in Wisconsin History
Abolition and Other Reforms
The first half of the nineteenth century was a time of dramatic change in the United States. New technology rapidly transformed business and industry, as well as agriculture. The beginnings of industrialization stimulated shifts in population from rural to more urban areas. Waves of immigrants arrived at eastern port cities. And the availability of low-cost land on the western frontier with the continual acquisition of national territory prompted thousands to set out for the West. These economic and demographic dislocations introduced new social problems and aggravated long-existing ones, especially those concerning matters of poverty, morality, and social justice. Though less quantifiable than other social and economic issues, the decline of religious and moral standards was feared by many Americans in a society they saw as becoming increasingly more secular.
Concern for the future of the nation led many Americans to propose measures to regulate the morality of the nation. Several national societies formed to mold the nation in accordance with what their founders conceived to be the means to preserve freedom through the will and word of the Lord. Other reformers, also believing that special organizations could curb some of the most alarming social evils, founded societies for ending slavery and the consumption of alcohol.
The urge for moral and social improvement was pronounced in Wisconsin. The 1830s and 1840s were the big era of church organization in the Wisconsin Territory. Many of these churches sent or organized missionary and benevolent societies to recruit new members, reform existing communities, or open schools. Church-sponsored benevolent societies also allowed white middle-class women new community leadership and involvement roles than had previously been deemed respectable and appropriate for women.
One of the earliest reform movements to agitate in Wisconsin was temperance. The first temperance society west of Lake Michigan was founded in Green Bay in 1832. Small temperance societies had formed throughout the territory by the 1840s. Promoters of the movement directed much of their attention toward immigrants, who often held a different view of alcohol than the primarily white Anglo-Saxon proponents of temperance. Attempts to stop the production and sale of alcohol by legislation only served to widen the gulf between recent immigrants and native-born Americans.
In the years preceding the Civil War, most Wisconsin residents took little interest in the issue of slavery, though a few became ardent abolitionists. Antislavery leaders were mainly natives of New York and New England who had migrated to villages in southeastern Wisconsin. Sympathy for fugitive slaves was common in Wisconsin and grew in strength as the years passed. By the early 1840s, many Wisconsin residents were denouncing slavery as morally wrong and began organizing to discuss reform measures. A Territorial Anti-Slavery Society was formed in June of 1842, and soon after, a branch of the Liberty Party, which had been founded in New York. The two groups merged into the Wisconsin Liberty Party Association in 1846.
A strong uniting force in the antislavery movement was the American Freeman, an abolitionist newspaper based in Waukesha. The paper's third editor, Sherman Booth, attained national attention for his rescue and championship of the fugitive slave Joshua Glover. For helping Glover escape to Canada, Booth was arrested on federal charges for violating the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The drawn-out legal and political battles over Glover led the Wisconsin Supreme Court to nullify the federal Fugitive Slave Act on the basis of states' rights in 1855.
At the same time that religious and secular groups worked to reform particular social evils, other social reformers took an entirely different approach. Drawing their inspiration from the French social philosopher Charles Fourier, who believed that the cure for social ills lay in forming small harmonious communities, seventy-one Wisconsin residents established a company to finance an experimental community, or phalanx, called Ceresco (at the present site of Ripon) in 1844. The residents planted crops and constructed dwellings and mills. They formed a committee on children's education, organized the circulation of literature, observed temperance, and conducted religious services. Though economically successful, the residents of Ceresco voted to disband their community in 1849. Ceresco was not the only experimental community in Wisconsin. Others included the Spring Farm Phalanx and the Pigeon River Fourier Colony in Sheboygan County, as well as Hunt's Colony in Waukesha County. These are discussed in the entry, "Utopians in Wisconsin," in the Dictionary of Wisconsin History.
[Sources: The History of Wisconsin vols. 2 and 3 (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press); "Abolition Activism in Wisconsin" Wisconsin Local History Network (online at http://www.wlhn.org/topics/abolition/about.htm); Kasparek, Jon, Bobbie Malone and Erica Schock. Wisconsin History Highlights: Delving into the Past (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2004)]