Early 1820s, France was threatening to reconquer Spanish colonies in South America, and Russia was advancing southward from Alaska toward the California coast. A contrary view argued by revisionist historians is that Monroe and Adams were chiefly concerned about sending a message to Great Britain. Not only was Britain the domi- nant seapower in 1823, but it was also regarded with suspicion as a traditional foe of American liberty.
A third question revolves around the role of British Foreign Secretary George Canning, whose suggestion for a joint Anglo- U.S. communique ́ against the restoration of the Spanish colonies precipitated President Monroe’s declaration. Historians disagree about Canning’s motivation for suggesting the communique ́. Was he more concerned with protecting British political interests by at- tempting to block a European alliance? Or was he chiefly concerned with cultivating U.S.-British economic cooperation so as to lower U.S. tariff barriers and promote British trading interests?
These are by no means the only questions concerning the Mon- roe Doctrine. Historians also take different positions about Latin Americans’ perception of U.S. policy and also about the extent to which the doctrine continued to influence U.S. policy in the second half of the 20th century. We see from these examples of historians’ disagreements that understanding a historical event involves far more than simply amassing relevant facts; just as important is applying critical thought and analysis.
Industrial innovation. While manufacturing was rapidly expanding, the vast majority of northerners were still involved in agriculture. The North was the most populous section in the country as a result of both a high birthrate and increased immigration.
The Industrial Northeast
Originally, the Industrial Revolution centered in the textile industry, but by the 1830s, northern factories were producing a wide range of goods— everything from farm implements to clocks and shoes.
Organized Labor. Industrial development meant that large numbers of people who had once earned their living as independent farmers and artisans became dependent on wages paid by factory owners. With the common problems of low pay, long hours, and unsafe working conditions, urban workers in different cities organized both unions and local political parties to protect their interests. The first U.S. labor party, founded in Philadelphia in 1828, succeeded in electing a few members of the city council. For a brief period in the 1830s, an increasing number of urban workers joined unions and participated in strikes.
Organized labor achieved one notable victory in 1842 when the Massachu- setts Supreme Court ruled in Commonwealth v. Hunt that “peaceful unions” had the right to negotiate labor contracts with employers. During the 1840s and 1850s, most state legislatures in the North passed laws establishing a ten- hour day for industrial workers. Improvement for workers, however, continued to be limited by (1) periodic depressions, (2) employers and courts that were hostile to unions, and (3) an abundant supply of cheap immigrant labor.
Urban life. The North’s urban population grew from approximately 5 percent of the population in 1800 to 15 percent by 1850. As a result of such rapid growth in cities from Boston to Baltimore, slums also expanded so that crowded housing, poor sanitation, infectious diseases, and high rates of crime soon became characteristic of large working-class neighborhoods. Nevertheless, the new opportunities offered by the Industrial Revolution continued to attract both native-born Americans from the farms and immigrants from Europe.
African Americans. The 250,000 African Americans who lived in the North in 1860 constituted only a small minority (1 percent) of northerners, but as free citizens, they represented 50 percent of all free African Americans. Freedom may have meant they could maintain a family and in some instances own land, but it did not mean economic or political equality, since strong racial prejudices kept them from voting and holding jobs in most skilled professions and crafts. In the mid-1800s, immigrants displaced them from occupations and jobs that they had held since the time of the Revolution. Denied membership in unions, African Americans were often hired as strikebreakers—and often dismissed after the strike ended.
The Agricultural Northwest
The Old Northwest consisted of six states west of the Alleghenies that were admitted to the Union before 1860: Ohio (1803), Indiana (1816), Illinois (1818), Michigan (1837), Wisconsin (1848), and Minnesota (1858). These states came from territories formed by land ceded to the national government in the 1780s by several of the original 13 states. The procedure for turning territories of the Old Northwest into states was set forth in the Northwest Ordinance, passed by Congress in 1787.
In the early years of the 19th century, much of the Old Northwest was unsettled frontier, and the part of it that was settled relied upon the Mississippi to transport grain to southern markets via New Orleans. By midcentury, how- ever, this region became closely tied to the other northern states by two factors: (1) military campaigns by federal troops that drove Native Americans from the land and (2) the building of canals and railroads that established common markets between the Great Lakes and the East Coast.
