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A Biography of America

The Reform Impulse

The Industrial Revolution has its dark side, and the tumultuous events of the period touch off intense and often thrilling reform movements. Professor Masur presents the ideas and characters behind the Great Awakening, the abolitionist movement, the women's movement, and a powerful wave of religious fervor.

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Program 8: The Reform Impulse/Religion and Individualism

Donald L. Miller and Louis P. Masur


Miller: America in the 1830s. Changing so fast, it seems to be flying apart. Charles Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville are among the many visiting Europeans fascinated by the country.

Masur: Tocqueville comes to America. His comment–he can’t understand it. He says, “A religious insanity is prevalent in the United States.”

Miller: Religious revivals help Americans feel they can control the chaos of change.

Masur: At the essence of it is this notion that man is a free moral agent. Think about that. You know, you move away from the concept of predestination; you move away from the concept that it has all been determined, all has been decided; into free moral agency, individualism. That you can become what you need to become, you can change your heart, you can determine your own fate.

Miller: That’s a powerful catalytic factor for the reform movement, the sense of individual salvation.

Masur: I think it’s pretty clear, right, that we can’t understand them without it.

Miller: Today, on A Biography of America, “The Reform Impulse.”

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Growing Pains

Masur: In the spring of 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustav Beaumont arrived in New York after a passage of 38 days. The French bureaucrats had come to inspect the penitentiary system of America. The voyage, Tocqueville said, left him sick and depressed, but his companion felt well and cheerful. The two were part of a stream of foreign visitors coming to America to check on the pulse of this new nation, to examine this experiment in a novel form of government which no one thought would endure.

They arrived at a time of momentous social, economic, and cultural changes in America, and they discovered that all was not well. The country was suffering from growth pains. The population of the major cities along the eastern seaboard had tripled and quadrupled within decades. New York alone went from 60,000 in 1800 to over a million by the 1850s.

Immigration helped fuel much of this growth. Tocqueville and Beaumont arrived at the moment immigration began to soar. The proportion of immigrants in the population rose nearly six-fold by 1860. These new immigrants came mainly from Ireland and the German states where the potato blight had destroyed the food supply and economic changes created a surplus population.

These immigrants were poor and the vast majority of them were Catholic. They triggered the anxieties of Americans who competed for jobs and who imagined a secret Catholic conspiracy to overthrow the Protestant republic. As a result, the cities often erupted in ethnic and racial violence.

The society also seemed to be in motion. The push west into unsettled lands began from almost the moment Europeans touched American shores. And the pace accelerated in the early 19th century. Between 1800 and 1820, more than a quarter of the population moved west of the Appalachian Mountains.

By the 1840s, the explosion in turnpike, canal, and railroad construction reduced travel times and made millions of acres of land available to migrants. “Americans,” one commentator thought, “had managed nothing less than to obliterate time and space.” To be sure, Americans were on the move, but not everyone agreed on the direction of the nation and the role that the government should play in its development.

Democrats and Whigs

Two main political parties emerged and they came into conflict with one another, adding to the general sense of chaos in American society. The Democrats were led by Andrew Jackson of Tennessee. He was the first President outside of Massachusetts or Virginia, the first outside of the original 13 states. Described by his opponents as a roaring, rollicking, gamecocking, horse racing, card playing, mischievous fellow, he ushered in a democratic age of politics, an age that was characterized by mass meetings, by conventions to nominate candidates, systematic organized campaigns and huge voter turnout nearing something like 70% of the electorate in the 1840s.

The politicians of this period were not the disinterested statesmen of the Revolutionary era, but they were men with interests in pursuit of power. The Democrats held an agricultural vision of a land-holding republic of independent farmers. The need was for territorial expansion to sustain such a vision. It should come as no surprise that Jefferson, a Democrat, engineered the Louisiana Purchase, or that another Democrat, John L. O’Sullivan, gave the name “Manifest Destiny” to the westward movement. Here was a vision of preordained mission that would lead thousands west and create the conditions for sectional conflict.

