As the new nation grew in the early 19th century, many reforms movements developed in an attempt to improve the nation. This web of reform movements originated from a revival of religion, the emergence of the Industrial Revolution, the desire to live up to the ideals of our founding, and the increasing sectional fights between the sections of the country. These varied reform movements helped define the era and gave women, African Americans, and other minorities a voice in a democracy where they didn’t have suffrage. Some reformers saw change in their lifetime. Others like Susan B. Anthony would spend a lifetime fighting and never see they change they envisioned. All of these movements helped push America towards a more equal and just society.


Susan B. Anthony was born in Massachusetts, the daughter of Quaker abolitionists. At her first women’s rights convention in 1852, she declared that voting was “the right which woman needed above every other.” In 1869 Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and Lucy Stone founded the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA). This organization condemned the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments as injustices to women because they failed to clearly protect women’s rights. She and Stanton also published a weekly newspaper, The Revolution. In 1872, Anthony decided to test the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment by casting a vote. She argued that because the amendment protected the “privileges and immunities” of all citizens, that it should protect her right to vote. She was arrested, imprisoned, tried, and found guilty of voting. Anthony’s trial gave her a chance to bring her message to a larger audience. In the 1880s, NWSA merged with another suffrage organization to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Stanton became its first president. In 1892, Anthony became its second president – a post she held for eight years. Anthony died in 1906, thirteen years before the Nineteenth Amendment would secure women’s right to vote. The fight for women’s suffrage was continued by others including Alice Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt.
Frederick Douglass was born a slave in Maryland, in 1817 or 1818. He loved to read and memorized classical speeches. In 1838, he escaped from slavery. He settled in Massachusetts where he attended abolitionist meetings. He soon began a three-year lecture series. He traveled throughout America and Europe giving speeches, exercising his rights to freedom of speech and assembly. Douglass also exercised his right to freedom of the press, publishing his thoughts in a weekly abolitionist newspaper, The North Star. His most important work was his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, an American Slave. It was incredibly popular and opened many peoples’ eyes to the horrors of slavery. He spoke to President Abraham Lincoln about soldier conditions during the Civil War, and advocated passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, which banned slavery throughout the United States. Douglass also spoke and wrote in favor of an amendment to the Constitution securing voting rights and other liberties for former slaves. This call was eventually heeded with the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment. Douglass continued to persevere in his work for equal rights for former slaves and for women until his death.
Angelina Grimke was born in South Carolina. She and her sister, Sarah Grimke, were Quakers and abolitionists. Grimke published an anti-slavery letter called “An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South,” in William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper The Liberator. In it, she urged women to convince the men in their lives that slavery was a “crime against God and man…If you believe slavery is sinful, set them at liberty.” Aware of the importance of freedom of speech and press, she wrote, “It is through the tongue, the pen, and the press, that truth is principally propagated…” She also encouraged women to circulate and sign petitions urging an end to slavery. Threats from South Carolina slave owners prompted Grimke and her sister to move to New York. There, the Grimke sisters became the first women to lecture on behalf the Anti-Slavery Society. Religious leaders who disapproved of public speaking by women condemned them. During the Civil War, Grimke spoke out in support of President Abraham Lincoln. She celebrated the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. Years later, she tested the Fourteenth Amendment by attempting to cast a vote. In later life, Grimke spoke out for women’s suffrage and the Biblical equality of men and women. She and her sister opened a private school, to which Elizabeth Cady Stanton sent her children.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton fought for the ideals of the Declaration of Independence—that all people are created equal. Stanton was born in New York State in 1815. She received a formal education, unlike most women of her time. She did well in school, impressing her teachers and classmates with her intelligence. But as a woman, she could not attend the college of her choice. Stanton was disturbed by women’s lower legal status. She helped organize the first women’s rights convention in the U.S. in Seneca Falls, New York. At that convention, the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions was read. This document, based on the Declaration of Independence and written by Stanton, declared the legal equality of men and women, and listed the legal rights women should have, including the right of suffrage (voting). Her work helped launch the women’s movement which eventually won women the right to vote. Stanton knew she was fighting for something bigger than herself. She did not live to see the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. When Elizabeth Cady Stanton died, Susan B. Anthony wrote “Mrs. Stanton was always a courageous woman, a leader of thought and new movements.”
Harriet Beecher Stowe used the power of her pen to open the eyes of a nation to the injustices of slavery. She was born in Connecticut in 1811. Her world was immersed in Protestant and abolitionist traditions: her father was a minister, her brother was a theologian, her husband was a clergyman. When Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, Stowe knew she had to act. At the time, women had few ways to engage in politics. She could not run for office, or even vote, but she was undeterred. She took initiative and found a political voice in her writings. She began to do research by interviewing former slaves and others who had personal experience with slavery. Her first novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, told of the abuse suffered by enslaved people and families in emotional, human terms. Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold 10,000 copies in its first week, and was a bestseller in its time. She reached peoples’ hearts and minds in a way that politicians had not been able to do. Historians believe the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin sped up the outbreak of the Civil War, as more and more people believed the nation had a duty to end slavery. The Thirteenth Amendment was ratified in 1865, ending slavery in the United States forever. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s writing truly changed a nation’s view of justice.
