There are at least two ways to answer this question. One way is to simply look at each reform movement from this time period and determine what problem it was trying to address. So, we could say that there were the following problems:
- Lack of education, which was being addressed by Horace Mann and others in the movement for free common schools.
- Bad prisons, which was being addressed by the prison reform movment.
- Abusive mental institutions, which was being addressed by Dorothea Dix and others.
- Lack of schools for the deaf and blind, which was being addressed by reformers such as Thomas Gallaudet and Samuel Howe.
- Lack of rights for women, which led to the Seneca Falls movement.
- Excessive use of alcohol among some people, which led to the temperance movement.
- The problem of slavery, which led to the abolitionist movement.
However, we can also ask if there was an overarching problem or condition that led to this impulse for reform in general. Here, we can say that the problem was that society was losing its cohesiveness. This was the time of the commercial revolution when more people started living in towns and working for wages. This pulled apart the bonds that had tied people together when everyone lived in small communities. As society began to lose its cohesion, people started to think that reform was necessary to fix a variety of social ills that arose. This can be seen as the overarching problem that helped lead to most of the reform movements mentioned above.