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Interpretations of women in the antebellum period have long dwelt upon the notion of public versus private gender spheres. As part of the ongoing reevaluation.
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But culture and consciousness exercised limited influence on power structures, as the tumultuous politics of the early republic demonstrated. When the states extended the franchise to property-less white men, they gave women and likewise men of color more reason to feel excluded from the polity. Women were reduced to outsiders in a system where all white men, including many immigrant men who were not even citizens, possessed the vote and wielded electoral power.

Thus, women sought to intervene as humble petitioners in antebellum political struggles over slavery and westward expansion, but they found their efforts unavailing. Scholars are beginning to understand the U. Historians are challenged to work with lenses wide enough to take in all the various ways individual women might participate in or relate to the movement.

According to a long-accepted origins story, Sarah and Angelina Grimke, southern white women who came north and were encouraged by William Lloyd Garrison to testify against the evils of slavery, found they faced criticism for violating social customs and church teachings by speaking in public. Reasoning that they could not serve the cause of abolition if they were silenced, the Grimkes began to claim their own right as women to speak out, and soon they began to see comparisons between the plight of women and of slaves. As Douglass pointed out, the vote was the most fundamental right, the guarantor of all other rights.

The movement that followed soon brought on board an energetic schoolteacher, Susan B. Anthony, and found audiences among those inspired by Lucy Stone, a gifted young orator who provided key leadership. They gained widespread public recognition through a sympathetic abolitionist press and by exploiting the curiosity of mainstream newspapers until, by the end of the s, public awareness and sympathy had increased.

Or so the story goes. But is this story accurate? Was Seneca Falls, and the leadership asserted there, really so important? The origins story was crafted, after all, by Stanton and Anthony themselves. In their massive History of Woman Suffrage HWS , which they wrote in the s, at a time when the vote remained out of reach and their movement seemed stalled, they created a narrative and rich archive of historical documents that also was a bid to establish the history of their leadership in a movement that was diffuse and not always cohesive. They also wanted to press further on issues of marriage and sexual autonomy.

One line of scholarship explains their behavior as a retreat from previous commitments to racial justice and, focusing mostly on the political context, interprets their turn to racism as more opportunistic than essential. But academic biographers have avoided Susan B. Anthony and have failed to go beyond an abbreviated though excellent look at Elizabeth Cady Stanton, despite the fact that biographical research on this crucial pair is now facilitated by the microfilm of the Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B.

Anthony and six volumes of their Selected Papers edited by Ann D. Perhaps a focus on leaders may seem dated, but greater understanding of key historical figures is not advanced by neglect; nor can such figures be convincingly diminished or discredited without thorough study. After attending a lecture by Susan B. After the Civil War transformed the landscape of human rights in the United States by sweeping away slavery, Reconstruction-era politicians put in place new constitutional amendments that defined citizenship and appeared to guarantee rights, culminating with the 15th Amendment, which specifically extended the right to vote to black men.

But these first successes did not generate the snowball effect that activists had hoped for. The fact of woman suffrage, which was supposed to demonstrate its own merits, proved embarrassing because Utah women had been enfranchised by the Mormon elders, and they proceeded to vote as other Mormons did, in favor of polygamy. Later on, the first states that voted for woman suffrage were also in the West; Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Idaho all enfranchised women before the turn of the century.

Each case reflected local circumstances and threw little or no weight into the balance for woman suffrage nationally. In the same interval, activists learned that fighting through a state referendum campaign was an exhausting marathon that would have to be repeated over and over and over again. After , two rival suffrage organizations, struggling for want of resources, were reduced to special fundraising for referenda or to publish a newspaper.

Individual activists found that lyceum lecturing might generate an income, but it demanded long weeks on the road and tended to encourage messages tailored to appeal to popular audiences. Meanwhile, backlash prevailed in the realms of culture and sexual expression, due in part to the Comstock laws, which outlawed all sorts of sexually oriented information and materials, including contraceptives.

Elizabeth Tilton. Woodhull was a suffragist who worked with Stanton and Anthony but also a free lover, while Beecher was the first president of the American Woman Suffrage Association. By , the suffrage movement had clearly failed to capitalize on a window of political opportunity that was now closed.

