The Age of Reform--the decades prior to the Civil War--was a period of tremendous economic and political change. Many Americans believed that traditional values were undercut by the emerging industrial and market economy and they supported humanitarian and social reforms in an effort to create a new moral order. Some reformers, including those who embraced transcendentalism, promoted the divinity of the individual and sought to perfect human society. A number of experimental communal "utopias" were formed to further this effort.
Other reformers were driven by more traditional religious impulses, such as the Protestant revivalism known as the Second Great Awakening. Charles Grandison Finney, the greatest of the revival preachers, denounced both alcohol and slavery. The Shaker, Amana, and Mormon communities were among those that blended religion and secular institutions to further human perfectibility. Many middle-class women took the opportunity to broaden their experiences beyond the domestic sphere by participating in various reform movements. A defining characteristic of this era was that women played public, leading roles in many of the crusades to reform American society.
The emphasis on human perfectibility led some reformers to provide care for the physically and mentally afflicted. Thomas H. Gallaudet, a graduate of Yale who studied the education of deaf-mutes in Paris, opened the first American school for the deaf at Hartford, Connecticut, in 1817. His son, Edward, founded the Columbia Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, which is now known as Gallaudet University. Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe did similar work with the sightless in Boston. He founded in 1832 the Perkins Institution and the Massachusetts Asylum for the Blind. Howe received international acclaim by teaching a blind, deaf, and mute, twelve-year-old girl to communicate through sign language.
As part of the humanitarian reforms sweeping America, asylums were also funded for social deviants and the mentally ill. Criminals of all kinds—including debtors—and the indigent insane were confined together indiscriminately in crowded, filthy prisons during the early decades of the nineteenth century. In Pennsylvania and New York, the idea that criminals should be reformed led to experiments in solitary confinement. Strict rules of silence were imposed, in an attempt to provide prisoners with the opportunity to contemplate their mistakes and become penitent. Therefore, prisons literally became "penitentiaries," or "reformatories." In 1821, Kentucky became the first state to abolish imprisonment for debt. As working-class men won the right to vote, debtors' prisons eventually disappeared from the American scene.
Dorothea Dix, a remarkably selfless woman, abandoned a successful teaching career in 1841 to begin a life-long crusade to improve conditions for the mentally impaired. After touring asylums and poorhouses in Massachusetts, she reported to the legislature that the indigent insane were treated as violent criminals: "Chained, naked, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience." Dix traveled extensively and ultimately persuaded 20 state legislatures and the federal government to establish mental health asylums, including St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, D.C. At her urging, Congress passed a bill granting public lands to the states to fund hospitals for the mentally and physically impaired. President Franklin Pierce, however, did not want the federal government involved in charity work and vetoed it. Despite that singular setback, Dorothea Dix clearly influenced governmental policy during the Age of Reform.
Educational reform was another effort Americans pursued to perfect society during this period. In the early nineteenth century, Americans had the highest literacy rate in the western world, and yet there was no statewide system of free elementary schools anywhere in the United States. Reformers were influenced by Thomas Jefferson's vision of an educated electorate, and the desire to inculcate students—including increasing numbers of non-English and non-Protestant immigrants—with traditional American values. Public education, they argued, would foster equal opportunity and social stability.
The leading figure in the public school movement was Horace Mann. He served as the secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education from its creation in 1837 until 1848, when he was elected to the Congress. Mann was the driving force behind better school buildings, expanded curricula, and improved teacher training and higher salaries. Boston set the pace with free public high schools in the 1820s, for both boys and girls. By the Civil War, most northern states had tax-supported public schools at the elementary and high school levels. Public education lagged, however, in the western frontier regions and throughout most of the South.
Women played an increasing role in public education during the reform era. Catharine Beecher, a sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, encouraged women to enter the teaching profession because their "natural" role suited them to the care and nurturing of children. Thus, Beecher combined the "cult of domesticity" with educational reform. By 1850, most elementary school teachers were women, although some were hired because they could be paid considerably less than men. At the secondary level, Emma Willard in 1821 established the Troy Female Seminary in New York. Oberlin College in Ohio became the first institution of higher learning to admit African Americans and female students—four women enrolled in 1837. That same year, Mary Lyon founded Mount Holyoke Seminary, which later became the first women's college. During the Age of Reform, educational opportunities for women expanded, although most were not encouraged to pursue higher education.
