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The impact of Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin's theory of evolution upset religious traditions as it spread through America after the Civil War. Darwin said that all living things have evolved to their present form through a dazzling process of natural selection. The Bible says literally that God created the world in six days, but evolution covers millions of years. Religious fundamentalists felt that their faith would be shaken if they didn't take those six days in the Bible literally. Religious modernists, on the other hand (including followers of Catholicism, Judaism, and most of the mainstream Protestant denominations), saw evolution as just an advance in understanding the grand workings of God.

The fight over human evolution that started during this period is part of an evolutionary battle between literal and spiritual interpretations of religious teaching that has been going on since the writing of the first holy books. In the United States, evolutionary theory led to political, educational, and religious polarization. Social Darwinists (1875) carried natural selection to a literal extreme and taught that survival-of-the-fittest competition was the law of society. Speakers toured the U.S. to promote science and Darwin's theory. Toward the end of the 1800s, fundamentalist churches increasingly opposed evolution.


Question: How was Darwin's theory of evolution used to explain society?

Answer: Social Darwinists said society functions on Darwin's survival-of-the-fittest theory.

Censorship and women's rights

The forces of new morality took on the forces of censorship in the 1870s. Winning the right for women to vote was a crusade for eloquent Victoria Woodhull (1872), who became the first woman to run for president (with the amused support of rich industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt). She and her sister published a magazine that crusaded for equal rights and exposed respected minister Henry Ward Beecher for having an affair with a female parishioner.

Armed with the Comstock Laws (1873), Anthony Comstock tried to arrest Woodhull for indecency. The Comstock Laws include federal and state laws against indecent material. For 50 years, these laws were also used to suppress information about birth control. Woodhull escaped Comstock's clutches and represented progressive causes for the rest of her life. Comstock's censorship laws survived into the 1960s, when they no longer seemed necessary to a free society. Family planning information and most kinds of literature are no longer prohibited in the U.S. Woodhull's feminism is still alive today in books, movies, songs, and politics.

The temperance movement

People on the frontier often drank too much, and the United States had been a frontier society for all its existence. The National Prohibition Party organized in 1869 and the more-moderate Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in 1874. Temperance allows a little social drinking for those who can control it; Prohibition bans alcohol for everyone.

Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, people against drinking gained political strength. In the early 1900s, the Prohibitionists won big. With the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment (1920), alcohol became illegal in the U.S. America's "dry" period lasted only 13 years. In 1933, the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed, because making alcoholic beverages illegal seemed to lead to more problems than it solved. (Read more about the Eighteenth Amendment in Chapter 15.)

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