The hunger for land became so ravenous that state governments compelled the removal of the southeastern Indian tribes–the Creek, the Chickasaw, the Choctaw, and the Cherokee–from their long-established homelands in Georgia and Alabama. On the Trail of Tears west, thousands of Indians would die of cold, hunger, and disease. Even the Supreme Court, which ruled in their favor, couldn’t save them. With Manifest Destiny as a guiding philosophy, those new lands in the West would not be theirs for long.

The Democrats generally adhered to the dictum, “That government is best which governs least,” and some urged the preeminence of local state government over national federal authority in all cases whatsoever. It was Jackson’s very own Vice President, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, who advanced the doctrine of nullification, that the states possess the power to nullify any Act of Congress it believed to be unconstitutional. As Tocqueville and Beaumont traveled around America in 1831 and 1832, they heard that southern states would nullify the Tariff of 1828, refuse to pay taxes on imports, and if forced to comply, would leave the Union.

The crisis abated only when Jackson refused to back down and threatened to hang the South Carolina nullifiers. “This union,” he said, “was treason.” But he also quietly negotiated a reduction in fees on imports so as to appease the South Carolinians. This issue, this issue of national versus state power, would remain a volatile one throughout the era.

Well, if Democrats favored western expansion and states’ rights, the Whigs, their opponents, promoted industrial development and believed in using federal authority to advance national growth. Henry Clay, a Kentucky slaveholder, and Daniel Webster, a Massachusetts lawyer, were among the Whigs who led the opposition to Jackson. And Webster was the preeminent orator of the age. In his debate with Robert Hain of South Carolina in 1830, he glorified “liberty and union, now and forever, one and inseparable.” Here were the roots of a belief in a perpetual, indivisible union that Abraham Lincoln–who began as a Whig–would burnish into the national soul.

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A New Social and Moral Order

With explosive growth, frenetic expansion, and political conflict, it was no surprise that many Americans trembled for the fate of their nation. One minister even listed the evils that he thought threatened the nation. He pointed to the vast extent of territory, a numerous and increasing population, the diversity of local interest, the power of selfishness and the fury of sectional jealousy and hate.

Tocqueville, too, recognized the potentially fatal problem embedded in the American character. He admired American independence and mobility. He marveled at the Americans’ love of trade and their passion for making money. He even coined a word to describe the essential characteristic he witnessed: “individualism.”

But what happened when self-interest turned to selfishness and mobility resulted in rootlessness and restlessness? What would save Americans from themselves? The answer, he thought, was voluntary associations and reform organizations. Individualism, to be sure, could lead to isolation and solitude. And these associations created instead a sense of community and belonging.

America was a nation of joiners where individuals bonded and banded together for anything and everything. There were trade groups and literary gatherings, political meetings and religious societies. The power of association, Tocqueville thought, offset the dismembering effects of a nation of individuals, and it allowed Americans to accomplish great works.

There were an endless number of moral reform and benevolent associations–the American Bible Society, the American Tract Society, the American Female Moral Reform Society–all of which extended the missionary impulse to the domestic front. Other causes as well won their adherence: the American Temperance Society, the American Peace Society, the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism. Indeed, there were so many groups being organized that someone even created an association for those who were opposed to reform associations. Name a social evil–crime, poverty, prostitution, intemperance, ignorance–and Americans tried to combat it with some organized effort.

Here was a particular vision of a social order in which Americans were expected to internalize a set of middle-class values that fit with the new economic landscape: sobriety, industry, self-discipline, moral order. They not only created societies in order to promote these values, but designed new institutions, all of which had the goal behind them of creating citizens who would adhere to the new moral order.

[Picture of an early prison]

Penitentiaries, the institutions that de Tocqueville and Beaumont had come to visit in the first place, were created in this period. Inmates were placed in solitary confinement and forced to work in silence. Here was a shift in penal regimes from the public, external, physical world of punishments that characterized the 18th Century to private, internal, and psychological modes of discipline. The institution embodied the belief that the environment shaped behavior and that Americans need not suffer from the disordering effects of a society on the move.

