Optimistic pessimism in American reformation
Perhaps the most interesting era in American history was the Age of Reform during the early-to-mid nineteenth century. Social and cultural unrest led to monumental change, especially with regard to utopian experiments, education, and women’s rights. Led by what some would call visionaries of the time such as Robert Owen, Horace Mann, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, these reform movements greatly impacted the direction of America, for better or for worse. Along those lines, the idea of optimism for a better future may have driven the efforts for change, but optimism cannot exist unless there is pessimism for the way things are now.
At an extreme, some felt that so much was wrong with human society that the only solution was to start completely anew – thus, over forty “utopian experiments” were founded. A notable example was a wealthy and idealistic Scottish textile manufacturer by the name Robert Owen. In 1825, he started a communal society in New Harmony, Indiana. Maybe this endeavor was a little too optimistic, for the community soon attracted radicals and unproductive theorists, which led to its swift collapse.
Another attempt at perfecting humanity was Brook Farm in Massachusetts. Started in 1841 by transcendentalists, the cooperation prospered for half of a decade, until by its debt, it too sunk. On the other hand, the Oneida Community, a radical experiment, prospered for over thirty years. In 1848, it was founded in New York by believers in free love, birth control, and artificial selection of parents. To take the pessimistic viewpoint, the main reason it flourished was not due to its optimism, but because the artisans there produced fine steel traps and silver wears. Many other stabs at better life away from the mainstream came and went, some more quickly than others. The Shakers even lasted nearly one-and-a-half centuries. All of the utopian experiments came into existence because someone felt that life could be better, so the optimism of the time was evident.
Optimism was difficult to see at times, especially considering that many Americans could neither read nor write, and almost nobody attended a school. In the land of opportunity, achieving dreams was nearly impossible. The solution: public schools. Championing the efforts for public schools was Horace Mann. He became the first state superintendent in Massachusetts in 1837, and spent his life campaigning for better schools, higher teacher pay, and expanded curriculum. Mann was quite optimistic, for he was always thinking of ways to make schools better. This task became much easier when Noah Webster published his dictionary in 1828. Other textbooks for schools were also being written at that time. In the 1830’s, William H. McGuffey published grade-school readers, of which he sold 122 million copies. They pushed morality, patriotism, and idealism – all helping to make the country a more optimistic place!
One person that was not feeling too optimistic was Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In fact, she thought there was a lot wrong with society. She was right, too. Sparked by the fact that she was denied participation in The London Convention, Stanton became so fed up with the unequal treatment of women that she vowed to organize a conference for women. Aided by Lucretia Mott, Stanton’s vow became a reality. The two held a conference in Seneca Falls, Ohio. The product was a Declaration of Sentiments, which Stanton modeled after the Declaration of Independence. This set in motion the Women’s Rights Movement, which continued with great strength until 1869. The process was gradual, but the effects were profound. State by state, women were allowed to own property and to have custody of children in case of divorce. While women were not allowed to vote until the 1900’s, much advancement occurred during the great Age of Reform.
In conclusion, the great optimism that inspired many reforms between 1820 and 1860 was mostly due to pessimism – pessimism that was felt by many people who saw that things were bad, but could be made better.
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