In quick succession, movement activists were faced with a number of events that demanded their immediate reaction: the 14th Amendment in , two referenda on suffrage in Kansas in , the presidential election of , and the 15th Amendment in They had to ask themselves: What was politically possible, effective, or wise? Stanton and Anthony were denied the resources to take advantage of their best chance, in Kansas, and the effects of that failure were magnified when they turned to a racist funding source thereafter.

By , a deep and bitter rift had developed. Neither organization developed a winning strategy or compiled an admirable record. Entering into a phase of regrets and cover-ups, and interested only in a history that would be useful to them, Stanton and Anthony left modern historians with much work to do on this period.

It had seemed so promising. The 14th Amendment defined women as citizens and guaranteed citizens equal protection, while the 15th Amendment said that the right to vote of American citizens could not be abridged on account of race. Conclusion: the Constitution already gave women the right to vote; women simply needed to exercise it. Activists pressed for a declaratory act in Congress, and significant numbers of women voted illegally in , to seize rights or to mount test cases. Susan B. Anthony was tried and convicted of illegal voting in Rochester. But in the test cases that reached the Supreme Court, Bradwell v.

Illinois and Minor v. Happersett , the Court moved to a strained reading of the 14th and 15th Amendments, saying they guaranteed no rights other than those of national citizenship and did not make suffrage a right of citizenship—the same logic it used to undercut black rights in the Slaughterhouse cases and U.

Its leader, Frances Willard, was an organizational genius, but its success also reflected the way more modest, ladylike activity could come to the fore at a time when radicalism and suffragism had lost momentum. Because women have so little in common besides their oppression as women, the participants in this struggle inevitably fell into separate groups with different interests, the more so as barriers were breached.

Their history is intrinsically long and slow and uneven, because the changes afoot had to be inscribed in law, but they also had to take place inside individuals and families, and in the spaces between, where education and work and social customs were being reshaped. Although scholarship has often focused on a small band of the usual white, middle class suspects, taking into account the extraordinary diversity of women need not throw this history into disarray.

The participants themselves began to talk about writing their own history as early as the s, and in the s Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. In memoirs and authorized biographies, the aging leaders continued to try to shape their own story, and thereafter partisans and journalists kept the subject alive. Renewed feminist activism brought a generation of young women into academia in the s, but most of them were enthusiastic about social history, and tended to write off the story of organized feminism and the fight for the vote as uninteresting, elitist, or both.

Meanwhile, slavery, abolition, and emancipation drew the attention of many gifted scholars, who transformed U. At the same time, some historians began to argue that the proper subject of historical study was not women but gender, and [to put] an emphasis on discourse and representation rather than experience and behavior. Some may continue to elaborate skeptical analyses of the traditional narrative and its famous leaders, which certainly needs more study. Still others will bring together antebellum and postbellum sources to move beyond conventional but unhelpful chronological boundaries, or will expand the terms of historical inquiry so as to include black and white activists in the same frame.

Historians who look to expand the lens and study a range of activists, fellow travelers, and quasi-feminists will probably find that well-chosen local studies offer the best opportunities, as they do generally for efforts to examine the interactions of race, class, and gender. Yet it was also a period of great conflict, as the benefits of industrialization and democratization increasingly accrued along starkly uneven lines of gender, race, and class. Westward expansion distanced urban dwellers from frontier settlers more than ever before, even as the technological innovations of industrialization—like the telegraph and railroads—offered exciting new ways to maintain communication.

The spread of democracy opened the franchise to nearly all white men, but urbanization and a dramatic influx of European migration increased social tensions and class divides. Americans looked on these changes with a mixture of enthusiasm and suspicion, wondering how the moral fabric of the new nation would hold up to emerging social challenges. Increasingly, many turned to two powerful tools to help understand and manage the various transformations: spiritual revivalism and social reform.

Reacting to the rationalism of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, the religious revivals of the Second Great Awakening reignited Protestant spirituality during the early nineteenth century. The revivals incorporated worshippers into an expansive religious community that crisscrossed all regions of the United States and armed them with a potent evangelical mission. Many emerged from these religious revivals with a conviction that human society could be changed to look more heavenly.

