The Pre-Civil War Era (1815–1850)
Changing Society and Culture: 1820–1860
Urbanization in the North
The Market Revolution caused major changes in northern society, as more and more Americans moved to large cities. New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and other major cities tripled or even quadrupled in size from 1820 to 1860 as people left their farms to find work in the cities.
One byproduct of the increase in manufacturing and mass migration to the cities was the development of wage labor. As more factories sprang up in the North, more workers were needed to tend to the machines. Rather than learn a trade skill, these day laborers worked alongside scores of others for as many as sixteen hours a day, six or seven days a week, for a meager hourly wage.
Though many early wage laborers were children, often under the age of thirteen, most were men. Some factories, such as the Lowell Mills in Massachusetts, employed only girls and young women. These factories provided room and board and attempted to “moralize” the women with heavy doses of religious preaching and strict discipline.
Although wealthy business owners loved cheap wage labor, workers suffered, and few had any recourse to redress their grievances. Collective bargaining was illegal, and factory owners could always hire replacement workers, or “scabs,” if employees refused to work. Some workers, particularly women, risked prosecution and initiated a series of strikes in the 1820s and 1830s to improve working conditions.
Labor Unions and Reforms
These labor strikes became more prominent in the national news around the same time that the National Trades Union—one of the nation’s first unions—formed in 1834. Eventually, the government began to take action: in 1840, President Martin Van Buren succeeded in establishing a ten-hour working day for all federal employees engaged in public works projects; in 1842, the Massachusetts Supreme Court legalized trade unions in Commonwealth v. Hunt . Nevertheless, it would be decades before unions gained any real power to bargain effectively.
German and Irish Immigration
In the 1840s and 1850s, urbanization in the North accelerated as millions of immigrants from Europe settled in northern cities. Facing starvation from the Potato Famine of the mid-1840s, over 100,000 Irish immigrants came to the United States every year in the late 1840s and 1850s to find new opportunities. Though most settled in New York, Boston, and later in Chicago, Irish quarters sprang up in every major northern city.
German immigrants also arrived en masse during the same period. Many came to escape persecution after a democratic revolution in Germany in 1848 had failed. The German immigrants were generally wealthier than the Irish and therefore rarely settled in the cities.
A significant number of native-born Americans resented immigrant groups. These “nativists” denigrated the Irish and Germans as ignorant and inferior and also discriminated against them because of their Catholic background.
In the 1850s, many nativists joined the anti-immigration American Party, or Know-Nothing Party. Most Know-Nothings were Protestant middle-class Americans whose jobs could be threatened by unskilled Irish and German workers. The party’s base was primarily northern: manufacturing and wage jobs were located almost exclusively in the North, so the “immigrant problem” was not a factor in the South. The Know-Nothing Party was popular enough to take control of a few northern state legislatures in the 1850s and to field a major presidential candidate, Millard Fillmore, in the 1856 election. The Know-Nothings, though a minority, were thus highly influential in politics at the time.
A New National Culture
American intellectuals began to address these startling social and political changes in new novels, poems, and essays. In New England, for example, the Transcendentalists argued that there is knowledge beyond what the senses can perceive and that ultimate truth “transcends” the physical world. Between 1830 and 1850, Transcendentalists such as essayists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and poet Walt Whitman championed self-reliance, independence, and a fierce individuality that matched the character of the developing nation.
Poets John Greenleaf Whittier and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and novelist Louisa May Alcott also wrote about the new America. Other commentators, including the so-called Dark Romantics, who included poet Edgar Allan Poe and novelists Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, had a more critical view of American society in the years before the Civil War.
The “Cult of Domesticity”
Generally, women were shut out from the economic opportunities of the Market Revolution. Through the antebellum years, many Americans continued to believe that men and women worked in separate spheres—men outside the home, and women inside. Often labeled the “Cult of Domesticity,” this social norm encouraged “good” women to be responsible not only for day-to-day housekeeping but also for making the home a happy and nurturing environment for their wage laborer husbands. Women were also expected to educate their children and provide moral guidance. Higher education did not become an option for women until the late 1830s (see The Spirit of Reform, p. 52 ).
Status Quo in the South
While the North and West experienced dramatic social and economic change, the South remained relatively unchanged between 1820 and 1860 because of the region’s reliance on cotton production. After the invention of the cotton gin, cotton production proved so profitable that by 1860, the South was producing 75 percent of the cotton supply used in British textile factories.
Southern Social Hierarchy
As the North became increasingly democratic, the South continued to adhere to the old, almost feudal social order. At the top were a select few, extremely wealthy, white plantation owners who controlled the southern legislatures and represented the South in Congress. Then came the farmers who owned one or two slaves, followed by the poor and sometimes landless whites. Black slaves were confined to the bottom of the social hierarchy.
Though slaves did the bulk of the manual labor on the largest cotton plantations, not all whites owned slaves. In fact, only about one in four southern males owned slaves in the 1850s, and those men usually owned only one or two slaves. Most southern whites were poor subsistence farmers who grew food only for their own use.
Attempts to Justify Slavery
Despite the rampant poverty and social inequity, the vast majority of southern whites believed firmly in the superiority of their social system. Ironically, the poorest whites often were the most ardent supporters of slavery, because they dreamed of becoming rich planters with slaves of their own.
Slaveholders attempted to justify slavery in many ways. Some championed the “paternal” nature of slavery by arguing that they took care of the “inferior race” as fathers would small children. Others told themselves that blacks were better off as slaves in America than as “savages” in Africa. More often, however, defensive slave owners pointed accusing fingers at the North, claiming that the impersonal industrial system in the North was based on “wage slavery.”
The Deepening North-South Divide
As time passed and the rapidly changing society in the North outpaced the sluggish South, Americans in the North and South began to see themselves as two very different peoples. While the North underwent major social and economic changes during the antebellum period, the South generally clung to King Cotton and slavery and thus remained essentially the same. These differences drove the regions further and further apart in the years leading up to the Civil War.