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Contextual Essay Back to History Unit

United States Expansion, 1800-1860
Leah S. Glaser

On the eve of the Civil War, economic changes generated new ideological, social, cultural, and political issues that further divided the nation along moral and regional lines. Reformers tried to address these issues. Influenced by the messages of self-discipline and individual achievement embodied in the Second Great Awakening, transcendentalism, and "free labor," these reform movements included temperance, women's rights, abolition, and states' rights.

The Slave Society of the South

By 1860, the population of the South had reached four million, with over one-third of that number enslaved. Most southerners lived in a rural and agrarian environment, rather than an urban one. In addition to cotton, the region's primary exports included sugar and rice, both of which required an enormous unskilled labor force. Southern society justified its institution in various ways. Both religious arguments and racist ones indicated that blacks were simply not fit to enjoy the privileges of citizenship due to inherent incompetence, laziness and "uncontrollable" urges. Many argued that emancipation would be irresponsible and wreak chaos and havoc on society.

Scholars such as Eugene D. Genovese and Kenneth Greenberg have argued that the slave system formed a distinct regional society of particular relationships regarding class, race, and gender. Others, including Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman, have further emphasized that slavery was ingrained into the economic development of the nation as a whole. The largest planters held the most political power, dominating public office. Smaller farmers who owned few or no slaves, and were often quite poor, also depended on the slave system. They sold more diversified crops for the neighboring planters and the planters often hired them as overseers. However, because of this dependence, the southern yeoman farmer had a particularly tense relationship with slaves, some of whom lived in similar economic circumstances or better. Furthermore, most poor southern whites realized that slavery protected them from the menial work required of slaves.

While the slave system was ingrained in the economic, political, and cultural life of the southern society, research and scholarship has shown that, rather than acting as passive victims, many slaves continued to resist the institution. Frequently, slaves ran away, causing considerable financial losses to their owners. Other times, rebellion was more confrontational as illustrated by Nat Turner's Rebellion in 1831. Events like this ignited further uprisings and fueled the growing abolitionist movement in the North, convincing southerners that agitation from outsiders was precipitating the unrest.

"Free Labor" Ideology in the North

In competition with the slave system of the South was the concept of "free labor" advocated by many in the Northeastern states. Although the term might suggest the same meaning, the word "free" had nothing to do with bondage or working for no wage, but rather indicated concepts of freedom, independence, and self-reliance. The concept emphasized an egalitarian vision of individual human potential, the idea that anyone could climb the ladder of success with hard work and dedication. Such concepts and confidence in individual potential sprung from, or were at least supported by, the religious revivalism of the era known as the Second Great Awakening. At the same time, secular American philosophers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were stressing ideas of self-reliance through concepts like transcendentalism.

Like it had done in Europe years before, industrialization changed the nature of work and production in the Northeast. In the "Agrarian Republic" of early America, the home was the center of manufacture and production. Skilled workers learned specialized trades through apprenticeships. Industry moved the workplace to the factory where machinery required far fewer skills from laborers. The textile mills in Massachusetts stand as the most classic example of early American industrialization.

The industrial changes of the early nineteenth century fueled an uneasy relationship between the North and the South. As illustrated by the Lowell Mills, the two enjoyed a reciprocal economic relationship with the South providing the raw material for manufacturing in the North. Thus, the slave system literally supported the Lowell Mills. Located in a rural area, the primary fuel was clean, hydroelectric power. At its height, the operation comprised forty mill buildings, 320,000 spindles, 10,000 looms, and employed 10,000 workers to operate it all. The mills at Lowell had several advantages over the cotton manufacturers in Britain including its proximity to the cotton of the south and natural energy sources. One advantage Britain had was its access to cheap labor. To compensate, Lowell increasingly began to hire young women to lower labor costs and compete with England's mills. Eventually, managers replaced these women for an even less expensive immigrant workforce.

Immigration and Nativism

The economic changes of industrialization created a concentration of wealth and distinctive new middle and working classes. The need for cheap labor invited unprecedented waves of immigrants in the 1840s and 50s, particularly those fleeing from the potato famine in impoverished Ireland. The willingness of these people to work for low wages eventually convinced the factory managers, like those at the Lowell Mills, to replace its local labor with chiefly immigrant labor by the 1860s. The Irish served as the primary labor force in the construction of infrastructure like the Erie Canal as well. The second largest group to immigrate to the United States before the Civil War was the Germans. German immigrants, while also poor, differed from the Irish in that they had money to buy land, settled largely in the west, and for the most part were skilled artisans.

The influx of immigrants prompted a reaction known as "Nativism." Nativists suspected immigrants of threatening the rights of "native-born" Americans, embodied such discriminatory views of the Irish that they rivaled the racism reserved for free blacks in northern society. The two groups-the Irish and free blacks-often competed for the lowest-paying jobs in the industrial North. Many prominent people of the day observed that working conditions for immigrants in the North, although based on the "free labor" ideology, were just as deplorable as those of the slaves. Like slavery, nativism also spread as the country expanded.

Women and the Reform Movement

Historian Sean Wilentz suggests that in addition to creating class distinctions, the Victorian idea of "separate spheres" to distinguish the social roles of men and women also grew out of the economic changes of the Jacksonian Era. Since growing manufacturing separated work from the home, marriage no longer served as an economic partnership. Already classified by the U.S. Constitution as citizens with no political rights, women now found themselves with even less of a public role in society since industrialism defined "work" as competitive wage labor and entrepreneurship. Historians such as Sara Evans have also argued that because the work that women performed was unpaid and outside the public eye, it was relegated to a "separate sphere" from that of men. Within this "separate sphere," women came to embody the virtues that the new order threatened to destroy.

