Urban Masses and Moral Order in America: 1820-1920 - Book Review

Urban Masses and Moral Order in America: 1820-1920 by Paul Boyer

This article was originally published on Videri.org and is republished here with their permission.

For much of the twentieth century, America existed as an urban society, meaning one in which the majority of people lived in metropolitan rather than rural areas. Since the 1950s on, much concern has been expressed over urban America’s fate, deindustrialization during the 1970s only amplified such emotions. However, the debate over American cities in recent decades often includes government as a central figure, unlike similar debates of the nineteenth century that often excluded government altogether.

In its place, stood a variety of organizations, reform societies, and associations including those with religious affiliations and more secular institutions. Frequently, the upper and middle classes organized and participated in moral reform movements for several reasons ranging from personal fulfillment, religious belief, civic obligation, economic gain, or to achieve a sense of community especially in the face of what reformers saw as societal dissolution. Paul Boyer’s Urban Masses and Moral Order in America, 1820-1920 traces various reform movements’ attempts to save cities from moral decay, uncovering the various ways moral controls were employed to encourage specific behavior.

Cities of the nineteenth century endured accusations of intemperance, immorality, crime, licentiousness to name only a few of the arguments harnessed against urban regions. Increasingly, cities drew the poor, immigrants, and laboring populations. As Adam McKewon has pointed out, economic shifts emphasizing economies of scale resulted in the widespread movement of peoples between and within nations.

Despite the need for cheap labor, these populations scandalized many Americans residing in more rural regions. For the middle and upper classes native-born communities, the rise of Tammany Hall in New York symbolized this shift into graft, corruption, and moral depravity. While the Second Great Awakening found few converts in urban areas, its leader Charles Finney enjoyed some success in New York and Philadelphia.

Many reformers found the inability to exert the same kind of social controls that had inhibited behaviors in smaller environs frustrating. They believed the city held “corrosive effects on the traditional order.” (17) Prostitution served as one of the earliest targets for reform. The open operation of brothels or visible street presence of prostitutes unnerved social puritans as both examples “showed how readily, in the anonymity of the city, men, and women could break free of community control.” (18)

The New York Female Moral Reform Society emerged in 1834, employing a more nuance approach to anti-prostitution. Earlier reforms had “dwelt on the danger that ‘depraved and abandoned females’ represented to innocent young men.” In contrast, the New York Female Moral Reform Society portrayed the “prostitutes as innocent victims of male lust.” (18) This meant that the society also addressed the “double sexual standard.” These early reformers sought to impose features of village life on the ever-expanding city, “the underlying aim was … to introduce a public dimension into even the most intimate private realm; to reassert society’s right to oversee every facet of personal behavior.” (19)

Many of their efforts failed as elites took offense over moral attacks on the city, Tammany Hall resented intrusion into its power base, and immigrants and poor alike, many of whom were Catholic, remained suspect of “all Protestant and merchant supported moral reform efforts.” (20) Finally, attempting to reestablish the communal social control of the village on the city proved, at best, severely flawed logic.

Early movements utilized religious arguments and spaces to counteract what they saw as the corrupting influence of the city. Religious tracts imploring temperance, chastity and the like could be found throughout the city while Sunday schools became a common feature of urban society. Staffed by middle and upper-class citizens whose instruction reached a primarily lower income audience, Sunday schools attempted to facilitate cross-class interactions, instill traditional values, and prepare students for the tougher aspects of nineteenth-century living, notably death. Boyer explains:

“The graphic reminders of mortality in the antebellum Sunday school were attempts to establish in advance an intellectual context for death, so when children encountered it they would feel its moral power and social meaning.”(44)

Even the schools’ strict physical orderly layout and procedures were meant to contrast with the sprawling, spontaneous city. Moreover, the hierarchical order of the schools themselves intended to “inculcate with young scholars habits of deference, restraint, and self-control that would last a lifetime.” (49) Perhaps one of Boyer’s key insights regarding the Sunday School movement lay in its assignation of blame, “all of this, of course, was a striking inversion of the traditional order in which parents were seen as transmitters of the community’s moral values of their offspring. Now it would be the child, shaped, and molded by his Sunday school experience, who would have a transforming influence on his elders.” (52)

Many of these early efforts illustrate not just a preoccupation with morality and social order, but also a sense of community. Boyers points out that the growing middle class in urban areas seemed to yearn for a sense of belonging not unlike that found in villages of the time. Associations, organization, and societies addressed this desire while also imbuing in members a broader purpose. Boyer notes:

“In becoming a volunteer in such an organization, and thereby forging a link with a great national society led by prominent directors and endorsed by prestigious figures of national repute, one ceased to be simply a drifting molecule in an impersonal city; one now had a meaningful role in a significant undertaking.” (61)

While some historians have argued that such reform movements were a rearguard action by elites to exert social control where they had lost political power, Boyer cautions that such views ignore the “nuances” of the movement. Since many of the participants and leaders hailed from the professional classes, it would seem that status and power failed to be the driving force behind them. Moreover, Boyer also suggests that reform movements did not exist solely as top-down models of tyrannical moral imposition. While yes class-based difference led to hierarchical and often condescending attitudes, significant numbers of more impoverished urban residents identified with the goals of the reform movement.

