Question: What means did reformers and radicals use to communicate their messages and how did these means influence their ideologies? Over the first Century and a half of American History, Reformers and Radicals found many innovative and effective ways to communicate their ideas to the country. Today, sending a message across the country can be as easy as writing an e-mail, and mass communication can be achieved as easily as setting up a website or buying a television advertisement. It is hard for one to imagine a world without a computer, a TV, or even a telephone, but this was the world that made the task of delivering a message to the people such a daunting task in 19th Century America.
Reformers and Radicals used methods such as public speech, writings, organizations, and even violence to communicate to the entire nation. Indeed, the method of conveying a particular message or ideology chosen was very important, as it would often play a large part in shaping that ideology in the eyes of the public. Public speech was one of the most common methods that reformers used to reach the general public. Speeches had many advantages that made them a very appealing way for reformers to convey their message. The main advantage that they held was that they were cost efficient. It only takes one person to make a speech, and there is no other capital required.
If someone wanted his or her view heard and had no other way to go about it, a speech was often the best option. Speakers did not even require venues to make their speeches. Although churches or other public buildings were often used, a speech could be made from the back of a horse driven cart. This style of riding from town to town was often seen in New England and upstate New York, where towns were close enough to make traveling from town to town practical.
Speeches also appealed to reform groups who did not have a large contingency; a small group of speakers could often reach a large portion of the country easily. Speeches functioned as great tools for inspiring and motivating people. A passionate and charismatic speaker could often change a group of people's view of the world with just a short speech. A perfect example of this phenomenon can be seen in the leaders of religious groups such as Matthias and Joseph Smith.
These two men both possessed the ability to make people pick up and leave their lives in a heartbeat. Although their views on religion were extreme, people who were not happy with their lives were susceptible to their appeals to build new utopian societies. Other great public speakers included men like Booker T. Washington, who, in his famous "Atlanta Compromise", actually made the case that segregation could be a good thing for African Americans. Washington's masterful use of ambiguity (Walters lecture) allowed him to make appeals to African Americans to better their standing without offending or scaring the white population of the south. The ambiguity that could be used in public speech is another example of an effective tool that reformers and radicals could use to make their case to the public. Public Speeches were a method utilized effectively by many different groups, but perhaps best mastered by the evangelical preachers of the early 19th Century.
They used all aspects of public speech to make calls to the people of the United States to better themselves. From movements such as temperance to even anti-slavery, these preachers would utilize the pulpit as a forum of reform. The passionate sermons calling for a purer America were heard by millions of people across the country during the Second Great Awakening, a period of intense religious revival that lasted from the 1820's to the 1840's. Evangelical sermons spawned multiple reform groups. The country witnessed more reform activity than had been seen since the period of the revolution, the temperance and anti-slavery movements both had their roots in the Second Great Awakening. All of this was due to the actions of a relatively few number of preachers calling for Americans to engage in introspection and make themselves and their country better.
The power of the spoken word was undoubtedly powerful; it was even recognized by the founders of our country when writing the Bill of Rights. Being a protected right of all Americans, reform groups were able to take advantage and use speech to inspire the public of America to push towards reform. But public speech was not the only important method available to reform groups to communicate their message; indeed, the written word could be just as powerful. Writing was a very common way for reformers and radicals to express their views.
Writing offered some advantages that public speech could not offer. For one, a person could reach a much larger audience through writing than through speaking. A pamphlet or short book could reach millions of American's hands. A speech, by contrast, could only be heard by, at most, a few thousand, and in most cases, just a few hundred people. Two types of writing dominated the texts of radicals and reforms over the first half of American history. The first can simply be called opinion writing.
This type of writing could take the form of a pamphlet, such as Tom Paine's Common Sense, or the form a short book, such as David Walker's Appeal. A Journal or Magazine article was also not an uncommon medium for radical writings, such as was seen in many of the anarchist Journals of the later part of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Emma Goldman's "Mother Earth" is a good example of such a journal, but it is also an example of one of the pitfalls that came with radical writings. Although freedom of the press is guaranteed by the Constitution, the Comstock law, in place for over half a century, greatly restricted the writings of reformers and radicals.
Both Goldman and Margaret Sanger were prosecuted under this law, which restricted the sending of all sorts of materials through the mail. Restricted materials included much of the work of the radicals of this period. While Goldman is an example of how writing was not always a successful medium for radicals, Thomas Paine's Common Sense can be viewed as a reason why radicals would choose to write in the first place. Common Sense, published in January 1776 (Fone r, 74), was a pamphlet encouraging that the United States completely break away from Britain. Paine's pamphlet reached the hands of millions of Americans, changing the face of the ongoing debate about the revolution.
It was timely written, passionate, and well received. It illustrated how one short piece of writing, if it appeals to the public, could really make a difference. After Common Sense, the debate was no longer really about whether or not the colonies should leave Great Britain, but when and how they should go about it. Much of its success can be attributed to the fact that it was written for the common man in very plain, yet emotional, language. This would become the standard for reform and radical writing in the United States.