Agriculture. In the states of the Old Northwest, large grain crops of corn and wheat were very profitable. Using the newly invented steel plow (by John Deere) and mechanical reaper (by Cyrus McCormick), a farm family was more efficient and could plant many more acres, needing only to supplement its labor with a few hired workers at harvesttime. The grain could spoil quickly and, immediately after the harvest, had to be shipped to urban centers for sale. Part of the crop was used to feed cattle and hogs and to supply distillers and brewers with grain for making whiskey and beer.
Newcities. Atkeytransportationpoints,whathadoncebeensmallvillages and towns grew into thriving cities after 1820: Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago on the Great Lakes, Cincinnati and St. Louis on major rivers. The new cities served as transfer points, processing farm products for shipment to the East, and also distributing manufactured goods from the East to different parts of the region.
In 1820, some 8,000 immigrants arrived from Europe, but beginning in 1832, there was a sudden increase. After that year, the number of new arrivals never fell below 50,000 a year and in one year, 1854, climbed as high as 428,000. From the 1830s through the 1850s, nearly 4 million people from northern Europe crossed the Atlantic to seek a new life in the United States. Arriving by ship in the northern seacoast cities of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, many immigrants remained where they landed, while others traveled to farms and cities of the Old Northwest. Few journeyed to the South, where the plantation economy and slavery limited the opportunities for free labor.
The surge in immigration from 1830–1860 was chiefly the result of: (1) the development of inexpensive and relatively rapid ocean transportation, (2) famines and revolutions in Europe that drove people from their homelands, and (3) the growing reputation of the United States as a country offering economic opportunities and political freedom. The immigrants strengthened the U.S. economy by providing both a steady stream of cheap labor and an increased demand for mass-produced consumer goods.
Irish. During this period, half of all the immigrants—almost 2 million— came from Ireland. These Irish immigrants were mostly tenant farmers driven from their homeland by potato crop failures and a devastating famine in the 1840s, and they now had limited interest in farming, few other skills, and little money. They faced strong discrimination because of their Roman Catholic religion. The Irish worked hard at whatever employment they could find, usually competing with African Americans for domestic work and unskilled laborer jobs. Faced with limited opportunities, they congregated for mutual support in the northern cities (Boston, Philadelphia, and New York) where they had first landed. Many Irish entered local politics. They organized their fellow immigrants and joined the Democratic party, which had long traditions of anti- British feelings and support for the common people and workers. Their progress was difficult but steady. For example, the Irish were initially excluded from joining New York City’s Democratic organization, Tammany Hall. But by the 1850s they had secured jobs and influence, and by the 1880s they controlled this party organization.
Germans. Botheconomichardshipsandthefailureofdemocraticrevolu- tions in 1848 caused over 1 million Germans to seek refuge in the United States in the late 1840s and the 1850s. Most German immigrants had at least modest means as well as considerable skills as farmers and artisans. Moving westward in search of cheap, fertile farmland, they established homesteads throughout the Old Northwest and generally prospered. At first their political influence was limited, but as they became more active in public life, they were both strong supporters of public education and staunch opponents of slavery.
Nativists. Alargenumberofnative-bornAmericanswerealarmedbythe influx of immigrants, fearing that the newcomers would take their jobs and also subvert (weaken) the culture of the Anglo majority. The nativists (those reacting most strongly against the foreigners) were Protestants who distrusted the Roman Catholicism practiced by the Irish and many of the Germans. In the 1840s, opposition to immigrants led to sporadic rioting in the big cities and the organization of a secret antiforeign society, the Supreme Order of the Star-Spangled Banner. This society turned to politics in the early 1850s, nominating candidates for office as the American party, or Know-Nothing party (see Chapter 13).
The antiforeign movement faded in importance as North and South divided over slavery in the years immediately before the Civil War. Nativism would periodically return, however, whenever a sudden increase in immigration seemed to threaten the native-born majority.
Defined in economic, political, and social terms, the South as a distinct region included those states that permitted slavery, including certain border states (Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri) that did not join the Confederacy in 1861.
