Republican Reforms

Despite all the increased violence and rioting, despite all the anxiety over America’s climate, despite all the hand-wringing over so much licentiousness spreading everywhere, by the early nineteenth century most Americans continued to remain extraordinarily confident and optimistic about the future. They could readily respond to the overweening enthusiasm of poet and diplomat Joel Barlow in his Fourth of July oration of 1809. Public speakers on such memorable occasions, said Barlow, were called upon “to give utterance to the feelings of their fellow citizens,” and that he intended to do. America, he said, had passed its infancy and was now looking forward confidently to its adolescence and its manhood. Providence had assigned Americans a special destiny, a theme iterated over and over in these years. The country was not only new to its own people, “but new also to the world.” America required thoughts and principles different from those of the Old World. “There has been no nation either ancient or modern that could have presented human nature in the same character as ours does and will present it; because there has existed no nation whose government has resembled ours . . . a representative democracy on a large scale, with a fixed constitution.” The United States, said Barlow, was “the greatest political phenomenon, and probably will be considered as the greatest advancement in the science of government that all modern ages have produced.”

But, Barlow added, Americans could not rest on their future promise; they had to work to achieve it. “Nations are educated like individual infants. They are what they are taught to be.” Monarchies could exist with a corrupt and ignorant people, but republics could not. In order to sustain their republic, Americans had realized from the outset of the Revolution that they would have to throw off their older monarchical habits and thoughts and make themselves over. But they had every reason to believe that they were equipped to do so.1

They knew—their modern assumption lying at the heart of the Enlightenment told them so—that culture was something constructed, something made by people; and thus they could solve any problem by remaking what they thought and believed. If they could remake something in the physical world as intractable as the climate, then reforming something as man-made as their culture seemed much less challenging. Since free and republican America was “in a plastic state,” where “everything is new & yielding,” the country, said Benjamin Rush, “seems destined by heaven to exhibit to the world the perfection which the mind of man is capable of receiving from the combined operation of liberty, learning, and the gospel upon it.”2

At the heart of the Revolution lay the assumption that people were not born to be what they might become. By exploiting the epistemology of John Locke, Americans had concluded that a child’s mind was a blank slate, or, as one Quaker schoolmaster in 1793 called it, “soft wax.” And since “the mind of the child is like soft wax, which will take the least stamp you put on it, so let it be your care, who teach, to make the stamp good, that the wax be not hurt.”3 Since, as Locke had democratically concluded, all knowledge came from the senses, and since, unlike reason, everyone was equally capable of receiving impressions through his or her senses, all young people could be molded to be whatever the teacher wanted them to be.4

And so Americans in the years following their Revolution set about reforming and republicanizing their society and culture. They aimed to continue the enlightened developments of the eighteenth century—to push back ignorance and barbarism and increase politeness and civilization. Indeed, as citizens of a popular-based republic, they needed more enlightenment than ever before. All aspects of life had to be republicanized—not only the society but also the literature, arts, law, religion, medicine, and even the family. One American even proposed the creation of a republican system of mathematics.

Many Americans, of course, had their hopes for the future mingled with doubts over their ability to become truly republican. Many of their hopes went unfulfilled; many of their reforms were foiled or compromised. Still, what is most impressive is the confidence that so many Revolutionary leaders expressed in their capacity to make over their society. The result was an outburst of reform sentiment that has been rarely duplicated in American history.

AMERICANS KNEW “that the mode of government in any nation will always be moulded by the state of education. The throne of tyranny,” they told themselves, “is founded on ignorance. Literature and liberty go hand in hand.”5 It was the want of education that kept the mass of mankind in darkness and prejudice, in idleness and poverty, in paganism and barbarism. As the Massachusetts constitution of 1780 had stated, “Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue diffused generally among the people . . . [are] necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties.” But more was needed. If Americans were to sustain their republican experiment and remain a free and independent people, they must be taught not just their rights but also their duties as citizens. They must be educated in their moral obligations to the community.

The consequence of these attitudes was an unprecedented post-Revolutionary spate of speeches and writings on the importance of education. On the eve of the Revolution none of the colonies except those in New England had publicly supported schools. Even in New England the support had not been uniform: many of the towns had failed to meet their obligations to erect common or petty schools, and many more had refused to maintain the Latin grammar schools that prepared young boys for college. Many towns, such as Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1767, had urged their representative in the legislature “to relieve the people of the Province from the great burden of supporting so many Latin grammar schools.”6 And, of course, no parents in Massachusetts were required to send their children to school: the compulsion, such as it was, applied only to the towns to maintain petty or grammar schools.

Elsewhere in the colonies education had been very spotty. In New York, Philadelphia, and other coastal towns religious charity schools were the common institutions of elementary learning. Although a minister or some other patron could sponsor the education of a bright child, in all the colonies outside of New England education still remained solely the responsibility of parents. Sometimes parents hired itinerant freelance teachers or, like many of the Southern planters, employed Northern college graduates or indentured servants to tutor their children. Few children received any formal education beyond learning to read and write.

Nine colleges had existed on the eve of the Revolution, and some of them struggled to survive. Few Americans, in fact, attended college; only about half of the members of the First Congress in 1789 had gone to college. The nine colleges together awarded fewer than two hundred B.A. degrees a year, which is why Benjamin Rush called them the “true nurseries of power and influence.” At Columbia College’s commencement in May 1789 only ten students received B.A. degrees.7

Following the Revolution Americans began adding more colleges to the original nine, and by 1815 they had created twenty-four more. Soon colleges—mostly religiously inspired and short-lived—began to be created by the dozens.8 Everybody now wanted colleges, including the first six presidents who repeatedly urged the creation of a national university.

But colleges were supposed to train only gentlemen—a tiny proportion of the society. Many leaders believed that it was the general populace above all that needed to be educated and at the state’s expense. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, organizing the territory north of the Ohio River, expressed the general Revolutionary commitment to education. It decreed that “religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” Six of the sixteen state constitutions formed before 1800 called explicitly for public aid to education. In 1784 New York created a board of regents to oversee a single comprehensive system of schools, pledging support for Columbia College and such other schools as the regents might create. Massachusetts made similar plans for a comprehensive three-tiered system of education building on its earlier colonial legislation.9

Of all the Founders, Jefferson worked out the most detailed plans for reforming the government and society of his state. Through extensive changes in inheritance, landowning, religion, administration, and law, he hoped to involve the people of Virginia personally in the affairs of government. But nothing was more important to him than his plans for a state-supported system of education.10 In his 1779 Virginia Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge he, like Rush, proposed a three-tiered pyramid of local education. At the base would be three years of free elementary schools for all white children, boys and girls. The next level offered twenty regional academies with free tuition for selected boys “raked from the rubbish annually.” Finally, the state would support the best ten needy academic students at the university level, the aristocracy of talent that he described as “the most precious gift of nature.”11

Everywhere intellectual leaders drew up liberal plans for educating the American people. Unlike in England, where conservative aristocrats opposed educating the masses out of fear of promoting dissatisfied employees and social instability, American elites generally endorsed education for all white males.12 In a republic that depended on the intelligence and virtue of all citizens, the diffusion of knowledge had to be widespread. Indeed, said Noah Webster, education had to be “the most important business in civil society.”13

Most of the educational reformers in these years were less interested in releasing the talents of individuals than, as Benjamin Rush put it, in rendering “the mass of the people more homogeneous” in order to “fit them more easily for uniform and peaceable government.” Pupils should be taught that they did not belong to themselves but were “public property.” It was even “possible,” said Rush, “to convert men into republican machines.”14 Even Jefferson, despite his emphasis on guarding the freedom and happiness of individuals, was more interested in promoting social unity and the public good.

Yet in the decades immediately following the Revolution, few of these elaborate educational plans came to fruition. Virginia repeatedly tried to erect a comprehensive school system along Jeffersonian lines, but the expense of such a system and the dispersed population prevented legislative adoption. In 1796 the Virginia legislature at least approved the creation of a system of elementary schools but left it to each county court to implement, in Jefferson’s opinion, effectively allowing the county courts to emasculate what the legislature had promised.

Elsewhere religious jealousies and popular opposition to tax increases for schools that still seemed to benefit only elites undermined support for comprehensive school systems. Too many ordinary farmers and artisans did not want their children compelled to go to school all day; they needed their labor at home. When little happened as a result of the 1784 act in New York, the state legislature tried again in 1795 and in 1805 to encourage the establishment of a comprehensive school system. Although many gentry leaders urged the need for public education, the public remained skeptical. Consequently, schooling continued in nearly all the states to be largely a private matter. In place of the elaborate plans for publicly supported education, reformers had to make do with privately supported charity schools, Sunday schools, and infant schools.

