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American Society

Mid-Nineteenth Century - Overview

The half-century after 1820 witnessed the unloosing of remarkable expansive energies that transformed the U.S. & remade the character of its people. In that period the territorial frontier reached the Pacific, the Rio Grande, & Oregon. The line of settlement moved from the Ohio Valley well into the trans-Mississippi west. Meanwhile, mounting population, fed by immigration, peopled these vast expanses; the number of inhabitants grew more than 4-fold between 1820 & 1870.
Internally, forces were at work modifying the basic conditions of life & the critical institutions of the people. In the South & in the North ancient labor systems felt the strain of new & unexpected burdens. The plantation economy, swelling to the demands of cotton production, confronted the nation with the prospect that a large segment of the population would remain permanently enslaved. The development of transportation by road, canal, & rail helped to integrate a great American internal market. But the same development dislocated the handcraft artisans who were ultimately displaced by the relentless spread of the factory. In their stead rose a proletariat new to American life. Everywhere growing cities faced enormous physical & social problems, & everywhere their residents wrestled with the tasks of supplying housing & public services to thousands of newcomers.
Men's ideas could not escape the consequences of these changes. The sense of power that came from great & visible achievements found expression in an overwhelming confidence in the capacity of human beings to mould their own destiny...
What was accomplished in realms other than purely material gave point & substance to the confidence that even more could be achieved. The extension of democratic control over politics, the creation of numerous educational, humanitarian, & social institutions, the conquest of yellow fever & smallpox, & the gradual lengthening of the lifespan seemed to this generation impressive evidence of progress. Until the tragic blow of fratricidal war, & its aftermath, there seemed no limit to the hopes of this society, nor any basis for questioning the assumptions on which it rested.
- Oscar Handlin, This Was America1

The Americans had always devoutly believed that the superiority of their institutions, government, & mode of life would eventually spread by inspiration & imitation to less fortunate & less happy peoples.
- Year of Decision, p. 92

John Quincy Adams, as Sec. of State, in a letter of June 4, 1818, embodies the first formal expression of the immigration policy of the nation. The Republic, he said, invites none to come; it will not keep out those who have the courage to cross the Atlantic; they will suffer no disabilities as aliens, but they can expect no special advantages; foreign-born & native alike face the same opportunities, & their success will depend upon their individual activity & good fortune.
(in a letter to Baron von Făśrstenwather, [who was] attempting to negotiate easier conditions for Germans to acquire land)
- Marcus Hansen, The Atlantic Mig., p. 97 (Wab.)

Among the few generalizations that can be made regarding emigration from Europe is that periods of greatest volume corresponded with eras of liveliest industrial activity in the U.S..

  1. Ibid., p. 16 (Wab. Lib.)

Depression of 1837 -
America was in the throws of one of the severest depressions the country had ever suffered. In 1833 had begun a period of unlimited speculation in western land. The rapid increase in banks & banknotes, the great activity in RR- & canal-building, & the tremendous expansion of western banks created by the shifting of government deposits to them from the tottering U.S. Bank, all contributed to the unprecedented boon. The bubble's burst in 1837 was precipitated by Pres. Jackson's specie circular of July 1836, which forbade the acceptance of any currency except specie in payment for public lands. This ended the speculation carried on by the aid of inflated bank issues, & produced a panic & depression among the most severe in our country's history.
- Capt. Frederick Marryat, Diary in Am. (Introduction by Jules Zanger), p. 123

The period of the settlement of California [admitted to the Union, Sept. 9, 1850] marks the real commencement of a new era in the physical progress of the U.S.. The vast quantities of gold it produced imparted new life & activity to every portion of the Union.4
- Preliminary Report of the 8th Census (1860), p. 104

Sale of Public Land -
From the Whig Almanac for 1849, published in New York:
The Land Office Report of Dec. 1848 mentions that the public domain...covers 1,584,243,000 A[cres], of which 142,026,003 have been sold... During 1847 the land sales were 2,521,305 A; also 1,448,240 A in the first 9 mos. of 1848.
38 years since (1811), Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, & Iowa contained but 42,564 inhabitants; they are now the home of 2,750,000 Americans. The RR, steamboat, & canal have been of infinite service to them.
- Achille Murat, America & the Americans (1849)5
With reference to the public lands, their sale forms by no means an inconsiderable part of the public revenue, the administration of which is conducted by a "Commissioner of the Land Office," who resides in Washington. The receipts, however, are collected by parties located in each separate district, & who, after having honored the different claims on the government, & received the commission of 5% on the sales (which must on no account exceed the sum of $2,000), deposits the remainder in various banks of the Union, to the credit of the Treasury.
- Ibid., p. 218

Turbulence & disorder stalked the land in the restless decade of the 1850s. The lawlessness of the Mississippi Valley frontier was permeating the seaboard, where tempers were already ragged & nerves on edge as a result of the slavery controversy. Reformers, drawn from the lunatic fringe of society & impatient of the rational attainment of their ends, encouraged physical violence to stamp out opposition. Bands of women were raiding barrooms, breaking glasses, staving in whiskey kegs, & pouring liquor into the streets. Mobs were hunting down antislavery agitators or turning with equal enthusiasm to fight for the freedom of a runaway slave. Amid such unrest, each anti-Catholic street-preacher became a potential mob-leader, inspiring his listeners to attacks upon Catholic churches or Catholics themselves.
- Prot. Crusade, p. 305


1 Oscar Handlin, This was America: True Accounts of People and Places, Manners and Customs, as Recorded by European Travelers to the Western Shore in the Eighteenth, Nineteenth, and Twentieth Centuries. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1949.

2 Possibly Bernard De Voto, The Year of Decision, 1846. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, & Company, 1943.

3 Frederick Marryat, Diary in America. London : Nicholas Vane, 1960 (originally published in 1839).

4 Bracketed insert in original.

5 Achille Murat, America and the Americans. Buffalo, NY: G. H. Derby, 1851.