The Dynamics of Growth

From Tindall and Shi: The Jacksonian-era political debates between democratic and elitist elements was rooted in a profound transformation of American social and economic life. Between 1815 and 1850, the United States expanded all the way to the Pacific Coast. An industrial revolution in the Northeast began to reshape the contours of the economy and propel an unrelenting process of urbanization. In the West, and agricultural empire began to emerge based upon the foundation of corn, wheat, and cattle. In the south, cotton became king, and its reign came to depend on an expanding institution of slavery. At the same time, innovations in transportation—horse drawn wagons, canals, steamboats, and railroads—conquered time and space and knit together a national market. An economy based primarily on small-scale farming and local commerce matured into a far-flung capitalist marketplace entwined with world markets. These economic developments in turn generated changes in every other area of American life, from politics to the legal system, from the family to social values.(Source: Tindall and Shi: America, A Narrative History 1999).

    In 1816, John C. Calhoun told a colleague, "we are greatly, I was about to say fearfully, growing." With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, the agrarian society which Thomas Jefferson had considered ideal seemed threatened. There was the general fear that, with industrialization, the nation would lose the cohesion and virtue that had heretofore held it together.  This fear was easily brushed aside, however, in the euphoria of the Era of Good Feelings, and an economic boom.  That boom was especially prevalent in the south with the onset of the Cotton Revolution.

Cotton: The industrial revolution in Europe had increased the demand for cotton to feed the textile mills of England. It was rare and expensive, as it was hard to pick the fibers (lint) from the seed. One person (typically a slave) could separate one pound of cotton per day if he were good at it.

By mid 1780’s South Carolina and Georgia coastal farmers grew black seeded Sea Island cotton which had long fibers, and could be easily separated by squeezing it through rollers; however, it could only survive in low country areas. The only cotton which could survive in upcountry was the green-seeded short staple cotton. It clung to the seed stubbornly, and was ruined when pressed through rollers. The only way it could be separated was by hand.

In 1792, Eli Whitney invented the Cotton Gin (short for "engine.") He did so at Mulberry Hill, the Georgia Plantation, home of the widow of Nathaniel Greene, the Revolutionary War hero. It could separate 50 times as much cotton from seed in a day. Whitney was on his way to a teaching job in South Carolina, but got waylaid by the gin project. He invented the machine in just ten days. The device was so simple that it was easy to duplicate. Whitney made little money from the gin; he and his partner, Phineas Miller, spent most of their profits fighting patent infringement suits.

Invention of the gin made green-seed (short staple) cotton profitable. It also increased the need for slaves and made slave trading popular. Cotton production spread to the Southwest, and tied southeast and southwest together. The gin, and cotton production made cotton a major export commodity almost immediately. Between 1830 - 1860, cotton accounted for one half of American exports. Surpluses from the cotton trade created money for capital investment. It also provided raw materials for mills in the North.

North and South benefited from cotton production.

Farming the West: New land law in 1820 reduced price of Western lands to $1.25 per acre, and minimum acreage from 160 to 80. State banks loaned money for land purchases. As a result, a large Western migration began.

Preemption Act of 1830: Squatters could stake out and survey land, later pay the government $1.25 per acre for it. Didn’t have to pay for land before taking occupancy. Thus, "Squatter’s rights."

Graduation Act of 1834: Promoted by Thomas Hart Benton –price of unsold government lands gradually reduced over 30 years – lowest price was 12.5¢ per acre.

Mass migration to Great Lakes and Ohio Valley occurred during early 19th century. By 1820, over 2 million people lived west of Appalachians. Population extended as far as Pacific Ocean.

Farming in plains areas assisted by:

  • Invention of the Iron plow with interchangeable parts by Jethro Wood  in 1819. It had previously been believed that Iron would poison the soil; and wooden plowshares often broke in dense, heavily rooted, prairie soils. Wood’s plow had interchangeable parts so one did not have to buy an entire new plow when the old one broke.

Wood had the same problem as Whitney. Demand was so great, he couldn’t meet it, and people broke his patent claims with abandon. He made very little money on the deal.

