Things which had been considered private matters became social ills. Devout progressives sought to en the domestic violence and public drunkenness associated with alcohol, and the STDs and unplanned pregnancies associated with prostitution. There was a great deal of overlap in membership between various reform leagues, with many temperance advocates also in favor of abolition (especially if it meant relocating former slaves to Africa). The early Victorian period was marked by a belief that people could change, could be saved, and that facilitating that change was the obligation of society.
The American Temperance Society was founded in 1826. A small temperance movement had existed in the United States in spurts and starts since the mid 1700s but it wasn’t until the second quarter of the 19th century that it gained real momentum. Even then, there was great division between those who advocated moderation and teetotalers, and between those who wanted to use legal bans and others who preferred using persuasion to compel sobriety. The Civil War weakened the temperance movement in the South for another generation, before the eventual constitutional ban on alcohol known as Prohibition.
Victorian Americans also sought to reform private and government institutions, particularly prisons and insane asylums. One of the first prison reforms proposed was segregating prisoners by age and gender. Up until then, children and adults, men and women were incarcerated all together, leading to abuse of the vulnerable. A national debate on the role of prisons, whether they existed for retribution or reform, and both models were adopted in different regions of the country.
One tireless reformer was Dorothea Dix. After touring workhorses, prisons, and private and religious “homes for the insane”, she lobbied before state legislatures and the US Congress for the formation of humane asylums for mentally ill people. Conditions at these asylums varied, as did the attitudes of staff. Terrible abuses went on far out of sight at some, yet at others there was remarkable kindness.
Dr. John Galt oversaw the first public asylum in Williamsburg, Virginia starting in 1841. He held the radical notion that mentally ill people had dignity. He led patients in talk therapy, provided medicine for their symptoms, and barred the use of violence to ensure patient compliance. He also advocated for outpatient therapy programs rather than life in institutions.
Abolition was another reform movement of the era. Starting in Europe before crossing the Atlantic, the movement supported voluntary manumission (freeing slaves upon one’s death), buying the freedom of slaves, and keeping newly acquired western territories as free states. Going to war over slavery was not a popular sentiment among white abolitionists.
White abolitionists had different reasons for supporting the cause. Some were alarmed by the clear moral evil of slavery. Others wanted to rid the Americas of black people, by having slaves and free blacks transported to the new African nation Liberia (meaning liberty) founded in 1821. Still others saw slavery and the agrarian society it supported as a threat to industry and modernization. Anxieties over the political balance of slave and free states in Congress made the election of Abraham Lincoln one of the most closely watched races since the birth of America.