, brought a feeling of perfectionism
to the leaders, and they wished to make everyone perfect.
They did not quite succeed but managed to make
a lot of people optimistic for a time about their chances.
It may be that this impossible idealism was a body blow to the
pragmatic temper that characterized so many Americans. The two
could not be compatible. Neither gave way, and a common
ambivalence in Americans came to be a mixture of both of these
attitudes in the personality.
Large doses of moral preachments could hardly live with the
functionalist notion that what works well creates the good rather
than the other way around. The propaganda of fundamentalism beat
incessantly upon the heads of the people. The American Bible
Society was formed to paste the nation with copies of the Bible, and
the American Tract Society pinned to these Bibles innumerable
pamphlets, directing which avenues to take in order to abide with
the Lord. For another 100 years these groups were fully active.
The wealth as well as the piety of America could be witnessed at a
later day when the Gideon movement managed to place a finely
produced Bible in most hotel rooms of the United States, and could
express a certain wry gratification at the large number of these that
were appropriated by the guests.
If there were no evangelical propaganda in hand, there would be
certainly approaching a minister with a packet of it. As every proper
priesthood should behave, the Protestant sects whose potential
parishioners were mobile went with them or after them. The
Methodists and Baptists were especially famous for their circuit
riders. They organized assemblages, arranged to cooperate in revival
meetings, searched out the last cabin to save a soul. Not being
celibate, these roving preachers bred, and their
progeny were not quite ordinary.
We have to assign a significant portion of the ideas and energies
pervading America then to itsarmy of itinerant pastors. To them are
owed some American typicalities and contradictions, the
simultaneous presence in the character of materialism and
generosity, of accumulativeness and carelessness of property, of
hypocrisy (for, after all, most people can be morally persuaded no
more than half-way: that's all they can manage, and, besides, one
has to be back on the road again). Camp meetings were continuous,
revival meetings supplemental.
The Baptists and Methodists moved far into the lead in the
competition for souls. They could function well in city or country,
particularly the Methodists. The Congregationalists functioned only
in "civilized" areas. A Plan of Union of 1801 between Presbyterians
and Congregationalists failed to revive their joint membership. They
were unable to cope with free competition in the marketplace, so to
speak. For the masses, the camp meetings provided a desperately
needed sociability and fraternal and sisterly love -- often an
occasion for finding romantic and marital love, also. A veritable
applied science of rustic religion was contained in the Camp
Meeting Manual of B.W. Goram of 1854.
The older Puritan groups were priced out of the market literally:
their ministers earned between $300 and $400 annually and their
church property had a range of values from $3000 to $13,000,
whereas the Baptist and Methodist pastors were receiving only $60
to $100 in settled areas and the property of their pastorate averaged
only $1200 in value. By 1850, the statistical shape of the
membership distribution in 1776 had drastically altered:
Total Church Adherents, 1776 and 1850,
Per cent of total held by six denominations
Drinking was a sport for many, too, thinly disguised then
as it is now, sociability, or a ball game on television. "Joe Six-Pack" of
the 1990's was then "John Barleycorn." The number of licensed
distilleries came to 2,579 in 1792. The population doubled by 1810
but the number of distilleries jumped to 14,191, a sixfold increase.
And the number of illegal distilleries, concentrated in the rural
areas, was legion. White adult males would have been consuming on
the average a pint of hard liquor per day. America was in the same
state that the Soviet Union came to be respecting vodka, when
Gorbachev blew the whistle and declared the Cold War over: a third
of his comrades were drowning in the sauce.
Agitation for laws governing the sale and consumption of alcohol was
minimal before the War of 1812-15. Then, Methodists
(hastened by the abominable experience of Britain), took up the
cause. Soon Quakers entered upon the scene. Then New
England congregations. The motives were not so simple as a desire
to save people from going to the devil. Or even to preserve the mass
of people from ruin. It became a mark of social status to be engaged
in the temperance movement. (The same motive was to be found
among anti-slavery agitators, beginning soon.)
