1.3.2. New England (1833-1865): Antebellum Social Reforms

The early women’s rights revolution:

  • Prior to the 1830s, the law treated married women as mere appendages of their husbands.  Husbands legally controlled all of their wives’ property, including wages and business assets.  Women were not allowed to vote, serve on juries, or even to make wills. 
  • Starting in the 1830s, reformers argued that married women should have the right to control property they brought to the marriage.  Most did so not because they wanted to empower women, but because they wanted to shelter wives’ assets from the creditors of husbands who had bankrupted themselves through alcohol or bad luck, thus giving families a crude safety net.  The movement gained traction when New York incorporated a women’s property provision into its 1846 constitution.  All New England states enacted married women’s property acts shortly after the New York convention except Maine and Vermont, which followed suit after the Civil War.

Homestead laws and debtors’ prison:

  • The common law allowed all of a person’s assets to be seized in order to pay debts, even basic items which the debtor needed to survive.  Debtors who did not pay could be imprisoned until they paid their debts.
  • New England softened the effects of debtors prison during the colonial era, recognizing that it would be difficult for debtors to pay if they could not work.  The hope that imprisonment would lead a debtor’s friends to pay his debts proved less effective than creditors had hoped.  As early as 1698, Massachusetts allowed debtors to leave prison if they turned over all of their assets to creditors and swore that they had no other assets.  New Hampshire followed suit in 1767 and Rhode Island in 1798.  Debtor imprisonment laws were only loosely enforced in other colonies.
  • In the early 1800s, reformers began to push for formal abolition of debtors prison laws; by the mid-19th century, the movement succeeded in all New England states except Rhode Island. 
  • Beginning in the 1840s, many states started enacting homestead laws exempting debtors’ work tools, furniture and homesteads (or a sum of money needed for shelter) from the reach of creditors.  Several New England states added homestead law provisions to their constitutions.


Married women’s property law enacted

Homestead law enacted

Imprisonment for debt





1820 [check]

New Hampshire












Rhode Island








Abby Kelley Foster, Massachusetts antislavery and women's suffrage activist (1811-1887) - courtesy Wikipedia

Old Newgate Prison, Granby, Connecticut - courtesy Wikimedia Commons