Utopian Experiments In 19th Century America

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Reform and Renewal: Utopian Experiments in 19th Century America Since the dawn of human civilization, man has harbored an intense fascination with the idea of ‘utopia’–a perfect society devoid of pain and suffering. The ancient Greeks celebrated the natural paradise of Arcadia; Chinese poets described the ethereal Peach Blossom Spring; Christians, of course, spoke of the Garden of Eden. Coined in 1516 by Sir Thomas More, the term ‘utopia’ comes, in fact, from the Greek word for ‘nowhere.’ Nevertheless, man has stubbornly persisted in his endeavors to create heaven on earth. In the United States, the 19th century in particular marked the high point of utopian experiments. Over forty utopian communities sprang up in pursuit of “human betterment,”…show more content…
The 19th century market revolution “transformed a subsistence economy of scattered farms and tiny workshops into a national network of industry and commerce.” Technological advances like the cotton gin and the McCormick reaper, invented in 1793 and 1831, respectively, “made ambitious capitalists out of humble plowmen”; meanwhile, a transportation revolution between 1815 and 1860 gave rise to a “truly continental economy” as trains, steamships, and the Pony Express joined the entire nation in an “intimate commercial union,” cutting transport costs by an average of 90 percent. But while prosperity increased overall, the market revolution also “widened the gulf between the rich and the poor.” While so-called ‘captains of industry’ made millions, unskilled urban workers were brutally exploited by their ruthlessly competitive capitalist overlords, suffering from long hours, low wages, and inadequate nourishment. Furthermore, work became a drudgery rather than a meaningful endeavor. Creative handcrafting was replaced by mindless assembly-line work at a power loom or some machine; the “intimate and friendly” association between an apprentice and his master gave way to the…show more content…
The Awakening centered around emotion, simplicity, and the individual soul. Traveling ministers preached idealistic and passionate messages of reform and renewal; religion spread to the masses through frenetic “camp meetings”. Moreover, the movement “encouraged an effervescent evangelicalism that bubbled up into innumerable areas of American life.” Evangelicalism entailed a strong commitment “not only to renew the individual man, but also to reform human society.” Charles Grandison Finney, for example, “saw social implications in the Christian message”; he “preached against the evils of alcohol and tobacco.” Some preachers–including Finney–believed that the Millennium, or Christ’s second coming to earth to establish his kingdom, was fast approaching. Therefore, it was imperative to prepare the world morally for Christ’s imminent arrival. Thus, the preachers of the Second Great Awakening fomented a spirit of reform and idealism. Their “optimistic promises” inspired people to “do battle against earthly evils” and to establish utopian communities in pursuit of human betterment. Meanwhile, a philosophical movement called transcendentalism began to emerge. Closely intertwined with the Second Great Awakening, transcendentalism similarly featured an “interest in moral reform” as well as an optimistic view
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