They joined their spiritual networks to rapidly developing social reform networks that sought to alleviate social ills and eradicate moral vice. Tackling numerous issues, including alcoholism, slavery, and the inequality of women, reformers worked tirelessly to remake the world around them. While not all these initiatives were successful, the zeal of reform and the spiritual rejuvenation that inspired it were key facets of antebellum life and society. Revivalist preachers traveled on horseback, sharing the message of spiritual and moral renewal to as many as possible.

Residents of urban centers, rural farmlands, and frontier territories alike flocked to religious revivals and camp meetings, where intense physical and emotional enthusiasm accompanied evangelical conversion. The Second Great Awakening emerged in response to powerful intellectual and social currents. Camp meetings captured the democratizing spirit of the American Revolution, but revivals also provided a unifying moral order and new sense of spiritual community for Americans struggling with the great changes of the day.

The market revolution, western expansion, and European immigration all challenged traditional bonds of authority, and evangelicalism promised equal measures of excitement and order. Revivals spread like wildfire throughout the United States, swelling church membership, spawning new Christian denominations, and inspiring social reform. One of the earliest and largest revivals of the Second Great Awakening occurred in Cane Ridge, Kentucky, over a one-week period in August The Cane Ridge Revival drew thousands of people, and possibly as many as one of every ten residents of Kentucky.

They preached from inside buildings, evangelized outdoors under the open sky, and even used tree stumps as makeshift pulpits, all to reach their enthusiastic audiences in any way possible. Women, too, exhorted, in a striking break with common practice. Many revivalists abandoned the comparatively formal style of worship observed in the well-established Congregationalist and Episcopalian churches and instead embraced more impassioned forms of worship that included the spontaneous jumping, shouting, and gesturing found in new and alternative denominations.

The ranks of Christian denominations such as the Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians swelled precipitously alongside new denominations such as the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. The evangelical fire reached such heights, in fact, that one swath of western and central New York state came to be known as the Burned-Over District. Charles Grandison Finney, the influential revivalist preacher who first coined the term, explained that the residents of this area had experienced so many revivals by different religious groups that that there were no more souls to awaken to the fire of spiritual conversion.

Removing the government support of churches created what historians call the American spiritual marketplace. Methodism achieved the most remarkable success, enjoying the most significant denominational increase in American history. By , Methodism was by far the most popular American denomination.

The Methodist denomination grew from fewer than one thousand members at the end of the eighteenth century to constitute 34 percent of all American church membership by the midnineteenth century. Methodists used itinerant preachers, known as circuit riders.

These men and the occasional woman won converts by pushing west with the expanding United States over the Alleghenies and into the Ohio River Valley, bringing religion to new settlers hungry to have their spiritual needs attended. Circuit riding took preachers into homes, meetinghouses, and churches, all mapped out at regular intervals that collectively took about two weeks to complete. Revolutionary ideals also informed a substantial theological critique of orthodox Calvinism that had far-reaching consequences for religious individuals and for society as a whole.

Calvinists believed that all of humankind was marred by sin, and God predestined only some for salvation. These attitudes began to seem too pessimistic for many American Christians.

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Worshippers increasingly began to take responsibility for their own spiritual fates by embracing theologies that emphasized human action in effecting salvation, and revivalist preachers were quick to recognize the importance of these cultural shifts. Even more conservative spiritual leaders, such as Lyman Beecher of the Congregational Church, appealed to younger generations of Americans by adopting a less orthodox approach to Calvinist doctrine. This idea of spiritual egalitarianism was one of the most important transformations to emerge out of the Second Great Awakening.

Spiritual egalitarianism dovetailed neatly with an increasingly democratic United States. In the process of winning independence from Britain, the revolution weakened the power of long-standing social hierarchies and the codes of conduct that went along with them. The democratizing ethos opened the door for a more egalitarian approach to spiritual leadership. Indeed, their emphasis on spiritual egalitarianism over formal training enabled Methodists to outpace spiritual competition during this period.

Methodists attracted more new preachers to send into the field, and the lack of formal training meant that individual preachers could be paid significantly less than a Congregationalist preacher with a divinity degree. In addition to the divisions between evangelical and nonevangelical denominations wrought by the Second Great Awakening, the revivals and subsequent evangelical growth also revealed strains within the Methodist and Baptist churches.

