Atlantic Origins of Reform

The reform movements that emerged in the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century were not all American inventions.  Instead, these movements were rooted in a transatlantic world where both sides of the ocean faced similar problems and together collaborated to find similar solutions.  Many if of the same factors that spurred American reformers to action—urbanization, industrialization, class struggle, and more—equally affected Europe. Reformers on both sides of the Atlantic visited and corresponded with one another, exchanging ideas and building networks that proved crucial to shared causes like abolition and women’s rights.

Such exchanges began as part of the larger processes of colonialism and empire-building. American Quakers began to question slavery as early as the late-17th century, and worked with British reformers in the successful campaign that ended the slave trade, and then slavery itself, in the early nineteenth century.  Before, during, and after the Revolution, many Americans continued to admire European thinkers.  Influence extended both east and west.  By foregrounding questions about rights, the American Revolution helped inspire British abolitionists, who in turn offered support to their American counterparts.

Deepening ties between reformers across the Atlantic owed not just to the emergence of new ideas, but also to the material connection of the early nineteenth century.  Improvements in transportation, including the introduction of the steamboat, canals, and railroads, connected people not just across the United States, but also with other like-minded reformers in Europe.  (Ironically, the same technologies also helped ensure that even after the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, the British remained heavily invested in slavery, both directly and indirectly.)  Equally important, the reduction of publication costs created by the printing technologies of the 1830s allowed reformers to reach new audiences across the world.  Almost immediately after its publication in the United States, for instance, the escaped slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s autobiography was republished in Europe and translated into French and Dutch, galvanizing Douglass’s supporters across the Atlantic.

Figures dressed in ancient Greek-style clothing stand by a white man and a black man.

This print from the French Society of the Friends of Blacks demonstrates the belief held by many (but not all) abolitionists throughout the Atlantic World that all persons, regardless of skin color, are equal by birth. “Les Mortels sont égaux, ce n’est pas la naissance c’est la seule vertu qui fait la différence” (“Mortals are equal, it is not birth, but virtue alone that makes the difference”), 1794. Wikimedia.

A compelling illustration of the transatlantic nature of reform can be found even in what is often considered the most “American” of literary, cultural, and social movements, Transcendentalism.  The Transcendentalist movement began in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1836, when a group of Unitarian clergymen formed what later became known as the Transcendental Club. The club met for four years and included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, Frederic Henry Hedge, George Ripley, Orestes Brownson, James Freeman Clarke, and Theodore Parker. While initially limited to ministers or former ministers—except for the eccentric Alcott—the club quickly expanded to include numerous literary intellectuals. Among these were the author Henry David Thoreau, the proto-feminist and literary critic Margaret Fuller, and the educational reformer Elizabeth Peabody.

Transcendentalists were deeply influenced by British Romanticism and German idealism, visiting, corresponding with, and translating the work of thinkers such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Carlyle, and Immanuel Kant.  The Transcendentalists followed these thinkers in celebrating individual artistic inspiration, personal spiritual experience, and aspects of human existence not easily explained by reason or logic. Transcendentalism had no established creed, but this was intentional. What united the Transcendentalists was their belief in a higher spiritual principle within each person that could be trusted to discover truth, guide moral action, and inspire art. They often referred to this principle as “Soul,” “Spirit,” “Mind,” or “Reason.” But the Transcendentalists were no mere disciples of their European predecessors. They established an enduring legacy precisely because they developed distinctly American ideas that emphasized individualism, optimism, oneness with nature, and a modern orientation toward the future rather than the past. These themes resonated in an American nineteenth century where political democracy and readily available land distinguished the United States from Europe.

The individual careers of the Transcendentalists demonstrate how a movement rooted in New England derived from and contributed to the larger transatlantic exchange, while still retaining a distinctly American character.  The most influential transcendentalist was Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson’s intellectual development was sparked in part by his visit to the Jardin des Plantes, Paris’ botanical garden, where he experienced a sense of the divine in nature.  On his return to the United States, Emerson espoused a religious worldview wherein God, “the eternal ONE,” manifested through the special harmony between the individual soul and nature.  In “The American Scholar” (1837) and “Self-Reliance” (1841), Emerson emphasized the utter reliability and sufficiency of the individual soul, and in “The American Scholar” he exhorted his audience to overcome “our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands.”  Emerson’s call for Americans to investigate their own landscape derived in part, ironically, from his travels abroad. Emerson believed that the time had come for Americans to declare their intellectual independence from Europe.