The middle-class vision of social and moral order can be seen most clearly in a popular lithograph of the time, “The Way of Good and Evil.” Before the three great institutions of society, the home, the church, and the school, citizens embark on one of two paths. Obedience to parents and teachers leads through education and religion to purity, salvation, and eternal life. The other path, which begins with disobedience to authorities, leads to drinking, lying, fighting, and the commissions of crimes that ends with everlasting damnation and eternal punishment.

Temperance was one of the key objectives of the moral reform enterprise. Drinking was a critical part of American culture. And the consumption of whisky, rum, and hard cider exceeded six gallons per person per year. But the new workplace demanded sobriety, and alcohol was condemned as an evil that destroyed morals and wrecked homes. The American Temperance Society had more than 200,000 members by the 1830s, and alcohol consumption fell dramatically.

[Picture of Horace Mann]

In addition to temperance, activists promoted changes in education. Reformers such as Horace Mann, a legislator from Massachusetts who oversaw the first Board of Education in the nation, were instrumental in reorganizing the nature of education in society. Children began to be grouped by age, and curricula were developed. Bells now rang to indicate when class should begin and when it should end. And states passed compulsory attendance laws requiring children to go to school.

It is important to note that reform such as temperance and education, were not culturally neutral. The new immigrants brought traditions and religious beliefs that violated the norms of the Protestant temperance ethos. And some working-class Americans resisted the use of the classroom to impose new standards of behavior on their children.

Further Progressive Reform

Without question, the reform ethos offered a conservative view of an ordered, disciplined society; but at the same time, it fueled radical challenges to the status quo. Laborers, for example, united together and formed working men’s associations. They promoted the abolition of imprisonment of debtors. They asked for the equal distribution of property. And they wanted the tax laws rewritten.

Women, too, began to organize and agitate for equal rights. Here they sought to break free from the domestic ideal that held the home as a hallowed place, and dictated the role of mothers and daughters as the keepers of virtue and morality. The public world of commerce occupied by men was seen as disordering and corrupting; therefore the private sphere governed by women was held up as a sanctuary. Some women emerged from that private moral sphere into the public, political realm.

[Picture of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott]

A women’s rights convention, held at Seneca Falls in July 1848, was organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. They issued a declaration of sentiments, which pronounced that “the history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her.”

Women begin to fight for changes in laws regarding property, marriage. They want educational and professional opportunities, and they especially want the right to vote. “Either the theory of our government is false,” proclaimed Lydia Child, “or women have a right to vote.”

Sarah and Angelina Grimpké, sisters from a South Carolina slaveholding family, announced that men and women were created equal. Whatever is right for a man to do is right for a woman. They spoke out publicly, and they demanded that sinners reform themselves. And like all moral and social reformers, they were driven by a religious commitment to the moral government of God and to individual salvation.

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The Second Great Awakening

Religious revivalism fueled the moral and social reforms of the first half of the 19th Century. De Tocqueville and Beaumont appeared on the scene at the height of the second Great Awakening, the most extended religious revival in American history. In 1800, 1 in 15 belonged to a church. By 1850, it was 1 in 7.

[Picture of Charles Grandison Finney]

The leading evangelist of the age was Charles Grandison Finney, born in western New York, a region known as the “burned-over district” because it was immolated with the fires of evangelical enthusiasm. He had prepared to study law, but he had a conversion experience and decided instead to plead the cause of God. He mesmerized his audience, his clear, shrill voice penetrating the congregation, his blue eyes seemingly fixed on every sinner.

He often told the parable about Niagara Falls, the story of a man in a daydream drifting toward the precipice unaware of the danger. He is about to plunge when an observer cries out “Stop,” and the shout awakens the man from his reverie and saves his life. Here was the answer to the question, “What must I do to be saved?” The sinner must respond immediately to the voice of the preacher. The sinner was free to choose salvation over damnation.

Here was the concept of individual free will, of free moral agency, one of the most important concepts of the age. Of course, Finney’s liberal theology repudiated the Calvinists’ ideas of innate depravity, predestination, and everlasting punishment, the ideas that had shaped the Puritan experience in America. Man was free to choose his eternal fate. Behavior in the temporal world predicted fate in the eternal.