  • John Deere - invented Steel Plow.
  • Cyrus McCormick – invented grain reaper. This was as important to the Northwest as the Cotton gin was to the south. Increased from half acre to 12 acres the amount one could harvest in a day. 

Inventions led to a drop in prices, a  rise in Income, and an increase in the standard of living for farm families.

Transportation and the National Economy

    New Roads: Westward movement increased the demand for better roads. Better roads actually lent itself to the development of a national market. Travel on such roads as existed was arduous and uncomfortable. Stage Coaches were the only means of mass transportation, and were exceedingly uncomfortable. As many as 12 people might be crammed in, and the coach traveled at about 4 miles per hour. Sometimes, travelers walked beside the coach for a spell to avoid the cramped conditions.

1794 – Pennsylvania -Lancaster Turnpike completed. Was actually graded and paved with crushed stone. (Macadam).

The term turnpike comes from the pole, or pike at the tollbooth where traffic was admitted unto the road.

1821 – 4000 miles of turnpikes had been completed. Almost all in North and Northwest.

Water Transport: Those traveling as far west as Pittsburgh or Wheeling could buy a flatboat or keelboat to carry persons and cargo downstream. A large flatboat (really a large "ark" with living quarters) could carry 40 tons of cargo. It was floated downstream, and at destination, was either sold, or used for lumber. Flatboats could travel down Ohio to Mississippi to New Orleans.

Invention of the Steamboat made travel upriver possible. Robert Fulton and Robert R. Livingston had built the Clermont up the Hudson River in 1807. By 1836, 361 Steamboats operated on Mississippi and its tributaries. By 1840’s shallow draft boats were used, that could handle shallow waters . 

Rivermen boasted that the boats were "so built that when the river was low and the sandbars come out for air, the first mate could tap a keg of beer and run the boat four miles on the suds."

Flatboats carried most of western farm produce to market. This included wheat, corn, flour, meal, bacon, ham, pork, whiskey, soap and candles. (The last two were made from byproducts from slaughterhouses.) A canal barge also carried goods more cheaply than an overland wagon. Even so, it was not as important as the steamboat, which could travel upstream, and often went far upstream the Mississippi tributaries These tributaries included the Wabash, Monongahela, Cumberland, Tennessee, Missouri, and Arkansas Rivers..

VERY Possible Thesis: "The Steamboat, by bringing two-way traffic to the Mississippi River Valley, created a continental market and an agricultural empire that became the new breadbasket of America.

  • Farming evolved from subsistence level to production of staple crops for sale at market.
  • Promoters and speculators followed the farmers.
  • Villages sprang up at trading points along rivers; became important centers of commerce.
  • New Orleans grew, became most important port in West. In the 1830's and 1840's, it lead all other ports in exports.

The importance of New Orleans was largely supplanted when the Erie Canal opened in 1825; connected Lake Erie with Hudson River; gave Western States access to Ocean. It traveled 350 miles from Buffalo to Albany. Branches connected the entire state of New York. The effect of the Canal was to draw much of the trade that had formerly gone down the Mississippi, and send it Eastward rather than South. This tended to tie together the West and East to the isolation of the deep South. The Canal connected all Great Lakes Traffic with New York, and with tributary canals, connected all upper Ohio Valley with New York, made New York the primary economic sphere for the region.

The Erie Canal reduced travel time from New York City to Buffalo from 20 days to six; cost per ton from $100.00 to $5.00.

1828 – Delaware and Hudson Canal connected New York to Pennsylvania Coal fields; started canal building mania. Over ten years, 3,000 miles of canals were dug.

Panic of 1837 ended Canal building mania. Many states had borrowed heavily to build them. Often, they couldn’t repay the bonds, so they simply repudiated them. Bondholders had no recourse, and lost everything.

Railroads: Rails had been used to carry mine cars for some time. The development of a self propelled car came about with the invention of the Steam Engine. The first practical steam locomotive was built in England in 1814; the first commercial steam railway began operation in England in 1825, the same year that the Erie Canal opened. Port Cities in the U.S. (Boston, Baltimore, Charleston) were full of schemes to develop railways.

