Sample Topic: State Influence


Title: State’s Influence in the Development of Social Reform During the 19th and Early 20th Century

Social reforms refers to the long term changes in the society which affect the way people relate, work and live their daily lives. These changes are usually gradual occurring over time and most of the times they are faced with a lot of resistance from different groups of people. This is owing to the default trend in people to reject changes especially if they require them to give up some of the habits and trends that form a part of their normal lives. According to Shostak, 1974 "some of the concepts that formed the basis for social reforms in a long time include liberalism, utopian, religious and socialist concepts”[1](34). For every social reform idea, there always arises a reactionary movement which works towards maintaining the old system and frustrating the efforts of the social reform policies. The state has always been one of the greatest forces in the development of social reforms in both the negative and the positive aspects.

Social Reforms and Role of State

In the United States of America, social reforms were mostly experienced between the 19thand the 20th centuries. The earliest form that was experienced was the white males’ universal suffrage. At this time there was massive discrimination based on race, gender and originality where the Native Americans, women and the blacks were discriminated against in almost every aspect. These are the groups that later on featured in most of the social reforms agendas throughout the history of the United States. Most of these reforms were against the wishes of the government which at the time was dominated by white males and this made it difficult for the reformist to succeed. According to Buhle 1983, "most of the reformers believed that they were doing God’s work, and the second great awakening contributed more to this believe hence encouraged their mission further”[2](95).


The reform movements that were established during this era became sectional over time in the sense that every movement targeted a certain group of people. At that time almost all the groups of people were involved actively in different types of reforms which were always facing opposition from somewhere else. Those who were affected adversely by slavery lobbied for anti slavery reforms while for others it was educational reforms. Women were actively involved in all forms of social reforms since they were always the disadvantaged group. The women slaves were the greatest sufferers while even those who were not slaves were never allowed access to education and so they could not develop careers. Some of the most prominent reforms of the time included abolitionism, women’s rights, public schools, temperance, prisons asylums and poor houses and the utopian communities (Buhle, 1983 p 77). The state always had a role to play in these reforms whether by supporting or frustrating them.


Abolitionism also referred to as the anti slavery movement was one of the largest social reforms movement of the time. This is one of the social reforms movements that was greatly frustrated by the state since prominent people in the government were beneficiaries of slavery. The slaves provided them with cheap labor for their farms hence increasing their production at no extra cost. Despite this efforts to frustrate the movement, the blacks who were the most affected population surged on and in the process, some of their great leaders were assassinated. The effects of abolitionism were mostly felt in the 1800’s though somewhere along the way the movement was almost dying just to be revived in 1831.


It became impossible for the state to completely abolish this movement since it some of the whites were also in support thereof. Some of these included William Lloyd Garrison who came up with an anti slavery publication dubbed the liberator. This earned him the reputation of being "the most radical white abolitionist of that period”[3]. Most of the white abolitionists in that time were for the idea that blacks should be shipped back to their native countries but Garrison came up with a different idea of introducing equal rights for the slaves. He worked hand in hand with the prominent leaders in the abolitionist movement such as Fredrick Douglas to ensure that the future generations of the blacks would enjoy equal rights as their white counterparts. He went by the slogan immediate emancipation but later on realized that this would take longer than he first thought.


The main task here was to try and bring more whites to his side as he thought this as the best way to frustrate the state’s anti abolitionism policies. This however proved difficult when he realized that it would take him years to fully accomplish his goals. He however founded the anti slavery society in the early 1830’s that was meant to spread the anti slavery vehemence. The number of people who joined these movements especially the whites was still small but managed to initiate approximately 1500 local chapters in a ten years period. These people were however subjected to massive heckling and physical violence but they fought on. Owing to their persistence, racial discrimination was minimized in the United States though it has never been completely eliminated to date.

Some of the greatest opposers of this movement were the southern congress men who came up with the gag rule policy. This policy was aimed at restricting the petitions made by the abolitionists in the congress and hence created a defensive strike towards all the discussion in support of abolitionism. This rule was however revoked in 1844 as a result of the opposition it faced from the congressmen who were in support of anti slavery policies. The constitutional phrase that had allowed the gag rule to be effective was reviewed in favor of the abolitionists and this seemed to be the beginning of a breakthrough for the movement. From then, it was no longer illegal to stage a protest against unfair treatment and though this seemed like a big step forward, America has never been completely been liberalized from racial discrimination.

