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.
Example essay on American Reforms:
America experienced many kinds of reforms during the time period between 1825 and 1850. The different types of reform movements in the United States during this time period sought to expand democratic ideals through religious, women’s, and social reforms. The era’s reformers were portrayed as idealistic altruistic crusaders who intended to improve American society.
Church attendance was still a regular ritual for about three-fourths of Americans. In fact, Alexis de Tocqueville declared that there was, “no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America.” Hence, it was very easy to bring reform to America through religion. One of the reformers was Charles Finney. He denounced both alcohol and slavery and encouraged women to pray aloud in public. This brought a democratic principle in which women are equal to men and slaves are also free people. In Document B, he declares that through such type of reforms harlots, drunkards, infidels and all kinds of abandoned characters are awakened and connected. This provides the people in the community a well rounded life and expanded democratic ideals as it included more people through participation in the community. The author of Document E foretells that if people are happy with what they have and know that God is in control, just like the good boy, they will be happier in their lives and will have the capacity to govern themselves. This will contribute to the society, which is one of the key facts in democracy.
Women’s higher education was frowned upon in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Prejudices also prevailed that too much learning injured the feminine brain. But later on women became one of the reformers that expanded democracy through their involvement and petition to legislatures. Dorothea Dix was one of the tireless reformers who worked mightily to improve the treatment of the mentally ill and finally made a petition to the Massachusetts legislature in 1843. She was also appointed superintendent of women nurses for the union forces at the outbreak of the civil war. The lady that is portrayed in Document C also shows that women need to be treated equally as people and not as slaves. The author of Document I also mentions that women have also part in democratic government as they are members of the governed and no favor of laws must be shown to anyone.
America was being changed in a way that would affect the future generations. Temperance society was founded, Harmony and Brook farm communes were also established. In fact, as in Document A, Americans were starting to feel proud as America was the first to adopt the penitentiary system of prison discipline and attempted to prevent crimes by imparting knowledge. People were also uniting and forming voluntary association to promote the great purposes of human culture as in Document F. The people also wanted to guarantee each other spiritual progress and physical support which is one of the main facts of democratic principles as the people, the governed, have a say in their government. Some of the reformers also believed that the government by that time was biased and that a new one in which the people participate, as the author says in Document G, was needed. Some of the people in this reformation era were mostly morally ethical. Some believed that who get involved in drinking end up being poor or dead. These people started to have the right to say what they believed in. This can be seen in Document H.
Many of the reformers in this era believed to take the American Society to a higher level. However, all did not believe in the same path to that level. Some, like Samuel Morse in Document D, believed that America should not give foreigners a lot of rights. Everyone having the right to say what they believed in is the main democratic principle that came forth from the reforms and the reformers during this era to direct America in a new path its people never knew.
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