It was not a coincidence that asylums, workhouses, a new prison system, and other institutions for social control emerged in the United States and western Europe during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. At a time when elites on both sides of the Atlantic were beginning to embrace the doctrine of laissez-faire, minimal government regulation of the economy, problems of destitution and dependence proliferated. Thus it seemed critical to find solutions appropriate in a free-market society. The new prison system, asylums, and workhouses of the early nineteenth century all were supposed to provide a benevolent form of social control, replacing the family government and stable communities of the past. These caretaker institutions were to offer a nonauthoritarian way of deterring pauperism, resocializing criminals, alleviating mental illness, and teaching the deaf and the blind to read and write.
Even though the emergence of these “crucibles of moral character” was a transatlantic phenomenon, there was something distinctively Americans about institutional reform in the antebellum United States. A religiously fired, millennialist optimism infused the rhetoric of the founders of penitentiaries, houses of refuge, orphan asylums, insane asylums, and common schools. These reformers often spoke in apocalyptic terms, decrying the breakdown of family discipline and the dangers of communal disorder, but they did not regard these new institutions as bulwarks against anarchy and social collapse. Rather, they viewed these asylums as models for society and as instruments of liberation and emancipation. The asylum would free the mentally ill and the disabled from confinement in attics, cellars, and jail cells. The common school would erase class lines and promote social mobility. The prison and the reformatory would remove criminals from the temptations of vice and eradicate the underlying source of crime. It is a point of historical irony that the period of growing laissez-faire also marked the beginning of a new public paternalism, in which public institutions took on the moral prerogatives, presumed benevolence, and good will previously invested in kinship and local communities.
Steven Mintz, Moralists and Modernizers: America’s Pre-Civil War Reformers, pp. 81-2