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United States Reform Movements Essay

In the years following the Second Great Awakening of the United States, numerous reform factions began to spring up around the country, fueled by recent evangelical ideals. Seeking to improve and expand democratic ideals, many of these factions undertook drastic measures to achieve what they believed to be a proper aspiration. Nevertheless, it would be farfetched to claim that such reform movements within the US resulted in any positive outcomes, and it would be much more logical to claim that many of the so-called reformers were in fact trying to further their own ambitions. By keeping penitentiary, church, and alcohol reforms as a pretense for egotistical purposes, they were able to attract an elite following of people that that acted with virtues that were anything but democratic.

On of the first reform movements to become advocated was the penitentiary system. It had become a brutal institution, becoming known for excessively cruel punishments for criminal offenses. Extreme cases included imprisonment for insignificant amounts of debt, and asylums were common practices for what was believed to be insanity, following medieval practices. The Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents, in 1829, reported that they were “proud” to have “rescued” the youthful from temptation and turning them into “valuable members of society”.

Yet by allowing the Society, and other institutions like it, to determine which of the youths were undisciplined and under the influence of temptation, the United States government was effectively allowing these organizations to diminish democracy. When these institutions were allowed to decide who was or was not “orderly”, power shifted away from the people and into their hands.

A similar transfer of control occurred during the Second Great Awakening, when a fresh wave of spiritual fervor empowered numerous factions of the church. By gaining control over a culture dedicated to a religion, the church managed to dictate an entire society towards its own values. Charles G. Finney, in 1843 remarked that “all sorts of abandoned characters are awakened and converted” by the church, failing to mention whether or not any of the “profligates” actually wished to be converted. By forcing “infidels” to follow their ethics, supporters of the church had secured themselves within a throne of power, with the ability to enforce what they believed was moral, desecrating the principles of free speech and democracy. Samuel Morse commented that emigrants were selected “not for their affinity to liberty, but for their mental servitude” when coming into the country. The church had begun to demolish Naturalization Laws, one of the first benefits of the democracy of the United States, under the flag of the nativists (those who wished to favor the natural inhabitants of the United States). By controlling who may or may not immigrate to the US, nativists had begun to gain a dangerous amount of power, not through democracy, but abnormally favoring selection.

The same approach towards atypical persons was present within the movement against alcohol as there was within the nativists, for both wished to rid the United States of what they believed to be crimes against “their” people. The Temperance Movement was as a milder offspring of the teetotalism movement, which promoted a complete abstinence from alcoholic beverages. Common belief with teetotal persons included an abhorrent view of alcohol, promoting notions that even a single drink of alcohol can and will lead to brawls, poverty, crime, and ultimately death or suicide. Even the less extreme Temperance movement had attempted to stop the people’s consumption of the wretched “Demon Drink”. Soon, laws were being created to enforce such views, with the Maine Law of 1851 standing out amongst them, prohibiting the manufacture and sale of liquor. Even though such a law was fueled by optimistic virtues, it was anything but democratic, enforcing one group’s ideals onto an entire population without their consent.

Attempting to force reform onto a people without their consent and condemning past principles for the sole reason of rash modification can not result in hopes for a new social order, as some movements may wish. During an address to Wesleyan College, Orestes Brownson proposed that “Quack Reformers” were disowning the past and promoting “an entirely new social order”. Of course, no good could possibly come from this, since it had taken numerous years to set up the securities that were in place, defending the democratic practices of the people of the United States. Reform should be focused around preserving values that are known to be sound and stable, not the upheaval of a society to the mere cause of altering a single trivial value. Drastic Reform can only lead to ultimate destruction of democracy and leads to a rule by a chosen elite if not carefully monitored.


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