Social, religious and political reform developed quickly in the first half of the 19th century due to the rapid urbanization and industrialization of the newly founded nation, creating densely populated cities. This enabled people of different backgrounds to meet, discuss issues, and using their power to demand change. The elements influencing social reform include educational institutions such as universities and schools of higher learning, newspapers and other printed material, and the newly elevated education levels of the population. Gaining more knowledge of the democratic principles upon which the United States was founded, caused people to demand more rights and freedoms. Some of the social problems which inspiring reformers include workers rights, educational issues, religious expression, philosophical expansion, temperance, prison issues, mental illness issues, women’s rights, moral and ethical evils, pacifism, and the abolition of slavery. I will discuss religious, social, and educational reforms and illustrate how Henry David Thoreau’s work was and is inspirational to many people, encouraging them to find a deeper meaning to life.
First, religious expansion and reform during the 19th century had a broad spectrum of development. The two contrasting perspectives of “Puritan piety and Enlightenment rationalism” (Tindall, 381) garnered most of the attention during this time period. The deists were represented mainly by the Unitarians and Universalists, “the Universalists holding that God was too good to damn man; the Unitarians insisting that man was too good to be damned” (382). Methodists and Baptists grew out of the Second Great Awakening, and were “grounded in the authority of the Bible and the recognition of a person’s innate depravity… and the concept of universal redemption”. Frontier revivals were plentiful, spreading through the West and settled regions in the East. The Mormon religion, founded by Joseph Smith and later run by Brigham Young, Jr., was developed and eventually moved to Salt Lake City to found its church. All of these religious reforms greatly influenced the ethical and moral climate of the era, which directly affected the social reforms.
“A literate and well-formed citizenry, equipped with knowledge not only for gaining a avocation but also for promoting self-government and self-culture, was one of the animating ideals of the early Republic” (397). This was the basis for the educational reform which occurred in the 1800’s. People demanded public schools, with Horace Mann of Massachusetts leading the drive for statewide school systems. New universities, colleges, societies, institutes, associations and public lectures grew out of the demand form additional knowledge and training. Public Libraries were developed which eventually were supported through the tax system. The existence of state and religious schools caused discussion about funding and curriculum which still goes on today. Education was primarily for men beyond the elementary school age as most people believed that higher education didn’t suit a “woman’s destiny in life” (400). Woman who did move forward in an effort to gain education argued that better educated women make better wives and mothers, and not that woman had an equal right to education as men. Those seminaries that did undertake female’s education emphasized music and art rather then academics. Oberlin College in Ohio was the fist to admit women, but woman were expected to clean the men’s rooms and never speak up in class. This opened the door for a demand for woman’s rights. By 1848 Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton called for a meeting to discuss “the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of women” (404) at Seneca Falls Convention where she submitted the Declaration of Sentiments. In her “Declaration” she paraphrased the Declaration of Independence, stating that “all men and women are created equal” and the resolutions that said that all laws placing women “in a position inferior to that of men, are contrary to the great precept of nature, and therefore of no force or authority.” Only a third of the delegate of the convention signed the document, but is was an important first step towards women’s rights.
Other social reform movements included prison and mental heath institutional reforms. Because of the “Jacksonian era’s belief that people are innately good and capable of improvement” major changes occurred in the treatment of prisoners, and mentally handicapped individuals as well as abandoned children. Although constrained by economic needs, a new philosophy emerged where “the idea of the penitentiary … would be a place where the guilty experience penitence and underwent rehabilitation, not just punishment.” Instead of mentally ill people being jailed or confined to home, a new philosophy emerged suggesting that they should be cared for in a hospital for the mentally ill. Dorothea Lynde Dix was a strong leader in reform for the mentally ill when she acted as a whistle-blower, carrying a campaign throughout the country divulging the neglect and abuse that was occurring in institutions, and demanding reform.
Lastly, Utopian societies sprang up, developing communities where religious or philosophical beliefs could be practiced to affect a living community that would embody their teachings. One of the most famous was the Brook Farm, supported by Ralph Waldo Emerson, a transcendentalist, (and many other well-known literary figures of New England) where the philosophy of “high thinking and plain living” could be practiced. Most of the Utopian communities were “short lived and had little affect the larger society” (408), however this Transcendentalist philosophy was studied and practiced by many people and still is today.
One of the biggest influences on the Transcendentalist Movement was the writings of Henry David Thoreau. Educated at Harvard, Thoreau loved nature, writing and the simple life. He was disgusted by people’s scramble for wealth and said of it “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” (391). To practice the doctrine of “plain living and high thinking” he moved onto a small cabin on Emerson’s land by Walden Pond saying, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately and not when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Thoreau was not a hermit, as he walked often into town to visit with friends and had guests to his home in the woods. When the Mexican War erupted and he deemed it to be a “corrupt attempt to advance the cause of slavery” he stopped paying state tax and was jailed for a night. This inspired the famous essay “Civil Disobedience” which later influenced the passive resistance movements of Mahatma Gandhi and Marin Luther King, Jr.” (391). Although Thoreau passionately held to his beliefs, he was insistent that he would never belong to a political organization or organized reform movement. Thoreau challenged mainstream thought in the 1800’s and continues to do so today, as his writings are readily available and widely studied.
The 1800’s was a period of time where democracy was finding its footing and people were recognizing their power within the structure. The social, educational, religious and philosophical reforms that took place are a testament to the strength of our nation and the possibilities that abound when we exercise our right to determine our lives under the principles set forth in our Constitution. I only hope we will remember this right, and continue to practice the principles of “a government of the people, by the people and for the people.”
Tindall, George Brown, David E. Shi, Chapters 11-13, America A Narrative History, 6th Edition, Volume 1, New York. London: W.W. Norton & Company