During this period America was in the process of becoming an urban nation. While the majority of work was still agrarian and farming still the largest segment of the economy the momentum swung from farming to industry during these thirty years. Reform movements, spawned by the Second Great Awakening, groped for ways to respond to the new difficulties arising from urbanization and immigration and launched campaigns against poverty and the evils of alcohol. Finally, by the mid-1850s the reform of Abolition, tinged with anti-immigration impulses became the predominant reform that eclipsed all others. The new immigrants, many of them Irish, struggled to gain a foothold in their new country, banding together to form early labor unions and mutual aid societies. It was never pretty and riots against both anti-Irish gangs and abolitionists were common.
As the urban centers grew from towns to real cities, they became very challenging places to live. Sanitation and other public health strategies were lacking and were significant factors in the dramatic drops in life expectancy from a high in 1800 of 58 to only 46 years by 18560. The new immigrants also posed cultural problems as waves of largely agrarian folk from Germany and Ireland poured into the population centers along the East coast bringing with them unfamiliar religions, speech and attitudes. Technology served as a catalyst of even further change with industry moving from the countryside and waterpower into the cities where they were able to tap the power of the steam engine.
This era was also the beginning of what would be a long partnership between big government and big capitalism. Large construction projects, both canals and early railroads were heavily subsidized. For example, between 1850 and 1857 Railroads received more than 25 million acres of free land. The railroads and canals opened up large areas in the mid-west to farming and small industry shifting populations and creating economic opportunities and disadvantages in their wake. And hovering over this cauldron of changes, challenges and seemingly insurmountable social problems was the number one problem. Slavery.
Migration continued to be a major force in the years prior to the Civil War. More than 3,000 miles of canals were finished by the late 1830s opening up much of the Ohio River Valley and upper New York State to farming.
While this created opportunities for some, it also made lands previously suitable for agriculture no longer viable and many farmers in the Northeast were encouraged by economics to move into the cities and search for work in the growing manufacturing sector. Building of railroads further accentuated this trend and was also a major employer of unskilled labor. Between 1840 and 1860 the railroads laid more than 30,000 miles of tracks providing important access to much of the country east of the Mississippi River. Living standards for most Americans remained flat or declined. Life expectancy was actually declined during this period and most wage earners spent between 50 and 75 percent of their incomes on food. Conditions in the cities deteriorated. Between 1800 and 1850, New York City’s life expectancy at birth dropped to a mere 24 years. In most American families no more than ½ of the children could be expected to attain maturity. The problem of diseases grew even larger and major epidemics of cholera and malaria, aided by migration, immigration and advances in transportation, continued to plague the nation. Tuberculosis became an even greater problem due to even more overcrowding in the cities. The Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s created one of the largest population movements in history. Economic depressions continued to visit the nation every 10 or 15 years and their impact was intensified as more and more citizens became dependent on employment. By 1860 only 55% of the workforce was engaged in agriculture, a dramatic change from just several decades earlier when a great majority of work was agriculture related. The average wage for manufacturing workers is estimated to be slightly less than seven thousand dollars a year in today’s dollars ( 2005).
Immigration became a major political and social force by 1840. In 1826 only 10 thousand immigrants came to America. In the 1850s, more than 3 million people immigrated to this country. In 1850 alone, more than 200 thousand Irish immigrated to America. Such large concentrations of largely unskilled workers drove down wages to near subsistence levels and, unsurprisingly, created a reaction among those who were already there, searching for work. This backlash, known as the Nativist movement, was a powerful political force and threatened to take over state legislatures during the 1850s and pushed the new immigrants into defensive political and social networks.