The evangelical message fit with the individualistic ethos of the age, and so too did the techniques used to promote conversion, known as the New Measures. Ministers emphasized emotion over reason. They were themselves self-taught and itinerant, traveling around looking for sinners. They conducted camp meetings that often lasted several days. And they used the technique known as the “anxious bench,” a seat in the front of the congregation for those most likely to succumb to the prayers of the minister.

The Second Great Awakening had a special impact on women, who comprised the vast majority of converts. “I made religion the principal business of my life,” proclaimed one woman. Serving as moral guardian was not the same thing as playing a public role or winning political rights. But women used their position granted by evangelicalism as a platform from which to emerge from the home and challenge the moral evils of society.

[Picture of utopian community]

Evangelical Christianity was one manifestation of a general desire for a spiritual solution to social woes. A number of utopian communities were created at the time — places such as Oneida in New York, New Harmony in Indiana, and Brook Farm in Massachusetts, all of which sought to offer an escape from the jarring demands of an individualistic, capitalist society.

If some sought salvation in creating cooperative communities, others sought a deeper embrace of individualism. Many feared for the fate of the nation, but none more so than Ralph Waldo Emerson. He had started as a Unitarian minister, but like so many others, he too rejected organized religion as “corpse cold.” “The state of society,” he lamented, “is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk. They strut about, so many walking monsters, a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man.”

[Picture of Ralph Waldo Emerson]

Americans, he thought, must turn away from external triumphs, financial rewards, professional success as a measure of achievement. They needed to embrace nature and solitude. “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself,” he said. “Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.” Emerson, calling himself a seeing eye, not a helping hand, chose to remain behind the scenes. But others came forward to fight for the triumph of principles.

The Slavery Debate Intensifies

[Picture of 'The Liberator']

On January 1, 1831, William Lloyd Garrison, a 26-year-old editor from Newburyport, Massachusetts, published the first issue of The Liberator. It was a newspaper that changed forever the terms of the anti-slavery debate. Prior to then, Americans who were opposed to slavery believed in gradualism. They believed in passing laws that would eliminate slavery at some future date, or in purchasing the slaves and relocating them to Africa. The American Colonization Society, formed in 1817 for precisely this purpose, was supported by leading statesmen from James Monroe and Henry Clay to John Marshall and Abraham Lincoln.

Garrison devoted his life to opposing slavery and the use of any gradual means to effect its abolition. “One would not gradually rescue a child from a fire or a wife from a ravisher,” he exclaimed. Slavery was a raging inferno. It was a horrible violation and it had to be ended.

Garrison declared war upon the institution. “I will be as harsh as truth and as uncompromising as justice,” he warned. “Urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest. I will not equivocate, I will not excuse, I will not retreat a single inch, and I will be heard.”

Garrison’s call for the immediate and unconditional abolition of slavery drew upon the evangelical injunction to renounce sin immediately. Slaveholders had choice, and slaveholding was a sin. Slaveholders must emancipate their slaves, not later, not tomorrow, but now, immediately. And to promote the cause of immediate and unconditional abolition, Garrison helped form the American Anti-Slavery Society.

By 1836, there were more than five hundred abolitionist organizations in the North. He also labored for the equal rights of free blacks and women as well. His oratory was as inflammatory as any minister’s. Some Northern merchants, nervous that abolition would hurt their commercial interests, often rioted and threatened the abolitionist’s life. Once he was dragged through the streets of Boston with a noose around his neck.

By the 1840s Garrison declared that the North should refuse to remain in a Union with the slaveholding South. “No Union with slaveholders,” became the motto of the American Antislavery Society. He came to see the Constitution of the United States as a pro-slavery document, calling it a covenant with death and an agreement with Hell. At a July 4th celebration, he put a match to the document.

The only way to destroy the slave power in America, he thought, was through the dissolution of the existing American Union. One day before a large audience, Garrison displayed a map of the United States and with scissors he cut out the slaveholding region. All watched in silence as the Southern portion of the Union fell to the ground.