In David Walker's Appeal, one can see one of the most radical anti-slavery works ever written, and it is in much the same style of Paine's work, appealing to the African American population as a whole. Although Appeal caused much controversy, it was successful in bringing attention to the anti-slavery movement, and in actually scaring white southerners with a work written by an African American. In this way, Walker achieved his purpose. The second type of writing used by reformers and radicals was fiction. A story can often get an authors view across just as well as a work of opinion. Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward is a perfect example of how a work of fiction can express a radical view to the general public.
By being a work of fiction, it was a form of entertainment, and therefore was read by a much larger audience than socialist journals of the time. In fact, Bellamy's work was one of the most distributed pieces of literature in the 19th Century. Bellamy was also able to sidestep many questions that would have arisen had his book not been fiction. For instance, he would have had face the question of how the revolution took place, and if violently, how could he justify the violence.
He would have had to explain how people are motivated to work in a society where one is not required to work to make money. He was not forced to face any of these questions, however, all he did was put out an idea about what he believed to be a utopian society. Charlotte Perkins Gilman was an example of taking a less docile approach to reform fictional writing. In her dramatic story, The Yellow Wallpaper, she was able to express her views on woman and how they were mistreated in society.
Through the dramatic story she forced the reader to feel how women were trapped by society and how she believed things needed to change. There were a couple of obstacles other than the law that faced someone who wanted to write a reform or radical piece of literature. Unlike public speech, to gain an audience one had to get funds or a publisher to publish their work. And unless a reformer was already rich or knew a publisher with similar views, finding a publisher was not an easy task. Also, one cannot force the public to read something. This meant that even if something was published, it was not always read.
Despite these flaws, fictional and non-fictional writings proved to provide powerful weapons in the reformers arsenal of communication devices in the 19th Century. A third method of communicating a message to the public was one that was almost always viewed as radical. Violence was seen in the latter part of the 19th century, mainly in the anarchist movement, but in other movements as well. Violence served as a way to shock the public and force them to realize that a particular group existed. The Haymarket Riot that occurred in Chicago in the 1880's was the best example of violence in radical movements.
Although it put the country on notice about the building socialist movement, it also harmed the movement at the same time. It connected fear with socialism in the minds of many Americans. The movement was dead before it started. Although not planned, by connecting fear with the socialist movement the riot forced labor unions in the future, such as the AFL, to distance themselves from the movement. The epitome of radicalism, violence more often than not ended up scaring the general public away from a movement. And no radical movement has truly succeeded without at least a sizeable percentage of the population supporting it.
A much more effective method of communicating a message with the people was extensive organization. Voluntary Organizations existed for just about every reform movement during the 19th Century. An association could make a statement more important because of the knowledge of the number of members that supported it. Organizations were both large and small.
They ranged from small temperance organizations in the 1840's that forced members to make pledges not to drink alcohol to the Knights of Labor and the AFL in the 1880's and early 1900's, respectively. Groups that had large numbers could often influence Congress more than small groups, with the knowledge that a large voter pool supported a large group. It was this ability to influence politics that was the main advantage of voluntary associations, although they also provided a sense of brotherhood to reformers who often felt like outcasts in society. In fact, some voluntary associations were not formed with a single purpose except that of brotherhood. Examples of this include the popular the fraternal organizations and lodges of the 18th Century. These groups might band together a particular group, say African American males, and allow them to accomplish something while finding safety in numbers.
Organizations often led to one more type of expression of ideas, direct action. Direct action essentially consisted of anything that directly helped reformers achieve their goals. A workers strike was the most used and, usually, most effective type of action. Workers strikes were used to help workers receive higher pay, more benefits, and fewer hours. Often set up by organizations and unions, such as the Knights of Labor and AFL, these strikes forced businesses and government to address the topic that the reformers wanted. A strike could be very effective, but if it was not well organized, it could fail.
Often consequences fell upon the organizers and participators of the failed strike. In this way, direct action was a high-risk / high -reward method for achieving reform. The general public could also perceive direct action as more extreme than other methods of communication, but it certainly made the public aware of the reformers' goals. It should also be understood that direct action was only really available after other methods of communication had occurred, such as speeches and organization, to allow those taking the actions to understand exactly why they were doing it. But, there is no doubt that the rewards could be more immediate and reform more quickly achieved with direct action. For this reason, it was a widely used and important medium that aided reformers throughout the 19th and Early 20th Centuries in achieving their goals.
From written and public speech to direct action, reformers were constantly forced to find innovative ways to communicate with the public throughout early American History. Although the reformers in the more recent past have often looked to foreign lands for examples of how to communicate their ideas, they could have just as easily looked back on America's own past. Reform movements and radical groups have defined America since its radical beginnings with Thomas Paine, through the anti-slavery, temperance, and women's rights movements, and even through the civil rights movements to today. America has continued to evolve through peaceful methods. Those that need to resort to violence usually do so because their goals are not supported by a large portion of the country, and when they do resort to violence, they usually fail. It is the protection of speech and organization (association) that has allowed this country to continue to survive peacefully while others have crumbled violently.
As long as reformers have peaceful modes of communication available to them, the country as a whole will thrive well into the third millennium.