For the older respectable classes that had lost power and respect in the
Jacksonian movement, here was a chance to espouse the public weal
and to lead once more the masses. Later the reform movements would
be called contemptuously the "blue stockings," because of the
preponderance of proper ladies in the pressure groups for temperance
and feminist causes. The poorer congregations such as the Methodists
tried to avoid domination by the upper classes,
reasonably, but as so often happened with good causes
in America, thus split the movement, and made united
action directed at a special objective impossible.
The Connecticut Society for the Reformation of Morals (organized
1813), and the Massachusetts Society for the Suppression of
Intemperance (1813) were founded and led by clergymen and
wealthy laymen of Federalist persuasion. So was the American
Temperance Society (1826). It was not only the egalitarian direct
democrats that had pushed them from power. It was also the
commercial classes, who were entering local politics and
buying places and men in national politics.
However, we must not forget the Methodists and then, too, the
Baptists and other sects. They were to be continually in agitation
against alcohol use for the rest of American history. Only the Catholic
Church did not see fit to engage in the movement to any
large degree, partly because its priests often liked to drink and had a
measure of authority and control over their drunken parishioners. Or
perhaps they knew how to get money out of drunks. No church or
movement took out after the tobacco system; people consumed the
plant in unlimited quantities in its strongest forms. (At least
Turks employed the civilized and leisurely water pipe, and did not
spit all over the place.)
By paying no attention to what was going on in Europe, one tends to
allow America its slower pace in some regards. By 1850, the basis for
most modern solutions of social problems had been offered in Europe.
Socialism in different forms had been presented in theory. The social
sciences were already developing with such giants as Auguste Comte
and St. Simon. It probably would be fair to say that America in the
first half of the nineteenth century was a political generation behind
Europe intellectually, scientifically, and culturally.
Exceptionally, had the country been composed only of the region
from Concord to Baltimore, it would have stood modestly in the
second rank, comparable to Portugal or Switzerland.
Still, look at the matter of pacifism. The two chemicals of reform and
pacifism could and did combine. A man named Joseph Sturge worked
at the marrying of American and British cities, - Boston to Boston,
Manchester to New York. (Note the striking precursor of "sister
cities" under the auspices of the United Nations in the
late twentieth century.)
His mentor was Elihu Burritt, "the learned blacksmith" of
Worcester, Mass., who crossed the ocean to England, and there
walked the country with a knapsack and staff to call upon
Worcester, England, but en route conceived the great idea of a
League of Universal Brotherhood dedicated to peace. He stopped at
a village called Pershore and there promptly signed up twenty
country folk in a pledge for peace. Within a year he had
The League promoted pacific intercourse between France and
England. It sought a penny stamp that would encourage international
understanding among common people. It then moved into a boycott of
American cotton as a blow against slavery. A Congress of
Nations was advocated, too. An American judge, son of John Jay,
William Jay, President of the American Peace Society, proposed the
inclusion of arbitration clauses into treaties.
With the backing of Sturge in England, a prolonged and persistent
campaign was conducted, until Richard Cobden, the English
reformer, introduced legislation into the House of Commons calling
for compulsory arbitration. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee
also reported favorably on the idea. A signal victory was won with
the inclusion of an arbitration clause in the Treaty of Paris that
concluded the bloody Crimean War.
Young and old convicts were cast into prisons. Jail for debt was
common, an estimated 75,000 unfortunates per year in the thirties,
many for debts of under $50. Punishments for crime were still what
would be considered by the courts of today as cruel and unusual
punishment: branding, ear-cropping, whipping and jails as foul as
hell. The teachings of William Penn and of the American followers
of Beccaria like John Adams, who argued the idiocy of the
punitive system, were universally ignored.
From the Auburn Penitentiary of New York came the first
remarkable study of the causes of delinquency and crime, an
intensive interrogation of and report on 173 prisoners in 1829-30;
fully two-thirds appeared from the record to have gone wrong
because of family circumstances; childhood made the man. The
thesis was to become the leading doctrine of the next century for
explaining and suggesting remedies for criminality.
Notable in the history of social science was the
systematic interviewing and analysis.
