It was a difficult year: a financial panic had erupted earlier in 1837 that threatened the work of many reform organizations as wealthy supporters declared bankruptcy, and middle-class advocates cut donations. Passing empty shops and ragged beggars on the streets of New York, prison reformer Catharine Sedgwick noted the "confusion and dismay produced here by the bursting of bubbles." Still, increases in unemployment, hunger, homelessness, crime, and prostitution only made the need for reform more urgent.
The societies that met in New York in May 1837 had emerged over the past quarter century. Some began as local benevolent or missionary groups; many members of these organizations eventually turned their energy to temperance or prison reform in an effort to address the root causes of poverty and irreligion. By the 1830s, most sought to increase their clout by forming national organizations. For instance, the New York Female Moral Reform Society, whose members sought to eradicate prostitution and the sexual double standard in the city, spawned auxiliaries in dozens of towns and cities and then a national organization.
Other movements, such as antislavery, developed in various places and in different guises. Black women and men... [continues]
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