With all the freedom and change, utopia societies seemed to spring up around every American corner. But these perfect worlds were a little hard to live in — not surprisingly, because utopia, from Thomas More's fantasy novel Utopia (1516), meant no place.
Improved communication brought about by the telegraph and more efficient travel (discussed earlier in this chapter) didn't always lead to improved understanding. The South saw strengthened trading ties along the Mississippi and across the Atlantic as economic insurance that outsiders would have to allow slavery to continue to support Northern and British profits. Northerners were afraid expansion of the slave system and cheap imports would put them out of a job. Moving in what they perceived to be the right direction put the two sections of the United States on a collision course.
Key social movements of the 1800s
Here are some of the major social movements that started in the mid 1800s:
- Women's rights: The Seneca Falls Convention (1848) was the first women's rights conference, held in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. At the time, state law prevented women from inheriting property, signing contracts, serving on juries, and voting in elections. Seneca Falls participants were connected to both the Second Great Awakening and the early Abolitionist movement. Conference participants went on to work for women's rights and against slavery.
- Labor unions: The first large labor unions started in the 1840s and expanded after the Civil War.
- Mental health treatment reform: Dorothea Dix (1845) published reports that led to many reforms in mental institutions throughout the South. She was made superintendent of nurses for the Union Army during the Civil War. With her example, intrepid women and men worked to reform treatment of prisoners and the mentally ill.
- Temperance: Neal Dow (1851) got a prohibition law passed in Maine and ten other states; these laws were rescinded when the stress of fighting the Civil War made lots of people need a drink.
- Utopian communities: Named for Thomas More's novel Utopia, utopian communities were established in several places in the U.S. Utopian dreamers tried to create a new social structure by building societies where people could live and work together in perfect harmony. Among the hopeful utopias were
- New Harmony (1825): On the Wabash River in southern Indiana, New Harmony produced limited community but lots of education. The progress of entomology, geology, and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington are all associated with this attempt by Welsh industrialist Robert Owen to build a better world.
- Brook Farm (1841): Located near Boston, this community had a literary influence from authors like Henry Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne. They were better at writing than at farming.
- The Oneida Community (1848): This commune in New York practiced community marriage and shared jobs and child raising. Although the commune broke up, the members went on to found Oneida Silver, one of the largest silverware companies in the world.
- The Shakers (1840): At one time, under the guidance of Mother Ann Lee, the Shakers established 19 different communities organized around groups with men and women living separately but working together. Each village was governed by two men and two women. The Shakers made a simple style of furniture and other housewares that are still in demand today. Since Shakers didn't have children, they largely died out. The Shaker song "Simple Gifts" is still sung to remind people of quiet peace.