America’s cities grew exponentially. The problems associated with urban growth intensified in proportion to the population increase. While there were concerns over rising expenses for public welfare programs, diseases were a more immediate threat. Yellow fever was rampant throughout the Southern States and malaria a constant problem in most port cities. Consumption, or tuberculosis, which was easily spread where population densities were high, was the most feared disease and was widespread in the poorer quarters. Cities and towns were regularly visited by epidemics of cholera and smallpox. Living in cities where sanitation was poor or nonexistent and people lived at close quarters was dangerous. Mortality rates were high and, a child born in the city had only a 50% chance of surviving to adulthood.
This was also America’s first reform age. Emerging social problems provided a challenge to Americans who were drawn to a religious movement known as the Second Great Awakening. Missionaries representing this newest wave of evangelism roamed the streets of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia in a well meaning but largely unsuccessful attempt to save the laboring classes from their vices. Reform movements aimed at changing the individual were essential elements of this religious awakening and they spread to nearly every aspect of American life.
Early 19th century life was a difficult challenge for most Americans. Poverty hung like a cloud over the lives of both rural and urban families. Agricultural and industrial work was not only hard and dangerous but presented recurring economic hardship. These conditions were exacerbated by attitudes and policies that denied ordinary people all but the rudest forms of assistance. Regulations and safety standards were nonexistent and government policies favored financial and business interests to an extent that would astonish us today.
Most Americans continued to live a rural life that was almost feudal. While land was cheap or even free, most families were able to eke out only a very low standard of living that hovered close to or below impoverishment. It was common for families were to share one bed and one-room houses were the norm. Large families often ate in shifts, as there was too few chairs for them to all sit together during meals. Eating implements and tools were considered so valuable that along with beds and chairs, they were frequently listed as part of an estate. Fireplaces served a dual purpose since kitchen stoves were uncommon on farms until mid-century. One flinches when imagining the challenge of using a fireplace to cook meals for a large family. When illness or injury brought difficult times farm families turned to relatives and neighbors for help. Widows often lived with their children; many households included cousins or uncles and even friends who helped with chores. Children of poorer farmers were often “sent out” at a young age to work for a neighbor who needed cheap labor.
Early industrial employment provided living conditions that were little improvement over their rural neighbors. Most industries were centered in small towns and villages rather cities. Industrial work was long and hard. Earnings were typically based on output rather than hourly wages. The typical workday was 12 to 15 hours and the workweek was 6 days. A worker’s wages rarely moved working class families far from poverty. Industrial work was dangerous and work related deaths and injuries common. While workers endured low wages and work related injuries, Northern merchants and Southern plantation owners were the primary recipients of the wealth created by this first wave of industrialism. One percent of the population owned one-fourth of the nation’s wealth.
The Native American groups of this period faced not only the threat of poverty but also extreme hardship that stemmed from harsh and unjust government policies. The primary strategy for dealing with the problems presented by Native Americans was to move them westward. In 1790, most of America’s four million white people lived no more than fifty miles from the Atlantic Ocean. By 1830, there were 13 million Americans, and 4 million of them had moved into what had previously been “Indian lands”. Most of the Native American tribes had allied themselves with the British during the war of 1812, which provided a justification for white settlements to intrude into lands that had previously been set-aside for Native Americans. In the 1820s, those settlements incited a series of lopsided wars that were concluded with treaties that were thinly veiled land grabs. By 1825, most Native Americans had been removed from Alabama and Florida, and settlers had encroached into Indian lands in Georgia and large parts of Kentucky and South Carolina. After Andrew Jackson became president in 1828, congress passed the “Indian Removal Bill” which further accelerated the forced migration of Native American peoples. In 1800, more than 4 million Native Americans resided east of the Mississippi river, but by 1840, there remained fewer than 35 thousand.
The invention of the cotton gin and the growth of the textile industry in the North combined with the removal of Native Americans from much of the South was a combination that created compelling incentives for slaveholding. Between 1800 and 1830, the slave population in the South doubled from one to two million souls. Although the importation of new slaves was outlawed in 1808, trading slaves who were already in America continued and was supplemented by smugglers. Slave ownership was primarily an offshoot of the plantation system, where the ownership of large numbers of slaves created an economic advantage. Large numbers of slaves represented a considerable investment of capital that only large and affluent landowners could afford. Only a third of Southern white households included slaves and one percent of Southern landowners owned more than a quarter of all slaves.
