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Moreover, debates by and within reform organizations put critical questions about race, class, and gender on the public agenda and forced Americans, activists and non-activists alike, to come to terms with the meaning of our democratic and republican heritage.American Society in the Antebellum Period The antebellum years in America were characterized by growing differences in the nature of northern and southern society.Passing empty shops and ragged beggars on the streets of New York, prison reformer Catharine Sedgwick noted the “confusion and dismay produced here by the bursting of bubbles.” Still, increases in unemployment, hunger, homelessness, crime, and prostitution only made the need for reform more urgent.
In May 1837, members of an array of reform organizations descended on New York City to hold their annual “Anniversary” meetings.
Their leaders proclaimed crime, poverty, prostitution, alcohol, ignorance, or slavery as the death knell of the family and the republic, and demanded change.
When the less fortunate asserted their own views, they challenged the idea that social problems could be alleviated within the existing order.
During the 1820s and 1830s, the first unions of maritime workers, seamstresses, and factory operatives; African American mutual aid societies; even the Washingtonian Temperance Society, composed of former alcoholics, questioned whether those with money and power could adequately address the needs of those without such resources.
The fact that slavery still existed in 15 states was a huge factor in the difference between North and South, but the differences in the two economies led to secondary issues.
There is no escaping the fact is slavery was the overriding issue of contention between the two sections of the country.Affluent white women and men dominated most charitable and reform organizations.They generally considered themselves superior to those they sought to help, and thus framed their efforts in terms of education and uplift.The debates and divisions among reform organizations have often been viewed as hindering efforts at social change.It is likely, however, that the array of issues, strategies, and organizational styles attracted more advocates for reform than any single issue or approach could have.Debates over gender and race erupted time and again among antebellum reformers.Charitable, temperance, and moral reform societies were almost always segregated by race and sex, while the most radical peace and abolitionist organizations allowed women and men, black and white, to join, speak, vote, and hold office.For instance, the New York Female Moral Reform Society, whose members sought to eradicate prostitution and the sexual double standard in the city, spawned auxiliaries in dozens of towns and cities and then a national organization.Other movements, such as antislavery, developed in various places and in different guises.Following the invention of the cotton gin the southern economy was transformed into one of slave plantations for the production of cotton.That condition in the south led to a growing sense of alienation between that portion of the country and the northern areas.