First Railroad constructed in U.S.: Baltimore and Ohio (B and O). In 1832, it ran 73 miles from Baltimore.

The first stone for the rail bed of the B and O was laid July 4, 1828 by Charles Carroll, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence.

1833 – Charleston and Hamburg RR opened; ran from Charleston to Hamburg (just outside Augusta.) At the time, it was the longest RR under single management in the world (136 miles). Owners hoped to draw business from Savannah River.

There was tremendous growth in the railroad industry: In 1840, there were 3,328 miles of track, only four more miles than canals.  By 1850, over 30,000 miles of track had been laid.

Railroads were responsible for the growth of large cities. Rail lines were drawn to connect large cities; small towns and villages were bypassed. Rail lines connected Chicago to New York; many cities East and West of each other were connected. BUT, North and South were connected by only three major links: Washington, Louisville, and Cairo, Illinois.

Rail travel was not comfortable or entirely safe. Rails were wooden, tied down with Iron straps, which often burst and curled up. They were called "snakes heads." Wood was used for fuel, and often put out sparks which set passenger’s clothing on fire. Later, spark arresters were added, and coal used instead of wood, but there was still the danger of some sparks, and travel by rail was bumpy at best.

Railroad travel was faster and less expensive than water transport. Trains averaged ten miles per hour, more than twice the speed of stage coaches or water travel. By 1859, savings attributed to railroad shipment saved four percent of the Gross National Product. By 1890, it was 15 %.

Railroads also encouraged settlement and the expansion of farming. In the antebellum period, it aided the expansion of farming more than it did manufacturing. (Northern manufacturers had access to waterways for shipping.) Also, the demand for iron and equipment by railroads helped spur industry. The fact that railroads were not subject to delay by weather gave them a distinct advantage in carrying goods.

Ocean Transport: 1845, the first Clipper Ship was launched. Clippers were built for speed rather than cargo capacity, so they couldn’t carry much, but they did reduce travel time.

An important product carried by clippers was Chinese tea; very much in demand in America; but the tea did not keep well. Clippers enabled it to be transported much more quickly.

After the discovery of Gold in 1848, Clippers carried miners and settlers to California via Cape Horn. The Clipper Ships lack of cargo space was a limitation, and clippers were in service for only about 20 years. After the Civil War, steamships predominated the market.

The Role of Government: Internal improvements of the early 19th century were largely a joint venture between state governments and private initiatives. Nearly all the turnpikes in New England and the Middle States were built by private investment; whereas in other parts of the country, the state governments were heavily involved. Canals were almost entirely built with public funds. The Panic of 1837, however, put the quietus on government investment in improvements. Governments largely remained outside construction of railroads, etc., but did aid railroad construction by the land grants to railroads. Grants came not only from state governments but also from the Federal Government across national lands. Railroads were typically granted three square miles on alternate sides of the track for each mile of track built. This added up to a small empire of land.

The Growth of Industry 

Manufacturing industry grew in Northeast while farming grew from new technology in the South and West. The cotton gin, harvester, and transportation improvements brought substantial improvements in agriculture; however technology, by way of the Industrial Revolution, profoundly affected American manufacturing interests, and gave rise to the factory system.

Textile Manufacturing: First actual textile mills had operated in England, aided by the invention of the flying shuttle, the water frame (operated by water power) and the spinning mule, which could do the work of 200 hand spinners. England guarded the industry closely. It forbade the exportation of the machinery, or plans, or even the people who knew how to build them. However, in 1789,  Samuel Slater traveled to America from England in disguise. He had memorized the plans for a water frame. Slater built a mill  in Pawtucket Rhode Island in 1790. His workers were nine small children. who produced cotton yarn which was then woven under the "putting out" system, a method by which yarn was "put out" to weavers to weave in their homes.