Even in New England, with its long tradition of public education, privately supported academies sprang up in the post-Revolutionary years to replace the older town-supported grammar schools that had existed in the colonial period. These academies, designed separately for both young men and women, became very important vehicles of education. As a Federalist complained in 1806, even “the middling class of society” was finding it “fashionable” to send their sons and daughters to these academies, often because the ambitious young people themselves pressed their parents to allow them to attend the schools.15 Because the modern distinction between public and private was not yet clear, legislatures continued to grant public money periodically to some of these essentially private charity schools and academies.

Despite the spread of private education, however, the republican ideal of single, comprehensive, publicly supported systems of schooling did not die. Even though they were never adequately implemented, a series of legislative acts in states like New York and Massachusetts kept alive the republican idea of a three-tiered public-supported system for all people. A successful publicly funded modern educational system would come only in the common school movement of the second quarter of the nineteenth century.16

FORMAL SCHOOLING, OF COURSE, was never all that the Revolutionaries meant by education. Although many thought the Revolution was over in 1783 with the British recognition of American independence, Dr. Benjamin Rush knew better. “We have changed our forms of government,” he said in 1786, “but it remains yet to effect a revolution in our principles, opinions, and manners so as to accommodate them to the forms of government that we have adopted.”17

Rush was born in Philadelphia in 1745, and, like so many of the other Revolutionaries, he had no distinguished lineage: his father was an ordinary farmer and gunsmith. When Rush was five his father died, so his mother began running a grocery store to support the family. At the age of eight Rush was sent to live with a clergyman-uncle who saw to it that he received an education. After graduating from the College of New Jersey (Princeton) in 1760, Rush apprenticed as a physician in Philadelphia before leaving for further medical training at the University of Edinburgh. After returning to America in 1769, he became professor of chemistry at the College of Philadelphia and a participant in the Revolution both as a political leader and as a physician.

Since Rush came to believe that “the science of medicine was related to everything,” he considered everything within his intellectual domain and had something to say about everything. In the decades following the Revolution Rush carried on what one historian has called “a one-man crusade to remake America.”18 “Mr. Great Heart,” Jeremy Belknap called him, after the character in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress who attacked all the giants and hobgoblins that stood in the way of getting to the Celestial City. Believing that he “was acting for the benefit of the whole world, and of future ages,” Rush campaigned for every conceivable reform—for a national university, churches for blacks, temperance, healthy diets, the emancipation of the slaves, prison reform, free postage for newspapers, enlightened treatment of the insane, the education of women, animal rights, and the abolition of hunting weapons, oaths, dueling, and corporal and capital punishment. He even hoped eventually to eliminate all courts of law and all diseases. He was not so utopian, he said in 1786, as to think that man could become immortal, but he did believe that “it is possible to produce such a change in his moral character, as shall raise him to a resemblance of angels—nay, more, to the likeness of God himself.”19

As republicans, Americans shared at least some of Rush’s enthusiasm for reform, and their leaders enlisted every kind of media to change people’s opinions, prejudices, and habits. Of these media the spoken and written word was most important. Every occasion demanded a lengthy speech, and republican oratory was now celebrated as a peculiarly American form of communication. Groups sponsored public lectures on all sorts of topics and laid the foundations for the later lyceum movement. But it was printed matter, with its republican capacity to reach the greatest numbers of people, which came to be valued most. Private conversation and the private exchange of literary manuscripts among a genteel few might be suitable for a monarchy, but a republic required that politeness and learning be made more public.20

As republican citizens, many Americans, especially among the middling sort, became ever more anxious about acquiring gentility. People wanted more advice and etiquette manuals for every occasion or subject—from how to write letters to friends to how to control and clean their bodies. People, even gentry, who during their entire lives had never been wet all over now engaged in occasional bathing. In the 1790s public bathhouses were erected in some American cities as people began responding to the appeals for more cleanliness contained in scores of conduct manuals.21

All the various efforts to become more polite that had characterized eighteenth-century colonial society took on greater urgency under the new Republic. During the entire eighteenth century Americans published 218 spelling books designed to improve the writing of the English language, two-thirds of them in the final seventeen years of the century, between 1783 and 1800.22 By the early nineteenth century Noah Webster’s comprehensive speller, first published in 1783, had sold three million copies.23 Although writing and spelling were important, they were not as important as reading. The few private libraries that had existed in the large cities in the colonial period were now supplemented by publicly supported libraries, which in turn sponsored increasing numbers of reading clubs, lectures, and debating societies.24

Most Americans now believed that anything that helped the spread of learning was good for their republic, for an informed citizenry was the source of republican freedom and security.25 Although Americans could not agree on what the citizenry should be informed about, they created new organizations for the collecting and conveying of knowledge at remarkable rates. Beginning with the reorganization of the American Philosophical Society in 1780, Americans began establishing many new learned academies and scientific societies. John Adams helped to form the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Massachusetts. In 1799 the Connecticut Academy was created, and soon other states were establishing similar institutions.

In 1791 Congregational clergyman and historian Jeremy Belknap, concerned about the lack of any repository for historical documents in the United States, founded the Massachusetts Historical Society. The society was designed to preserve the materials that would “mark the genius, delineate the manners, and trace the progress of society in the United States.”26 It became the model for the New-York Historical Society (1804), the American Antiquarian Society (1812), and dozens of other historical societies created in other states in the early nineteenth century.

Everywhere institutions and organizations were burdened with the responsibility of imparting virtue and knowledge to the citizenry. Freemasonry, for example, came to see itself principally as an educational instrument for promoting morality. “Every character, figure, and emblem, depicted in a Lodge,” declared a Masonic handbook, “has a moral tendency to, and inculcates the practice of virtue.” But Masonry was not content with educating only its members; it sought to reach out and affect the whole society. Masonic brothers were involved in a multitude of public ceremonies and dedications—anointing bridges, canals, universities, monuments, and buildings. In 1793 President Washington himself, wearing a Masonic apron and sash, laid the cornerstone of the new United States Capitol in the planned Federal City. Masons, many of whom were artisans, architects, and painters, placed the fraternity’s emblems, signs, and symbols on a wide variety of objects, including ceramics, pitchers, handkerchiefs, liquor flasks, and wallpaper—with the didactic hope of teaching virtue through the simple and expressive visual language of Masonry.27

Printed matter flooded the new Republic. Three-quarters of all the books and pamphlets published in America between 1637 and 1800 appeared in the last thirty-five years of the eighteenth century. Few periodicals had appeared during the colonial period, and these had been frail and unstable, blossoming for a moment and dying like exotic plants. As late as 1785 only one American magazine existed, and it struggled to survive.28

Suddenly, this all changed. Between 1786 and 1795 twenty-eight learned and gentlemanly magazines were established, six more in these few years than in the entire colonial period. These magazines contained a rich mixture of subjects, including poetry, descriptions of new fossils, and directions for expelling noxious vapors from wells; and for the first time some of the magazines were aimed at female readers.

Although the Confederation had not done much to accelerate the movement of information throughout the country, the newly invigorated federal government was eager to change things. In 1788 there had been only sixty-nine post offices and less than two thousand miles of post roads to service four million people over half a continent. Congress’s establishment of a national post office in 1792 created new routes and led to a proliferation of post offices throughout the country. By 1800 the number of post offices had grown to 903; by 1815 there were over three thousand post offices. Every little American town or hamlet wanted one. Since a post office was “the soul of commerce,” a group of South Carolinians in 1793 naturally had petitioned for one. Without “such a direct, regular, and immediate communication by posts,” the petitioners said, we are “kept in ignorance” and “know not anything which concerns us, either as men or as planters.” To some observers the postal system seemed to be the most useful and rapidly improving feature of American life. “The mail has become the channel of remittance for the commercial interests of the country,” said Jefferson’s postmaster general, Gideon Granger, “and in some measure for the government.” The postal system was helping to annihilate time and distances everywhere.29

Americans would soon make their postal system larger than the postal systems of either Britain or France. By 1816 the postal system had over thirty-three hundred offices, employing nearly 70 percent of the entire federal civilian workforce. The amount of mail increased just as quickly. In the year 1790 the postal system had carried only three hundred thousand letters, one for about every fifteen persons in the country. By 1815 it transmitted nearly seven and a half million letters during the year, which was about one for every person. The post office was, as Benjamin Rush urged in 1787, the “only means” of “conveying light and heat to every individual in the federal commonwealth.” And, unlike the situation in Great Britain and other European nations, the mail was transmitted without government surveillance or control.30