The general status of women continued to deteriorate, as America became more urban and industrial the role assigned to women began to shrink. The generally accepted place for women was in the home. In spite of the fact that women were the assigned educators of children, few women were allowed to seek an education and literacy was far higher among men than women. Even the cloths women work were restrictive and oppressive, spawning a whole branch of the early women’s movement led by Amelia Bloomer. Ironically, working women, who received salaries of between one-third to one-half of a man’s wages, became the backbone of the American textile industry. Reform activities, viewed as extensions of the home, became one of the few areas open to women. Temperance and Abolition were especially popular causes. Finally, in the late 1840s and 1850s, a women rights movement emerged lead by powerful speakers such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and Sojourner Truth.
Under president Andrew Jackson and his chosen successor, Martin Van Buren, roughly from 1828 to 1840, more than seventy thousand Native Americans were moved across the Mississippi River. The Creeks and the Choctaws were marched west in the early 1830s and the Cherokees and Seminoles in the late 1830s and eighteen forties. Each of these marches were poorly organized, poorly equipped and had high rates of mortality for the Native American peoples.
One of the saddest chapters in American history was the Trail of Tears episode. The Cherokees had fought migration from their ancestral lands in Georgia and Alabama for a number of years, but the discovery of gold in Georgia precipitated a mass movement of whites into Cherokee lands. Finally, 1838 an army led by Winfield Scott invaded the Cherokee homelands and rounded up thousands of men, women and children. They were then marched the thousands of miles to Oklahoma. With little protection from the weather and minimal supplies, the “Trial of Tears” was littered with the sick and dying. An estimated 4,000 people died on this march.
By 1860, there were more than 4 million slaves living in the American South. This was roughly 50% of the South’s population. Slavery and its antithesis abolition would come to dominate political and social thought up to the Civil War. The general conditions of slavery were beyond imagining today. Education was usually prohibited and it was common to whip slaves that were caught reading. Whippings were all too common. Robert Fogel’s study of a Louisiana plantation found that roughly half the plantation’s slaves were whipped over a two-year period. Food and clothing were minimally provided. Just enough to support the mandated work load. Frederick Douglas reported that on his plantation each family’s monthly allowance consisted of a bushel of corn meal, 8 pounds of pickled pork and a pint of salt. And of course in addition to the beatings poor food there were the constant humiliations. It is hard to conceive of how so many slaves were able to preserve not only their families and their dignity but their humanity in the face of such a prolonged onslaught.
Most American of this period had a standard of living below what we would now consider the poverty level. Rural Americans fought to better their condition by supporting political movements that advocating opening up new lands to farming.
Public projects and private projects that were publicly subsidized, most notably the Railroads and Canal projects made farming the lands of the deep South and Mid-West viable. The Free Soil policies did created issues of human rights with Native Americans and Slavery. Much political activity during this period was devoted to arguments about where the nation would expand and whether or not the new lands would be slave or free states.
The growing working class, greatly expanded though immigration, found themselves working for what were often below poverty wages. Working class people were largely unsympathetic to the plight of slaves, viewing abolition as an anti-catholic anti-immigration movement designed to further lower their wages. Constantly fearing both the paupers burial and the poorhouse, many working class men turned to political societies. These political organizations, though usually corrupt, provided essential safety net programs that ranged from job placements to caring for fire victims and new widows. Hence, the rise in many cities of the political machines, which quickly became a bastion of the Northern Democrat party. Another common source of refuge from an economy that was very unsympathetic to working class people were the friendly societies.
Self-help societies designed to provide some basic social insurances began springing up in the 1830s. These organizations primarily focused on burial insurance and widow’s benefits. Some expanded into charitable activities and were particularly interested in the welfare of orphans. The Odd Fellows was the first of a number of strong fraternal organizations that took these concerns to a new level. This organization developed a set of guaranteed benefits for not only death but unemployment. The benefits were considered a right not a charity. The friendly societies were very important to working people. The Odd Fellows, arguably the most popular friendly society of this period saw its membership rise to nearly a half a million members by the Civil War and Dispersed approximately 50 million dollars in benefits. The Grand Lodge of Maryland cared for more than 900 orphans and local lodges often provided special assistance to members in areas where fire or epidemics has created a crisis.
