Reform Movements of the 19th Century

Dorothea Dix pioneered a movement to improve conditions for the mentally ill, one of the first of many reformers during the 19th century. Her report on conditions in Massachusetts prisons and “almshouses” showed horrific conditions for those who had mental disease as well as those who were unable to maintain a profession or a wage. In some cases, those who were curable or those who did not belong in prison were placed there because they had no where else to go. The prisons and charity houses were not able to say no to peacekeepers who brought these people in. Dix insisted that there must be a concerted effort to help these people out by starting at the top. She wished the Massachusetts legislation to work on ways of improving holding places for the mentally ill and the poor. She said it was up to them to exercise that “wisdom which is the breath of the power of God,” a reference to a divine cause.

Horace Mann, an innovator in early American education, wrote in his account that many cities in the new union were not nourished enough mentally because of a lack of libraries and books. He said that a system of libraries and public books would bring together men and women alike and unify the nation with a common knowledge. He felt that the uneducated mind was subject to ignorance and a life of despair. At the end of his report, he states the interest in these public libraries is far reaching, as many citizens have voted for it. The interest in educating the youth existed and needed to exist in order to ensure intelligent citizenry and leadership.

Reverend M’Ilvaine was a man who denounced intemperance, or alcoholism. A strong point in this work is that alcohol is seen as a type of slavery. He related intemperance to the numbers of poor and mentally ill, numbering those “enslaved” by alcohol nearly 500,000. He believed that alcohol was a problem in part of apathy toward the deeper emotional and physical issues it presented. M’Ilvane acknowledged that the temperance must be met by the entire nation as a whole, and not as a regional solution. The blight cannot be isolated to one area of the crop, nor could intemperance be isolated region by region. The intemperance movement, by way of the common good, would have to be addressed before the nation could press forward.

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