The temperance movement, the greatest of the evangelically inspired reforms, also attracted those who believed in human perfectibility. During the early 1800s, Americans consumed two to three times the amount of alcohol per capita than today. Alcohol abuse was rampant among men and women from every walk of life. Drunkenness, the reformers claimed, lay at the root of nearly every social problem—including crime, poverty, labor absenteeism, and domestic violence. Advocates of temperance had been active since the publication of Dr. Benjamin Rush's An Inquiry into the Effects of Spirituous Liquors upon the Human Mind and Body in 1784, but the campaign against alcohol during the reform era was imbued with an unprecedented moralistic fervor. This was, in large measure, because women dominated the rank-and-file membership roles of many local temperance societies. The temperance movement attracted the largest numbers of female reformers, and served to introduce them to other crusades—especially women's rights and abolitionism.
In 1826, the assault upon "demon rum" became a national movement with a confederation of local societies called the American Temperance Union. Within a decade, the A.T.U. boasted a membership of 1.5 million, and an additional five hundred thousand Americans had taken the "cold water pledge" and vowed to forsake all alcohol. In 1840, a group of reformed alcoholics led by John B. Gough, known as the "poet of the d.t.'s," organized the Washington Temperance Society and began touring the country, giving impassioned speeches to audiences of "drowned drunkards." Temperance songs, such as "Dear Father, Drink No More," and melodramatic fiction also were employed in the fight against liquor. The Glass, for instance, told the story of a young boy who was locked in a closet by his drunken mother and forced to gnaw off one of his arms to prevent starvation. The most popular temperance novel was Timothy Shay Arthur's Ten Nights in a Bar-Room, and What I Saw There, a tragic tale of a family destroyed by drink. Only copies of Uncle Tom's Cabin sold in greater numbers during the 1850s.
Maine became the first state to prohibit the sale of alcohol, in 1851. The leader of the prohibition campaign was Neal Dow, a Quaker businessman who served as the mayor of Portland. A dozen other states passed similar "Maine laws," although in most cases they were not rigorously enforced or were soon repealed. This shift in objectives from temperance to prohibition was generally led by well-to-do reformers and industrialists. Employers were particularly interested in imposing discipline among their laborers, many of them Irish or German immigrants who resented legislative attempts to curb their social drinking. The phenomenal success of the temperance movement in reducing alcohol consumption during this period was due not to legal coercion, but moral suasion and self-improvement.
The spirit of reform was prevalent in the field of women's rights. Many women played a central role in a wide range of antebellum moral crusades—especially in support of temperance and the abolition of slavery—and their experiences in a male-dominated culture led to the first American feminist movement. This era witnessed the beginning of the quest for equality between the sexes, but the chief strides were made decades later.
Following the Revolutionary War, women were encouraged to become models of "Republican Motherhood," in an effort to nurture and shape succeeding generations of American citizens. The emerging market economy during the early nineteenth century widened the gulf between the workplace and the home, and had a tremendous impact on the social roles of middle-class men and women. The result was an increasing emphasis on the "separate spheres" concept. That is, men were the "bread-winners" and political leaders; women were expected to be the guardians of morality and benevolence. The family home was now a refuge from the harsh realities of the office or factory, and the special province of the wife and mother.
Some women enthusiastically embraced the "cult of domesticity," reveling in their increased influence and leadership within the home. Catharine Beecher, for example, in 1841 wrote Treatise on Domestic Economy for the Use of Young Ladies, a best-selling guidebook for wives and mothers in which she instructed them on their myriad household duties. Sarah J. Hale, editor of the popular Godey's Lady's Book, explained that her magazine scrupulously avoided political topics because "other subjects are more important for our sex and more proper for our sphere." Working-class women did not have the opportunity to stay home and cultivate the "domestic virtues," but for many middle-class women their growing independence within the family justified a life revolving around their husband and children.