Slavery was extremely oppressive. While some slaves were humanely treated, few were provided a standard of living above poverty. Slave quarters were minimal and nutrition was limited to what was required in order to perform heavy labor. A slave child born in the Deep South had less than a 50% chance of living to adulthood. Family life was difficult. Only half of slave families were composed of 2 adults, and children were often sold before they attainted maturity. Miscegenation was common and reflected the attitude that the slave owners even owned the slave’s sexuality. The system’s brutality was reflected in the so-called “black codes”, laws governing slaves that were common throughout the South. For example:
More than 7 slaves found traveling without their master—20 lashes
For traveling without a pass- 20 lashes
For hunting with dogs-30 lashes
Punishment for more serious crimes, especially attempted escape, would normally include branding, and many lashes. Repeat offenders often faced amputation.
In early America, women often enjoyed a degree of equality that they would lose as the nation began to industrialize. Rural life required women to manage the household, supervise the family’s general medical care and the children’s education. After the Revolution, there was even some discussion of giving women the vote. In cities and towns workingwomen were usually relegated to domestic service where they were often considered members of the respective households. By 182o attitudes had begun to change, particularly in manufacturing regions. Northern industrialists regarded women as a source of cheap labor for the newly emerging textile industry. The “Lowell girls”, young women hired to work the mills in Lowell, Massachusetts, became a major labor source for early American industries in search of low-wage workers. Although the so-called “Lowell experiment” was initiated with promises from employers of good working conditions, the working environments in the textile mills quickly deteriorated and, by the late 1820s, women workers were organizing one of the first industrial strikes in America.
POLICIES FOR THE INDIGENT
While most Americans struggled to maintain a subsistence standard of living, extreme poverty became more common. The war of 1812 gave an impetus to industrial development, creating new industries in cities and small towns, but after the war of 1812 and the wars in Europe ended, the American economy suffered a serious downturn. The first major American depression (1816) brought hard times to most American cities. Relief programs were swamped and soup kitchens sprang up in all the urban areas. New York City officials estimated that more than 20 percent of the population was receiving some form of assistance. Periodic economic depressions became a feature of the nation’s economy. Not only did thousands of urban Americans find themselves periodically forced to depend of relief, thousands of small businessmen and farmers found themselves in debtors’ prison. In 1830 there were more than ten thousand people incarcerated in New York City’s debtors’ prison, this at a time when the total population of the city was less than 150 thousand souls. More than half were there for debts of less than 25 dollars.
Taxes soared. Cities found it difficult to maintain programs for both the indigent and for the unemployed workers. Critics of charity claimed that the benevolent impulses of do-gooders were creating a permanent class of paupers, and officials began making a distinction between “the poor” and “paupers”. The poor included the majority of city dwellers whenever times turned bad; paupers were people who had descended into a lifestyle of poverty and were permanently dependent on charity. City leaders, who were mostly responsible for the very poor, searched for ways to control their growth. Committees were created to investigate.
By the 1820s two schools of thought had emerged. One school pointed the finger of blame at the individual behaviors of the very poor. One committee claimed to have found that a majority of the poor had “fallen on evil ways”. A second school viewed economic conditions as the root of the problem. This systemic theory enjoyed enough popularity that, in 1817, the U.S. congress passed a bill creating funds for public works projects. However, President Madison vetoed the bill. Today it is almost beyond comprehension that, at a time when fewer than three hundred people worked for the federal government and more than a hundred years before the passage of the social security act, there was such powerful support for a national welfare program.