Manufacturing was actually aided by Jefferson’s embargo, which had restricted the import of manufactured goods. New England merchants had been forced to switch resources into manufacturing.. New England had an advantage over other areas because of the abundance of rivers and waterways which could be utilized for waterwheel operation. Although a flood of goods from England after the War of 1812 slowed American industry somewhat, the pattern was in place, and the textile industry slowly grew, together with auxiliary industries such as tool and machine making to build and service the mills. 

Technology in America:  Research tended towards the search for practical inventions; in Europe there was more research for abstract truths, etc. Inventions were sought to have practical applications to make life easier; not just science and knowledge for the sake of science and knowledge. Said Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America:

        In America the purely practical part of science is admirably understood, and careful attention is paid to the theoretical portion which is immediately requisite to application. On this head the Americans always display a clear, free, original, and inventive power of mind. But hardly anyone in the United States devotes himself to the essentially theoretical and abstract portion of human knowledge. In this respect the Americans carry to excess a tendency which is, I think, discernible, though in a less degree, amongst all democratic nations.

    You may be sure that the more a nation is democratic, enlightened, and free, the greater will be the number of these interested promoters of scientific genius, and the more will discoveries immediately applicable to productive industry confer gain, fame, and even power on their authors. For in democracies the working class takes a part in public affairs; and public honors, as well as pecuniary remuneration, may be awarded to those who deserve them

    In 1814, Dr. Jacob Bigelow, a botanist at Harvard, published, "The Elements of Technology."  His use of the "T" word was largely responsible for it's popularization.

Examples of the combination of research an innovation was: Joseph Henry worked with electromagnetism which led  to the invention of the telegraph by Samuel F.B. Morse.

Morse’s first message: What hath God wrought

In 1846, Henry became President of the Smithsonian Institution; formed from a bequest by an Englishman, James Smithson.

Science and Technology produced many changes in people’s lives. Canned and refrigerated food, decreased shipping time which made fruits and vegetables available in areas where they might otherwise be out of season; breeding of cattle and swine for better breeds, etc. It also helped improve living conditions. Houses were larger, heated better, more illuminated. Coal burning stoves became commonplace. Sewer lines made city streets less unsanitary. Fire hydrants were established to fight fires.

Eli Whitney developed assembly line production in 1799. He was probably not the first to use it, but he made it famous. He won a government contract for manufacture of muskets by taking ten apart before government officials, putting all the parts in a pile, and re-assembling all of them in a matter of minutes.

Most inventions were European;  but were adapted or improved in America. However, some inventions were American:

The Sewing Machine actually slowed down industrialization. It was made to use at home, and thus supported the continuation of the "putting out" system, whereby work was delivered to homes to be completed there……sort of like the address envelopes at home business.

The Lowell System:  Previously, most work was done in home shops by the "putting out" method, whereby goods were handcrafted at home from factory manufactured materials. The true "Factory System" developed in Waltham, Massachusetts in 1813 when the Boston Manufacturing Company opened a factory for spinning and weaving under one roof.  This became known as the "Lowell System, named for Francis Cabot Lowell, an investor in the company.  It was a system whereby raw material (cotton or wool) went into the factory, and finished cloth came out. Machinery in the mills was powered by water wheels, again augmented by the plentiful streams in New England. Concentration was on a course form of cloth that could be made without a great deal of skill, thus labor need not be skilled (expensive.)  The area where the first such factory was opened was later renamed Lowell, Massachusetts.  

Lowell and others were aware of Jefferson’s fear that industry would threaten the republican form of government of the country. Jefferson believed the key was to focus on self-reliant agriculture—he loved farmers. Industrialization, he believed, would corrupt, if not destroy, the country’s social fabric. Lowell et. al. were determined to show that even a factory could follow these values of self reliance, etc. Mills were built in the countryside, and the company took a paternal attitude towards workers.

English mills were located in drab, crowded mill villages where life was miserable. Lowell was determined this would not happen here.

Most workers were young women:

  • Could be paid a cheaper wage than men.
  • Many men had gone west to seek their fortunes; so by 1820 there was a surplus of single women.
  • Not many prospects for work or marriage on the farm, this gave young women a chance to get away.

