Guided Readings: Antebellum Social Reform

Reading 1:

“The elementary schools throughout the state are irresponsible institutions, established by individuals, from mere motives of private speculation or gain, who are sometimes destitute of character, and frequently, of the requisite attainments and abilities. From the circumstance of the schools being the absolute property of individuals, no supervision or effectual control can be exercised over them; hence, ignorance, inattention, and even immorality prevail to a lamentable extent among their teachers.”

“Report of the Joint Committees of the City and County of Philadelphia, appointed September, 1829, to Ascertain the State of Public Instruction in Pennsylvania,” 1830

Reading 2:

“The scheme of Universal Equal Education at the expense of the State, is virtually ‘Agrarianism.’ It would be a compulsory application of the means of the richer, for the direct use of the poorer classes; and so far an arbitrary division of property among them. . . . One of the chief excitements to industry . . . is the hope of earning the means of educating their children respectably . . . : that incentive would be removed, and the scheme of State and equal education be thus a premium of comparative idleness, to be taken out of the pockets of the laborious and conscientious.”

National Gazette and Literary Register (Philadelphia), 1830

Reading 3:

"I believe in the existence of a great, immortal, immutable principle of Natural Law . . . which proves the absolute right to an education, of every human being that comes into the world; and which, of course, proves the correlative duty of every government to see that the means of that education are provided for all. . . .

Massachusetts is parental in her government. More and more, as year after year rolls by, she seeks to substitute prevention for remedy, and rewards for penalties. She strives to make industry the antidote to poverty, and to counterwork the progress of vice and crime by the diffusion of knowledge and the culture of virtuous principles.”

Horace Mann, 1849

Reading 4:

“I proceed, Gentlemen, briefly to call your attention to the present state of Insane Persons confined within this Commonwealth, in cages, closets, cellars, stalls, pens! Chained, naked, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience! . . .

I have seen many who, part of the year, are chained or caged. The use of cages all but universal. . . . I encountered during the last three months many poor creatures wandering reckless and unprotected through the country.”

Dorothea Dix, 1843

Reading 5:

“The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise.

He has compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice. . . .

He has made her, if married, in the eyes of the law, civilly dead.

He has taken from her all right in property, even to the wages she earns. . . .

He has monopolized nearly all the profitable employments, and from those she is permitted to follow, she receives but a scanty remuneration.

He closes against her all the avenues to wealth and distinction, which he considers most honorable to himself. . . .

He has denied her the facilities for obtaining a thorough education—all colleges being closed against her. . . .

He has created a false public sentiment, by giving to the world a different code of morals for men and women, by which moral delinquencies which exclude women from society, are not only tolerated but deemed of little account in man. . . .

He has endeavored, in every way that he could to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependant and abject life.”

“Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions” of the Seneca Falls, New York, Women’s Rights Convention, 1848

Reading 6:

“Intemperance is the sin of our land, and, with our boundless prosperity, is coming in upon us like a flood; and if anything shall defeat the hopes of the world, which hang upon our experiment of civil liberty, it is that river of fire, which is rolling through the land, destroying the vital air, and extending around an atmosphere of death.”

Lyman Beecher, 1826

Reading 7:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident; —that all men are created temperate; —that they are endowed by their Creator with certain natural and innocent desires; —that among these are the appetite for cold water and the pursuit of happiness! —that to secure the gratification of these propensities fountains and streams are gushing. . . .”

A Second Declaration of Independence: Or, the Manifesto of all the Washington Total Temperance Societies, 1841

Reading 8:

“[How] will reformation and temperance be secured . . . ? Never except through the instrumentality of the law. If it were possible to reason the drunkard into sobriety, it would not be possible to make the rumseller forego his filthy gains. . . . The only logic he will comprehend, is some such ordinance . . . coming to him in the shape and with the voice of law--You shall not sell.”

American Temperance Magazine, 1852

Reading 9:

“We register our testimony, not only against all wars, whether offensive or defensive, but all preparations for war; against every naval ship, every arsenal, every fortification; against the militia system and a standing army; against all military chieftains and soldiers; against all monuments commemorative of victory over a fallen foe, all trophies won in battle, all celebrations in honor of military or naval exploits; against all appropriations for the defence of a nation by force and arms . . . against every edict of government requiring of its subjects military service.”

“Declaration of Sentiments,” Boston Peace Convention, 1838

Reading 10:

“Under our system of isolated and separate households, with separate interests and separate pursuits, instead of association and combination among families, there is the most deplorable waste, which is one of the primary sources of the general poverty that exists; and discord, antagonism, selfishness, and an anti-social spirit are engendered. Woman is subjected to unremitting and slavish domestic duties . . . a dead rebuke to all pretensions to Democracy. . . . A new Social Order [should] be established, based upon ‘Associated households.’”

The Phalanx, 1843


  1. “Report of the Joint Committees of the City and County of Philadelphia, appointed September, 1829, to Ascertain the State of Public Instruction in Pennsylvania, and to Digest and Propose Such Improvements in Education As May Be Deemed Essential to the Intellectual and Moral Prosperity of the People.” A Report on the State of Education in Pennsylvania: Accompanied with Two Bills for the Establishment of a General System of Public Instruction: and Other Proceedings, Adopted by a Town Meeting of Working Men and Others, Friendly to That Object: Held in the County Court House, Feb. 11, 1830. Also An Address on the Moral and Political Importance of General Education, Delivered at the Franklin Institute, February 26, 1830, at the Request of the Town Meeting, by the Rev. M. M. Carll. Philadelphia, 1830, pp. 1–11. Available on Google Books,
  2. “We can readily pardon . . . ” National Gazette and Literary Register, August 19, 1830, p. 2. Available in American Historical Newspapers, Readex.
  3. Mann, Horace. The Massachusetts System of Common Schools: Being an Enlarged and Rev. Ed. of the Tenth Annual Report of the First Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education. Boston, 1849, pp. 17 and 147. Available on the Internet Archive,
  4. Dix, Dorothea. Memorial. To the Legislature of Massachusetts. Boston, 1843, pp. 4 and 6. Available at the Library of Congress,
  5. Report of the Woman’s Rights Convention, held at Seneca Falls, New York, July 19th and 20th, 1848. Proceedings and Declaration of Sentiments. Rochester, New York, 1848, pp. 8–9. Available from the Library of Congress,
  6. Beecher, Lyman. Six Sermons on the Nature, Occasion, Signs, Evils, and Remedy of Intemperance. 6th ed. Boston, 1828, p. 7. Available on the Internet Archive,
  7. Goodrich, J. W. A Second Declaration of Independence: or, the Manifesto of All the Washington Total Abstinence Societies of the United States of America. Prepared for, and Delivered at the Temperance and Union Celebration of the 4th of July in Worcester, Mass. A. D. 1841. Worcester, MA, 1841, p. 3. Available on Google Books,
  8. “The Maine Law vs. Moral Suasion,” American Temperance Magazine and Sons of Temperance Offering for 1852. New York, 1852, p. 138. Available on HathiTrust Digital Library,
  9. “Declaration of Sentiments, Adopted by the Peace Convention, Held in Boston, September 18, 19, & 20, 1838.” The Liberator, September 28, 1838, p. 2. Available on the Internet Archive,
  10. “Exposition of Views and Principles. Politics, Industry, Religion.” The Phalanx, or Journal of Social Science, October 5, 1843, p. 5. Available on Google Books,