All these developments helped to speed up the rate at which information was communicated from one place to another. In 1790 it had taken more than a month for news to travel from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia; by 1794 that had been cut to ten days. In 1790 it had taken forty days to receive a reply to a letter sent from Portland, Maine, to Savannah, Georgia; by 1810 that time had been reduced to twenty-seven days.31

The postal system had its greatest effect on the circulation of newspapers. Congress’s Post Office Act of 1792 allowed all newspapers, and not just those close to the centers of power, to be sent by mail at very low rates; in effect, newspaper circulation was subsidized by letter-writers. This act allowed for the dispersal of newspapers to the most remote areas of the country and nationalized the spread of information. In 1800 the postal system transmitted 1. 9 million newspapers a year; by 1820 it was transmitting 6 million a year.32

In 1790 the country contained only 92 newspapers, only eight of them dailies. By 1800 this number had more than doubled, to 235, twenty-four of which were dailies. By 1810 Americans were buying over twenty-two million copies of 376 newspapers annually—even though half the population was under the age of sixteen and one-fifth was enslaved and generally prevented from reading. This was the largest aggregate circulation of newspapers of any country in the world.33

ALL THIS CIRCULATION of information could not have been achieved without the building of new postal roads and turnpikes. The need was obvious, Samuel Henshaw of Northampton, Massachusetts, told his congressman, Theodore Sedgwick, in 1791. When the capital of the nation was in New York, said Henshaw, the people of the Connecticut Valley used to hear what was going on in the Congress. But once the capital moved to Philadelphia, “we scarce know you are in session.” This, said Henshaw, “proves the necessity of post roads through all parts of the Union—people would then have early information & be influenced by it.” Besides, he added, such post roads would be good for business.34


Source for both maps: Allan R. Pred, Urban Growth and the Circulation of Information: The United States System of Cities, 1790–1840 (Cambridge, MA, 1973).

With these sorts of sentiments in the air, Americans began laying out roads at a frenetic pace. By 1810 they had created post roads that ran continuously from Brewer, Maine, not far from the northeastern border of the country, to St. Marys, Georgia, at the boundary with East Florida, a distance of 1, 655 miles. Post roads in New York extended westward to Canandaigua in Iroquois country, which was nearly four hundred miles from New York City or Boston and had only recently been opened to white settlement. By 1810 New York had incorporated nearly a hundred turnpike companies, most of them since 1800. The busiest road in the country was the stage line between New York and Philadelphia, which in 1796 had four daily stage runs. In Pennsylvania roads ran from Philadelphia to Wheeling on the Ohio River, a distance of 389 miles, which usually took eight or nine days to travel. From Philadelphia continuous roads extended southwest into Tennessee as far as Knoxville. Other roads ran from Philadelphia to York, Pennsylvania, then south through the Shenandoah Valley and the towns of Hagerstown, Winchester, Staunton, and Abington. The South, however, had far fewer roads than the Middle States and the Northeast, and its population remained much more scattered and isolated.

The turnpikes were toll roads on which money was paid at gate entrances according to prescribed rates. They were often called “artificial roads” because, in contrast to the natural country roads, they contained artificial beds of gravel designed to support the weight of carriages and wagons. They were built with relatively level grades and were provided with sufficient convexity to allow for drainage. Often gates were established every ten miles or so, particularly at points where country roads “turned” into the turnpike. Considering that ordinary laborers made less than a dollar a day, the tolls were not cheap. In the state of Connecticut in 1808, four-wheeled carriages had to pay twenty-five cents for every two miles; a loaded wagon, twelve and one-half cents; a man and horse, four cents; a mail stage, six and one-half cents; all other stages, twenty-five cents. These tolls supplied dividends to the investors who had bought shares in the corporation that built the road and maintained it.

The first major turnpike in the country was the Philadelphia to Lancaster road; it was completed in 1795 but much improved over the following decade. It was twenty-four feet wide and laid with eighteen-inch gravel in the middle decreasing to twelve inches on the sides for drainage. The road crossed three substantial bridges. At first the turnpike corporation returned only 2 percent per year on the investors’ capital, but with the improvements on the road, usage increased, and the shares began returning 4 to 5 percent per year. With its success most of the rest of the Northern states began chartering turnpike companies. By 1810 twenty-six turnpike companies had been chartered in Vermont and more than twenty in New Hampshire. By 1811 New York had chartered 137 companies. As late as 1808, however, no state south of Virginia had established a turnpike company—another graphic reminder of the rapidly emerging distinction between the North and the South. Turnpikes that ran into new areas quickly led to a rush of new settlers eager to take advantage of the lower costs of transporting their produce. The Rome-Geneva turnpike in New York, for example, was completed in 1800 and soon reduced the cost of conveying a hundredweight of goods from $3.50 to 90 cents.

Getting a corporate charter and building the road, of course, did not guarantee success for the developers. Many of the turnpike companies failed because too many farmers evaded the tolls by using local detours. So common was the evasion that some began calling the roads “shunpikes.”35

In 1802 Congress authorized the building of the National Road that would run from the East Coast to the Ohio River. But disputes over the route of the road delayed action. Finally, in 1806, Congress authorized a middle route beginning in the town of Cumberland in western Maryland; it later extended what came to be called the Cumberland Road (now U.S. 50) beyond Cincinnati to the Mississippi River at St. Louis by way of Vincennes. “In this way,” President Jefferson told the Congress in February 1808, “we may accomplish a continued and advantageous line of communication from the seat of the General Government to St. Louis, passing through several very interesting points of the Western territory.” Actual construction of the road did not begin until 1811.36

At the same time Americans were building roads, they were improving their rivers and constructing canals. Because Americans, as Pennsylvania-born Robert Fulton pointed out, had such a strong prejudice in favor of wagons, it took a while for canal-building to take off. Fulton himself did not begin his career interested in canals. Indeed, he began as an artist and moved to England in 1787 to study painting with Benjamin West, an ex-Pennsylvanian who was known for his support of aspiring American artists. Although Fulton exhibited two canvases at the Royal Academy in 1791 and four in 1793, he soon came to realize that his genius lay in other directions. Influenced by some English aristocrats and scientists and the reformer and manufacturer Robert Owen, Fulton became involved in the operations of canals. In 1796 he published A Treatise on the Improvement of Canal Navigation, which he enhanced with superb drawings of aqueducts, bridges, inclined planes, and other canal devices. Fulton envisioned a series of canals designed for small boats being built everywhere to tie people and trade together. The Burr conspiracy, which threatened “to sever the western from the eastern states,” convinced Fulton that canals could create a “sense of mutual interests arising from mutual intercourse and mingled commerce.”37

Although Fulton eventually became preoccupied with various devices for conducting undersea warfare, he continued to stress the importance of canals to anyone who would listen. In 1811 he joined a commission, along with Mayor DeWitt Clinton of New York City, to explore the possibility of building a canal in the upper part of New York state.

Most of Fulton’s many projects and proposals were ahead of their time. Only his development of the steamboat that traveled up the Hudson from New York to Albany in 1807 was well timed; this project, done in partnership with Robert R. Livingston, immortalized him.38 Fulton was able to succeed with his steamboat where his predecessors John Fitch and James Rumsey had failed; not only was his boat technically superior, but most of his connections and patrons were better than those his rivals could muster. In 1811 Fulton sent his steamboat the New Orleans from Pittsburgh down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to the port for which the boat was named, the first such craft on these Western waters. At the same time, New York City already had Fulton-built steam ferryboats carrying commuters across both the Hudson and East rivers. Fulton’s first steam ferry on the East River, called Nassau, was a catamaran; it had a deck large enough to carry horses and wagons as well as foot passengers. People appreciated his time-saving inventions, and following his death in 1815 both the Manhattan and Brooklyn streets leading to his ferry slips were renamed Fulton Street in his honor.39

As late as 1816 only a hundred miles of canals existed in the country. Yet these hundred miles were the products of at least twenty-five canal and lock companies. The two-and-one-half-mile-long canal at South Hadley Falls in western Massachusetts opened up in 1795 and took in over three thousand dollars in tolls the first year. In 1800 two more canals were built further north at Miller Falls and Bellows Falls, Vermont, making the Connecticut River navigable from the White River to the Atlantic. The most famous canal of the period was the Middlesex Canal that ran from Boston to the Merrimac River. It opened in 1804 and was twenty-seven miles long and thirty feet wide; it had twenty-one locks, seven aqueducts over rivers, and forty-eight bridges.