These young women were called the "Lowell Girls." Parents worried about them, so the mill company provided paternal protection. The girls lived in dormitories with strict matrons who enforced mandatory church attendance, curfews, and temperance. They worked 13 hours per day, six days per week. Whole families often worked in the mill, including children. This grew from entire families working together on farms; it seemed a logical extension. Society thought that it was beneficial for the women and children of the "lower order" to be kept gainfully employed.

Gates grew up in a textile community in Columbia and comes from three generations of textile workers.  Worked in a Mill myself. The Mill had a large bell in a tower which rang to signal shift change; alert those at home that it was time to report to work. The Bell could be heard all over the community.

    Over time, as profits became more and more important, the glamour of the working young women in the mills faded. In the 1830's textile prices dropped, and relations between workers and managers went downhill.  Efficiency and profit became the gospel of the owners rather than community values. As a result, machines were sped up, and workers worked harder, until a number of labor strikes broke out. Visitors to the mills noted a similarity between the Lowell Mills and the British factory towns portrayed in Dicken's Hard Times.

Corporations and Industry:  Early American business enterprises had been sole proprietorships or family businesses, possibly even partnerships.  However, the complexity of business led to the popularity of the corporation as a means of doing business.  Corporations were the preferred form of business for building turnpikes, canals and railroads, as they were considered quasi-public. Still, corporations had been given a bad name by the wildcat banks, and for that reason, any business which called itself a "corporation" was initially viewed with distrust.

    American industry continued to grow at geometric rates. Most industry was located in New England, primarily in the Hudson and Delaware River basins.  By 1860, 1,311,000 people worked for 140,000 separate business establishments. Total capital investment was over $1 billion; and output was $1.9 billion.  

Industry and Cities: The Growth of industry augmented the growth of cities. New York became the first city in the U.S. to have a population of over one million. (1860). It had a superior harbor, and unique access to commerce. Largest cities besides New York were Boston, St. Louis, and Chicago. New Orleans had become fifth largest, but because it concentrated on export of cotton rather than imports fell behind.

The Popular Culture

    Society had become more settled, more urban in early 19th century. As a result, a distinct urban culture; different from the farm and settlement culture that had previously dominated the country, arose. With it came new forms of leisure and entertainment; diversion from work days, when one had a day off.

    During the colonial period, there had been little time for amusement. Survival alone occupied almost all of one's energies. 

Urban Recreation:  Working class young men often formed volunteer fire departments and fraternal organizations; largely organized around drinking and gambling. More affluent people attended lectures –it was an opportunity for self-improvement. Sort of like the New York Chautauqua society. Among the more notable lecturers of the day were Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Ward Beecher. Horse racing and blood sports (cock fights, dog fights)also became popular. The latter soon gave way to prize fighting (boxing.) Boxers were typically immigrants and were sponsored by fire companies or fraternal organizations, or possibly even a street gang.

Boxing was rough back then. It was bare fisted, and the men fought until one couldn’t continue. It was not uncommon for one to be killed in a boxing match. It appealed primarily to the working class. In one match in 1842, it ended after 129 rounds when one contestant died in his corner.  The violence of boxing led to its condemnation by ministers, and several cities outlawed it, at which point it simply continued underground.

Performing Arts: Were popular also, but only men attended. A respectable woman’s place was in the home (the "cult of domesticity"), and the theater could be rowdy at times; not very ladylike. Theaters performed operas, acrobatic acts, Shakespeare’s plays, etc. Class distinction was very evident in the theater. Middle class men sat in the front near the orchestra. "Respectable gentlemen" set in boxes two tiers up." On the third tier were prostitutes, pimps, etc. and their clients. The theater depended on them for a profit. At the very top of the balcony were the "cheap seats" for blacks, servants, mechanics, etc. People went to the theatre not so much to be entertained as to see and be seen.  It was the perfect place to Behavior was often rowdy. People in the audience cheered heroes, booed and hissed villains; if an actor was reciting a familiar or famous line, people in the audience would recite it with him. If a joke were familiar, they would yell out the punch line. If they were unhappy with the performance, they would throw eggs, rotten fruit, shoes, even chairs at the performer, along with a volley of curse words. Several times, a riot broke out resulting in death. By 1850, two sets of theaters developed, one for the upper crust, one for the working folk. One was quiet, the other noisy.

