The years from about 1820 until the Civil War, and the 1840s in particular, witnessed a heightened awareness of a range of social issues and gave rise to a number of active social reform movements. Emerson, in his 1841 lecture "Man the Reformer," assessed the climate of the times as follows
In the history of the world the doctrine of Reform had never such scope as at the present hour. Lutherans, Hernhutters, Jesuits, Monks, Quakers, Knox, Wesley, Swedenborg, Bentham, in their accusations of society, all respected something, — church or state, literature or history, domestic usages, the market town, the dinner table, coined money. But now all these and all things else hear the trumpet and must rush to judgment, — Christianity, the laws, commerce, schools, the farm, the laboratory; and not a kingdom, town, statute, rite, calling, man, or woman, but is threatened by the new spirit.
There was not only an outpouring of concerned effort on behalf of society's unrepresented and underrepresented — Blacks, Native Americans, the labor force, women, children, the mentally ill — but also a trend toward the idealistic reshaping of society through communal living and through education and moral reform, including temperance.
The antislavery movement was the most visible reform movement of the period. Radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison edited and published The Liberator beginning in 1831 and established the New England Anti-Slavery Society in Boston in 1832. The American Anti-Slavery Society was established at Philadelphia in 1832. In 1840, Garrison took this national society over and radicalized it. In 1837, antislavery publisher Elijah Lovejoy died at the hands of rioters in Alton, Illinois. Lovejoy was quickly held up as a martyr to the cause, as John Brown (executed in 1859) would be later. The Underground Railroad, a covert operation managed by such leaders as Harriet Tubman and Levi Coffin and implemented by a network of thousands, conveyed slaves from the South northward to freedom. Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin was first published in 1852, generating much sympathy for the plight of slaves. Other books and articles depicting the human toll of slavery appeared. Wendell Phillips, a supporter of Garrison, delivered speeches and wrote articles for The Liberator and other antislavery organs. Frederick Douglass, born a slave, also lectured and wrote on the topic. Political events kept the issue before the public eye, as did news of slave uprisings and mutinies (the well-known mutiny on the slave ship Amistad took place in 1839) and fugitive slave cases.
Although government policy during the course of expansion westward was dedicated to uprooting Native Americans and to eradicating those among them who proved uncooperative, there was simultaneous interest in their cultures and languages and some outrage over their treatment. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft extensively researched Native history and culture. His six-volume work on the subject appeared between 1851 and 1857. From the 1820s, the Native American was depicted heroically and tragically in fiction. As treaties were signed and tribes relocated, some Americans spoke out. On April 23, 1838, for example, as the federal government prepared to employ soldiers to remove unwilling Cherokees from Georgia and Tennessee to Oklahoma, in accordance with the questionably negotiated 1835 Treaty of Echota, Ralph Waldo Emerson emotionally protested in a letter to President Martin Van Buren "the terrific injury which threatens the Cherokee tribe." Much later in the century, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody espoused the cause of Native American education.
Labor began to speak on its own behalf and to protest intolerable working conditions. Textile workers had unionized by 1820. Weavers (both male and female) went on strike in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, in 1824, over decreasing wages and increasing hours. In 1828, there was a strike of textile workers at a factory in Paterson, New Jersey, requiring the militia to quell violence. In 1842, the legality of labor unions and the right to strike was upheld by a Massachusetts Supreme Court decision. In the same year, legislation was signed in Massachusetts to limit the working hours of children under twelve. Similar laws followed elsewhere. In the 1840s, female mill workers in Lowell, Massachusetts, edited and wrote for their own magazine, the Lowell Offering. George Henry Evans founded the Workingman's Advocate and, in 1845, formed the National Reform Association for the benefit of labor. In 1860, Massachusetts shoemakers went on strike in response to the introduction of new machinery, which was being operated by children, thereby reducing the pay of skilled mature labor. (The shoemakers won a wage increase as a result of the strike
The women's rights movement also gained momentum in this climate of reform. In 1825, Frances Wright, a lecturer on such controversial topics as equal rights and birth control, moved from England to America. In 1828, Sarah Josepha Hale, advocate for women's education, became editor of the Ladies' Magazine in Boston. In 1837, she became editor of Godey's Lady's Book in Philadelphia. Transcendentalist and reformer Margaret Fuller tackled such issues as marriage, the employment of women, and prostitution in her controversial and influential Woman in the Nineteenth Century, which was published in 1845 and sold out within a week. In 1848, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton organized the first in a series of annual women's conventions in Seneca Falls, New York. Suffrage, property rights, and divorce were debated. Two years later, a national women's convention was held in Worcester, Massachusetts. Also in 1848, the Boston Female Medical School, the country's first medical school for women, opened. In the same year, New York State granted property rights to women commensurate to those for men. New, more radical suffrage periodicals arose. Amelia Bloomer's Lily appeared in 1849, Una in 1853.