The canal companies were chartered and financed the same way as the toll roads. Although many of the canals failed to earn profits for their investors, many Americans were willing to try anything if there was a possibility of making a little money. Low-cost transportation to extensive markets, usually by rivers and other inland waterways, was a key to both commercial prosperity and a proliferation of labor-saving inventions. In this respect in the period up to 1812 the areas that benefited most from cheap water transportation and had the most inventive activity (as measured by the number of patents issued per capita) were New York and southern New England.40

Many saw the roads and canals not only as a means of making money for individual farmers but also, like Fulton, as devices for promoting union. In his 1806 message to Congress, President Jefferson foresaw the national debt soon being paid off, and thus he held out the prospect of using the federal surplus to support a system of internal improvements for the greatly enlarged nation. Since the federal funds, as Jefferson declared, came from duties on imports that were chiefly “foreign luxuries, purchased by those only who are rich enough to afford themselves the use of them,” the taxes were justified in spite of their violation of republican principles. From the internal improvements, Jefferson promised, “new channels of communication will be opened between the States, the lines of separation will disappear, their interests will be identified, and their union cemented by new and indissoluble ties.”41

President Jefferson, along with many other strict constructionist “Old Republicans,” always believed that a constitutional amendment was necessary to implement these plans, fearing that any implied enlargement of federal power over internal improvements would set a precedent for further federal growth. Although Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin was less scrupulous about the use of national power, he recognized the political necessity of a constitutional amendment. Nevertheless, with only the promise of a future amendment, he sought to get the process going in April 1808 with his Report on Roads and Canals.

In his report Gallatin laid out his grandiose plans for the building of roads and canals that would cement the parts of the country together, all coordinated and paid for by the national government at a cost of $ 20 million. Unfortunately for Gallatin, Congress, torn by Federalist opposition and Republican rivalries, was no more interested in his report than it had been earlier in Hamilton’s Report on Manufactures. It did nothing to implement Gallatin’s plan until 1817, when it pledged the bonus due the government from the new national bank for the improvement of the nation’s roads and canals. This Bonus Bill, however, much to the surprise of nearly everyone, including its principal sponsor, John C. Calhoun, ran into the strict constructionist scruples of President James Madison, who vetoed it, on the grounds that the idea of implied powers threatened the “definite partition” between the “General and State Governments” on which the “permanent success of the Constitution” depended.42

PRECISELY BECAUSE REPUBLICS, as Benjamin Rush said, were naturally “peaceful and benevolent forms of government,” they inevitably promoted humane reforms in accord with their “mild and benevolent principles.”43 Jefferson thought that America was the most caring nation in the world. “There is not a country on earth,” he said, “where there is greater tranquillity, where the laws are milder, or better obeyed . . ., where strangers are better received, more hospitably treated, & with a more sacred respect.”44 In the several decades following the Revolution Americans took very seriously the idea that they were more honest, more generous, and friendlier than other peoples.

Consequently, they were eager to create charitable and humanitarian societies. Indeed, more humanitarian societies were formed in the decade following the Revolution than were created in the entire colonial period.45 New England saw a virtual explosion of philanthropic organizations in the post-Revolutionary years. During the colonial period and prior to the formation of the Constitution in 1787, New Englanders had founded only seventy-eight charitable associations, most of these located in Boston. But with the new emphasis on people’s moral sense and feelings of benevolence, things soon changed. In the decade following 1787, New Englanders formed 112 charitable societies; between 1798 and 1807, 158 more; and between 1808 and 1817, 1,101—creating in three decades nearly fourteen hundred benevolent organizations scattered in small towns all over the region.46

These associations were self-conscious replacements for traditional acts of individual and private charity, which were now described as impulsive and arbitrary. By organizing “upon a system; which inquires, deliberates, and feels a responsibility to the public,” the charitable associations, declared the Reverend Edward Dorr Griffin of Massachusetts in 1811, were “the best repository of our gifts” and far more effective than the “little and widely scattered streams of individual munificence.”47

Because the Federalist and Republican elites who created these institutions saw them as simply extensions of their public role as leaders of the society, they described them as public institutions designed to promote the public good. But as the state lost control of its creations and the idea of a unitary public good lost its coherence, these and other such organizations, like the chartered colleges, came to be regarded as private. These kinds of humanitarian and charitable associations represented the beginnings of what today is labeled “a civil society”—constituting the thousands of institutions and organizations that stand between the individual and the government. This emerging civil society in the early Republic was the major means by which Americans were able, to some extent at least, to tame and manage the near anarchic exuberance of their seething, boisterous society.

Voluntary associations in the early Republic sprang up to meet every human need—from the New York “Society for the Promotion of the Manumission of Slaves and Protecting such of them that have been or may be Liberated” to the Philadelphia “Society for the Relief of the Poor and Distressed Masters of Ships, their Widows and Children.” There were mechanic societies, humane societies, societies for the prevention of pauperism, orphan asylums, missionary societies, marine societies, tract societies, Bible societies, temperance associations, Sabbatarian groups, peace societies, societies for the suppression of vice and immorality, societies for the relief of poor widows, societies for the promotion of industry, indeed, societies for just about anything and everything that was good and humanitarian.48

Some of these organizations, like the many immigrant aid societies that emerged in the cities, had social as well as humanitarian purposes. But most were charitable societies initially organized by paternalistic urban elites like John Jay, Noah Webster, and Benjamin Rush to deal with all the human miseries their newly aroused benevolent consciences told them they had an obligation to ease. These multiplying societies treated the sick, aided the industrious poor, housed orphans, fed imprisoned debtors, built huts for shipwrecked sailors, and, in the case of the Massachusetts Humane Society, even attempted to resuscitate those suffering from “suspended animation,” that is, those such as drowning victims who appeared to be dead but actually were not. The fear of being buried alive was a serious concern at this time. Many, like Washington on his deathbed, asked that their bodies not be immediately interred in case they might be suffering from suspended animation.

In 1788 Dr. Rush had told the clergy that, whatever their doctrinal differences, “you are all united in inculcating the necessity of morals,” and “from the success or failure of your exertions in the cause of virtue, we anticipate the freedom or slavery of our country.” It was a message repeated over and over during the subsequent decades. Faced with such an awesome responsibility to inculcate morality, religious groups and others responded to the cause with an evangelical zeal and clamor that went beyond what Rush or anyone else in 1788 could have imagined. All the clergy came to realize that they could no longer rely on exposing the community’s guilt through jeremiads; they could no longer count on reforming merely the “better part” of the society in the expectation that it would bring the rest along; and they could no longer just use government to create the right “moral effect.” Ordinary people themselves had to be mobilized in the cause of virtue, through the creation of local moral societies, which in 1812 the great New England evangelical preacher Lyman Beecher labeled “disciplined moral militia.”49

Middling members of these multiplying moral societies, which were at first often confined to rural villages, relied essentially on observation and the force of local public opinion. Members who were eager to support “the suppression of vice,” such as the members of the Moral Society of the County of Columbia in New York in 1815, united to achieve that goal. They collected “the lovers of virtue of every name” and presented “a bold front to the growing licentiousness of the day”; and then, by erecting “a citadel, from which extended observations may be made,” they exerted their “influence over the moral conduct of others,” first by friendly persuasion, and then, if that did not work, by exposing the moral delinquents “to the penalties of law.” The hopes were high: “character, that dearest earthly interest of man, will thus be protected, and thousands who are now settling down into incurable habits of licentiousness, will by these means be reclaimed.”50

The growing and sprawling cities, however, needed more than moral societies to watch over and intimidate people. They needed new and substantial institutions, such as relief societies, hospitals, free schools, prisons, and savings banks, to improve the character of the weak and vicious of the society. The proliferation in the early nineteenth century of these new institutions eventually transformed and often eclipsed the humanitarian societies that enlightened gentry had formed in the immediate post-Revolutionary years in response to feelings of republican benevolence. All of these new institutions became parts of an expanding civic society.

By the second decade of the nineteenth century the goals and social complexion of these earlier urban philanthropic endeavors were changing. Ordinary middling sorts of people, usually pious newcomers from rural areas, were replacing the older paternalistic gentry as leaders of these charitable societies. In doing so, they transformed the emotional bonds tying them to the objects of their benevolence, substituting moral rectitude for gratitude.

The patrician gentry in the 1780s and 1790s had organized charitable societies for treating the sick, aiding widowed mothers, housing orphans, feeding imprisoned debtors, or resuscitating drowning victims out of a sense of Christian stewardship and paternalistic compassion befitting their genteel social position. They often seemed more interested in what their benevolence could do for their own feelings than for what it could do for the objects of their compassion. “How glorious, how God-like, to step forth to the relief of . . . distress,” declared the twenty-four-year-old DeWitt Clinton, a Columbia graduate, newly installed Freemason, and nephew of the governor of New York, in a 1793 oration. Enlightened caring gentry like Clinton wanted nothing more than “to arrest the tear of sorrow; to disarm affliction of its darts; to smooth the pillow of declining age; to rescue from the fangs of vice the helpless infant, and to diffuse the most lively joys over a whole family of rational, immortal creatures.”51 Paternalistic acts of charity by gentry like Clinton were disinterested deeds of sympathy for people whose character or behavior they did not expect to change fundamentally. All they expected was feelings of dependency and gratitude on the part of the recipients.