Minstrel Shows: First uniquely American form of entertainment. It consisted of white performers in blackface— it reinforced prevailing racial stereotypes: Slaves were content, free blacks were miserable. Featured were banjo music, "shuffle dances," low humor.

Minstrel shows were most popular in working class northern neighborhoods and with Southern whites – it allowed them to flaunt their presumed superiority to blacks. Shows were often entire troupes of actors who traveled up river on the steamers.

Most famous Minstrel actors:

  • George Washington Dixon: Had a character named "zip coon." 
  • Thomas "Daddy" Rice: had a song and dance routine called "Jump Jim Crow." Rice would shuffle onstage, and sing: "I jump jis so/ and ev'y time I turn around I jump Jim Crow."
  • The Christy Minstrels. Their leader was a tenor who called himself "The Great Christy."  A modern group in the 1970's of schmaltzy yuppies called themselves the "New Christy Minstrels."  They had no connection to the original, and the public did not make a connection, otherwise they would not have been popular.

Jokes, songs, etc. often portrayed blacks as simpleminded. Songs like "The Preacher and the Bear." Not intentionally cruel, but almost like telling stories about children, how they handle situations in their own simplistic way.

The most popular Minstrel songs written by Steven Collins Foster. Perpetuated myth of contented black slaves, freed blacks in the North as buffoons who would rather have been slaves. None used actual African-American melodies. It preserved a stereotype which made whites feel more comfortable about the institution of slavery. They could console themselves by believing that the blacks were content as slaves; and were not bright enough to know any better. The common stereotype is that they were childlike; had to be treated like children, and were mocked in minstrel shows to make whites feel superior.

Foster achieved fame with Oh! Susanna!. He followed it up with other songs portraying the typical contented slave stereotype:

  • Old Black Joe.
  • Massa’s in the Cold, Cold Ground.
  • "Old Folks at Home." (Way down upon the Suwannee River).
  • My Old Kentucky Home.

Foster was also the writer of many melodies still famous today, such as "Oh Suzannah!" "Beautiful Dreamer," "Rest in Blissful Repose," and "I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair." There is some evidence that Foster's most beautiful song, "Beautiful Dreamer," was also his last.  He died in a New York Hotel after a fall which resulted in a severe cut.  He had suffered from alcoholism earlier in life, and this may or may not have been a contributing factor.  At the time of his death, he had thirty eight cents in his pocket.

LEGjr. was taught Foster’s songs in 5th grade, learned many of them by heart; he was something of a true American hero to white Americans. At that time, schools were still segregated.

    The Minstrel shows portrayed slaves as blissfully content, and free blacks in the North as superstitious buffoons. Although it was racist and exploited black culture, it did provide a medium for the expression of some authentic African-American art forms.


Even into the mid nineteenth century, land remained cheap and plentiful in the U.S., and labor expensive and scarce. This made the U.S. a strong magnet for immigration from Europe, particularly Western Europe. The process was exacerbated by letters sent back home by those who had succeeded, who painted pictures of America as the land of milk and honey. This attracted still more immigrants.

Tindall and Shi (p. 519) report one letter from an immigrant which read: "Tell Miriam there is no sending children to bed without supper, or husbands to work without dinner in their bags." Also, a German immigrant noted "the absence of overbearing soldiers, haughty clergymen, and inquisitive tax collectors."

There was very little immigration from the Revolution to the War of 1812. It soon picked up after that, such that by the 1850’s over 2 million people made the Atlantic crossing. By 1845, 15 percent of the American population was foreign born. By 1860, one out of eight were foreign born. Among those who came over were 1.6 million Irish, 1.2 million Germans, and 588,000 British.