Women continued, as Evans and others have explained, to work in public spaces. Poor women labored in factories like Lowell, and middle and upper class white women embraced their "virtuous" reputations and dominated the reform movement through public, political action. Between 1820 and 1845, middle-class women and men created voluntary associations on a new scale, carving out a space located between the private sphere of the home and public life of formal government institutions as part of reform movements. Advancement in communications and the dissemination of information helped contribute to their unity. Popular periodicals like the Godey's Lady's Book contained poetry and articles by some of the most well-known authors in America. Works like Catherine Beecher's Treatise on Domestic Economy stressed the connection between domesticity and education. By the 1830s, women dominated the teaching profession not only because they worked for lower salaries than men, but also because the role of teacher fit into the new sensibility of the age that women had the appropriate moral authority for the job.

In addition to teaching, middle-class women exercised their moral authority through reform movements that focused upon controlling abhorrent behavior such as sexual sin and alcoholic consumption. The Temperance Movement gained strength from the religious ideals of the Second Great Awakening and the impact of immigration. New England women blamed the increase in alcoholic consumption (which had steadily risen in the decades leading up to the 1830s) more on the influx of German and Irish immigrants than the changes of industrialization. However, leisure drinking cut across class lines as taverns and saloons became a place of masculine camaraderie. Most drinking, by both men and women, occurred in the home, yet the reform movement saw alcohol as corruptive and a contributing factor to domestic violence. In 1826, Lyman Beecher founded the American Temperance Society, which condemned drinking as a moral vice leading to poverty, idleness, crime, family violence. By 1833, the organization had 6,000 affiliates across the country and over one million members. Millions of Americans took temperance pledge to abstain from strong drink by the mid-1840s decreasing alcohol intake by 25 percent.

Like the Temperance Movement, abolitionism also grew out of a much wider wave of reform efforts to control the changes of industrialization. The values imbued in the "free labor" system and the Second Great Awakening fueled abolitionist sentiment. The Beechers were a classic example of a family that embodied the most dominant reforming trends of the era. Lyman Beecher was a famed preacher in the popular religious movement and his two daughters were active in other aspects of reform. As Catherine championed the woman's role in society, Harriet became one of the most famous abolitionists, publishing her indictment of slavery in the best-selling novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Women like Harriet Beecher Stowe extended their moral authority to the most debated question of the day: slavery. In 1833, women founded the Female Anti-slavery Society in Philadelphia. Sarah and Angelina Grimké became the most well known female abolitionists stressing kinship with female slaves and stressing issues of gender over race. The Grimkés also drew parallels between the treatment of women and of blacks in terms intellectual capability and denial of educational and economic opportunity. As a whole, however, the abolitionist movement, which included white men like William Lloyd Garrison (publisher of The Liberator) and free blacks like Frederick Douglass, remained deeply divided on the issue of women.

All of this reform activity would serve as a training ground for active women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and Susan B. Anthony, many of whom were active participants in the abolitionist movement, to seek their own political equality. The movement, which focused on suffrage, culminated in a meeting at Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. The crowning moment of the Seneca Falls Convention, whose participants included Frederick Douglass, was Stanton's reading of the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments which borrowed the wording of the Declaration of Independence to appeal for women's political equality and the right to vote. While the action set the agenda for years to come, the slavery issue, questions of states' rights, and the sectional crisis would overshadow the goals of the women's movement. Women would not gain the franchise until after World War I.

States' Rights

To many southerners, the society evolving in the North and its reform movements undermined the South's way of life, its traditions, and its political power. Industrialism, the free labor ideology, and especially abolitionism threatened states' rights and revived the constitutional debate about the power of the federal government. The Nullification Crisis, precipitated over the issue of tariffs, proved a defining political issue during the 1830s and 1840s and exacerbated the already divisive sectional differences of slavery. South Carolina, which saw the tariffs as a bold extension of federal powers and a prelude to forced emancipation of slaves, led the charge to nullify the cotton tariffs. Such action would allow a state to declare a national law unenforceable within state borders, an action that could eventually spur a state to secede from the Union. President Jackson viewed nullification as a direct threat to federal power and threatened military intervention, but Congress eventually worked out a compromise that defused the issue. Still, tariffs in the 1830s would intensify the political tensions of sectionalism in the 1850s. Competing economic systems, the ideological, political, and social differences that grew out of such systems, the status of slavery in the western territories, and the abolitionist movement continued to make both northern and southern societies deeply suspicious of the other's political power. When southern states decided to secede in the 1860s, they called the action a protest against the over-extension of federal powers that challenged the core of southern society.

The antebellum period in America is a rich era of cultural, economic, and political study. In the years since the Civil War, historians have emphasized the political, economic, and technological forces that shaped the era, its competing ideologies, and the Civil War itself. Scholars of the last thirty years, however, have increasingly highlighted the actions of reformers and placed the political events into additional analytical frameworks that include racial, class, and gender models that emphasize issues of discrimination, racism, and sexism, as well as agency.

Works Referenced and Further Reading

Evans, Sara M. Born for Liberty: A History of Women in America. New York: The Free Press, 1989.

Foner, Eric. "Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction," in The New American History, edited by Eric Foner, Philadelphia: Temple University, 1990.

Goldfield, Davis, et. al. The American Journey: The History of the United States. Second Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001.

Greenberg, Kenneth. Masters and Statesmen: The Political Culture of American Slavery. Baltimore: the Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.

Ignatiev, Noel. How the Irish Became White. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Roark, James L., et. al. The American Promise: A History of the United States. Second Edition. 2003.

Walters, Ronald G. American Reformers, 1815-1860. New York: Hill and Wang, 1978.

Wilentz, Sean. "Society, Politics, and the Market Revolution." in The New American History, edited by Eric Foner, Philadelphia: Temple University, 1990.

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