By mid-century, urbanization spread to the nation’s interior as canal building, steamships, the rise of the market economy, and continuing industrialization encouraged the growth of cities like St. Louis and Pittsburgh. Urbanization and its perceived ills took on a national significance. Reformers remained frustrated by the limitations of law and government to address what they saw as pressing social and moral problems of the day.

Ideological confrontations were not rare as groups such as the Loco-Focos resented government interference into what they believed were private or personal issues. Boyer notes that the heterogeneous population itself made “legislative fiat” moot, since the difficulty remained identifying what behaviors demanded regulation among such a diverse population,
“the patrician elites often took a more relaxed attitude toward alcohol, gambling, and the pleasures of the flesh than did the rising commercial class with its evangelical creed and self-disciplined habits. And the immigrant perspective on these matters frequently differed from that of the native-born; one man’s vice is another man’s folkway.”(77)
As cities grew and class distinctions widened, even the Sunday school movement found itself hamstrung by economic frictions.

Though urbanization altered conditions and circumstances for reformers, they too found ways to adapt. Three organizations emerged that illustrate not only a shift in tactics but also the philosophy: the YMCA, Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor and the Children’s Aid Society. Though differences between each organization remain evident, they also shared distinct similarities.

First, though tinges of evangelical fervor persisted, each was principally more secular in their approaches. Second, if earlier movements focused on more than just urban areas, the YMCA, AIPC, and the CAS were dedicated to solving the troubles of the nation’s cities. Third, rather than depending on volunteerism alone, all three featured professional salaried workers, thus, laying the groundwork for the burgeoning field of social work. Fourth, rather than recreate the village, each organization adapted to the realities of urban living in the mid-nineteenth century.

In fact, CAS founder Charles Loring Brace viewed the individualism and rapid growth of the city as a boon to a new more dynamic population, that once distributed across the United States would help lead the nation into the future. For Brace, economic and social developments of the day offered renewal rather than just decay.

Moreover, at least to the AIPC and CAS, environmental concerns seemed relevant to reform. AICP leader Robert Hartley argued that “physical evils produce moral evils … degrade men to the condition of brutes, and they will have brutal propensities and passions.” (93) Likewise, Brace clung to a similar idea but with the method as mentioned above of removing young men from the negative influences of urban life. The AICP would suggest reforms that twentieth-century progressives came to embrace among them “pure milk campaigns, medical dispensaries, public baths, [and] improved housing.” (93)

What many of the mid-century movements feared was the development of a large underclass that might prove negatively revolutionary in the coming decades. Unlike the CAS and AICP, the YMCA aimed its efforts at newly arrived young men. Ultimately, the YMCA was to be a better alternative to boarding houses which some reformers viewed as immoral or corrupting. The YMCA drew many of its participants from the middle classes and asked residents to give up some autonomy to be a part of this social group. Though a more “diluted” form of association, once a member, participants were expected to engage in activities within the organization.

During the Civil War, the YMCA’s outward efforts intensified as they “maintained agents in northern cities, in military hospitals, and even at the front, to look after the spiritual and moral well being of the soldiers.” (119) [Ironically, all these organizations seemed to view urban residents as both victim and scourge.]

By the late nineteenth century, a further shift in the moral ordering of cities emerged, the rise of charitable organizations in the 1870s and 1880s. Unlike efforts in the first half of the century, these reformers removed themselves from the auspices of the church. However, like earlier attempts, they too “worked to transform the urban immigrant masses into models of middle-class respectability and moral probity.” (122)

Through “friendly visits” which they hoped fostered a “neighborly” relationship, volunteers attempted to offer themselves as models for the lower classes, “the friendly visitor understood her task implicitly: to bring the poor to share her own values and moral standards – to make them more like herself.” (152) Again, like earlier reformers, this approach derived itself from the village ideal.

Broadly, charitable organizations established their methods on the basis of three basic assumptions: 1) urban poverty’s roots derived from moral weakness and “character flaws of the poor” 2) slums could only be eliminated if the poor acknowledged and worked to correct the evils of such developments 3) success required greater cooperation between organizations. (144) Predictably, attitudes of active participants in these organizations illustrate a continuing mistrust of the poor.