Agriculture and King Cotton
Agriculture was the foundation of the South’s economy, even though by the 1850s small factories in the region were producing approximately 15 percent of the nation’s manufactured goods. Tobacco, rice, and sugarcane were im- portant cash crops, but these were far exceeded by the South’s chief economic activity: the production and sale of cotton.
The development of mechanized textile mills in England, coupled with Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, made cotton cloth affordable, not just in Europe and the United States, but throughout the world. Before 1860, the world depended chiefly on Britain’s mills for its supply of cloth, and Britain in turn depended chiefly on the American South for its supply of cotton fiber. Originally, the cotton was grown almost entirely in two states, South Carolina and Georgia, but as demand and profits increased, planters moved westward into Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. New land was constantly needed, for the high cotton yields required for profits quickly depleted the soil. By the 1850s, cotton provided two-thirds of all U.S. exports and tied the South’s economy to its best customer, Britain. “Cotton is king,” said one southerner of his region’s greatest asset.
Slavery, the “Peculiar Institution”
Wealth in the South was measured in terms of land and slaves. The latter were treated as a form of property, subject to being bought and sold. Southern whites were sensitive to the fact that slaves were human beings, however. Their uneasiness with this fact and the need continually to defend slavery caused them to refer to it as “that peculiar institution.” In colonial times, it had been justified as an economic necessity, but in the 19th century, apologists for slavery used historical and religious arguments to support their claim that it was good for both slave and master.
Population. The cotton boom was largely responsible for a fourfold in- crease in the number of slaves, from 1 million in 1800 to nearly 4 million in 1860. Most of the increase came from natural reproduction, although thousands of Africans were also smuggled into the South in defiance of Congress’ prohibi- tion in 1808 against importing slaves. In many parts of the Deep South, slaves made up as much as 75 percent of the total population. Fearing slave revolts, southern legislatures added increased restrictions on movement and education to their slave codes.
Economics. Slaves were employed doing whatever their owners de- manded of them. The great majority labored in the fields, but many also became expert in a variety of skilled crafts, while others worked as house servants, in factories, and on construction gangs. Because of the greater profits to be made on the new cotton plantations in the West, many slaves were sold from the Upper South to the cotton-rich Deep South of the lower Mississippi Valley. By 1860, the value of a field slave had risen to almost $2,000. One result of the heavy capital investment in slaves was that the South had much less capital than the North to undertake industrialization.
Slave life. Conditions of slavery varied from one plantation to the next. Some slaves were humanely treated, while others were routinely beaten. All suffered alike from being deprived of their freedom. Families could be sepa- rated at any time by an owner’s decision to sell a wife, a husband, or a child. Women were vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Despite the hard, nearly hopeless circumstances of their lives, African Americans managed to maintain a strong sense of family and of religious faith.
Resistance. Slaves contested their status through a range of actions, in- cluding work slowdowns, sabotage, escape, and revolt. There were a few major slave uprisings. One was led by Denmark Vesey in 1822 and another by Nat Turner in 1831. The revolts were quickly and violently suppressed, but even so, they had a lasting impact. They gave hope to enslaved African Americans, drove southern states to tighten already strict slave codes, and demonstrated to many, especially in the North, the evils of slavery.
Free African Americans
By 1860, as many as 250,000 African Americans in the South were not slaves. They were free citizens (even though, as in the North, racial prejudice restricted their liberties). A number of slaves had been emancipated during the American Revolution. Some were mulatto children whose white fathers had decided to liberate them. Others achieved freedom on their own, when permitted, through self-purchase—if they were fortunate enough to have been paid wages for extra work, usually as skilled craftspeople.
Most of the free southern blacks lived in cities where they could own property. By state law, they were not equal with whites, were not permitted to vote, and were barred from entering certain occupations. Constantly in danger of being kidnapped by slave traders, they had to show legal papers proving their free status. They remained in the South for various reasons. Some wanted to be near family members who were still in bondage; others believed the South to be home and the North to offer no greater opportunities.
Southern whites observed a rigid hierarchy among themselves, with aristo- cratic planters at the top and poor whites and mountain people at the bottom of the social pyramid.
