The network of canals that spread through the new United States was truly the first easy travel option available; for the first time, the dissemination of people and ideas could be undertaken without the great difficulty that accompanied traditional modes of travel. Not surprisingly, those reformers who wished to see America flower as a fully pluralistic society watched the canals with interest and began to make use of them soon after.

Old guard Protestants rejoiced to see New England ideas brought to the wilds of the Old Northwest. The canal boats carried itinerant ministers to remote communities on the canal circuit; Charles Finney, the great revivalist leader, went west to Rochester by packet boat. Even the canals themselves were used as a convenient baptismal font.

Further, the new reform movements were spread along through New York by the canal system: the Shakers at Watervliet, the Perfectionists at Oneida Community, the Millerites and Fox sisters at Rochester, and the Mormons at Palmyra all found the new technology useful in finding recruits, sending out evangelists, and spreading their communities. The Millerites in particular used the canal network in Ohio; William Miller spent the summer of 1844 preaching from canal boats moving through Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Educational reformers jumped at the chance to encourage intellectual development via the canals. Amos Eaton, a professor at the Rensselaer School in Troy, New York, ran a traveling school of science on the Erie Canal in 1826. His efforts were followed by floating libraries, museums, bookstores, and waxworks. Even a canal circus circulated on the Wabash and Erie Canal in the 1850's, promising seats cheaply for "Colored Persons...and Dress Circle, all armed Chairs." Perhaps the greatest aspect of canal travel was its egalitarian nature. Crowded together, new immigrants sat with New England orators; political debate was common and the exposure to new ideas clearly sat well with many travelers. "When Henry Clay came along on his way to Washington," wrote a passenger on the Pennsylvania Mainline Canal, "what a chance for the village orator to speak at him and all of us to hear him in response as we sailed from one set of locks to the next!"

Reform behavior also focused on controlling the evils spread by the canal and its culture. Asiatic cholera, always a danger, was carried easily along the canal lines. Cholera attacked poorer and primarily Irish communities, allowing reformers to suppose that it was "primarily a moral dilemma." Thus, attention began to focus on conditions of labor for the boatmen, temperance issues, and an overall desire to preserve what was considered to be American virtue and morality among canal workers and travelers.