Other Transcendentalist reformers, such as George Ripley, looked to European socialists such as Charles Fourier for their inspiration.  In the mid-1840s, Ripley and other members of the utopian Brook Farm community began to espouse Fourierism, a vision of society based upon cooperative principles, as an alternative to the same capitalist conditions that had troubled its proponent, Charles Fourier, in France.  Ripley also published translations of European romanticists and engaged in a full-scale pamphlet war when he drew on the arguments of German theologians to declare that it was not necessary to believe in miracles if one wished to be a Christian.

Margaret Fuller also engaged extensively with Europeans. As, the editor of the Transcendentalist’s journal The Dial, Fuller helped shape the ideas of the movement. Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845) was deeply influenced by European predecessors like Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Fuller’s text became one of the most probing and important texts of nineteenth-century feminism.  Her interest in European culture brought her to Europe as a correspondent for the New-York Daily Tribune in 1846, where she sent home reports of the revolutions on the Continent in 1848. Fuller was not the only woman involved in these causes. Elizabeth Peabody, for her part, became a well-known educational reformer, founding the first kindergarten in America on the principles of the German pedagogue Frederich Froebel.

A movement shaped by European thinkers itself became an important influence on Europeans and others.  Perhaps one of the most widely known transcendentalist authors was Henry David Thoreau, who in 1845 took up residence at Walden Pond, in what was essentially his friend’s backyard.  The result was Walden (1854), which touted simple living, communion with nature, and self-sufficiency with such strength that it has remained in print ever since. Thoreau’s sense of rugged individualism, perhaps the strongest among even the Transcendentalists, also yielded “Resistance to Civil Government” (1849). Later titled “Civil Disobedience,” this text also became an American classic that outlined the case for non-violent resistance to unjust laws and helped to inspire Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

While a limited and disparate group, the Transcendentalists exerted an enduring influence not just on American thought and culture, but also on those around the world. Their ideas and texts served to inspire numerous later movements, including but not limited to liberal religion, environmentalism, women’s rights, and educational reform. Most importantly, and in keeping with their philosophy, their suggestive prose has inspired countless individuals to search for their true selves.

The Transcendentalists were not the only Americans to look across the Atlantic for support in their reform efforts.  A number of transnational networks devoted to antislavery and women’s rights developed during the early nineteenth century. American antislavery activists, for example, developed close relationships with British abolitionists such as Thomas Clarkson, Daniel O’Connell, and Joseph Sturge.  The prominent American abolitionist Theodore Dwight Weld converted to the antislavery idea of immediatism—that is, the demand for emancipation without delay—by the wealthy British evangelical Charles Stuart.  Although Anglo-American antislavery networks reached back to the late-eighteenth century, they dramatically grew in support and strength over the antebellum period, as evidenced by the General Antislavery Convention of 1840.  This antislavery delegation consisted of more than 500 abolitionists, mostly coming from France, England, and the United States. All met together in England, united by their common goal of ending slavery in their time.  Although abolitionism was not the largest American reform movement of the antebellum period (that honor belongs to temperance), it did foster greater cooperation among reformers in England and the United States.

A man addressing a crowd of people at the 1840 Convention of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society.

This enormous painting documents the 1840 convention of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, established by both American and English anti-slavery activists to promote worldwide abolition. Benjamin Haydon, The Anti-Slavery Society Convention, 1840. Wikimedia.

In the course of their abolitionist activities, many American women began to establish contact with their counterparts across the Atlantic, each group penning articles and contributing material support to the others’ antislavery publications and fundraisers.  The effect of this cooperation can be seen in the nascent women’s rights movement.  During the 1840 meeting, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton formulated the idea for a national women’s suffrage convention, which they held at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848.  The General Antislavery Convention played an important role in laying the foundation for an Anglo-American Women’s Suffrage Movement.  As Stanton eloquently wrote in The History of Woman Suffrage (1887), “The movement for women’s suffrage, both in England and America, may be dated from this World Antislavery Convention”(62).  Mott also made several lasting connections with her reforming sisters in England, who included Elizabeth Pease of Darlington, Ann Knight of Chelmsford, and Elizabeth Jesse Reid of London.

The bonds between British and American reformers can be traced throughout the many social improvement projects of the nineteenth century. Transatlantic cooperation galvanized efforts to reform individuals’ and societies’ relationships to alcohol, labor, religion, education, commerce, and land ownership. This cooperation, stemming from the recognition that social problems on both sides of the Atlantic were strikingly similar, helped American reformers to conceptualize themselves as part of a worldwide moral mission to attack social ills and spread the gospel of Christianity.