The Pre-Civil War Era (1815–1850)

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Changing Society and Culture: 1820–1860

Summary Changing Society and Culture: 1820–1860

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.

The Know-Nothings

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).

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