Fueled by the enthusiasm unleashed by the Second Great Awakening and fueled by the energies of middle-class women, a number of reforms dotted the social fabric of this period. While temperance and abolition were the campaigns that attracted the largest support, reform movements aimed at the prison system, juvenile delinquents and the mentally ill were also quite popular. However, the reform movement that was second only to abolition was aimed at the growing problem of poverty. Anti-poverty campaigns were particularly popular in the cities where growing numbers of poor immigrants had drastically reduced living conditions and increased the problems of density and basic sanitation and contributed to growing lawlessness. Such groups and associations as The Female Missionary Society for the Poor of the City of New York, the New York Evangelical Missionary Society of Young Men and The Boston Society for the Moral and Religious Instruction of the Poor recruited hundreds of “missionaries” to work among the poor. Other groups such as the Association for the Improvement of the Conditions Of the Poor (AICP) tried to make the anti-poverty activities more efficient. Children were a special problem and one of the most famous anti-poverty groups was Charles Brace’s Children’s Aid Society, which attempted to find more humanistic alternatives to the orphanage. Not surprisingly, most of these reforms had strong anti-immigrant and anti-catholic elements and were regarding with no little suspicion by the targets of their efforts.
The major reform of the period, aimed at the very poor or indigent population, was the expansion of the poorhouse system. Historian Micheal Katz has observed that the basic assumption behind American infatuation with the poorhouse, that most of the poor needed work incentives not help and that poverty was a moral rather than an economic problem, have never been valid. Initially designed to cut expenses by both deterring individuals from receiving relief and reforming those who entered the poorhouses, workhouses or poorhouses proved to be neither rehabilitating nor cheaper than outdoor relief measures. As a consequence, poorhouses quickly became themselves targets for reform. Those who entered the poorhouses were ill equipped to defend themselves, for example children and the mentally ill, were easily exploited and had such difficulties that separate movements sprang up to provide mental hospitals for the mentally ill and orphanages and reformatories for children.
By the 1850s a host of commissions and investigations had issued reports scathing the poorhouse as a very inhuman answer to poverty. One poorhouse in New York reported a 20% death rate among the healthy residents. Graft became common and basic sanitation in short supply in most institutions. A large part of the problem was basic economics. It was simply far more expensive to put poor people in institutions that to provide outdoor relief. Local residents were understandably reluctant to continue funding a strategy that was not only inhumane but was more expensive that its alternatives, making the situation in the poorhouses even more dire. Eighteen Forty seems to be the last year when the majority of the indigent poor were cared for in poorhouses. By 1850 almost twice as many poor were receiving outdoor relief at a cost of less that those receiving assistance in the poorhouse. Classification problems compounded financial challenges with deserving widows being forced to share space with prostitutes and the mentally retarded incarcerated next to petty criminals. In spite of its many problems poorhouses and institutional relief would enjoy periodic popularity throughout the rest of the 19th century and even into the 20th century.
Building other types of institutions became a related trend during this period. State and local governments were attracted to building places where social problems could be monitored and controlled. Consequently, many of the more populated states began building what would come to be a system of poorhouses, workfarms, mental hospitals, houses of reform, orphanages and prisons, each specializing in a particular problem or population.
In 1831, Nat Turner led a slave rebellion. Although the revolt was short lived, it was quite alarming as the slaves killed a number of families in the area before local militia captured them. Turner and his co-conspirators were hanged but the aftershocks of the rebellion spread throughout the South and resulted in a series of changes- legal and social- that were designed to make Southern slavery more oppressive than ever. This seems to be the turning point. Before Nat Turner’s rebellion, most Northerners and many Southerners felt that slavery was a temporary aberration that would eventually, under the pressures of changing values and economics, die a natural death. After the rebellion, Southern attitudes hardened, African-Americans came be regarded not as a people not quite ready for emancipation but as sub-human.