The reform of society through the establishment of utopian communities was a phenomenon of the 1840s. Religiously based communities (the Ephrata Cloister in Pennsylvania, for example) had existed in America in the eighteenth century. The Harmony Society, a religious group, had come to America in 1804, under the direction of George Rapp, and established itself in Pennsylvania, then in Indiana. In 1824, the Harmony Society reestablished itself in Pennsylvania in a community called Economy. New Harmony, founded by Robert Owen in 1825 at the Harmonists' Indiana site, was the first secular utopian community in this country.
Brook Farm in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, and Fruitlands in Harvard, Massachusetts, were the two communities most closely associated with the Transcendentalists. Brook Farm was planned at Elizabeth Peabody's Foreign Library in Boston, where George and Sophia Ripley, Orestes Brownson, Theodore Parker, James Freeman Clarke, John Sullivan Dwight, and others gathered to talk about the reform of society. It was established by George Ripley in 1841 and continued until 1847. Residents lived a simple life, focused upon a balance between physical labor and individual self-culture. The community had a strong school and an active social life. Brook Farmers included the Ripleys, Nathaniel Hawthorne (who drew upon the experience in writing his Blithedale Romance, first published in 1852), George William Curtis, John Sullivan Dwight and his sister Marianne, Rebecca Codman, and Isaac Hecker. At its largest, in 1843, the Brook Farm community consisted of about one hundred people. Emerson and others of the Transcendentalists who chose not to join the community nevertheless supported the endeavor and were frequent visitors there. In his "Historic Notes of Life and Letters in New England," Emerson wrote of Brook Farm as a "noble and generous movement . . . an experiment in better living."
In 1844, the Brook Farm constitution was revised, and the Transcendental utopia became a Fourierist community. Charles Fourier (1772–1837) was a French socialist author and reformer whose "phalansteries" sprang up in America in the 1840s and 1850s. Fourier had developed a theory of labor freely chosen and enjoyed by communal members. The North American Phalanx in Red Bank, New Jersey, established in 1843 by Albert Brisbane (a disciple of Fourier), was the first Fourierist community in America. The periodical The Harbinger was published at Brook Farm after its conversion to Fourierism
The much smaller Fruitlands experiment, established by Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane in 1843, emphasized manual labor, vegetarianism, religious harmony, education, and the balanced development of the individual. However, the hardships endured by Mrs. Alcott and her children at Fruitlands caused tension between her husband and herself. Moreover, Lane's subordination of the individual to the community did not sit well with Bronson Alcott's Transcendentalism or with the needs of the Alcott family.
The only successful, industrial utopian community founded during this period was that established by John Humphrey Noyes at Oneida, New York, in 1848. The community at Oneida allowed a level of sexual freedom that many found shocking.
In their approach to utopian communities, as to all other reform movements, the Transcendentalists were clear and consistent in asserting that the individual was the key unit in the reform process. Even when they believed in the principles behind a movement, they could not support it unequivocally if it elevated the well-being of society at the expense of the development and perfection of the individual. In his "New England Reformers" (1844), Emerson declared:
. . . union must be inward, and not one of covenants, and is to be reached by a reverse of the methods [men] use. The union is only perfect, when all the uniters are isolated. . . . Each man, if he attempts to join himself to others, is on all sides cramped and diminished of his proportion; and the stricter the union, the smaller and the more pitiful he is. But leave him alone, to recognize in every hour and place the secret soul, he will go up and down doing the works of a true member, and, to the astonishment of all, the work will be done with concert, though no man spoke. . . . The union must be ideal in actual individualism.
This was the reason that Emerson and others did not join the experiment at Brook Farm.
For this reason, too, the Transcendentalists embraced educational reform as embodied in the efforts of Bronson Alcott and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, who strove to develop the individual by encouraging intuitive understanding, but could not wholeheartedly take up the cause of common school reform as promoted by Horace Mann. A legislator and the secretary of the first Massachusetts Board of Education (formed in 1837), Mann addressed issues of curriculum, administration, teacher training, and pay. He also promoted a public educational system free of specific religious and political instruction, and the discontinuation of corporal punishment.
But Mann's vision of a system built upon an administrative structure did not satisfy the Transcendentalists' sense of education as a process built upon the individual. Moreover, the exclusion of religion from moral teaching seemed to some to diminish the importance of spirituality. Significantly, when Bronson Alcott offered to lecture at a normal school (that is, a teachers' training school), Mann turned him down. The Transcendentalists' belief that "the individual is the world" (as declared by Emerson in his "Historic Notes of Life and Letters in New England") did not mesh well with more pragmatic efforts at reform from within the system.