It was not gratitude, however, that the middle-class founders of the new reform institutions were interested in or expected. The new reformers wanted to imbue people not with deference and dependency but with “correct moral principles”; they aimed to change the actual behavior of people. These middling reformers had transformed themselves, often by strenuous efforts at self-improvement and hard work. Why couldn’t others do the same? The compassionate charity of the paternalistic gentry, they believed, did not get at the heart of the problem of poverty. Indeed, in some cases they thought it aggravated the problem; many claimed, for example, that giving charity indiscriminately to the poor only perpetuated poverty. “Do not give to persons able to work for a living,” declared a critic of the traditional paternalistic charity in 1807. “Do not support widows who refuse to put out their children. Do not let the means of support be made easier to one who does not work than to those who do.”52

Instead of merely relieving the suffering of the unfortunate, as the earlier paternalistic gentry and benevolent associations had done, the new middle-class reformers sought to create institutions that would get at the sources of poverty, crime, and other social evils, mainly by suppressing the vices—gambling, drinking, Sabbath-breaking, profanity, horse racing, and other expressions of profligacy—that presumably were causing the evils. The middle-class moral reformers sought to remove the taverns and betting houses that tempted the weak and impressionable and to create institutions, such as schools and reformatory-type prisons, that would instill in people a proper respect for morality. Many of the middling reformers began attacking the sexual license and the spread of bastardy that had characterized the immediate post-Revolutionary decades. “The prostitution of women, which prevails to a high degree in all large cities,” wrote publisher Mathew Carey in 1797, in one of the first writings on behalf of prostitution reform, “might be lessened by giving them encouragement to enter into various occupations which are available to them.” But, said Carey, even more important than jobs in keeping women from prostitution was religion, especially “instruction of First-day or Sunday schools.”53

AMERICANS DID NOT CONFINE their spirit of reform to just the United States and its own citizens. Throughout the period they created numerous missionary societies to bring the Bible and assorted tracts, schoolbooks, testaments, and other devotional literature to the heathen, first in the North American continent and then eventually in the farthest reaches of the globe. In 1787 the state of Massachusetts established the Society for Propagating the Gospel Among the Indians and Others in North America. Over the next thirty years a score of other major state and regional missionary societies were created, most of them supported by private bequests. The New York Missionary Society, formed in 1796, was the first voluntary interdenominational organization designed to propagate the gospel among the Indians. In 1801 the Connecticut assembly in association with the Presbyterian-inclined clergy of Connecticut adopted a Plan of Union that encouraged missionaries to the new settlements in the West and elsewhere to come together with the Congregationalists for their mutual benefit. Most of these missionary societies published journals and magazines to raise money and to keep the reforming spirit alive. In 1802 a group of Boston women formed the Cent Institution and agreed to deposit one cent a week in mite boxes for the purpose of “purchasing Bibles, Dr. Watts Psalms and Hymns, Primers, Catechisms, Divine Songs, Tokens for Children, etc.,” which would be distributed by the Massachusetts Missionary Society that had been established in 1799.54

Soon, however, the goals of these missionary societies expanded beyond the North American continent, especially as the spread of French infidelity seemed to threaten the future of Christianity throughout the world. In 1804 the Massachusetts Missionary Society began to look outside of America for converts; the Cent Institution now saw itself “engaged in sending the gospel to lands unenlightened with its genial rays,” wherever they might be. So popular did the idea of women’s mite societies become that English reformers picked it up. Indeed, throughout this period the American missionary societies, most of which were in New England, maintained strong ties and correspondence with their British counterparts; and thus most were appropriately Anglophile Federalists. Soon the women of Massachusetts were raising several thousand dollars annually for missions in lands as distant as Africa, the Middle East, East Asia, India, and the South Seas.55

In 1810 a group of enthusiasts formed the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions that became for the next half century the largest organization devoted to sending benevolent workers abroad. The organizers justified their efforts by the oneness of humanity and need to bring the promise of Christian salvation to benighted souls everywhere. But the foreign missions were not just a religious responsibility; they were, the sponsors declared, a peculiar American responsibility. The United States above all other countries, they said, had the means and the message to bring republican civilization to the world.56

PROBABLY THE HUMANITARIAN REFORM that attracted the most worldwide attention was the Americans’ effort to create new systems of criminal punishment. Since the colonial authorities had considered the lower orders incapable of restraining their passions by themselves, they had concluded that potential criminals could be controlled only through fear or force. Hence pillorying, whipping, and mutilating of the criminals’ bodies had been standard punishments in the colonies, and carrying out these bodily punishments in public in front of local communities presumably had possessed the added benefit of overawing and deterring the spectators. Men and women in eighteenth-century Boston were taken from the huge cage that had brought them from the prison, tied bareback to a post on State Street, and lashed thirty or forty times “amid the screams of the culprits and the uproar of the mob.”57

Everywhere in the eighteenth-century colonies criminals had their heads and hands pilloried and were exposed for hours on end to insults and pelting by onlookers. The stocks were even moved about, often to the particular neighborhoods of the criminals in order to make them feel mortification for their crimes and to teach lessons to the observers. In every punishment the authorities were determined to expose the offender to public scorn, and with the lowliest of criminals, to do so permanently through mutilation. Persons with a brand on their foreheads or their ears cropped were forever condemned to the contempt of the intimate worlds in which they lived and object lessons to everyone of the consequences of crime.

Since few colonists had believed that the criminals were capable of being reformed or rehabilitated, capital punishment had been common not only for murder but for robbery, forgery, housebreaking, and counterfeiting as well. Prior to the Revolution, Pennsylvania had twenty capital crimes; Virginia had twenty-seven. Executions of the condemned criminals were conducted in public, and they drew thousands of spectators.

The republican Revolution challenged these traditional notions of punishment. Many of the Revolutionary state constitutions of 1776 evoked the enlightened thinking of the Italian reformer Cesare Beccaria and promised to end punishments that were “cruel and unusual” and to make them “less sanguinary, and in general more proportionate to the crimes.”58 Jefferson and other leaders drew up plans for liberalizing the harsh and bloody penal codes of the colonial period. In fact, Jefferson devoted more time to his Virginia bill for proportioning crimes and punishments than to any of the other reform bills he drafted during the Revolution.

A new republican order was emerging, and with it hopes of milder and more compassionate forms of punishment. Students at Yale and Princeton began debating the effectiveness of executing criminals. Did not such punishments do more harm than good? Maybe it was sensible for Britain to have nearly two hundred crimes punishable by death, for monarchies were based on fear and had to rely on harsh punishments. But, said many enlightened Americans, republics were different. They believed in equality and were capable of producing a kinder and gentler people. Americans must not forget, said Benjamin Rush, that even criminals “possess souls and bodies composed of the same materials as those of our friends and relatives.”59

Everywhere enlightened Americans expressed doubts about the effectiveness of the old methods of criminal punishment. A sudden increase in crime in the 1780s suggested to many that bodily mutilations and executions did not deter crime after all. Sheriffs began refusing to cut off the limbs of criminals and to draw and quarter the bodies of those hanged, while others began rethinking the sources of criminal behavior. People, it seemed, were not born to be criminals; they were taught to be criminals by the world around them.

If the characters of people were produced by their environments, as Lockean liberal thinking suggested, perhaps criminals were not entirely responsible for their actions. Maybe impious and cruel parents of the criminal were at fault, or maybe even the whole society was to blame. “We all must plead guilty before the bar of conscience as having had some share in corrupting the morals of the community, and levelling the highway to the gallows,” declared a New Hampshire minister in 1796.60 If criminal behavior was learned, then perhaps it could be unlearned. “Let every criminal, then, be considered as a person laboring under an infectious disorder,” said one reformer in 1790. “Mental disease is the cause of all crimes.”61 If so, then it seemed that criminals could be salvaged, and not simply mutilated or destroyed. “A multitude of sanguinary laws is both impolitic and unjust,” declared the 1784 New Hampshire Bill of Rights, “the true design of all punishments being to reform, not to exterminate mankind.”62

These enlightened sentiments spread everywhere and eroded support for capital punishment in the new republican states. Not that the reformers had become soft on crime. Although Jefferson’s code called for restricting the death penalty to treason and murder, he did propose the lex talionis, the law of retaliation, for the punishment of other crimes. So the state would poison the criminal who poisoned his victim and would castrate men guilty of rape, polygamy, or sodomy.63 In Massachusetts in 1785 a counterfeiter was no longer executed. Instead, he was set in the pillory, taken to the gallows, where he stood with a rope around his neck for a time, whipped twenty stripes, had his left arm cut off, and finally was sentenced to three years’ hard labor.

