19th Century Reform Movements Essay

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,

Carol Berkin                                                           
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.


Chris Heinz

History 201

Section 003

April 11, 2008

Reform Movements of the 19th Century

During the 19th century, there were many changes in America. In the 19th century, Americans began to view their society as imperfect, and began to try and make their society better for all citizens. Many movements arose to address the major social problems in America. These movements included: the new religious movement, the temperance movement, the abolitionist movement and the women’s right movement. Other movements included the Great Graham Cracker Crusade, the education reform, and the prison and mental health reforms. Each of these reforms helped influence the later reforms, and each reform was vital to America’s growth in the 19th century.

One of the first new movements in the 19th century was the new religious movement. America was trying to become more religious and during this time, several new religions were formed. The first major group was the Utopian societies, which “looked to replace the competitive individualism of American Society with a purer spiritual unity and group cooperation.” One of the most famous and longest lasting utopian communities was the Shakers. The Shakers became popular after the death of their founder Ann Lee. There were about “20 communal settlements [founded] based on [her] teachings… her followers sometimes shook in the fervent public demonstrations of their faith.” Unlike other communities at the time, the women were granted “unusual authority and equality.” This equality that was granted to women made these settlements favorable. On the other hand, the members of these communities lead lives of celibacy so the men and women lived in two different dormitories, ate at two different tables and worked in tow different places. The Shakers were though one of the longest lasting Utopian communities, lasting until the early 21st century when the last one finally closed down.

One of the most prominent religions formed during this time was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, formed by a man named Joseph Smith. The Mormons became very prominent during the 19th century because it “placed little emphasis on predestination and proclaimed that salvation was available to all.” Furthermore, the Mormon religion was popular amongst most middle class citizens because the “Mormon culture upheld the middle-class values of hard work, thrift and self control.”

The religious movement was based on the idea that people could exercise their own free choice. People’s salvation was achieved on their own. During the 19th century people began to believe in the “we can do it our selves”, “fix it on our own” ideas. It was these ideas, and the ideas that if we do things pleasing to God we can get into Heaven that lead to an increase in Shakers and Mormons. The religious movement had “Biggest impact among women… [giving the] women more status [and] purpose.” Women for the first time began taking on greater roles in the churches, serving on the church on the church staff and began leading the churches.

The biggest movement in the 19th century was the temperance movement. After the Revolution, “Alcohol consumption soared. By the 1830’s the average American consumed four gallons of absolute alcohol a year.” The problem with alcohol in the 1830’s and 1840’s were the financial effects on the families. On payday, it was not uncommon for the men to go to the bar and drink and gamble their whole paychecks away. This was hurtful on the wives and children because of the financial strain, but also because the instances of domestic violence on both women and children. The “social costs for such habits were high: broken families abused and neglected wives and children, sickness and disability, poverty and crime.” Furthermore, the temperance movement was “supported by factory owners who had massive absenteeism’s on Monday’s” because of the employees drinking habits the day before. The movement was “lead largely by the clergy, the movement first focused on drunkenness and did not oppose moderate drinking, but in 1826 the American Temperance Society was formed. Approximately 5000 local temperance societies were formed over the next decade. By 1845, the national alcohol consumption had decreased to below two gallons a year.” Because of the effects of alcohol on the women and children, the main supporters of the temperance movement were women. The temperance movement was so effective that in 1919, there was a ban on all alcohol.

The third reform movement in the 19th century was the Abolitionist movement. Slavery was a big issue in the 19th century. Many people who had rallied in the religious and temperance movements had the tools and the ideas to make the abolitionist movement strong. The movements arose “in the 1830’s with an emphasis on racial equality and intent on freeing, then educating the blacks.” With Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin, more cotton was able to be cleaned quicker, leading to cheaper prices for cotton. This also led for the opening of more textile mills for the cotton. Unfortunately, because more factories, more cotton was needed in order to keep the costs down. To grow and maintain the more cotton fields the southern farmers needed more slaves. In 1819 in Philadelphia, the Quakers were the first to organize and end of slavery. They would buy and then free slaves. They took the newly freed slaves and shipped them back to Liberia. However, because the need for cotton, the southern states continued to add slaves, while the northern states abolished slavery. The Abolitionist movement was successful in the north but in the south where slavery was very profitable it was unsuccessful. The effect of the Abolitionist movement was a division between the north and south. In the 1840’s the northern and southern churches split, creating the Baptists and the Southern Baptists. Another driving force behind abolitionism was the writers of the time. William Lloyd Garrison, a writer of the Liberator, called for the freeing of the slaves now. David Walker who wrote the “David Walker’s Appeal” wrote that it is now the time for slavery to end. He called for the slaves to rise up and kill



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