Significant Years in History

All years are significant, but some seem more transformative than others. Contemporaries recognized 1831 as a critical year because of the major events that took place in different arenas. By looking at a variety of issues, we can see connections and relationships that add depth to our understanding of how a year can stand as a symbol and agent of deep historical change. In 1831, for example, the issues of state versus national power exploded in a variety of arenas — Nat Turner, the Cherokee Indians, the debate over the tariff, party battles, internal improvements — and these events altered the political vocabulary of the nation.

Other years, as well, can be examined as windows onto a changing national and international landscape. Certainly 1968, with its student rebellions and cultural insurgencies, stands as such a year, and more recently, 1989, with shattering world events taking place in Beijing, Berlin, Panama City, and San Francisco. History requires that we think about change over time, and certain years allow us to focus on the moment when one state of affairs yields to another.

Questions to Ponder

There are years in American history that stand out as especially significant. One of those years was 1831, a time when slavery and abolition exploded as national issues, when President Andrew Jackson faced the crisis of Cabinet resignations and the threat of nullification, when evangelical revivalism sought to restore some sense of community, and when new inventions promised to remake the face of the nation. At that very moment, Alexis de Tocqueville toured the United States and identified self-interest and individualism as the essential character traits of Americans.

1. Chronologies can be seen as a form of storytelling. How can this chronology be changed to suggest a different history of the year?

2. Births and deaths are omitted from this chronology. Should they be?


Greenberg, Kenneth ed. The Confessions of Nat Turner. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1996.

Marszalek, John. The Petticoat Affair: Manners, Mutiny, and Sex in Andrew Jackson’s White House. New York: Free Press, 1997.

Masur, Louis. 1831: Year of Eclipse. New York: Hill and Wang, 2001.

Pierson, George Wilson. Tocqueville and Beaumont in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1938.

Remini, Robert. Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Freedom. New York: Harper & Row, 1981.


  • Alexis de Tocqueville


  • Tocqueville, Democracy in America
    • Democracy in America
      Provides links to the text of Democracy in America, a virtual tour, Tocqueville’s itinerary, maps, and many other links.



  • John C. Calhoun
    • Today in History: March 18
      A biography of John C. Calhoun with a scanned original of a speech he made, a photo of his tomb, and related links. Includes a link to a page about the Nullification Crisis.
    • John Caldwell Calhoun
      A brief biography and image of a marble statue of Calhoun.
    • Calhoun, John – John C. Calhoun in the U.S. Capitol
      A tribute to John C. Calhoun with links to a biography, his political theory, and a gallery.

  • Daniel Webster
    • Daniel Webster – Dartmouth’s Favorite Son.
      Provides links to an introduction on Daniel Webster, a virtual exhibit, a timeline, speeches and an image gallery.
    • Today in History: March 7
      A history of Webster’s Seventh of March speech with related links. Includes a link to the text of the speech.

  • Webster-Hayne Debate, 1830
    • Congressional timeline
      A United States historical timeline with related links and a reference to the Webster-Hayne debate.
    • Hayne-Webster Debate
      The story of the Hayne-Webster Debate. Includes quotes.

  • Today in History: January 3
    A Lucretia Mott biography with many photos and related links, including one to an autobiographical sketch.
  • Lucretia Mott
    The text of Lucretia Mott’s speech, Discourse On Woman.
  • Women’s Rights –Bios of Prominent American Women
    Brief biographies on prominent American women in the Women’s Rights Movement, including Mott, Stanton, and Anthony.

  • Lydia Child
    • Stand from Under
      The text of “Stand From Under,” written by Lydia Maria Child for William Lloyd Garrison’s anti-slavery weekly The Liberator.
    •  Lydia Maria Child, from THE LIBERTY BELL. Online Archive.
      Provides links to Lydia Maria Child’s Slavery’s Pleasant Homes, and more of Child’s writings from The Liberty Bell.


  • Ralph Waldo Emerson



  • John James Audubon

Series Directory

A Biography of America


Produced by WGBH Boston in cooperation with the Library of Congress and the National Archives and Records Administration, and with the assistance of Instructional Resources Corporation. 2000.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-202-7