Most who came landed at Port of New York. Most were literally dumped off at the wharf, and had to fend for themselves. They were easy pickings for thieves, mugs, etc. Later, the State of New York set up an entry point to process them and help them get jobs, etc. There they were given a brief physical exam and their names and nationalities recorded.  Quite often long European names, such as those of Slavic origin, were changed or shortened because the inspectors couldn't or wouldn't take the time to spell it correctly.

Irish: Irish bitterly resented the British who ruled Ireland. It was densely populated, and suffered from intense economic hardship. The Irish Potato famine caused widespread death (over one million) from starvation,  promise of the good life in America drew them like flies. They came over crowded in ships that were dangerous and unsanitary. Many died on the way from disease caused by unsanitary conditions. Conditions were so bad that the ships carrying them became known as "coffin ships." In 1847 alone, over 40,000 Irish died on board ship while en route to America.  Said one immigration official, "If crosses and tombs could be erected on water, the whole route of the emigrant vessels from Europe to America would long since have assumed the appearance of a crowded cemetery." In 1847, 100,000 Irish arrived; by 1850, Irish were 43 percent of foreign born population. Most had been tenant farmers in Ireland, and didn’t want farm work. Many worked in factories. A slight majority of the Irish emigrants were women, and found work in textile factories. By 1860, Irish emigrants constituted 50 per cent of the workforce in the Lowell mills.  A substantial portion of the labor on the Erie Canal was Irish.

Very few settled in the South: Slaves performed most of the manual labor, and land was expensive. They tended to concentrate in Eastern cities; primarily because so many were too poor to move west. By 1850, they made up half the population of New York and Boston. Most lived in filthy tenements or slums in areas near Catholic Churches. Fierce anti-Irish sentiments developed. Irish were considered dirty, ignorant, couldn’t mix with other people, so they remained to themselves where they belonged. Quite often they were unable to find work, as employers refused to hire them.  It became quite common for want ads, etc. to contain the letters NINA ("no Irish need apply.) The distrust of the Irish also led to intense anti-Catholic sentiments. Blacks and Irish tended to look down on each other, as each considered the other to be the only class lower than their own.

 The Irish maintained cultural identity, partially because of the hostile treatment they received. They also became politically active when they gained the vote. They were largely responsible for Jackson’s defeat of John Quincy Adams in 1828.

The Irish loved Jackson. He was of Irish descent; had whipped the British (whom the Irish hated) at New Orleans, and they hated aristocracy, so Jackson’s image as the hero of the common man really appealed to them.

Irish could vote when Blacks, Indians and Women could not. They exercised considerable political influence.Irish remained fiercely Roman Catholic, partly because of the persecution they had suffered in Ireland. By 1860, the Catholic Church was the largest denomination in America; but it also caused a great deal of anti-catholic sentiment. Irish were passionate about their Catholicism, much more so than Protestants about their own religion.

Germans: Many German immigrants tended to be learned people, doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc., many who left Germany after the European revolutions of 1848 failed. Germans brought with them a variety of political opinions as well as a variety of religions: Catholic, Lutheran, and a substantial number of Jews. Some were freethinkers, agnostics, or athiests.

Unlike Irish, Germans tended to settle in rural settings rather than cities; they also tended to settle in groups, and included artisans, farmers, etc. As a result, they managed to maintain a great deal of German culture in their new country.

Among the German Immigrants who did well were:

Ferdinand Schmacher: sold oatmeal in glass jars; later founded Quaker Oats Company.

Heinrich Steinweg: Founded Steinway Piano Company.

Levi Strauss, Jewish tailor, followed gold rushers to California; made long-wearing work pants: Levi’s (blue jeans)

Germans settled in Midwest; developed customs of large amounts of food (sausages, etc.), beer, kindergartens, etc.

Aside from Germans and Irish, a number of British, and Scandinavians also immigrated. One of the Brits was Samuel Slater, who brought with him the plans for a spinning frame memorized.

1840’s; 50’s, Norwegians and Swedes migrated to Minnesota and Wisconsin. Area was similar to their homeland.

1850’s Chinese migrated in large numbers to California. Like Irish in the East, they did the heavy "grunt" work of construction.


