In early nineteenth century America, movements
of moral and religious reform accompanied the democratization of politics
and the creation of a national market economy. After a period of growing rationalism
in religion, a new wave of revivals beginning about 1800 swept out of the
West and effected great change not only in religious life but also in other
areas of society. Existing religious groups were further fragmented, and new
groups like the Mormons emerged. Women were especially prominent in these
developments, becoming a major presence in the churches and discovering in
reform movements an outlet for energies that were often stifled in masculinized
political and economic life.
Among the first areas to benefit from the reform
impulse was education. The public elementary school movement gained strength,
while a few women made their way into still tradition-bound colleges. Women
were also prominent in movements for improved treatment of the mentally ill,
peace, temperance, and other causes. By the 1840s some women also began to
agitate for their own rights, including suffrage. The movement for womens
rights, closely linked to the antislavery crusade, gained adherents even while
it met strong obstacles and vehement opposition.
While many reformers worked to improve society
as a whole, others created utopian experiments to model their religious and
social ideals. Some of these groups promoted radical sexual and economic doctrines,
while others appealed to high-minded intellectuals and artists.
American culture was still quite weak in theoretical
sciences and the fine arts, but a vigorous national literature blossomed after
the War of 1812. In New England the literary renaissance was closely linked
to the philosophy of transcendentalism promoted by Emerson and others. Many
of the great American writers like Walt Whitman reflected the national spirit
of utopian optimism, but a few dissenters like Hawthorne and Melville explored
the darker side of life and of their own society.