Aristocracy. TobeamemberoftheSouth’ssmalleliteofwealthyplant- ers, a person usually had to own at least 100 slaves and farm at least 1,000 acres. The planter aristocracy maintained its power politically by dominating the state legislatures of the South and enacting laws that favored the large landholders’ economic interests.
Farmers. The vast majority of slaveholders had fewer than 20 slaves working several hundred acres. Southern white farmers produced the bulk of the cotton crop, worked in the fields with their slaves, and lived as modestly as farmers of the North.
Poor whites. Three-fourths of the South’s white population owned no slaves. They could not afford the rich river-bottom farmland controlled by the planters, and many lived in the hills as subsistence farmers. These “hillbillies” or “poor white trash,” as they were derisively called by the planters, defended the slave system, thinking that some day they too could own slaves and that at least they were superior on the social scale to someone (slaves).
Mountainpeople. Anumberofsmallfarmerslivedinfrontierconditions in isolation from the rest of the South, along the slopes and valleys of the Appalachian and Ozark mountains. The mountain people disliked the planters and their slaves. During the Civil War, many (including a future president, Andrew Johnson of Tennessee) would remain loyal to the Union.
Cities. Because the South was primarily an agricultural region, there was only a limited need for major cities. Only New Orleans among the southern cities could be counted among the nation’s 15 largest in 1860 (it was fifth, after New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Boston). Cities such as Atlanta, Charleston, Chattanooga, and Richmond were important southern trading cen- ters, but had relatively small populations in comparison to those of the North.
The South developed a culture and outlook on life that was uniquely its own. As cotton became the basis of its economy, slavery became the focus of its political thought. White southerners felt increasingly isolated and defensive about slavery, as northerners grew hostile toward it, and as England, France, and other European nations outlawed it altogether.
Codeofchivalry. Dominatedbythearistocraticplanterclass,theagricul- tural South was largely a feudal society. The southern gentleman ascribed to a code of chivalrous conduct, which included a strong sense of personal honor, the defense of womanhood, and paternalistic treatment of all who were deemed inferior, especially slaves.
Education. The upper class valued a college education for their children, more so than in the North. Acceptable professions for a southern gentleman were limited to farming, law, the ministry, and the military. For the lower classes, schooling beyond the early elementary grades was generally not available. To reduce the risk of slave revolts, slaves were strictly prohibited by law from receiving any instruction in reading and writing.
Religion. The slavery question affected church membership. Partly be- cause they preached biblical support for slavery, both Methodist and Baptist churches gained in membership in the South while splitting in the 1840s with their northern brethren. The Unitarians, who challenged slavery, faced declining membership and hostility. Catholics and Episcopalians took a neutral stand on slavery, and their numbers declined in the South.
From one era to another, as the United States expanded westward, the definition of the “West” kept changing. In the 1600s, the West referred to all the lands not along the Atlantic Coast. In the 1700s, the West meant lands on the other side of the Appalachian Mountains. By the mid-1800s, the West lay beyond the Mississippi River and reached as far as California and the Oregon Territory on the Pacific Coast.
The original settlers of the West—and, in fact, of the entire North American continent—were of course various groups of Native Americans. From the time of Columbus, Native Americans did not move west voluntarily as pioneers. They were cajoled, pushed, or driven westward as white settlers encroached on their original homelands.
Exodus. By 1850, the vast majority of Native Americans were living west of the Mississippi River. Those to the east had either been killed off, emigrated reluctantly, or been forced to leave their land by treaty or military action. The Great Plains, however, would provide only a temporary respite from conflict with white settlers.
Life on the plains. Horses, brought to America by the Spanish in the 1500s, proved to be a revolutionary benefit for many Native Americans. On the Great Plains, some Native Americans still lived in villages and grew crops as farmers, but the horse allowed many other tribal groups, such as the Cheyenne and the Sioux, to become nomadic hunters following the buffalo. Those living a nomadic way of life could more easily move away from advancing settlers or oppose their encroachments by force.