Although America was a land of immigrants, the newcomers were not greeted with open arms:

  • Strange languages and customs made people uneasy.
  • Protestants were particularly hostile to the large influx of Roman Catholics.
  • Some fear that radical political ideas would come over with the Germans and Irish.

Biggest fear was of Catholicism. Catholic church was considered authoritarian; Americans considered their liberties hard won, and didn’t want to see them taken away by "Popery." In the 1830's, Samuel F.B. Morse (the man who invented the telegraph) published two books which said that Catholicism in America was a plot by European monarchs to undermine American liberty before those ideas made their way to Europe. He ran for Mayor of New York in 1836 on a "Native American" party ticket. Lyman Beecher, a Congregationalist Minister (Father of Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe): preached against Catholics; and aroused a mob that attacked a Catholic Convent.

Catholics and foreigners were grouped together, and considered a common menace. Hatred of Catholics and foreigners soon became an element of patriotism. 

 The most significant Nativist Political party formed appeared in 1849: The Order of the Star Spangled Banner. It became a rather large third political party movement. It later changed its name to the American Party but had all the elements of a secret fraternal order. When asked about the party, Members were instructed to say "I know nothing.." Hence the party became known as the Know Nothing Party." They demanded:

  • Exclusion of immigrants and Catholics from public office.
  • Extension of residency period from 5 years to 21 years before one could become a citizen.

The Know Nothing Party was very successful for a time; it elected as many as 40 Congressmen, and may have become even more powerful on it’s anti-Catholic campaign; but slavery soon became the dominant issue in the 1850’s, and interests in immigrant issues subsided. It never had enough strength to enact its legislation; Congress took little action of immigrant issues, other than matters of safety and sanitation.

Organized Labor 

    Fraternal and mutual benefit societies were formed as early as the colonial period. They later evolved into organizations c concerned with wages, hours, work conditions, etc. and often demanded improvements using strikes as a tool.  They also employed the closed shop, an arrangement by which only a card carrying union member may work for a given company.  The burgeoning factory economy placed a strain on craftsmen and artisans who had made their reputation on quality products.  Mass produced products were of decidedly lesser quality, but were also decidedly cheaper, and thus available to a larger market. Because artisans and craftsmen felt they were losing their status; they often became involved labor politics and unions.


 Early labor unions were often persecuted as unlawful conspiracies. The Philadelphia shoemakers union was found guilty of "a combination to raise wages," a decision that destroyed the union. This technique was used successfully to prevent unionization until the Massachusetts Supreme Court Case of Commonwealth vs. Hunt held that forming a trade union was not per se an illegal activity. 

 Most labor unions were local organizations Later, in 1820’s, when they were recognized as legal, Working Man’s Parties formed in New York, Boston, Philadelphia. Labor politicians seldom elected to office, but succeeded in winning a ten hour work day for federal employees during the Jackson administration. Unions declined after Panic of 1837, but revived. Largest labor action before Civil War was in 1860 – shoemakers in Massachusetts walked out demanding higher wages. They won the day.

Jacksonian Inequity

Although America was the "Land of Opportunity," there was not equality of social status. Although the age of Jackson was the age of the common man, it was also the age of increased social inequality. In New York in 1828: 4 % of population held 76% of wealth. A distinctive "working class" developed, primarily Irish and German immigrants, but almost always comprised of factory workers.  That the Jacksonian "age of the common man" should be an age of increasing class distinction seems to be the supreme irony.

Hard to determine reasons, other than land, etc was running out. One cannot ignore the factory system and the large influx of immigration which contributed to the growing class distinction.  The old myth of America as the land of opportunity where anyone could make his fortune was seldom true, although there were occasions.  A notable example is John Jacob Astor, who was the son of German immigrants, but at his death in 1848 was the richest man in America.  He was, of course, the exception.  Thousands of Americans lived and died by factory jobs, living near the poverty line, and with no hope of being wealthy. The distinction between the "filthy rich" and "dirt poor" became more and more evident. Even so, people in America were far better off than people in Europe. New frontiers and technological advancement made living conditions better for everyone.