Each witnessed several schisms during the s and s as reformers advocated for a return to the practices and policies of an earlier generation. Many others left mainstream Protestantism altogether, opting instead to form their own churches. Self-declared prophets claimed that God had called them to establish new churches and introduce new or, in their understanding, restore lost teachings, forms of worship, and even scripture.

Borrowing from the Methodists a faith in the abilities of itinerant preachers without formal training, Smith dispatched early converts as missionaries to take the message of the Book of Mormon throughout the United States, across the ocean to England and Ireland, and eventually even farther abroad. He attracted a sizable number of followers on both sides of the Atlantic and commanded them to gather to a center place, where they collectively anticipated the imminent second coming of Christ.

Continued growth and near-constant opposition from both Protestant ministers and neighbors suspicious of their potential political power forced the Mormons to move several times, first from New York to Ohio, then to Missouri, and finally to Illinois, where they established a thriving community on the banks of the Mississippi River. In Nauvoo, as they called their city, Smith moved even further beyond the bounds of the Christian orthodoxy by continuing to pronounce additional revelations and introducing secret rites to be performed in Mormon temples.

Most controversially, Smith and a select group of his most loyal followers began taking additional wives Smith himself married at least thirty women. Others challenged existing cultural customs in less radical ways.

Social reform movement and women participation

For individual worshippers, spiritual egalitarianism in revivals and camp meetings could break down traditional social conventions. For example, revivals generally admitted both men and women. Furthermore, in an era when many American Protestants discouraged or outright forbade women from speaking in church meetings, some preachers provided women with new opportunities to openly express themselves and participate in spiritual communities.

This was particularly true in the Methodist and Baptist traditions, though by the midnineteenth century most of these opportunities would be curtailed as these denominations attempted to move away from radical revivalism and toward the status of respectable denominations.

Historians have even suggested that the extreme physical and vocal manifestations of conversion seen at impassioned revivals and camp meetings offered the ranks of worshippers a way to enact a sort of social leveling by flouting the codes of self-restraint prescribed by upper-class elites. Although the revivals did not always live up to such progressive ideals in practice, particularly in the more conservative regions of the slaveholding South, the concept of spiritual egalitarianism nonetheless changed how Protestant Americans thought about themselves, their God, and one another.

As the borders of the United States expanded during the nineteenth century and as new demographic changes altered urban landscapes, revivalism also offered worshippers a source of social and religious structure to help cope with change. Revival meetings held by itinerant preachers offered community and collective spiritual purpose to migrant families and communities isolated from established social and religious institutions. In urban centers, where industrialization and European famines brought growing numbers of domestic and foreign migrants, evangelical preachers provided moral order and spiritual solace to an increasingly anonymous population.

Additionally, and quite significantly, the Second Great Awakening armed evangelical Christians with a moral purpose to address and eradicate the many social problems they saw as arising from these dramatic demographic shifts. Not all American Christians, though, were taken with the revivals. Christians in New England were particularly involved in the debates surrounding Unitarianism as Harvard University became a hotly contested center of cultural authority between Unitarians and Trinitarians.

Unitarianism had important effects on the world of reform when a group of Unitarian ministers founded the Transcendental Club in While initially limited to ministers or former ministers—except for the eccentric Alcott—the club quickly expanded to include numerous literary intellectuals.

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Among these were the author Henry David Thoreau, the protofeminist and literary critic Margaret Fuller, and the educational reformer Elizabeth Peabody. Transcendentalism had no established creed, but this was intentional. What united the Transcendentalists was their belief in a higher spiritual principle within each person that could be trusted to discover truth, guide moral action, and inspire art. They often referred to this principle as Soul, Spirit, Mind, or Reason.

These themes resonated in an American nineteenth century where political democracy and readily available land distinguished the United States from Europe. Henry David Thoreau espoused a similar enthusiasm for simple living, communion with nature, and self-sufficiency. For example, in the mids, George Ripley and other members of the utopian Brook Farm community began to espouse Fourierism, a vision of society based on cooperative principles, as an alternative to capitalist conditions.

