5.2.2. The Midwest, 1820-1865: Antebellum Social Reforms


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.
From Godey's Lady's Magazine, 1859
(courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

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.
  • In the early 1800s, reformers began to realize that debtors could not pay their debts if they were imprisoned and were denied items essential to survival.  Imprisonment for debt gradually died out, and many Midwestern states formally abolished it.
  • 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 Midwestern states added homestead law provisions to their constitutions.

Kentucky debtors prison, 1843
(courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

 Married women's property law enacted    
 Homestead law enacted
 Imprisonment for debt abolished
 Ohio 1861 
 1802 (if debtor gives up all property)
1851 (unconditionally abolished)
 Indiana 1847 1870 ((constitution)
 --
 Illinois 1861 1850 (constitution) 1845 (if debtor gives up all property)
 Michigan1844
 1848     1847 (upon certification of inability to pay)
 Wisconsin 1850 1850 1848 (constitution)
 Iowa 1846 1849 1857 (constitution)
 Minnesota 1860 1854
 1857 (constitution)

“Who believes that [married women’s property rights] will make a fiend of a worthy wife?  No one believes it; it is all humbug … [F]or true merit the female sex stand much higher than the mail.  They know but little of the low, truckling and vacillating demagogism that pervades the male portion of creation, and in that particular their ignorance is a jewel.”

-David Noggle, Wisconsin constitutional convention (1846)

“By any principle of disunion between husband and wife, incorporated into the organization of sex, you will do far more injury to woman than to man.  Her life and wealth consist preeminently in the fullness of reciprocated affections.  Her empire is home.”

-John B. Niles, Indiana constitutional convention (1850)



“[A]ccidents [and] sickness … may reduce a man of limited means almost to bankruptcy.  And, if they do, the law most kindly steps in and finishes the work. … [I]t crushes him to the earth … sickness chains him to a bed of pain, and while thus there, it punishes him by the sacrifice of his property, because he is not well and at work, earning money to pay his debt.  Is this the true policy of the State?”

-Schuyler Colfax, Indiana constitutional convention (1850)

“Can it be possible that any law thus nakedly admitting of legal swindling, can meet with the approbation of the citizens of this State?  Law, instead of laying traps for men’s consciences, shuld always, on the contrary, remove every temptation possible.”

-Alvan P. Hovey, Indiana constitutional convention (1850)