Although the location of the western frontier constantly shifted, the concept of the frontier remained the same from generation to generation. The same forces that had brought the original colonists to the New World motivated their descendants and new immigrants to move westward. In the public imagination, the West represented the possibility of a fresh start and new opportunities for those willing to venture there. If not in fact, at least in theory and myth, the West beckoned as a place promising greater freedom for all ethnic groups: Native Americans, African Americans, European Americans, and eventually Asian Americans as well.
Mountain men. From the point of view of native-born white Americans, the Rocky Mountains in the 1820s were a far-distant frontier—a total wilderness except for the villages of Native Americans. The earliest whites in the area had followed Lewis and Clark and explored Native American trails as they trapped for furs. These mountain men, as they were called, would serve as the guides and pathfinders for settlers crossing the mountains into California and Oregon in the 1840s.
White Settlers on the Western Frontier
Whether the frontier lay in Minnesota or Oregon or California in the 1840s and 1850s, daily life for white settlers was similar to that of the early colonists. They worked hard from sunrise to sunset and lived in log cabins or other improvised shelters. More of them died at an early age from disease and mal- nutrition than from Indian raids.
Women. Often living many miles from the nearest neighbor, pioneer women performed a myriad of daily tasks, including those of doctor, teacher, seamstress, and cook—as well as chief assistant in the fields to their farmer- husbands. The isolation, endless work, and rigors of childbirth meant a limited lifespan for women on the frontier.
Environmental damage. European Americans had little understanding of the fragile nature of land and wildlife. As settlers moved into an area, they would clear entire forests and after only two generations exhaust the soil with poor farming methods. At the same time, trappers and hunters decimated the beaver and the buffalo to the brink of extinction.
HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVES: THE NATURE OF SLAVERY
Slavery was of fundamental importance in defining both the character of the South and its differences with the North. Beyond its historical importance in the 19th century, we need to understand the nature of slavery in order to assess its impact on U.S. society in general and African Americans in particular in our own times. Historians have viewed slavery from different perspectives. It is each student’s task to decide which of several interpretations seems the most convincing and enlightening.
Until about 1950, the prevailing scholarship on slavery followed Ulrich Phillips’ American Negro Slavery (1918). Phillips portrayed slavery as an economically failing institution in which the paternalis- tic owners were civilizing the inferior but contented African Ameri- cans. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s stimulated new studies and interpretations. Chief among them was Kenneth Stampp’s The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South (1956), which challenged Phillips’ thesis by showing slaves and owners to be in continual conflict. Today the older view of slavery as a paternalistic and even benign institution has been largely dis- credited.
There is still much debate, however, about how destructive slavery was. At one extreme is the view that the oppressive and racist nature of slavery destroyed the culture and self-respect of the slaves and their descendants. A contrary view holds that slaves managed to adapt and to overcome their hardships by developing a unique African-American culture. Historians arguing for this position point to African-American churches and two-parent families as part of an enduring heritage from the era of slavery.
Economics has also provided a focus for viewing the nature of slavery. Historians have debated the question of whether or not slave labor was profitable to southern planters, as compared to using free labor. Contrary to earlier interpretations, computer-assisted studies have demonstrated that, for the most part, slavery was profitable. A more complex analysis of the economics, social, and cultural nature of slavery is found in Eugene Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. In this work, southern society is shown centered on a paternalism that gave rise to a unique social system with a clear hierarchy, in which people were classified according to their ability or their economic and social standing. For whites this paternalism meant control, while for slaves it provided the opportu- nity to develop and maintain their own culture, including family life, tradition, and religion.
Recently, some historians have argued that slavery differed from place to place and that more study should be made of regional variations. For example, slaves in the tobacco-growing Upper South lived under circumstances that were quite different from slaves in the cotton fields of the Deep South.
As we can see, historians have developed numerous interpreta- tions of the nature of slavery in the United States, providing us with a rich historiography—the writing of history based on a critical examination of sources. If the purpose of history is to help us better understand the present, then, as Kenneth Stampp says in The Peculiar Institution, “there is a strange paradox in the historian’s involvement with both present and past, for his knowledge of the present is clearly a key to his understanding of the past.”
The many varied interpretations of slavery and of history can be explained pragmatically as the natural result of the changing times in which they were written. While some historical interpretations may have greater merit than others, most provide us with an improved perspective with which to develop our own views.