The other serious conflict during this period was Bloody Kansas. In 1855, Kansas territory became an armed camp as a result from legislation that declared that local voters would decide if the new state was to become slave or free. Thousands of settlers flooded into Kansas, some from the neighboring slave state of Missouri and some from northern states. Quickly events disintegrated into a precursor to the Civil War, with pro-slave groups clashing with pro-free groups in small battles up and down the state’s eastern border. One of the anti-slavery groups was led by the staunch abolitionists, John Brown, an. A few years later, 1859, Brown lead an attack on the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. The plan was to capture the weapons in the armory and precipitate a war of liberation. The attack was unsuccessful and Brown and his followers were hanged. The event became famous among Northern Abolitionists, who came to consider him a hero and martyr for the cause of aboliton .
Most slaves resisted their position though less violent means than revolt. Stealing from the master and sabotage were common strategies of resistance, however, escape was the most popular. An Underground Railroad sprang up in the North, composed not of rails but of a series of safe houses that were quite effective for escaping slaves. Some historians have estimated that more than a thousand slaves a your throughout this period successfully escaped slavery, a total of more than 30 thousand before the Civil War. A few were forced to resort to tragic strategies, the most egregious and one of the most famous resisters was one Margaret Garner, the escaped slave who, when recaptured, killed her own young children rather than see them return to slavery.
Upper and middle class women, as has been discussed earlier, threw themselves into reform work and eventually began campaigning for their own equal rights. Working women, especially in the textile industry where they composed a majority of the workforce, organized into unions. The first strike in Lowell, Massachusetts, the center of the textile mills, occurred in 1834 and 1835 and again in 1836. Issues ranged from wages to safety issues to the length of the workday. Eventually the workers succeeded in getting the workday reduced to only 12 hours. One of the biggest unions to emerge from the textile industry was the Lowell Female Reform Association (LFRA), which raised money to support abolition, sent money to Ireland during the famine and championed women’s rights.
As the nation became more industrialized and more dependent upon low-wage labor, relations between labor and capital grew more and more contentious. Between 1830 and 1836 there were more than 170 strikes in the Northeast alone. In 1835,fifty different Philadelphia unions struck for a 10 hour day. Irish canal workers became notoriously militant, staging no less than 14 strikes in the eighteen thirties. In 1840, President Van Buren instituted a 10 hour workday for federal employees and in 1842, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that workers did have the right to organize. While there were advances for working people during this period, most of the early strikes failed and state courts ruled again and again that unions represented a conspiracy and hence were unconstitutional. State troops were repeatedly called out during labor disturbances always in support of capital against labor.
The economic crisis of 1837 precipitated a number of riots in the larger Eastern cities.
The most notable was the Flour Riot in New York City. Thousands of working people assembled in front of city hall protesting rising prices. At this time at least 1/3 of the workers were unemployed. The crown then attacked a local flour merchant destroying hundreds of bushels of wheat and barrels of flour. The crisis of 37 also precipitated a rent revolt among tenant farmers in the Hudson River Valley, where 80 thousand tenant farmers refused to pay rent to the area’s larges landowner. Eventually the militia had to be called out to restore order.
However, in general this was not a period remarkable for worker solidarity. The working class was largely fragmented by cultural and religious conflict, particularly the animosity between the protestant working class and the Irish immigrants. There were countless small battles between these two groups and the anti-catholic sentiment among many protestant workers was quite vicious. Shortly before the Civil War, anti-catholic sentiment was so strong that the Nativist Party, which was a political expression of anti-catholic and anti-immigrant sentiments, threatened to become a major political party and controlled a number of state legislatures. Conversely, pro immigrant and catholic sentiment was typically against abolition and there were a number of riots and disturbances that were directed towards people of color that were indisputably racist.
AN ANTI-IMMIGRATION CARTOON