Women’s Rights

The other prominent social reform movement in the history of America was the women’s rights movement. At the beginning of the 1800’s women were never given a chance to express themselves in public. They were always made to feel like they were inferior to men and they were not given the opportunity to contribute to anything involving the progress of the state. It was constitutional for women to be prevented from voting as well as having property under their name. As a result of this, women always remained under the control of a man, be it their fathers or their husbands. After the abolition movements got a breakthrough in their quests, the movements that followed were advocating for the liberalization of women. The main agenda was to allow women to acquire education so that they could participate in the state social affairs just like their male counterparts.

Some of the most prominent activists for women’s rights included Grimke Sarah, Stanton Elizabeth and Mott Lucretia who argued that women were created the same way as men and they had the capacity to do everything men did (Mitra, 2001 p 83). They publicly opposed the laws that had been by the state against women taking part in public affairs. They linked with the abolitionists such as Garrison and enthusiastic feminists hence creating a greater force against slavery and gender inequality. Just like the abolitionist movements, women rights movements were never welcomed by the state at first. However with time, the laws had to be edited so as to accommodate the plights of women. The congress was largely dominated by men and they could not have allowed women to be a competition to them especially in political matters.

As a result of this, women rights movements were greatly frustrated by the state which was mainly administered by men and this mostly included white men. Some blacks supported women in the lobby since this struggle was directly related to their struggle against slave trade. This took a long time but ultimately, a law was passed allowing women to work and own property even after they were married. They were however allowed to vote and participate in politics after the 1920’s which was such a long time considering the efforts the pioneers of these movements had put in the agenda. Despite the lag, they eventually got what they wanted though the hard way (Shamsi, 2006 p204). The state finally endorsed the bill that allowed women equal rights to those enjoyed men and this included the right to education, the right not to be forced into marriage, the right to own property and the right to vote and run for the elections.

Public Schools

Another social reform that was of great importance in the history of America was the public schools reforms. This was the first reform to be initiated by the government and was mainly concentrated in the rural areas. The main agenda was on improving the education by introducing a common curriculum to schools both in the rural and urban areas. As a result of this, the children from all over the state would develop the same quality of values hence increasing their chances of becoming responsible citizens. In these schools female students would be treated just like the males and the result of this was the coming up of a generation of women who were independent and productive (Kumar, 2007 p 123). The major reason behind this reform was the fact that every person had been given the chance to participate in national building and it was feared that the ignorance brought about by lack of education would mess up the whole system. It was therefore necessary that every person is educated for them to be in a position to make well informed decisions.


A board of education was established and the secretary who at that time was Mann Horace advocated for an increase in the amount of resources allocated to education. They also developed the grading system where the students were divided into different grades according to their learning capacity and age. Besides this, they came up with standardized books which were used in public schools all over the state so as to have a uniform and fair system of education. Since these reforms were advocated for by the state, there was little resistance and this ensured that they were implemented in the fastest way possible (Ray, 2005 p74). The main resistance was from the owners of private schools who felt that they would run out of business owing to the fact that the public schools offered free education. This resistance was however frustrated by the state and so they had to find other ways of maintaining their students other than trying to oppose the decisions made by the state.

Prison Asylums and Poor Houses Reforms

Other reforms included the prison, asylum and poorhouses reforms which begun and gained popularity in the 1820’s. Before this, prisons were places where people were taken as a punishment for breaking the law and they would be simply confined and locked away from the rest of the world. The reformists who advocated for a change in this were for the idea that prisons could be used as a corrective measure rather than punishment. They advocated for the change in the prison laws which would include rehabilitation program for the prisoners. According to them, this would serve better as a mode of instruction as well as instilling order and discipline in the criminals. According to Whitman, "these people believed that crime was largely as a result of childhood neglect and trauma and they hoped that rehabilitation measures would counteract the effects of a poor upbringing and effectively purge criminals of their violent and immoral tendencies”[4](Whitman, 1985 p41).

