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Chapter 12

Antebellum Culture and Reform

Chapter Summary

By the 1820s America was caught up in the spirit of a new age, and Americans, who had never been shy in proclaiming their nation's promise and potential, concluded that the time for action had come. Excited by the nation's technological advances and territorial expansion, many set as their goal the creation of a society worthy to be part of it all. What resulted was an outpouring of reform movements, the like of which had not been seen before. Unrestrained by entrenched conservative institutions and attitudes, these reformers attacked society's ills wherever they found them, producing in the process a list of evils so long that many were convinced that a complete reorganization of society was necessary. Most, however, were content to concentrate on their own particular cause; thus, at least at first, the movements were many and varied. But in time, most reformers seemed to focus on one evil that stood out above the rest. The "peculiar institution," slavery, denied all the Enlightenment ideals for which they stoodequality, opportunity, and, above all, freedom. With world opinion on their side, Slavery became the supreme cause.


A thorough study of Chapter 12 should enable the student to understand

1. The two basic impulses that were reflected in the reform movements and examples of groups illustrating each impulse.

2. The contributions of a new group of literary figures such as James Fenimore Cooper, Walt Whitman, and Edgar Allan Poe to American cultural nationalism.
3. The transcendentalists and their place in American society.
4. The sources of American religious reform movements, why they originated where they did, their ultimate objectives, and what their leadership had in common.
5. The two distinct sources from which the philosophy of reform arose.
6. American education reform in the antebellum period and the contribution of education to the growth of nationalism.
7. The role of women in American society and the attempts to alter their relationships with men.
8. The origins of the antislavery movement, the sources of its leadership, and the interaction between American antislavery thought and similar movements abroad.

  1. The role of abolitionism in the antislavery movement, and the strengths and weaknesses of that part of the movement.

10. The role world opinion played in ending slavery.

Main Themes

1. How American intellectuals developed a national culture committed to the liberation of the human spirit.
2. How this commitment to the liberation of the human spirit led to and reinforced the reform impulse of the period.
3. How the crusade against slavery became the most powerful element in this reform movement.

Points for Discussion

1. During this period, how did American intellectuals create a national culture committed to the liberation of the human spirit? How did their efforts relate to the efforts of social reformers? (Document numbers 1 and 4 in the Study Guide relate to this.)
2. How did the spirit of romanticism influence American culture from the 1820s through the 1850s? How might a "realist" respond to the philosophy of the transcendentalists?
3. What role did religion and religious leaders play in the reform movement described in this chapter?
4. What goals prompted the founding of experimental communities in nineteenth-century America? Why did some communities, such as Brook Farm and New Harmony, fail and others, especially the Mormons, succeed?
5. Who were the major critics of slavery? On what grounds did they attack the institution and what means to end it did they propose? (Document number 3 in the Study Guide relates to this.)
6. How did the reform movement affect the status of women? What role did women play in these efforts to change society and what were they able to accomplish? (Document number 4 in the Study Guide may be used here.)
7. What role did education play in the creation of a national culture committed to the liberation of the human spirit? (Document number 2 in the Study Guide applies here.)
8. Discuss how and why the antislavery movement in America changed during the course of the nineteenth century. Analyze the reasons for and the results of the internal strains and divisions that characterized abolitionism.
9. Explain how sentimental novels of the era "gave voice to both female hopes and female anxieties."

Interpretive Questions Based on Maps and Text

1. Where was the "literary flowering" of America concentrated? What other regions had literary movements as well? How, and why, did these movements differ?
2. Where were most of the efforts to reform and improve education taking place? What connection might there be between these movements and the "literary flowering"?
3. Where were the major utopian communities located? What factors played a part in the choice of these locations?
4. What region of the country was less involved in the reform movement? What factors contributed to this?
Internet Resources
For Internet quizzes, resources, references to additional books and films, and more, consult the

text’s Online Learning Center at

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