Social Change in the Nineteenth Century

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What improvements did Northern reformers target in American Society in the antebellum period?

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Reformers sought to make a variety of societal changes in the antebellum period. These changes included the abolition of slavery, temperance, prison and asylum reform, and opposition to Indian removal, among many others.

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The antebellum period witnessed many important reform movements. Motivated largely by the evangelical movement known as the Second Great Awakening, reformers attacked many of the social ills they perceived in antebellum society. Perhaps the foremost of these movements was for the abolition of slavery. Abolitionists including William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and the Grimke sisters charged that slavery was a moral evil and a sin, one which had to be purged from the nation.

Many reformers also turned their attention to alcohol abuse, perceived by many as a serious problem. Women were particularly visible leaders in this movement, given the realities of home life, and both abolition and temperance often crossed over into other movements. President Andrew Jackson's Indian removal policy, for example, was the source of a nationwide petition campaign led by women's organizations. Lacking formal political power, they turned their reform energies into socially acceptable channels. Dorothea Dix conducted a series of visits to asylums for the mentally ill in Massachusetts and delivered a report to the state legislature about the appalling conditions she saw there.

Other reform measures included the public school movement, anti-prostitution efforts, and efforts to reform laws related to the family. Some of these reforms had immediate ramifications for the lives of others, some did not. The rise of the abolition movement was very significant, though it took a civil war to actually end slavery. What these movements did was to involve women, and, in the case of abolition, African American leaders in public discourse to a greater extent than ever before.

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