What do Johannes Gutenberg and DeWitt Clinton have in common?

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Declaration of Sentiments mural in Seneca Falls. 

Social change is a demanding process that is critically dependent on several key factors. In their studies historians and sociologist alike have attempted to devise a model for change, one that may be universally applicable and repeated in order to insure the promise of social progress.

The two cornerstones of this historical progression are first – The Great Thinkers; those individuals with the ideas, beliefs and initiative that have shaped the past and continue to impact the present. And secondly, there must be a means to communicate their message to the masses in a way that is comprehensible, applicable and relevant.  While other factors are critical, social progress starts with ideas of The Great Thinkers and an efficient and effective way to Spread Their Word.

So who was Johannes Gutenberg . . .

You might recall that Johannes Gutenberg (1394-1468) was a German engraver and inventor who is recognized as the creator of mechanical movable type printing. This was at a time when all manuscripts were handwritten, extremely rare and expensive, and never intended to be a means of mass communication. Books were the sole property of elite royals and more often that not, the clergy. In fact illiteracy was seen as a means used by the ruling class and the Church to control and restrict the flow of knowledge and to stifle freethinking. This all changed with Gutenberg’s 1439 invention that ushered in the first modern period of human history. By making the written word more accessible and more easily translatable what followed was change so drastic and revolutionary that we are still impacted by it today. Historic periods of social and cultural advancement such as the Renaissance, the Age of Enlightenment, and the Reformation all evolved because Gutenberg’s printing press made learning and the exchange of ideas on a broader scale possible.

And now Dewitt Clinton . . .

Was it by accident that the 19thcentury Age of Reform was born in New York State and followed the path of the Erie Canal? The Second Great Awakening, the abolitionist movement, women’s suffrage, temperance – all social movements in response to the ills of industrialization and abuses of unfettered capitalism in a new America.  Each driven by the Great Thinkers that we all celebrate and honor today; Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass. It was no accident that these Great Thinkers shared in common this path of progress that is required of social reform. And what was their primary pathway and means of “mass communication” to Spread Their Word – our Erie Canal. It was not that everyone along the canal corridor embraced these social reforms, but the opportunity for discourse energized the Age of Reform and thus the spread of democratic ideals and a more inclusive and dynamic citizenry.

The answer is now obvious . . .

Their gifts were not just a rudimentary piece of 14thcentury technology and a 363 mile canal, but lasting, dramatic, and revolutionary social progress all the result of a German engraver and a 19thcentury New York politician. Both Great Thinkers, and connected by the enduring impact their creations have had on humankind.

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Seneca Falls statue of Amelia Bloomer introducing Susan B. Anthony to Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Trinity Church is in the background.

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