Interestingly, as the settlement house movement emerged, though sharing more similarities than differences, frictions between the older charitable organizations and settlement house leaders like Jane Addams emerged, as Addams and others critiqued their counterparts for their high handedness and inability to value immigrant/urban life, while conversely settlement leaders were criticized for their naivety.

As immigrants and migrants poured into cities, many of the better off and middle classes vacated urban environs for nearby suburbs. Sam Bass Warner described Philadelphia in as “an inner city of work and low-income housing, and an outer city of middle and upper-income residencies”, which Boyer suggests illustrates a commonality between many urban areas of the day. Additionally, one might perhaps draw an analogous parallel with what has been termed “white flight” of the mid to late 20th century. In 'A City in the Republic, Amy Bridges points out that this abandonment of the cities by the “better” classes contributed to the rise of the very political machines the middle and upper classes abhorred.

Moreover, though urban riots and conflicts had long been a feature of American city life, during the Gilded Age, its association, mistaken or not, with labor unrest engendered fears of class warfare and proletariat revolution. Again, one wonders if the black nationalist/Muslim movements/Chicano protests of the 1960s-70 along with the general urban unrest that appeared in the same period represented similar fears to twentieth-century observers. Much like immigrant appropriation of municipal governments in the late 1800s, African Americans achieved similar electoral successes in the 1960s and 1970s, eliciting misgivings among white middle and upper-class suburbanites.

In both periods, suburban residents viewed urban unrest as a result of their lack of supervision. [here quotes by Sam Bass Warner contrast with works by Eric Avila, Mike Davis, and others who suggest that popular culture/politics presented post-war metropolises as alien, dangerous places … take Boyer’s quote of Warner regarding the nineteenth century:

” the city loomed as ‘an unknown and uncontrolled land’ of slums, sweatshops, and sordid immigrant politics where ‘vice and drunkenness flourished out of the reach of middle-class supervision.” (128)

In this light, urban reform now set out to save not only residents but society itself. American Protestantism attempted to respond to these concerns through institutional churches and missions. The Salvation Army achieved the greatest success, but even it struggled to close the perceived gap between reformers and those to be reformed. As Boyer points out, class divisions undermined any sense of familiarity between groups, “social distance was increasing not only between the middle class and poor but between the middle class and the urban elite as well” further complicating Protestant responses to urban ills. (142)

The coming of the 1890s ushered in yet another approach to mending urban morality: harnessing the municipal government. Of course, this resulted in stark class and ethnic lines of division, which had always been present but were now magnified. Boyer supports Melvin Holli’s “contention that a central impetus behind municipal political reform in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was the desire of old stock Americans to extirpate ‘lower class vices’ and ‘impose middle class and patrician ideals upon the urban masses.’” (172) Again, Amy Bridges’Morning Glories explores a similar dynamic among the Southwestern municipal governments of the early twentieth century.

With the onset of the Progressive Era, Boyer suggests that two general strategies toward “moral control and uplift” emerged. Identifying the two approaches as “coercive and environmentalist,” Boyer concedes that early on it proved difficult to differentiate between the two, “each involved a variety of modulations and permutations, and the same individual often endorsed both – sometimes in the course of a single book, article, or sermon.” (175)

The late 1890s saw an acceleration of the concerns about the disintegration of community and fears regarding the ills of urbanization. Coercive advocates embraced the “wicked city” discourse of previous decades, pushing for “moral surveillance.” Again, the dynamism behind such efforts rested on not only moral indignation but also the need for community. The urban middle class attempted to adjust to the break down of Wiebe’s “island communities” by forming its own. Thus, the middle class remained animated by the moral certitude of vice eradication which in turn provided a mechanism for “internal order and cohesion,” notes Boyer, enabling it to “overcome the social isolation and emotional aridity that seemed always to plague it.” (179)

In contrast, the environmentalist featured a more modern conceptualization rather than the coercive’s revisiting of early nineteenth-century rigid moral precepts. Environmentalists attacked slum conditions, advocated for parks and worried about the effects of the urban environment on children. The 1893 Chicago’s World Fair served as a symbol of its ambitions, exhibiting the orderliness and uplift that many moral reformers desired. The White City provided a model for their ambitions.