Although most states did something to change their code of punishment, Pennsylvania led the way in the 1780s and 1790s in the enlightened effort, as its legislation put it, “to reclaim rather than destroy,” “to correct and reform the offenders” rather than simply to mutilate or execute them. Pennsylvania abolished all bodily punishments such as “burning in the hand” and “cutting off the ears” and ended the death penalty for all crimes except murder. Instead, the state proposed a scale of punishments based on fines and years of imprisonment.

With the reliance on imprisonment the Pennsylvanian reformers went beyond the Beccarian proposals for reform and challenged even the punishing of criminals in public. Since people learned from what they saw, the cruel and barbaric punishments of monarchy carried out in public, said Thomas Paine, hardened the hearts of its subjects and made them bloodthirsty. “It is their sanguinary punishments which corrupt mankind.” If people witness the miseries of the criminal being punished “without emotion or sympathy,” said Rush, then “the principle of sympathy” itself “will cease to act altogether; and . . . will soon lose its place in the human heart.”64

In the larger and less intimate worlds of the growing cities, communal punishments based on shaming the criminal and frightening the spectators seemed less meaningful, especially since the spectators, more often than not, reveled in witnessing the punishments. Instead of having their bodies publicly flogged or mutilated, the criminals, the reformers concluded, should be made to feel their personal guilt by being confined in prisons apart from the excited environment of the outside world, in solitude where the “calm contemplation of mind which brings on penitence” could take place. These new enlightened punishments, declared Edward Shippen in 1785, would bring “honor” to “our rising Empire, to set an Example of Lenity, moderation and Wisdom to the Older Countries of the World.”65

Out of these efforts was created the penitentiary, which turned the prison into what Philadelphia officials called “a school of reformation.” By 1805 New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Virginia, and Massachusetts had followed Pennsylvania in constructing penitentiaries based on the principle of solitary confinement. Some criticized the practice on the grounds that it rendered the rehabilitated prisoners unfit for becoming useful members of society; these critics accepted the concept of penitentiaries but wanted the prisoners to participate in hard labor (and earn money) as well as having temporary periods of confinement in total solitude.

By the second decade of the nineteenth century, however, more and more Americans were having second thoughts about the penal reform that a decade earlier had seemed so promising. In Massachusetts the state prison was soon overwhelmed by overcrowding, escapes, violence, and expenses far in excess of earnings. In 1813 the prisoners burned their workshops, and in 1816 they engaged in a full-scale revolt that resulted in one death. At the same time, the released inmates’ high rate of recidivism began to cast doubt on the rehabilitative capacity of the penitentiary. By 1820 the penitentiary as a form of criminal punishment survived the criticism and doubts, but all sorts of proposals for restructuring and improving it were flying about.66

Yet at the outset liberals on both sides of the Atlantic enthusiastically celebrated what they took to be new humane forms of punishment. The penitentiary was of “pure American origin,” noted a sympathetic British traveler in 1806, “and is happily adapted to the genius of the government of the country, mild, just, and merciful.” The object was “to receive the vicious, and if possible, reclaim them to virtue; and is an admirable contrast to the sanguinary punishments of old governments, who, for even pecuniary offences, send them to the other world to be reclaimed there.”67Nowhere else in the Western world, as enlightened philosophes recognized, were such penal reforms carried as far as they were in America.

SCHOOLS, BENEVOLENT ASSOCIATIONS, Masonic organizations, missionary societies, penitentiaries—all these were important for creating a civic society and making people more compassionate and republican. But none of them could compare in significance with that most basic social institution, the family. It was the family, John Adams had said in 1778, that was the “foundation of national morality.”68 Throughout the eighteenth century the family had been the primary place for teaching the young, carrying on work, disciplining the wayward, and caring for the poor and the insane. Yet the Revolution challenged all these familial relationships, not only unsettling connections between fathers and children and husbands and wives but also cutting some of the family’s ties to the larger society and making it more private and insular. The family was becoming a much more republican institution.

Although the relationship between husbands and wives continued to be governed by the laws of coverture that gave husbands full control of their wives and their wives’ property, wives were gaining a new sense of themselves as independent persons. Lucy Knox, the wife of General Henry Knox, told her husband in the midst of the Revolutionary War that everything was changing. When he returned from the war, he could no longer be the sole commander-in-chief of his household. Be prepared to accept, she warned, “that there is such a thing as equal command.”69

With this remark Lucy Knox was not fundamentally challenging either her domestic situation or the role of women in her society any more than Abigail Adams was in her famous “Remember the Ladies” letter of 1776 in which she told her husband John that “all Men would be tyrants if they could” and predicted “a Rebellion” if the ladies’ needs were not attended to. Both women were only playfully teasing their husbands. Yet teasing can often make a serious point, and in their bantering remarks both wives were undoubtedly expressing a self-conscious awareness of the legally dependent and inferior position of women that was capable of being changed.70

Such remarks certainly suggest that what earlier had been taken for granted was now beginning to be questioned, especially by a new generation of women. Catharine Sedgwick, who would go on to become a celebrated writer of domestic novels, recalled the marriage of her older sister in 1796 as “the first tragedy of my life.” When she at age seven realized that her sister was now to be taken away and be governed by the will of her husband, she was crushed. In trying to console her, her sister’s new husband told her that he “may” allow her sister to visit with her. Sedgwick never forgot that moment. “May ! How my whole being revolted at the word—He had the power to bind or loose my sister.”71

Although there was little change in the legal authority of men over their wives, people’s consciousness was changing. Charles Willson Peale self-consciously painted his many family portraits with the husbands and wives on the same plane—an innovation that other artists adopted as well.72Women began to question the idea that marriage was their destiny and to defend the independence of spinsterhood (reinforced, at least in New England, by the fact that women considerably outnumbered men in the older communities). Some objected to the word “obey” in the marriage vows because it turned the woman into her husband’s “slave.” “Marriage,” it was said, “ought never to be considered as a contract between a superior and an inferior, but a reciprocal union of interests, an implied partnership of interests.”73 The extraordinary proliferation of references in the 1790s to the marital bliss of Adam and Eve that Milton had portrayed in Book IV of Paradise Lost suggests that describing an ideal marriage was on many people’s minds.74 Indeed, popular writings everywhere set forth models of a perfect republican marriage—a companionate marriage. It was one based on love, not property. It was one based on reason and mutual respect. And it was one in which wives had a major role in inculcating virtue in their husbands and children.75

Under this kind of cultural pressure, even the laws began to change. The new republican states abolished the crime of petit treason, which had provided for harsher punishments for wives or servants who murdered their husbands or masters on the grounds that such murders were akin to subjects murdering their king. Women gained some greater autonomy and some legal recognition of their rights to divorce and to make contracts and do business in the absence of their husbands. Divorce, said Thomas Jefferson, would restore “to women their natural right of equality.” In the colonial period only New Englanders had recognized the absolute right to divorce, but after the Revolution all the states except South Carolina developed new liberal laws on divorce, and in some states the rate of divorce increased sharply in the first decade of the nineteenth century. The new ideals of marriage made husbands more publicly responsible for their behavior, and the increase in the number of “runaway wife advertisements” in newspapers suggested that women were asserting themselves in new ways. Women were becoming more independently involved in the courts and legal affairs than they had been prior to the Revolution.76

The Revolution challenged older English patterns of inheritance and the aristocratic legal devices that had sought to maintain the stem line of the estate (entail) and to sacrifice the interests of younger children to the eldest son (primogeniture). The Revolutionary state constitutions and laws struck out at the traditional power of family and hereditary privilege. No one hated the dead hand of the past more than Jefferson, and with Jefferson’s Virginia taking the lead, all the states in the decades following the Revolution abolished both entail and primogeniture where they existed, either by statute or by writing the abolition into their constitutions. These legal devices, as the North Carolina statute of 1784 stated, had tended “only to raise the wealth and importance of particular families and individuals, giving them an unequal and undue influence in a republic, and prove in manifold instances the source of great contention and injustice.” Their abolition would therefore “tend to promote that equality of property which is of the spirit and principle of a genuine republic.”