Some women naturally found the domestic sphere to be confining. Americans were also marrying later and bearing fewer children. This meant that many women had the inclination and the time to participate in the women's rights movement. During the Age of Reform, women faced legal discrimination in virtually every aspect of their lives. They were prohibited from voting or holding public office, and forfeited their property rights when they married. A wife could not sign a contact, draft a will, or sue in court, without her husband's permission. Most professions were closed to women, with the notable exceptions of teaching and writing, and females had less access to higher education. The legal status of women was essentially that of a white child or black slave. Margaret Fuller, a prominent transcendentalist and the editor of The Dial, wrote in Woman in the Nineteenth Century: "Many women are considering within themselves what they need and what they have not."
Some female abolitionists turned their attention also to the women's crusade. Sarah and Angelina Grimké, daughters of a southern slaveholder, railed against "domestic slavery" as well as black bondage, and defiantly declared, "Whatever is right for man to do is right for woman." Angelina married the western abolitionist Theodore Dwight Weld, in 1838, but chose to retain her maiden name. Sojourner Truth, a former slave, divided her time between addressing abolitionist audiences and women's rights groups.
Most famously, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were two female delegates to the World Anti-Slavery Convention held at London in 1840. When they were denied full participation because of their gender, they returned to America determined to campaign for equal rights. They organized the first women's rights convention held at Seneca Falls, New York, in July 1848. The three hundred delegates adopted a "Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions," drafted primarily by Stanton, that was patterned on the Declaration of Independence. "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal." The document listed the "repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman," and called for a redress of grievances.
Among the resolutions adopted by the convention, only one was not ratified unanimously--the demand that women be granted the right to vote. One hundred delegates, including thirty-four men (among them Frederick Douglass) signed the declaration, although some later requested the removal of their names due to the public outcry and scorn heaped upon the "amazons" of Seneca Falls. Thus was launched the modern women's rights movement in America.
The first truly national women's rights convention was held in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1850. Susan B. Anthony, an unmarried Quaker who had been active in the temperance movement, shortly thereafter assumed the leadership role in the drive for legal equality and the right to vote. Progress was limited in these years, however. More than a dozen states, led by Mississippi in 1839, granted some property rights to married women. Additionally, some extraordinary women hurdled the barriers to career advancement.Elizabeth Blackwell, in 1849, became the first female to graduate from a medical college. Her sister-in-law, Antoinette Brown Blackwell, was the first ordained female minister in the United States. Progress was also made in the field of higher education for women. Lucy Stone, yet another of Elizabeth Blackwell's sisters-in-law and a graduate of Oberlin College, married Henry Blackwell in 1855. She popularized the feminist practice of retaining her maiden name after marriage; those who did so were called "Lucy Stoners." A final feminist symbol, named for Amelia Bloomer, was a style of dress that combined a short skirt over full-length pantalets. "Bloomers," introduced by the well-known actress Frances Kemble, were a practical outfit that afforded women freedom of movement without a loss of modesty. Typically, however, bloomers were ridiculed as too radical and unfeminine. Although some progress was made during these years, the entire women's rights crusade took a back seat to other reform movements--most especially to abolitionism.
Aboukhadijeh, Feross. "Reform Crusades" StudyNotes.org. Study Notes, LLC., 17 Nov. 2012. Web. 10 Mar. 2018. <https://www.apstudynotes.org/us-history/topics/reform-crusades/>.
The desire to reform and even to perfect society is as American as apple pie. From the Puritans’ determination to create "a city upon a hill," to the utopian communities of the early nineteenth century, to the communes created by twentieth-century "hippies," the goal has been to establish a new social order that will improve upon the status quo. Sometimes this reform impulse is an isolated one; sometimes it defines an entire era. Historians point to two such eras with roots in the nineteenth century: the age of reform in the 1830s and 1840s and the Progressive era that spans the Gilded Age and the pre–World War I years of the twentieth century. In this issue, leading scholars look at some of the key social ills identified by these reformers and the solutions they proposed to those problems.