The moral leaders and many more plain citizens of the American
republic - not to mention the millions of millennialists - really
believed that the society, which had hardly ever seemed to be
together, was in imminent danger of falling apart. It seemed to be
the first case in history where anarchy would prevail without
anarchists. (The perverse workings of the direct democratic ideology
were simply not sensed.)
Americans over the age of eight years who were not in school or at
work twelve hours a day except Sunday on largely displeasing tasks,
necessitated by some condition or some authority, were presumably
slackers or in desperate straits for lack of work. Under such
circumstances, there would be little time for activities other than
Actually shirking, slacking, and soldiering were most common. The
eccentric mass movements, like molecules in a gas, may have had
the unconscious purpose of avoiding work, as well as responsibility,
not to mention getting away from the demands of governments. It
takes time to walk alone or en famille from Cincinnati to nearby
Akron, Ohio. Allowing a week to go look for a job there gives
hardly enough walking time. Think how many people got many
months of vacation going from Maine to Oregon by foot or wagon
or horse or sailing ship -- or would you prefer to be standing at a loom
twelve hours a day six days a week?
Unemployment itself has a good side: not working. There was
plenty of this. And farming in America was hardly what it might be,
if the average American farmer were as diligent as he might be; I
am not accusing him of lying on a haystack half the time, but simply
warning ourselves to take seriously the expert depreciation of the
qualities of the farmer. Elsewhere, even in efficient factories,
machines broke down continually and could not be set up to
outspeed the machine tender ordinarily, both of which features were
taken care of in the course of three political generations, by the time
the 1920's came along.
No one except a new band of socialists looked to the workers as the
saviors of society, although there would soon be as many workers as
there were farmers (who were supposed to be the backbone of the
nation). It is a wonder that the workers were not more criminal.
There was very little chance for workers to save their money. They
received 75 cents a day for most of the year, if they were more
fortunate than most. In the depression of 1837, which began in
England, a bank panic followed by business failures disemployed
fully one-third of the total urban work force;
farmers, of course, lost their markets.
When unemployed, they were taken care of by others, as they would
do in turn, when roles were reversed. The effect was hardly
adequate and family relations suffered. Sporadic union efforts
accomplished practically nothing in the few places where they were
tried. Nowhere was the helplessness of the brave American
individualist so manifest as in the life conditions of the wage
worker. Here we include not only the ever larger work gangs and
factory workers, but also the ever-increasing number of slave and
tenant farmers and share-croppers.
Perhaps it is just as well that the free workers did not succeed in
organizing powerful unions and parties. For the nativists,
anti-Catholics, anti-foreigners, anti-Africans, and mad schemers would
certainly have been in charge. Later, feminists, pacifists,
intellectuals, communists, etc. would enrage the unionists. Most of
the hundreds of riots that raged through American cities in the
decades before the Civil War were inspired by such elements; and a
riot mob, like the lynch mob, is a rather
pure expression of voluntary action.
The mob has the basic self-confidence of the majoritarian direct
democrat, too. Just as the King's decree ordering a head chopped
off read:"It is my pleasure," so the semi-spontaneous crowd was
prefacing its behavior by the sentiment, often expressed loudly, "We
the people do ordain this shooting, burning, beating, and hanging."
The anti-Masonic Party, founded upon the suspicious death of an
ex-Mason planning an exposé, found myriads of adherents, mostly
workingmen and farmers, and ran successfully for many offices for a
few years. The Know-Nothings, already mentioned, depended
heavily upon the workingman's vote. They finally dissolved into the
party of Abraham Lincoln, the Republican Party, on the
eve of the Civil War.
During all this time, Karl Marx worked steadily at his economic
research in London, but never seemed to position the facts properly
vis-a-vis the character of many, if not most, workers, and did an
enormous harm, in Europe but also to a small extent in America, by
positing the worker as congenitally a hero of society.
The Bible Tract Society knew who were
pulling the puppet strings in American society and
published a pamphlet telling merchants and employers
how they ought to behave. They were to revere honesty,
spend sparingly, keep accurate accounts, observe their religious
faith, and tend to the moral and religious supervision of their
employees. Nothing said about profits, or workers' rights, or
ethics of competition. They were to pledge their purse for the good
order and morality of the community.
As for employees and laborers and slaves,
the morality, like the wealth, trickling down
from their betters, should suffice; no special virtue
save obedience need be cultured.
Youth tore itself away from age at the beginning of the 1800's and
never returned. One sees it in the terms for old age that changed
from affectionate to contemptuous: old gaffer, fogy, codger,
fuddy-duddy, oldster, geezer, etc. Most writers changed in attitude from
favorable to unfavorable to the elderly. Politicians averaged
younger. Forced retirement was entering in the few establishments
where it applied. It was still the custom for the youngest daughter to
remain at home until the parents died. Provided that parents
possessed a home. Inasmuch as only 2% to 3% of the population lived
to the age of sixty-five, this would ordinarily mean
fifteen years of drudgery, but hopefully
associated with love.
Men worked or tried to work until they died. The normal tragedy of
old age, the interim between an occupation and death, was apparent
in the urban centers. What was concealed were the million hovels of
rural areas where old people lay unattended and waiting for death.
Over all hung the "work ethic," that "you ain't no good
unless you got a job."
Little was done for the mentally ill, save for the first studies of the
problem and the provision of asylums where persons obnoxious to the
public were consigned to live in the most degraded and
disgusting conditions. (Conditions in Europe were not much better.)
The insane began to be thought of as a social problem in a few
minds as early as the mid-1700's. They were usually dumped into
prisons along with criminals, cruel and
unusual punishment for both.
Dorothea Dix, a Massachusetts schoolteacher, was shocked at
finding a group of the insane abandoned in a freezing corner of a
prison, and took to the road researching the problem and reporting,
uninvited, the disgusting results to the state legislature. Her insistent
pleas won results, not alone in Massachusetts but in a score of states
before the Civil War. Asylums were provided specially, but we shall
not go into the administration and financing of these and others; woe
betide the person of slipping mind, then, thereafter, as now. When
Dix led to victory the lobby for federally assisted care for the
mentally ill in Congress, President Pierce, sitting on top of a
balanced budget, vetoed the bill.
Exclamations of distress and horror can be found from time to time in
newspapers of the age, but otherwise gangs of children were left
alone to live and die on the streets or individually on country by-ways.
The philanthropically organized and governmentally assumed asylums
for various disabled groups - paupers, cripples, the insane
- began in the early 1820's, and included orphans. The number of
states and counties providing orphan asylums gradually increased, at
about one-tenth the rate of the problem, so that,
by the time that the problem embraced millions of children,
thousands could be taken care of,
badly it must be said, in grim institutions.
Charles Loring Brace is a man to be remembered: in 1853 he
founded the New York Children's Aid Society. He had a singular
respect for the children of the streets, even admired the cunning and
grace with which they could make off with a pile of wood from a
dock, and believed that the best that could be done for them was to
place them with a family out west, send them there, and hope for
the best. (Horatio Alger in the next generation lived in a CAS
lodging and got the background for many of his popular "rags to riches"
stories from the experience.)
Brace assailed the insistence upon drill, discipline, uniformity, and
cowering obedience exacted by the institutions. This, he argued, was
no way to prepare a child for practical life. He brought about the
building of numerous lodging houses and vocational schools,
all of them wholly voluntary.
Sending children West was an old idea, called "placing out" in
New England; some were speaking of a mass removal of the
indigent, sweeping the cities clean of them. But Brace confined his
recommendations to the young and regarded being despatched West
as an opportunity for them, and a free act; he even had little regard
for the blessings of the countryside. He had little faith in the family;
he did not want to put the pieces of broken families together; he felt
such families only bred more crime, poverty and disorder. He was
interested in avoiding revolutionary gatherings and rioting, however,
which was his main excuse for the hard-hearted and
uncomprehending to go along with his scheme.
Some 90,000 boys were sent West over a forty-year period. By
1929, 150,000 children had been despatched. Follow-up studies
were regarded by Brace as superfluous: whatever happened had to
be for the better, he thought.