Many of the states passed new inheritance laws that recognized greater equality among sons and daughters and gave greater autonomy to widows by granting them outright ownership of one-third of the estate rather than just the lifetime use that had been usual in the past. Such widows now had the right to alienate the land or to pass it on to their children of a second marriage. Most of the states also strengthened the ability of women to own and control property. In a variety of ways the new state laws not only abolished the remaining feudal forms of land tenure and enhanced the commercial nature of real estate, they also confirmed a new enlightened republican conception of the family.77

At the same time, various popular writings—such as the American novel The Fatal Effects of Parental Tyranny ( 1798)—added to the assault on patriarchy. Authors now imagined republican families in which children had much more equal relations with their parents than in the past. Indeed, most of the best-selling books throughout the Revolutionary era were didactic works that dealt with the proper relations between parents and children. They ranged from Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wake-field (Andrew Jackson’s favorite novel) to John Gregory’s A Father’s Legacy to His Daughters.

The Vicar of Wakefield (first published in America in 1769) had at least nine different editions in various American cities before 1800, while Gregory’s Legacy (first American edition in 1775) went through fifteen editions and sold twenty thousand copies during this period of the early Republic.78 In these works the republican family became bound together not by fear or force but by love and affection. Children were to be raised to be rational, independent, moral adults and were no longer to be compelled to follow parental dictates and marry for the sake of property and the perpetuation of the family estate. The individual desires of children now seemed to outweigh traditional concerns with family lineage.

So desirous were American readers for books celebrating the development of independent children that they turned Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe into a longtime best seller. Between 1774 and 1825 Americans published 125 editions of Defoe’s novel, all heavily abridged to meet American interests and sensibilities. Crusoe defied his parents and ran away from home. When cast alone on an island he turned to the Bible and discovered God and Christianity. Indeed, his solitary independence on the island became the source of his conversion experience. The novel told its readers that salvation was possible for the individual isolated from parents and society—a reassuring message for many young American men cut loose from their former social ties. Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography offered a similar message to young men who wanted to leave home and make it on their own. The first part of Franklin’s memoirs began appearing shortly after his death in 1790. By 1828 twenty-two American editions of the Autobiography had been published, many of them abridged and adapted for younger readers. During the decades following the Revolution, resisting one’s father and leaving home became an important motif in the many reminiscences written by that generation.79

The biblical commandment to honor one’s father and mother no longer seemed as important as it once had been. Heavily abridged American editions of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (an American best seller in 1786) turned the novel into an unequivocal attack on parental severity. Where Richardson had blamed both Clarissa’s disobedience and her parents’ arbitrariness for her downfall, the abridged American versions made the young daughter a simple victim of unjustifiable parental tyranny. In a variety of ways Americans were being told that patriarchy had lost some of its significance.80

Not everyone, of course, accepted these changes with equanimity. A New Hampshire congressman was shocked by the familiarity he witnessed among New York families. “Fathers, mothers, sons & daughters, young & old, all mix together, & talk & joke alike so that you cannot discover any distinction made or any respect shewn to one more than to another.” He was “not for keeping up a great distance between Parents & children, but there is a difference between sharing & stark mad.”81

The Revolution had released egalitarian and anti-patriarchal impulses that could not be stopped. The republican family was becoming an autonomous private institution whose members had their own legal rights and identities.82

ALTHOUGH MOST A MERICANS understood “rights” in the post-Revolutionary years to mean simply the rights of men, some began asserting as well the rights of women. Judith Sargent Murray, daughter of a prominent Massachusetts political figure, writing under the pseudonym “Constantia,” published an essay “On the Equality of the Sexes” in 1790, but it was not until the publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Women by the English feminist Mary Wollstonecraft in 1792 that discussion of the issue became widespread. In fact, copies of her work, which Aaron Burr called a “book of genius,” could be found in more private American libraries of the early Republic than Paine’s Rights of Man.83 Although women did not need Wollstonecraft to tell them what to think, her book certainly released the pent-up thoughts of many women. As the Philadelphia Quaker Elizabeth Drinker put it, Wollstonecraft “speaks my mind.”84 Excerpts appeared at once, and by 1795 three American editions had been published.

Suddenly, talk of women’s rights was everywhere. “The Rights of Women are no longer strange sounds to an American ear,” declared the Federalist congressman Elias Boudinot of New Jersey in 1793. “They are now heard as familiar terms in every part of the United States.”85 In the 1790s Susanna Rowson, novelist, playwright, and actress, put on a series of plays dealing with the universal rights of men and women. Judith Sargent Murray, believing that “the stage is undoubtedly a very powerful engine in forming the opinions and manners of a people,” also tried her hand at playwriting in order to promote the cause of women’s rights. Unfortunately, however, her effort, The Medium, produced in Boston in 1795, had only one performance.86 Far more successful was the novel The Coquette . . . Founded on Fact, by Hannah Webster Foster and published in 1797. It spoke directly to women on the issues of women’s education, employment, rights, and the double standard of sexual behavior; it remained immensely popular well into the nineteenth century.

Although in this early period no organized movement arose on behalf of women’s rights, the way was prepared for the future. Murray, writing as “Constantia” in 1798, declared that she expected “to see our young women forming a new era in female history.” In the decades following the Revolution women gained a new consciousness of their selfhood and their rights.87

It was a tricky problem for male reformers to claim rights for women while women remained legally dependent on men; any recognition of rights was bound to be picked up and used in unanticipated ways. When the Supreme Court of Errors in Connecticut in 1788 decided that a married woman had the right to devise her real property to whomever she wished, the decision was soon regarded as one “tending to loosen the bands of society.”88 Once the social bands were loosened, it was difficult to prevent slippage everywhere. Since rights were not really compatible with inferiority, it became harder and harder to maintain that inferiority. An 1801 poem began with a traditional recognition of women’s subordination to men. “That men should rule, and women should obey,/ I grant their nature and their frailty such.” Yet the poem ends on a very different note. “Let us not force them back, with brow severe,/ Within the pale of ignorance and fear,/ Confin’d entirely by domestic arts:/ Producing only children, pies and tarts.”89

Many men, of course, were alarmed by what recognizing women’s equal rights might mean. “If once a man raises his wife to an equality with himself,” declared a Philadelphia writer in 1801, “it is all over, and he is doomed to become a subject for life to the most despotic of governments.”90Timothy Dwight, president of Yale, earlier had been a leading advocate of offering women an education equal to that of men. But he was not prepared to accept the message Mary Wollstonecraft was preaching. If women shook loose from the family and became truly independent, he asked an imagined Wollstonecraft, “Who would make our puddings, Madam?” When she answered, “Make them yourself,” he pressed her harder. “Who shall nurse us when we are sick?” and finally, “Who shall nurse our children?” With this last question concerning the role of mothers, Dwight has his imagined Wollstonecraft reduced to embarrassed silence.91 Apparently, talk about women’s equal rights was acceptable, as long as those rights did not actually affect women’s traditional maternal role in the family.

Reconciling women’s rights with their traditional family roles proved to be difficult. Some said that women’s rights were actually duties—the responsibility of taking care of their husbands and children. Others said that the equality of the rights of men and women could be found only in a spiritual or social sense. Women in fact were now encouraged to mingle equally with men in nearly all social occasions—something that had not been common earlier. If both men and women had rights, then these rights had to be respected by both sexes. Although men were legally superior, they could not ride roughshod over the rights of women. In fact, in this enlightened age the treatment of women was supposed to be a measure of civilization. Did not “savages” regard their women as “beasts of burden”? If Americans wished to be considered refined and genteel, they certainly could not go back to those “barbarous days” when a woman was “considered and treated as the slave of an unfeeling master.”92 Still, despite the recognition of women’s equal but different rights, almost everyone, including most women reformers, agreed that women had an essential female nature that should not be violated.