As a writer, friend, and citizen, Henry David Thoreau always tried to live a life of integrity and moderation . Born in 1817, Thoreau lived in a small bare cabin near Walden Pond in his home state of Massachusetts. In stark contrast to the Industrial Revolution going on around him, he wanted to live by Transcendentalist principles such as simplicity and economy. Thoreau opposed the United States’ war with Mexico because he believed that the war would lead to slavery’s expansion in the West. He did not want his tax money to support the war or slavery. Thoreau refused to pay the poll taxes required by Massachusetts. As a result, Thoreau was arrested in 1856. He spent the night in jail, an experience which affected him deeply. “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is in prison,” he argued. (A family member paid the tax the next day and he was released.) He believed he had acted responsibly as a citizen by refusing to support what he believed was an unjust war. Exercising his First Amendment freedom of the press , he articulated his philosophy in an essay called Civil Disobedience. Henry David Thoreau’s words and actions have inspired generations of Americans including Martin Luther King, Jr. Thoreau was not without his critics, who argue that his ideas on civil disobedience threaten the rule of law. The way to respond to unjust laws is to work to change them, they argue, rather than to disobey them.
Henry David Thoreau was a leading transcendentalist and was well-known for his many writings, such as the book titled Walden. In one of his most-famous essays, Civil Disobedience (1849), Thoreau describes his decision no longer to pay taxes as a form of protest against the Mexican War and the institution of slavery. Thoreau was thrown in jail as a consequence, but he continued to argue that sometimes people have to disobey a law when they feel a deep, moral objection to it. This concept of civil disobedience has influenced many generations and movements such as the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s and Martin Luther King, Jr.


The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century was a change in how goods were produced in the country. The United States went from producing goods by hand in people’s homes to mass-producing goods by machines in factories. Inventions like Samuel Slater’s textile machine, Eli Whitney’s interchangeable parts and cotton gin, and Robert Fulton’s steamboat, all contributed to America’s economic growth and the beginning of the United States as an industrial power.
The Transportation Revolution (1700’s – 1800’s) was fueled by the Industrial Revolution, including inventions and advancements in the transportation system such as steamboats, railroads, and canals. These inventions improved transportation costs and made transportation and communication faster. The Industrial and Transportation Revolutions also contributed to urbanization (the rapid growth of cities).
During the 1800’s women fought for suffrage (the right to vote). In 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott organized the Seneca Falls Convention for Women’s Rights in Seneca Falls, New York to draw attention to the problems women faced. The delegates approved The Declaration of Sentiments, modeled after the U.S. Declaration of Independence. It proclaimed “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.” Other women’s rights reformers included Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton who founded the National American Woman Suffrage Association and the American Equal Rights Association. Sojourner Truth was a former slave who was one of the most effective speakers for women’s rights and drew huge crowds throughout the North.
During the 1800’s, Americans began to demand better schools. Prior to the reforms in public education, most children did not attend school, and those who did usually had poorly trained teachers and overcrowded classrooms. Reformers believed that education would help children become good citizens and escape poverty. Horace Mann pushed for education reform and encouraged legislators to provide more money for education to make it available to more children. Due to his efforts, Horace Mann is known as the “Father of Public Education.”
Alcohol abuse was widespread in the early 1800’s with many individuals drinking heavily. The temperance movement was a campaign to stop alcohol abuse by banning alcohol. The movement was led by women and business owners. Supporters believed that alcohol abuse led to domestic violence against women and children, poverty, the breakup of families, and unproductive workers.
Workers wanted improvements to unsafe working conditions in factories that were unregulated and dangerous. Labor unions began to organize in the 1800’s. They came together to push for better working conditions, shorter hours, higher wages, and an end to child labor in the growing industrialization of the United States.
Many new inventions contributed to the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. Eli Whitney invented the technique of interchangeable parts which made mass-production of goods possible. He also invented the cotton gin which resulted in increased production of cotton and the need for more slave labor. Samuel Morse invented the telegraph that increased communication. Innovations in transportation such as the transcontinental railroad and Robert Fulton’s steamboat made the transportation of goods easier and cheaper and led to increased economic development.
American artists, authors, and musicians have contributed significantly to the cultural identity of the United States. Hudson River School artists, including Thomas Cole and Asher Durand, painted vast American landscapes that coincided with westward expansion. Authors Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau wrote about their love of nature and Americans’ rugged individualism. John James Audubon’s collection of art illustrates over 450 North American bird species. Many artists and authors have also documented important events in American history. For example, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Concord Hymn famously recounts the battles of Lexington and Concord, and Walt Whitman’s poem, O’ Captain, My Captain, captured the nation’s somber mood after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
Abolitionists were individuals who wanted to end slavery in the United States. Between the 1820s-1860s, they spoke out publicly and published abolitionist newspapers to achieve their goal. Frederick Douglass was a leader of the abolitionist movement. He was born a slave and eventually escaped to the North. Douglass lectured across the U.S. and published an antislavery newspaper, the North Star. William Lloyd Garrison was an outspoken white abolitionist who believed that slavery was evil and it needed to end immediately. He founded The Liberator which was the most influential antislavery newspaper of the time. Other abolitionists included Sarah and Angelina Grimke, Harriet Tubman, and Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin).
Dorothea Dix was a social reformer in the 1840’s who focused her efforts on the mentally ill and criminals. She visited jails and was outraged to discover that some of the prisoners were not criminals but people with mental illness. Dix also wanted to improve prison conditions by banning cruel punishments, stopping state governments from placing debtors in prison, and ending overcrowding of prison cells. She traveled all over the U.S. on behalf of the mentally ill. She led efforts to build 32 new hospitals and create a special justice system for children.
In the 1840’s transcendentalism was a philosophical movement originating in the United States. Transcendentalists, as they were called, believed that the ultimate truths in life transcended (went above) human understanding. They felt that people should seek truth by listening to their intuition and deep, heartfelt emotions, uninfluenced by society. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a leading transcendentalist, called this an “inner light” and stressed individuality and personal effort in his famous essays titled Self-Reliance (1841). Transcendentalists were also noted for supporting social reform movements, seeking to preserve nature, and encouraging people to look for ways to improve society, rather than being driven by material wealth.