Besides the prison rehabilitation, these reforms were to be extended to the insane people in the asylums as well as the poor. These would include constructing alms housing for the people who were poor and sick. Those who were healthy were to be housed in work houses where they were to be provided with casual jobs and be encouraged work hard and earn themselves a living. Before these reforms, the insane people were housed in very poor conditions and the result of this was increased trauma hence making their conditions worse. Most of the mentally disturbed people never managed to come out of their conditions because they were not taken good care of. Dix Dorothea was one of the reformists who presented the conditions these people lived in to the state and lobbied for the construction of asylums to rehabilitate the mentally sick individuals. They also ensured that psychiatrists were employed in these facilities so that these people received sufficient care both physically, mentally and emotionally (Howerton, 1913 p 96).


This happened to be another social reform that was fully supported by the state owing to the fact that it would contribute to the elimination of some crucial issues. It would first reduce the number of beggars in the streets and ensure that all the sick people were being taken of hence reducing the mortality rate. The state considered this as an investment that would be beneficial in the long run since it would increase the number of productive individuals and reduce the number of sick people depending on alms for the rest of their lives. Prisons were fitted with rehabilitation facilities where the prisoners were taught how to do something useful with their lives depending on what they were interested in. they would then come out of there better people than what they were before, hence reducing the cases of crime in the state.

Utopian Communities

Finally is the Utopian communities reforms which was considered as "the most extreme reform movement in the United states which was founded in the first half of the 1800’s in the belief that humans could live perfectly in small experiment societies”[5](Bhattacharya 2010, p 160). These movements aimed at coming up with a society that is perfect in all aspects including social relationships, marriage institutions as well as property ownership. These also affected the political religious and occupational societies by attempting to balance them perfectly in the society. These reforms were never supported by the state and neither were they opposed since they had no direct effect on its functioning. This explains why they never lasted for long but just faded away naturally. The goals of these reforms were more hypothetical than real and so it became impossible to incorporate them in the society.


From the discussion of the various social reforms of the United States and the roles played by the state in each, it is possible to conclude that although some of the movements were greatly opposed, they owe their success to government intervention whether it was positive or negative. Where the state opposed the movement, it was because it affected adversely affected its normal functioning or was against the wishes of most of the congressmen. This gave the reformist a chance to fight their battle and involve other organizations and individuals in the same. Where these reforms were supported by the state it was because it would benefit from it in future if not then. Feiring (2009) suggested that the success of the reforms that were opposed laid in the persistence of the reformists whereby they ended up convincing the state that the reforms were worth considering[6](98).






Bhattacharya, Ruma. 2010. Women education and social reforms: a study of patidars of Gujarat, 1850-1950. Kolkata: Progressive Publishers.

Buhle, Mari Jo. 1983. Women and the American Left: A Guide to Sources. Boston, Mass.: G.K. Hall.

Feiring, Marte. 2009. Sources of social reforms 1870 - 1970: the rise of a Norwegian normalisation regime. Oslo: Department of sociology and human geography, Faculty of social sciences, Univ.

Howerton, James Robert. 1913. The church and social reforms. New York: Fleming H. Revell.

Kumar, Ramesh. 2007. Standardization: key to social reforms. New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers & Distributors.

Mitra, Saumya. 2001. Kosovo: economic and social reforms for peace and reconciliation. Washington, DC: World Bank.

Ray, Alok. 2005. Cross-roads: social reforms in nineteenth century India. Kolkata: Radiance.

Shamsi, Nayyar. 2006. Elements of social reforms. New Delhi, India: Anmol Publications.

Shostak, Arthur B. 1974. Modern social reforms; solving today's social problems. New York: Macmillan.

Whitman, Alden, ed. 1985. American Reformers: A Biographical Dictionary. New York: H.W. Wilson.

[1]Shostak, Arthur B. 1974. Modern social reforms; solving today's social problems. New York: Macmillan

[2]Buhle, Mari Jo. 1983. Women and the American Left: A Guide to Sources. Boston, Mass.: G.K. Hall.


[3]Whitman, Alden, ed. 1985. American Reformers: A Biographical Dictionary. New York: H.W. Wilson.

[4]Whitman, Alden, ed. 1985. American Reformers: A Biographical Dictionary. New York: H.W. Wilson.


[5]Bhattacharya, Ruma. 2010. Women education and social reforms: a study of patidars of Gujarat, 1850-1950. Kolkata: Progressive Publishers.


[6]Feiring, Marte. 2009. Sources of social reforms 1870 - 1970: the rise of a Norwegian normalisation regime. Oslo: Department of sociology and human geography, Faculty of social sciences, Univ.


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