Within the environmentalist wing, there later proved a division between those who would support the City Beautiful movement (“positive environmentalists”) and those who favored the application of the law in the closing down of saloons and brothels (“negative environmentalists”). Despite this difference, each clung to the same basic moral control tradition dating back to Jacksonian America, as Boyer notes:

“these two approaches shared certain fundamental moral control purposes: the elevation of character, the inculcation of a ‘higher’ standard of individual behavior, the placing of social duty above private desire, the re-creation of the urban masses in the reformers’ own image.” (190)

The “negative environmentalists” cast a direct influence on Progressives of the 20th century's first twenty years. Progressives proceeded to march through the first twenty years advocating “social hygiene” while passing various laws in cities across the nation aimed to eliminate prostitution and support prohibition. [along with labor regulation and expanded voting rights] Occasionally, moral reform efforts backfired as with the famous Raines Law which led to a proliferation, rather than a reduction, of places used for prostitution. (193)

In pursuit of their goals, the “coercive moral reformers” further influenced Progressives through their application of sociology, “social analysis,” and statistical evidence, which led to a diminishment of moral appeals and blame on personal failings for poverty. Instead, intemperance and prostitution came to be seen as by-products of an urban environment in need of reform. [i.e., “shift from social purity to social hygiene”] Even if the studies sounded a tad more scientific, the connection between the reformers and the reformed had become “fragile but authentic.” (202)

Research required some level of intimacy with subjects. Though leadership presented simplistic explanations for prostitution and intemperance, reports describe more nuanced and understanding perspectives. However, many of the reformers themselves lacked any interaction with the spaces, places, and people they hoped to improve, which meant, unlike nineteenth-century reforms who restrained some of their stricter impulses because the concrete reality of living among the masses, their later counterparts did experience this limitation. Boyer presents the hardliners of the period as:

“socially marginal people who in these same years were being drawn into the fundamentalist churches with their literal Biblical creeds and their rigid codes of personal morality. Viewing the immigrant poor across barriers not only of physical distance but also of class and culture, they responded with alacrity to reform proposals that promised to purify and control “the city” – without requiring direct contact with the actual inhabitants of one‘s particular city.” (214)

“Positive environmentalists” shared many of the concerns of their stricter sibling, but believed that repressive legislation solved little. Instead, they hoped to create “the kind of city where objectionable patterns of behavior, finding no nurture, would gradually wither away.” (221) Like previous iterations of reform, the poor environment was blamed for the prostitution, gambling, and so forth. While the idea of nature remained a net positive, reformers believed nature needed regulation as well in the form of parks. Though later entire park systems came to be seen as the solution rather than one immense one like New York’s Central Park, parks and spaces of recreation emerged as one clear goal.

Eventually, even a park system by itself came to be seen as inadequate as reformers stressed the need for expertly organized recreation under the supervision of trained individuals. Architecturally, the City Beautiful movement as promoted by Daniel Burnham and others came to prominence. “Focal points” meaning fountains, domes, and similar artifices were to organize the city aesthetically. As Boyer points out, ‘the conviction that an intimate link existed between a city’s physical appearance and its moral state – and that America’s cities were sadly deficient on this score – was central to the “city beautiful” movement … “

At the same time, City Beautiful remained a diffuse set of ideas and practices that summarizing it neatly has proven difficult. If philanthropic impulses motivated some others simply hoped to capitalize economically. Burnham’s Chicago Plan of 1911 serves as a primary example of the City Beautiful movement while also encapsulating where much of its support came from, the business community. Prohibition and anti-vice drew the support of middle and lower class middle classes while positive environmentalism’s friends emerged from the commercial elites. (281)

The anti-urbanism bias of the United States increasingly faded as World War I approached. While nativism and hostility towards urban peoples and populations remained very present (immigration restrictions, Al Smith’s campaign, Sacco and Vanzetti, the resurgence of the KKK, etc.), the city’s diversity and dynamism came to be celebrated by scholars such as University of Chicago’s Robert Park and legendary urbanist Lewis Mumford.

Still, Boyer’s work reveals striking parallels to today. For example, regarding public housing, HOPE VI enacted in the mid-1990s argued many of the same principles that nineteenth-century reformers articulated regarding facilitating cross-class interactions and the importance of environment on human outcomes. The animated prohibitionists whom Boyer describes as “rigid” in their morality and “literal” in their reading of the Bible sound like not too distant echoes of recent teabagger movements, exemplified by demagogues like Glenn Beck (though Beck may the very first to turn repeated crying into a strength rather than a weakness … perhaps this says something about 21st century masculinity).

Boyer points out that 1930s New Deal era legislation borrowed liberally from the moral/social control methods of earlier generations. But if someone questioned Professor Boyer today about his book’s relevance, he would be able to point at recent events an show that efforts of moral/social control of less fortunate are still present in governmental social programs.

Check out other great articles at Videri.org.