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Many of these different types of response to the religious turmoil of the time had a similar endpoint in the embrace of voluntary associations and social reform work. During the antebellum period, many American Christians responded to the moral anxiety of industrialization and urbanization by organizing to address specific social needs. Social problems such as intemperance, vice, and crime assumed a new and distressing scale that older solutions, such as almshouses, were not equipped to handle.

Moralists grew concerned about the growing mass of urban residents who did not attend church, and who, thanks to poverty or illiteracy, did not even have access to scripture. Voluntary benevolent societies exploded in number to tackle these issues. Led by ministers and dominated by middle-class women, voluntary societies printed and distributed Protestant tracts, taught Sunday school, distributed outdoor relief, and evangelized in both frontier towns and urban slums.

The reform movements that emerged in the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century were not American inventions. Instead, these movements were rooted in a transatlantic world where both sides of the ocean faced similar problems and together collaborated to find similar solutions. Many of the same factors that spurred American reformers to action—such as urbanization, industrialization, and class struggle—equally affected Europe.

Reformers on both sides of the Atlantic visited and corresponded with one another. Improvements in transportation, including the introduction of the steamboat, canals, and railroads, connected people not just across the United States, but also with other like-minded reformers in Europe. Ironically, the same technologies also helped ensure that even after the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, the British remained heavily invested in slavery, both directly and indirectly.

Equally important, the reduction of publication costs created by new printing technologies in the s allowed reformers to reach new audiences across the world. Such exchanges began as part of the larger processes of colonialism and empire building.

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Missionary organizations from the colonial era had created many of these transatlantic links. The Atlantic travel of major figures during the First Great Awakening such as George Whitefield had built enduring networks. These networks changed as a result of the American Revolution but still revealed spiritual and personal connections between religious individuals and organizations in the United States and Great Britain.

These connections can be seen in multiple areas. Mission work continued to be a joint effort, with American and European missionary societies in close correspondence throughout the early nineteenth century, as they coordinated domestic and foreign evangelistic missions. The transportation and print revolutions meant that news of British missionary efforts in India and Tahiti could be quickly printed in American religious periodicals, galvanizing American efforts to evangelize Native Americans, frontier settlers, immigrant groups, and even people overseas.

In addition to missions, antislavery work had a decidedly transatlantic cast from its very beginnings. American Quakers began to question slavery as early as the late seventeenth century and worked with British reformers in the successful campaign that ended the slave trade. Influence extended both east and west. By foregrounding questions about rights, the American Revolution helped inspire British abolitionists, who in turn offered support to their American counterparts. Prominent American abolitionists such as Theodore Dwight Weld, Lucretia Mott, and William Lloyd Garrison were converted to the antislavery idea of immediatism—that is, the demand for emancipation without delay—by British abolitionists Elizabeth Heyrick and Charles Stuart.

Gambling and ritualized violence figured prominently in public life as well, and mobs formed easily. The lightly governed, newly settled communities in the West had their urban equivalent in the older cities where the decadal doubling of population created entirely new neighborhoods. Efforts to stop alcohol consumption were largely a top-down affair until Lyman Beecher, one of the stars of the revival movement, launched the American Temperance Society in He shifted the focus from the hopeless drunkard to the social drinker and made abstinence, not moderation, the goal.

His temperance tracts reached , readers at a time when the biggest paper in the country had a circulation of 4, In the s, a new group, the Washington Temperance Society, garnered a membership of half a million in three years.

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Formed by working-class men in Baltimore, the Washingtonians campaigned to secure local-option prohibition laws. Changes in American drinking habits came swiftly; consumption was cut in half in the ten years between and , but the campaign to make the sale of alcoholic beverages illegal persisted through the century. Many Catholics immigrated to the United States during the Irish potato famines of the s and s.

Less censorious about drinking—they picnicked with beer in public parks—Catholics drew the ire of temperance leaders. They also suffered persecution from nativist groups who feared and defamed their religion. Joined by emigrating Germans, the Catholics soon built their own churches, parochial schools, and seminaries. When John Hughes became Archbishop of New York in , Catholics acquired a forceful champion who publicly exposed every insult and injury that Catholics sustained.