The Young Men's Christian Association originated in England in
1841 with George Williams, a dry-goods clerk, stuck among a crowd
of clerks with little to do with their little free time except make
mischief. He started up a library and out of this grew the YMCA,
which came to America ten years later with George Van
Derlip, a divinity student, and George Petrie, a young merchant,
who had visited together a YMCA premise in England.
Within a decade, 200 local associations had been founded with
25,000 members. The "Y" provided meeting places, libraries, eating
places, and rooms for young men. From their many modest offices,
the Secretaries of the YMCA's moved into pressure group tactics to
get the law on the tails of saloon-keepers, prostitutes, and
pornographers. The notorious Anthony Comstock got his start with
the YMCA-created New York Committee for the
Suppression of Vice.
Although the hand of religious men may be seen in the beginnings,
the movement was taken up by businessmen. It was especially dear
to self-made rich men from the country, and the institution applied
with poignant relevance to the problems of the young aspirant to the
commercial world coming in from small town or farm to the city.
They were the clerical wave of the future. There would be
millions of these migrants.
The abundance of land encouraged Americans from the beginning to
set up settlements conforming to an ideal plan that they had in mind.
The most successful, if least exciting utopias for philosophers and
idealists, would be the aforementioned new territories and states. From
the primitive Protestants emulating ancient Israel, up to the
scientific Enlightenment and later socialists, utopian communities
were a large part of reform thinking. We recall that the
Pilgrims were such utopians and so were the
hedonists of nearby Merry Mount.
Most of the utopias were attempted by Anglo-Americans,
a sizeable minority by Germanics.
Many successes were registered by religious cults, which, surviving the
community stage, expanded into numbers of congregations in
many places. They fed of course into the maw of the national
society, whereas the aim of utopias has always been
uncompromising and, if anything, to set a model that the state or
some group of institutions, like schools or factories, would follow.
Most early utopias were religious, but perforce had to adopt a
posture with respect to all the values - production, wealth,
affection, hierarchy, education and power. And, if they were not
religious, they were by definition moral schemes anyhow.
Some produced communistically, and divided the wealth; some
produced for the market using community sanctioned methods. In
some all wealth belonged to the community and small sums were
retained by the members. In others capitalism was encouraged
provided a tithe was paid in to the community. Some wrote
elaborate constitutions and rule books; others called upon love and a
benign human nature to settle all conflict. Some were dictatorships,
some oligarchies, some male-dominated, others quite egalitarian.
Nor should one ignore a common utopian phenomenon
going back at least two centuries: communities of
hoboes, tramps, bums, unemployed, homeless.
Aloofly hospitable to their kind, , knowledgeable about the wide world,
usually peaceful though anarchist,
enduring a high turnover of occupants over many years.
Some utopias denied offices, others created many.
Some put education into the family sphere,
some segregated education
from the family at an early point.
Some were sexually abstinent, others permissive.
Some were intellectual and artistic,
others manacled themselves to their plows.
Some were ritualistic from morning to night,
others atheistic. Some derived from international
or national movements, others were one-shot
affairs with no evangelistic impulses.
German Mennonites created Ephrata and nourished an unparalleled
school of hymn singers. New Harmony was a communistic settlement
of German celibates; it lasted a century and had imitators. The Shakers
were founded by an Englishwoman, Ann Lee, on the basis of a French
group specializing in a convulsive dance. She became the mother in
Christ, standing alongside God, to her followers; settled soon in
America, she spread her doctrines especially among the frontier folk,
who were astonished by the acoustical effects and bodily contortions
of the entranced devotees.
Sexual intercourse was banned (she had left her husband);
men and women were largely equal for once;
private property was abolished.
A number of such utopian settlements resulted.
Hopedale and Brook Farm are famous for the intellectual discussions
that went into their planning and execution, and demise; the literati of
New England knew about them, wrote about them, even at times
visited them; each lasted for some years; one sold out as a business in
the end; the other collapsed delicately into a private school.
Although most utopias did not last as long as the Pony Express, they
deserve the greater attention they receive in American historiography.
Utopias sparked a thousand localities in America and enlivened the
minds of generation after generation. Every American, commented
Emerson of these times, had a plan for a utopia in his pocket.
Utopias have changed, but the pockets are still stuffed.