by Ronald G. Walters

“In the history of the world,” Ralph Waldo Emerson declared in 1841, “the doctrine of Reform had never such scope as at the present hour.”[1] Not much a joiner of causes himself, Emerson had in mind a remarkable flowering of reform movements from roughly 1815 until the Civil War that were striking to observers at the time and to historians ever since for their energy, variety, and occasional strangeness.

Even the role of a “reformer” that emerged before the Civil War was relatively new. With some exceptions, earlier American do-gooders were mostly people like the Puritan minister Cotton Mather or Ben Franklin, for whom reform was part of a wider range of occupations and activities. By the 1830s there were men and women like Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton who devoted most of their adult lives to reform causes.More »

Featured Primary Sources

“A mirror for the intemperate” broadside, Boston, ca. 1830 (Gilder Lehrman C

A Mirror for the Intemperate, ca. 1830

Creator: Henry Bowen Curriculum Subjects: Government and Civics Grade Levels:
[Abstinence pledge card], September 23, 1842 (Gilder Lehrman Collection)

Abstinence pledge card, 1842

Creator: Mathew Theobald Curriculum Subjects: Grade Levels: 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13+
Horace Greeley to Elizabeth Oakes Smith, March 1, 1851 (Gilder Lehrman Colle

Horace Greeley on a woman’s reform newspaper, 1851

Creator: Horace Greeley Curriculum Subjects: Grade Levels:
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Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life

Speaker(s): Lori D. Ginzberg
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