Reform Movements

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Gianna DeMase

Between the years 1825 and 1850, the United States was undergoing a series of reform movements. At the same time, America was rapidly growing and diversifying. Movements were designed to adapt to the new, bigger nation. They inspired the creation of new institutions as well. Americans had different feelings about their expanding nation. Some welcomed the changes, excited about the growth. Others became worried about the future of America. The reform movements came as a result of these different feelings. On the surface, the purpose of reforms was equal treatment for all. While many did attempt to democratize American life, some had other goals as well. Reforms also sought romanticism. It was a reaction against tradition and characterized by an optimistic faith in human nature. There began an effort to unleash the good spirit that everyone was believed to have.

Contradictory to romanticism, the reforms also aimed for order and control, to preserve traditional values and institutions. Many of these were feared to be in danger because our society was changing so quickly. Those who were unsure about the expansion often wished for simpler times.

The Second Great Awakening brought many social and political changes. It also initiated reform movements. Many of them were backed by religion as well as democracy. The churches have been revived and they called on people to show their faith by acting morally. They wanted to awaken and convert sinners so that they might receive salvation. Charles G. Finney believed that when the churches were reformed, sinners, harlots, drunkards and infidels would be awakened and inspired to act with moral correctness in society.

Reformers were far more numerous and influential in the North than in the South. Nonetheless, whatever the impulse was, many different groups mobilized throughout the nation to bring about reform.

One group known as the transcendentalists, and their visions of a utopian society embodied the romantic impulse in America between 1825 and 1850. The transcendentalists were a group of writers and philosophers from New England. They embraced the theory of the individual that was based upon a distinction between reason and understanding. According to them, everyone’s goal should be to transcend the limits of the intellect. Their leader was former Unitarian minister, Ralph Waldo Emerson. An important intellectual and committed nationalist, Emerson drew huge crowds and gained many followers. Transcendentalism helped lead to a very famous experiment known as Brook Farm. It was established by transcendentalist George Ripley in 1841. It was intended to be a new form of social organization. Every member had the opportunity for full self-realization. They would all share equally in the labor so that they could share in equal leisure as well. As tension between individual freedom and the demands of such a communal society grew, many residents became dissatisfied and left. The experiment dissipated in 1847. But this experiment was not the last. Many similar experiments and communities were founded based upon the ideals of George Ripley and Brook Farm.

At first, Brook Farm and similar communities seemed enticing to residents looking self-realization. However, individualism eventually gave way to a form of socialism. Writer Nathaniel Hawthorn, an original resident of Brook Farm, came to disapprove of the experiment, describing it as oppressive. Others as well disapproved of reforms. According to Orestes A. Brownson, reformers were wrongly trying to create an entirely new social and industrial order. Not all Americans approved of the antebellum reform movements. They were the ones who wished that things would stay as they are, and that they should not be challenged or changed. They wished to preserve order.

The Second Great Awakening brought on several other reform movements such as the call for educational reform. In the 1830s, more people became interested...
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