Indeed, many Americans came to believe that women, precisely because of their presumed female nature, had a special role to play in sustaining a republican society, especially one that was being torn apart by partisan fighting. Since virtue was increasingly identified with sociability and affability, with love and benevolence, rather than with the martial and masculine self-sacrifice of the ancients, it had become as much a female as a male quality. In fact, it was widely thought that women were even more capable than men of sociability and benevolence. “How often have I seen a company of men who were disposed to be riotous,” declared a 1787 publication, “checked all at once into decency, by the accidental entrance of an amiable woman.” Women seemed less burdened by artificial rules and more capable of demonstrating their natural feelings of affection than men. Indeed, “in the present state of society,” said Joseph Hopkinson in 1810, women were “inseparably connected with every thing that civilizes, refines, and sublimates man.”93

Because they had a particular talent for developing affective relationships and for stimulating sympathy and moral feelings, women, it was said, were better able than men to soften party conflict and bind the republican society together. Through their soothing influence on the often hot-headed passions of men, women could heal the dissentions that threatened to tear the country apart. The way to do this was to isolate and confine partisan politics to the exclusively male-dominated public sphere and to leave the private sphere—the world of drawing and dining rooms, of dances and tea parties, of places where the two sexes mingled—under the calming and socializing domination of women. Although some genteel women continued to try to use their social skills and various social institutions—salons, balls, and soirees—to influence politics, most tended to withdraw from the public world of divisive politics and to assume the disinterested responsibility of adjudicating conflict and promoting peace in the private world. The separation of government and society, public and private, that lay at the heart of the thinking of radicals like Paine and Jefferson in 1776 was now expanded and legitimized.94

If women had a special aptitude for refinement and sociability, then their first obligation was to civilize their children and prepare them for republican citizenship.95 Since women’s world was the home, the home became more significant than it had been earlier—a refuge from the nervous excitement and crass brutality that were increasingly coming to characterize the city and the commercial world in general. Women became responsible for the taste and respectability of the family and at the same time became the special purveyors of culture and the arts. Although women were excluded from participation in America’s political institutions, William Loughton Smith of South Carolina told a female audience in 1796, nature had assigned women “valuable and salutary rights” that were beyond men’s control. “To delight, to civilize, and to ameliorate mankind . . . these are the precious rights of woman.” 96

Yet if wives and mothers had an important role in educating their husbands and sons in sociability and virtue, then they needed to be educated themselves. Too often, reformers said, women had been educated “not to their future benefit in life but to the amusement of the male sex.”97 They had been educated in frivolity and fashion; they had been taught to dress, to sew, to play the harpsichord, and to paint their faces, but not to use their minds in any meaningful manner. Republican women, it was hoped, would be different. They would scorn fashion, cosmetics, and vanity and would become socially useful and less susceptible to male flattery. Such republican women could become powerful forces in changing the culture. “Let the ladies of a country be educated properly,” said Benjamin Rush, “and they will not only make and administer its laws, but form its manners and character.”98 Rush prescribed for women reading, writing, bookkeeping, geography, some natural philosophy, and especially the reading of history; this last was to be an antidote to novel-reading, which many reformers assumed was destroying women’s minds. Because “the proper object of female education is to make women rational companions, good wives and good mothers,” they need not be educated for the professions or for participation in the male world. Certainly, they should never be taught philosophy or metaphysics, which might destroy their feminine nature.99

Virtually every American reformer in this period, male and female, endorsed the education of women. In 1796 Massachusetts minister Simeon Doggett expressed astonishment that “one half of the human race have been so basely neglected.” It was undoubtedly the consequence of barbarism that depressed “the delicate female . . . far below the dignity of her rank.” In enlightened America, however, “this trait of barbarity” was rapidly disappearing and women were assuming “their proper rank.”100 American reformers went way beyond their English and European counterparts in urging that women be taught not just to sew, sing, dance, and play musical instruments but to think and reason and understand the world, if not like a man then at least more than they had in the past.101

Consequently, during the two decades following the Revolution scores of academies were founded solely for the advanced instruction of females, a development unmatched in England. Although most of these academies were located in the Northern states, the young women, mostly from well-to-do families, came from all over the country. In addition to the usual ornamental subjects, they were taught grammar, arithmetic, history, and geography. For the first time in American history young women were able to acquire something resembling higher education in a formal and systematic way. Many of the women trained in these academies went on to achieve distinction in the nineteenth century.102

Once the rights of woman were discussed in public, their subversive implications could not always be contained. A writer in a Boston magazine of 1802 calling herself “Miss M. Warner” opened with a conventional listing of women’s so-called rights: to cook for her husband, share in his troubles, and nurse him when he was sick. But then she paused and expressed what she assumed her readers must be feeling. These were not rights; “these are duties. . . . Agreed, they are/ But know ye not that Woman’s proper sphere/ Is the domestic walk? To interfere/ With politics, divinity, or law,/ A much deserv’d ridicule would draw/ on Woman.” Ridicule or not, many began pointing up the injustice involved in excluding “from any share in government one half of those who, considered as equals of the males, are obliged to be subject to laws they have no share in making!”103

Some Americans now even glimpsed the possibility of women becoming full-fledged citizens with the right to vote and hold political office. In 1764 James Otis had broached the issue of the right of women to political participation. But it was the Revolution itself that really raised women’s consciousness. Women brought up in the post-Revolutionary decades had different expectations from their mothers. In her 1793 salutatory address at the Young Ladies Academy of Philadelphia, Priscilla Mason proclaimed the right and the responsibility of women to become orators. Not only were they equal to men in their ability to address political issues on public occasions, they were superior to men, as witnessed by the fact that many women had succeeded despite the best efforts of men to keep them down. “Our high and mighty Lords (thanks to their arbitrary constitutions),” declared Mason, “have denied us the means of knowledge, and then reproached us for the want of it.” This bold young orator went on to call not just for equal education for women but for their equal participation in the learned professions and political office.104

Although some women in the 1790s began to assert themselves in public in this manner, public performances by women were generally frowned upon. Jefferson thought that if women were permitted to “mix promiscuously in the public meetings of men,” the consequence would be a “depravation of morals.” Even attending lectures with men present created some uneasiness.105

Given this experience and these attitudes, imagine the sensation created in Boston in 1802 by Deborah Sampson Gannett. This forty-two-year-old woman appeared onstage in female clothes to recount her experiences in the Revolutionary War as a disguised Continental Army soldier. Following her lecture, Gannett changed into a military uniform and demonstrated her ability to perform the soldier’s manual exercise of arms.

After her spectacular appearance in Boston, Gannett went on a year’s tour throughout New England and New York, playing mostly to packed houses—the first such lecture tour by an American woman. Yet her lectures, written by her mentor and memoirist Herman Mann, were ambivalent. Her mere presence, of course, awed many spectators, for she was attractive and not at all masculine. At the same time, however, Gannett needed to assure her audience that she was not the threat to the social order that she appeared to be. By 1802 a reaction against the egalitarian sentiments of Mary Wollstonecraft was taking place, and Gannett had to adapt to the new climate of opinion. Even Judith Sargent Murray had written that “we are not desirous to array THE SEX in martial habiliments.”

Gannett admitted that what she had done twenty years earlier in joining the army in disguise was “a breach in decorum of my sex unquestionably,” which “ought to expel me from the enjoyment of society, from the acknowledgement of my own sex.” But then she went on to explain that she had been caught up in a frenzy of patriotism “that could brook no control” and had “burst the tyrant bands which held my sex in awe, and clandestinely, or by stealth, grasped an opportunity which custom and the world seemed to deny as natural privilege.” In the end, however, she offset her assertion of freedom and independence for her sex by conceding that the proper role for women was to mold men and to be satisfied with the “dignified title and encomium of MISTRESS AND LADY, in our kitchens and in our parlours,” and by acknowledging that “the field and the cabinetare the proper spheres assigned to our MASTERS and our LORDS.” Still, the fact that she was traveling without male escort and lecturing to large audiences was an inspiring object lesson in female autonomy.106

Since the Revolution had made all Americans conscious of rights, feminists were bound to note that the Revolution had failed to fulfill its promises for women. Some, like the writer Charles Brockden Brown in his novel Alcuin: A Dialogue (1798) and the legal commentator St. George Tucker, saw an inconsistency between the Revolution’s rhetoric and American practice. Tucker had to admit that women were taxed without their consent, like “aliens . . . children under the age of discretion, idiots, and lunatics.”107 For a brief period between 1790 and 1807 unmarried property-holding women took advantage of a clause in the New Jersey constitution that granted the franchise to all free inhabitants with property worth fifty pounds. Apparently some women voted for Federalist candidates too often, for critics began complaining that women were too timid and pliant and too dependent on male relatives for direction to exercise the ballot intelligently. In 1807 a Republican-sponsored law limited the franchise to white taxpaying male citizens. Few women in New Jersey seem to have lamented the loss of the vote.

Despite all the talk of women’s rights, most women in this period were not yet eager to vote and participate in politics. The suggestions in the magazines of the day for female political equality were few and far between, and none of the major political leaders ever seriously considered the direct political participation of women in politics. “A woman in politics is like a monkey in a toy shop,” declared the noted lawyer Jeremiah Mason, the Federalist U.S. senator from New Hampshire in 1814. “She can do no good, and may do harm.” President Jefferson abruptly cut off any suggestion that women might be appointed to governmental office: it was “an innovation for which the public is not prepared, nor am I.”108 Although the gaining of political rights for women was never a realistic possibility in this period, there were isolated voices preparing the way for the future.

All this promotion of rights and reforms helped to strengthen the civil society that worked to hold the Republic together. But these particular rights and reforms did not begin to deal with the greatest evil afflicting American society—slavery.

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