In the tumultuous, exuberant years that followed the American Revolution, citizens of the new nation saw opportunities for expansion and change of many kinds. For some it was a broadening of their physical horizons—the opportunity to move into new land. For others, it was an expansion of thought and spirituality, a chance to reshape social relationships and address inequality in the name of progress. The Industrial Revolution changed the nature of labor, creating opportunities for employment that had never existed before, but also setting up conflicts between owners and workers who united to combat unsafe and exploitative conditions.
Of primary social concern during this time was the institution of slavery. The abolitionist cause, which sought to end slavery, developed into a robust movement, particularly in the North, where slavery had been outlawed since the early nineteenth century and the economy did not depend on enslaved agricultural labor. Political developments such as the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 galvanized opposition in the North, as it was enforced there. Some groups worried that if proslavery elements gained political dominance, they could extend slavery to white people as well.
As a consequence of the organized protest against slavery, however, other social institutions and roles became subject to reconsideration. Social reform was one of the few areas of public discourse where it was considered appropriate for women to have a role, and so they were very well represented in many reform movements. Women who had initially gained a public voice in protest against slavery then began arguing against the widely accepted inferiority of their gender. The language of slavery crept into labor disputes, and a widespread national dialogue began about the proper role of education in fitting citizens of every type and gender for the highest service to the nation.
Reformers were as varied in their arguments as in their causes. Early discussions of women’s rights tended to affirm traditionally separate roles for men and women, while arguing for increased opportunities for the education of women, primarily as a way to influence the next generation. As the nineteenth century progressed, however, women began to question the assumption that they were physically and intellectually inferior, ultimately arguing for full equality and the vote.
Another strong reform movement focused on the dangers of alcohol. The temperance movement taught that most social ills were the result of drunkenness and that the consumption of alcohol was not only bad for the physical body, but for the soul. Though the focus of the temperance movement may seem narrow, it became an avenue to argue for all types of social and economic reform.
As social reform movements gained momentum, some argued that it was the right of just people to oppose injustice in government, and even to resist it with force. From Henry David Thoreau’s refusal to pay tax to John Brown’s attempt to begin a war to free the slaves, radical thinkers increasingly argued against traditional institutions, be they religious, governmental, or ideological, and for the primacy of individual freedom and self-expression.