Americans slowly came to realize that their respect for religious freedom meant more than tolerating diversity within the Protestant fold. The two most significant reform causes of the antebellum period called for the end of slavery and full citizenship for women. In the afterglow of the Revolution, anti-slavery societies agitated for cures for this poisonous thorn in the body politic. Free African Americans were particularly active in keeping the issue alive with petitions to legislatures, legal suits, pamphlets, newspapers, and acts of self-liberation.

The fear of slave revolts, after the successful one in Haiti, haunted white southerners. The census showed that the slave population had almost doubled in twenty years. The increasing profitability of cotton gradually stilled anti-slavery voices in the South, and it took some dramatic developments to stir much concern about southern slavery in the North.

Missouri applied for admission to the Union as a slave state—the first state carved from the Louisiana Purchase of Finally, under the Missouri Compromise of , Missouri came in as a slave state with the promise of no further extension of slavery, in essence pushing the problem off to an uncertain future and energizing some new opponents to slavery.

William Lloyd Garrison brought the full force of evangelical fervor to the abolition movement. A newspaperman by trade, he started the Liberator in and founded, with others, the American Anti-Slavery Society in Congress was intent on containing, not enflaming, the conflict over slavery. Despite the clear right of Americans to petition Congress, they adopted a gag rule to prevent anti-slavery petitions from being read. This issue rankled as no other, until abolitionists were able to persuade Congress to change it.

Senator and former Vice-President John Calhoun said this repeal put the states on an irreversible path towards conflict over slavery. Mobilizing people against slavery triggered a movement to secure greater political participation for women. With Garrison, they proved to be the fulcrum for the entwined efforts. Propertied women had voted in New Jersey for thirty-three years after the Revolution, but they lost that right as citizenship became less defined by property and more by independence, which the law denied women.

This kind of response intensified the determination of a handful of pioneers—Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan Anthony, Lucy Stone, and Lucretia Mott—to pursue the struggle for equal rights for women. It would be hard to exaggerate how radical this movement was in the s and s, yet the work these women had done in anti-slavery work and the temperance movement made it seem quite natural to them that women should be active in the public sphere. Stanton came from a prominent New York family.

Strong willed and talented, she studied and then rejected the legal system that so thoroughly subordinated women, especially wives, to men. Mott, a charismatic Quaker feminist, also attended. When the men voted to deny women participation in the conference, Stanton and Mott forged a bond. Through temperance and abolitionist work, many women learned the organizational skills that were to stand them in good stead when they turned their heads and hearts toward eradicating the laws and mores subjugating women because of their sex.

Delegates at the convention passed a number of resolutions, including an audacious claim for the right to vote. Her Quaker father was both a cotton manufacturer and an abolitionist who undertook her education after he discovered that her primary school limited the subjects it would teach girls.

After that they traveled together on speaking tours, which became forays into hostile territory punctuated by insults and battery. Stone, who was also an indefatigable speaker, reported occasions when she was hit by ice, rotten fruit, eggs, and a hymnal.


They felt compelled to seek the liberty, equality, and independence that Americans extolled as a national legacy and overcame any personal timidity to do so. After the Civil War, they continued to campaign for the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment that abolished slavery. But the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in giving newly freed African American men the voting privileges that the women had so long sought became a bitter pill to swallow. Defending slavery through the decades placed the southern states in opposition to the experimental thrust of northern life.

Increasingly northerners and southerners construed their differences as implicit challenges to one another. Emancipation had given those in the North a deceptive sense of their political convictions. The opening up of opportunities to move, to innovate, to express personal opinions defined for many what it meant to be an American. In making the ideal American a restless, ingenious, and accomplishment-centered person, northerners characterized the nation in a way that made southern differences ever more apparent.

Over time southern states coalesced as the South, a separate society from that of the rest of the nation. Its leaders no longer apologized for slavery as they had in the Revolutionary area; instead they defended it as the basis of a truly genteel, American, civilization. With the firing of cannon on Fort Sumter, the federal redoubt in Charleston harbor, on April 12, , they took up arms to defend their way of a life. Halting the extension of slavery had unified them; abolishing slavery came about through fighting the war. Evangelical Christians with their intense reforming zeal supplied the energy for the reform movements of the s, s, and s.