TODAY THE ASYLUM is an institutional has-been. But to Americans of the Jacksonian era, it must have seemed a striking innovation, the focus of exalted hope and deep anxiety. Hope lay in the belief that asylum care might remedy afflictions regarded for centuries as misfortunes inherent in the human condition. Poverty, crime, and madness were seen instead as symptoms of failure in families or communities or society at large -- and that was the reason for anxiety.
In the young republic of the 1820s and 30s, writes David Rothman, Americans felt uneasily adrift. The parochial stability of the eighteenthcentury community, secure in its instincts of rank and privilege, was gone. In its place there was only a blur of motion: "Movement to cities, in and out of the territories, and up and down the social ladder, made it difficult for them to believe that a sense of hierarchy or localism could now stabilize society." 1 Instead, Americans came to regard the ceaseless social and geographic mobility as a threat to the familiar restrictions that helped to assure responsible conduct. An erosion of family discipline, they thought, was producing not just willful children, but vagrant or criminal adults. Insanity originated in the frantic pace and flexible principles of the marketplace, in unrestrained religious enthusiasm, in runaway ambition, and in immoderate philosophical or scientific speculation. For those overstimulated, deranged, seduced, uprooted, or left homeless by life in a hyperactive society, there was the curative isolation