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Urban Masses and Moral Order in America, 1820-1920

Urban Masses and Moral Order in America, 1820-1920

Paul Boyer

ISBN 9780674931107

Publication date: 03/01/1992

For over a century, dark visions of moral collapse and social disintegration in American cities spurred an anxious middle class to search for ways to restore order. In this important book, Paul Boyer explores the links between the urban reforms of the Progressive era and the long efforts of prior generations to tame the cities. He integrates the ideologies of urban crusades with an examination of the careers and the mentalities of a group of vigorous activists, including Lyman Beecher; the pioneers of the tract societies and Sunday schools; Charles Loring Brace of the Children's Aid Society; Josephine Shaw Lowell of the Charity Organization movement; the father of American playgrounds, Joseph Lee; and the eloquent city planner Daniel Hudson Burnham.

Boyer describes the early attempts of Jacksonian evangelicals to recreate in the city the social equivalent of the morally homogeneous village; he also discusses later strategies that tried to exert a moral influence on urban immigrant families by voluntarist effort, including, for instance, the Charity Organizations' "friendly visitors." By the 1890s there had developed two sharply divergent trends in thinking about urban planning and social control: the bleak assessment that led to coercive strategies and the hopeful evaluation that emphasized the importance of environmental betterment as a means of urban moral control.


  • This unusual work in social history...clarifies the most troubling contradiction in democratic theory and practice: In a society in which each person has identical legal status without hereditary rank, and no social institution—such as a church—enjoys official recognition, no elite should have the right to prescribe a code of behavior binding on the members of the social order. Yet without such a code of traditional conduct, how can a democratic society avoid decay and chaos when it loses the original homogeneity of its population and changes the economic relations among its people?... Whatever the future may hold, the issues raised with such tact by Boyer remain crucial.

    —Roger Starr, New York Times


  • Paul Boyer was Merle Curti Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Book Details

  • 432 pages
  • 6-3/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

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