By the end of the 1820s, most state governments had concluded that the best solution to the problem of poverty was the elimination of outdoor relief. This solution was reflected a number of state committee investigations; the most influential of these was New York’s Yate’s Commission Report. Poorhouses were the solution. Initially, these new poverty institutions were seen as institutions where the problems of poverty could be studied, analyzed and where the poor could then be reformed. Indoor relief, or the building of institutions to house the very poor (Poorhouses), was also advanced as a solution to the related problems of crime and of wayward and abandoned children. Cities and counties soon discovered that building and maintaining those institutions was an expensive proposition. Furthermore, merging such disparate groups as widows, children, the handicapped, and petty criminals posed insurmountable management problems. Poorhouses, initially established as a largely humanitarian reform, quickly disintegrated into public embarrassments that were difficult to manage and even more challenging to fund adequately. Predictably, most low income Americans used a variety of strategies to avoid the poorhouse; turning to relatives, neighbors and the newly emerging friendly societies when times were bad and resorting to public relief when they had exhausted alternate resources.
As a majority of Americans began to chafe under the policies that they found oppressive, they began to coalesce into groups that defied the politics and elites responsible. Groups employed unique strategies as they attempted to find some relief. The major anti-poverty strategy pursued by rural white Americans was to demand land policies that would give them access to cheap or free land in the western territories.
This tactic was quite successful, but unfortunately this was at the expense of the Native American population. Urban workers were less successful. Demands for a 10-hour day, higher wages, and less punitive responses to unemployment were stifled. For the much of the nation’s first 50 years, debtors prisons were a hated part of life for American workers and small businessmen. It was common for people to be incarcerated for debts under 5 dollars. In 1808 New York City officials estimated that more than 1,200 people were in debtor’s prison for owing less than 25 dollars. In 1830 more than 10 thousand debtors were in incarcerated for debts throughout the state. In Pennsylvania, between 1822 and 1830 more than 6 thousand people were released from debtor’s prisons, almost half owed less than 10 dollars. By the late 1830s few states were continuing to use incarceration as a punishment for debtors. The most militant group of workers during this period was those who were building the nation’s first canal systems. The difficulties and dangers of the work spawned scores of strikes. Political strategies produced some modest gains. The major successes were suffrage and the elimination of debtors’ prisons. By 1830 most states allowed all white men to vote and by the late 1830’s most states had discontinued the use of debtors’ prisons.
Native Americans fiercely resisted the intrusion of white settlers into lands that had been promised to them in one of the early treaties. There were scores of skirmishes and dozens of small wars. The most notable resistance to white expansion into Indian lands was the war organized and led by Tecumseh. Tecumseh, a Shawnee chief, convinced members of more than 32 tribes to join in the fight against the white invasion. The most famous battle was at Tippecanoe in 1811 where General Henry Harrison defeated the Indian alliance. Tecumseh was killed in battle the following year. Other wars followed. Andrew Jackson became famous for his campaigns against the Native American population in Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. In 1813-14, Jackson succeeded in pushing the Creeks out of most of Georgia and Alabama. He then entered into a series of battles with the Seminoles in Florida and in 1820 forced the Choctaws to move from Mississippi to Oklahoma.
Resistance by American slaves took a number of paths. The most obvious was escape. In spite of the dire consequences that could lead to amputation, whippings, and even death, thousands of slaves tried to escape. Outright rebellion was less popular but was more feared. Historians have been able to identify hundreds of slave revolts. Although none were successful, they did intimidate the plantation owners, who must have lived in constant fear that their slaves would someday kill them in their sleep. Of the hundreds of revolts, the most frightening to this era’s slave holders were the rebellions led by Gabriel Prosser in 1800 and Denmark Vesey in 1822.
Prosser organized a conspiracy in Virginia that eventually included several thousand slaves. The plan was to capture the local armory, execute local white slave owners, and join the local Indian tribes in a war against white people. Informers crushed the insurrection before it could spread and local authorities arrested Prosser, hanging him and more than 30 of his fellow conspirators.
In 1822, Denmark Vesey hatched a complex and alarming rebellion in South Carolina. A freedman himself, Vesey organized several thousand slaves and a handful of poor whites to attack Charleston. Informers thwarted the revolt, but the incident spread fear throughout the South not only provoking harsh measures against slaves but also spawning policies that were designed to separate freedmen and poor whites from the slave population. Southern elites were well aware of the potential dangers represented by an alliance between poor whites and slaves.