In "Transcendentalism and Social Reform," Philip Gura examines the philosophical movement that attracted some of the most fertile minds of the antebellum era. Positing an "Oversoul" shared by all humanity but perceived only by those who transcended the cares and concerns of the material world, transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, and Margaret Fuller developed an American ideology of spiritual equality. Gura traces the rise, and fall, of this ideology that spurred its adherents to reform.
In "Education Reform in Antebellum America," Barbara Winslow finds the roots of the common school movement in the need for a trained and disciplined working class in industrializing America. The champion of universal, free education, Horace Mann believed that education was every child’s right rather a privilege of the wealthy, and that the curriculum ought to include moral as well as practical education. Inculcating discipline and respect for authority was a major goal of much of this educational reform, but it was not the only one; advocates of women’s education like Catharine Beecher helped create teaching academies and colleges for girls and women throughout the northeast.
Cindy Lobel introduces us to the country’s first food reform movement in her essay "Sylvester Graham and Antebellum Diet Reform." Like modern gurus of diet and health, nineteenth-century reformers like Sylvester Graham insisted that men and women are what they eat; but these reformers focused on morality and strength of character, not simply on physical heartiness. They proscribed a diet that excluded overly processed and rich foods, insisting that many foods overstimulated the body, and this, along with gluttony, led to sexual excesses as well as poor health. The popularity of this diet reform movement can be seen in the creation of the American Physiological Society, in the emergence of Grahamite hotels that served only Graham approved meals—and in the protest by butchers and bakers against this reform philosophy.
The crisis of disunion brought an end to this first era of reform. Yet by the 1880s and 1890s, new calls for change could be heard. As Miriam Cohen shows us in "Women and the Progressive Era," middle class and elite women spearheaded a number of critical reform movements—just as they had done in the antebellum years. Their concerns, like those of the earlier reformers, focused on the social welfare of the working class and the immigrant populations of the cities. They created settlement houses and campaigned for both protective labor laws and state aid to widowed mothers. In addition, they hoped to reform the juvenile justice system and improve public health programs. While many of these reformers remained committed to traditional gender expectations, some, like Charlotte Perkins Gilman, worked to broaden the definition of women’s proper roles in society.
In "Modern Women Persuading Modern Men: The Nineteenth Amendment Completes the Movement for Woman Suffrage," Jonathan Soffer explains how Carrie Chapman Catt’s "Winning Plan" achieved what over half a century of struggle had failed to achieve: women’s full political citizenship. Despite the opposition of the liquor lobby, segregationists, and military preparedness advocates, Chapman Catt’s well-organized NAWSA managed to win the support of political leaders and male voters alike in the wake of World War I.
Finally, in his essay "The Transnational Nature of the Progressive Movement," Daniel Rodgers reminds us that the study of Progressivism should not focus exclusively on Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson and their presidential policies. The laboratories of Progressivism, he notes, were the state and city efforts to cope with the problems of a modernizing America. In addition, our nation’s impulse toward reform was part of a transnational movement, one that spread across Europe, Latin America, and parts of Asia as well. American solutions to the pressing problems of urbanization, immigration, and environmental protection were often modeled on German or Italian, Danish or English efforts to ameliorate similar conditions in their home countries. Ideas flowed across the Atlantic, and American reformers adapted foreign innovations to their own national circumstances.
As always, in addition to these thought-provoking and informative essays, you will find lesson plans for key grade levels. Our archivist, Mary-Jo Kline, provides additional reading for you on each of the topics our scholars have covered. Finally, this issue’s interactive feature is a bit different: turning the tables on the teacher, we are challenging you with a brief quiz. Pencils sharpened; thinking caps on: begin.
Looking ahead: our spring issue will focus on military history: the causes and consequences of major wars in American history, mobilization for war, historic figures on the battlefield, and key military strategies and campaigns.
We wish you all happy holidays and a prosperous, healthy new year,
Editor, History Now
Carol Berkin is Presidential Professor of History at Baruch College and The Graduate Center, City University of New York. She is the author of several books including Jonathan Sewall: Odyssey of an American Conservative, First Generations: Women in Colonial America, A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution, and Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence.