7/13/11 - quakers, temperance, and solitary confinement

In today's excerpt - Quaker and other religious influences in Philadelphia in the early 1800s contributed to two catastrophic social experiments—the temperance movement and solitary confinement. Though both stemmed from good intentions, the temperance movement found an unexpected ally in early industrialists, who viewed it as a way to curb workers from drinking during work. And solitary confinement, which was viewed by its proponents as more humane than physical punishment, was immediately recognized by visitors such as Charles Dickens as "dreadful":

"Just as education was closely connected with evangelical religion, so was the temperance movement, one of the pillars of the house of reform but one of the least successful. By 1841, the city and county of Philadelphia boasted nineteen temperance societies, which advocated moderation in the consumption of alcohol, and seven total abstinence societies. Many others formed later. Like most other social reform movements, temperance had two faces: one as the reformers saw it; another as seen by the objects of the reformers' zeal. Temperance and abstinence advocates saw demon rum as the main cause poverty; the poor saw it an opiate from misery. Whether a cause or an effect of poverty, the use of liquor complicated industrial labor. From the employer's point of view, the laborer's age-old use of spirits during work breaks had no place in a new industrial world; it could only lead to drunkenness on the job and habitual absenteeism. 

"But most workingmen saw it differently. To them it was clear that the evangelical Presbyterians who led the temperance movement also spoke for the capitalist mill owners, who drove down wages and forced workers to strike for a living wage. 'My company all drank a little,' observed Benjamin Sewell, a Philadelphia tanner and local labor leader, 'but "nothing to hurt," we used to say.' Some temperance societies originated among the working classes themselves. But most were directed from above, and most were resented for the stiff moralism of their Protestant clergymen leaders, who rarely stood with labor on issues of wages, hours, workplace safety, and public education. Membership in the temperance societies probably never exceeded twenty thousand in a city whose population rose above half a million by 1860. ...

"If not the national leader in temperance reform, Philadelphia was indisputably the leader in penal reform. Under Quaker influence, colonial Pennsylvania had abolished the death penalty except for the most heinous crimes and in 1794 limited capital punishment to first-degree murder. Public whipping was abandoned in 1786. Four years later, public labor—convicts were chained to wheelbarrows as they performed street repairs—was replaced with imprisonment. Convinced that reflection and contemplation were the keys to reforming criminals, ... reformers laid the cornerstone for the massive Eastern State Penitentiary in the northern district of the city in 1823. Constructed to contain every prisoner in strict solitary confinement, the granite fortress represented a half century of thinking about how to rehabilitate criminals. Reformers believed that when the state inflicted bodily punishment, ferocious criminals became even more violent. Instead, freed from prison brawling and violent treatment by guards, convicts would learn to be penitent in solitude and then eventually reclaim themselves as useful members of society.

"The attempt to modify criminal behavior at Cherry Hill [the Eastern State Penitentiary] drew national and international attention. Nearly every out-of-town visitor, including Alexis de Tocqueville, Gustave de Beaumont, and Charles Dickens, toured Cherry Hill. Most were horrified at what they found. Dickens, who was allowed to go from cell to cell to talk with the prisoners, called it 'a most dreadful fearful place.' He wrote in his American Notes that the 'benevolent gentlemen' who constructed the system of solitary confinement 'do not know what it is that they are doing,' and he judged 'daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.' Called 'a crucible of good intentions" by a recent historian, Cherry Hill failed to meet its creators hopes—the 'means of restoring our fellow-creatures to virtue and happiness.' "


Gary B. Nash


First City


University of Pennsylvania Press


Copyright 2002, 2006 by the University of Pennsylvania Press


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