Ship Charlemagne

The passenger ship Charlemagne, which Emma Willard travelled in from New York to Le Havre in 1829.

“You are aware, that we of America, are a recent people – and it is natural that we should wish to improve our institutions, by learning something of yours.”

The Purpose

Transatlantic travel in the early nineteenth century developed at incredible speed. This “transportation revolution,” opened up a new world for Americans of all class levels. Not only could individuals travel around their own country with far more flexibility, but also they could cross the Atlantic Ocean to Europe and Great Britain if they chose. Capitalizing on this ease of travel, Willard decided to go to France and Great Britain. She took her son with her, and once abroad, met up with several other Americans. Women frequently traveled with family members for both safety and companionship.1

Ease of travel also allowed more people to take Grand Tours, a cultural and educational journey that came into popularity in the late seventeenth century. Historian Anna P. H. Guerts argues that women, while they may be taking a similar  they had more specific “motivations” and set “itineraries,” that did not involve the standard guidebook or tutor that young men brought with them.2 Willard did not follow the guidebooks published for the young men of high rank, going from Switzerland, to Italy, to France, to England, and back home again, but instead, forged her own path. Her two main motivations for traveling were: reform tourism and curiosity.

Willard’s main point of travel was to improve her own nation rather than solely focus on her own self-improvement. She desired make “careful studies of educational practices” in England and France.3 While abroad, thanks to her international reputation as a successful educator (and a friendship with the Marquis de Lafayette), Willard met with prison reformers, authors, politicians, dignitaries, royalty, and those of all ranks. In developing these transatlantic connections, bringing new cultural ideas to her curriculums, she in turn made the best teachers, who in turn made the best students and future generations. She visited secular and religious schools, noting each practice in detail. However, no school measured up to hers, each deficient in their range of subjects and student population. Willard, unimpressed with the foreign schools, felt a new sense of pride in her own students and importance of her job in America.


1.  Will Mackintosh, ""Ticketed Through": The Commodification of Travel in the Nineteenth Century,"  Journal of the Early Republic 32, no. 1 (Spring 2012), 67.; See Lynne Withey's  Grand Tours and Cook's Tours: A History of Leisure Travel (New York: W. Morrow, 1997) for more information on the cultural practices and methods of travel in the nineteenth century.

2.  Anna P. H. Geurts, "Gender Curiosity and the Grand Tour:  Late Eighteenth-Century British Travel Writing," Journeys 21, no. 2 (Dec 2020), 4.

3. Emma Willard, Journal and Letters, from France and Great-Britain (New York: N. Tuttle, 1833), 380.

Reform Tourism

One underlying motivation for Willard (among many other women) was "reform tourism." Reform tourism, according to historian Daniel Kilbride, strengthened Anglo-American kinship through their mutual “civilizing mission.”1  The ties between America and England grew stronger in the mid-nineteenth century, as these ideas of reform and betterement spread across the atlantic.  Europe seemed to be another world, versus England as the ancestral home of many Americans. They longed to bring "improvement," and "progress" to these foreign countries, one being France. Willard's trip to France was to observe in the socio-economic and cultural environments, and solidify the fact that morality was lacking. This idea spurred Anglo-Americans to implement their "can-do spirits" onto people of all ranks of society. 

They believed “human betterment," was possible through egalitarianism,  based on "common interests, language, and culture."2 This egalitarianism also is reflected through the idea of human happiness, as discussed in Caroline Winterer's work. These moral lessons, through secular and religious nature, were the root of many of the ideals of the enlightenment, which people implemented through working with others, as well as interpreting things themselves.3

One major reform that Willard, among many, worked to improve was the status of women in both educational and domestic practices. In America, women's education began moving away from the traditional idea of republican motherhood, and into a broader idea of "republicanism." Rather than focusing specifically on women's domestic roles in the home or the education of her children to create better citizens, Willard looked outwards to educating women who would in turn educate society as a whole.4


1. Daniel Kilbride, Being American in Europe,1750-1860 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 96.

2. Kilbride, 86.

3. Caroline Winterer, American Enlightenments: Pursuing Happiness in an Age of Reason (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 167.

4. Mary Kelley, Learning to Stand & Speak: Women, Education, and Public Life in America's Republic (Charlottesville: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 28.


Curiosity was another motivation for Willard, among many other traveler's, reason for taking a journey across the Atlantic. Willard not only spent time meeting with fellow reformers, but she clearly viewed France, England, and especially her trip to Scotland, with fascination. While she continued to compare the natural world of these countries to America, each landmark brought a layer of antiquity uncomparable with her country's own. She, unlike some travelers, was not "disciplined" in her curiosity in the natural world, but instead experienced it as it happened. Her fascination with nature, both human and environmental, helped guide her within her mission of self improvement.1  These "grand scenes," allowed travelers to express their emotions,  reaching the "sublime... a feeling both ennobeling and improving." These fascination and sublime weaves within her history books, as she is known for making history more interactive and not just a consistent stream of names and dates.2

Her curiosity is also reflected in her deep desire to speak with people, and observe their minds and interactions with others. Her interest in human nature was not uncommon for the period, By making mental and physical connections with others, this enhances the transatlantic connections. Part of Willard's desire to go abroad was to make sure what she wrote about  in her history textbooks actually reflected what existed abroad.  


1. Geurts, 4.

2. Kilbride, 93.