Antebellum America the Continental Setting in 1815  Essay

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Antebellum America

The Continental Setting

In 1815, the United States still had most of the characteristics of an underdeveloped of Third World society, although most of the world was in the same condition at that time. Its population was about 8.5 million, about triple that of 1776, but over 95% was still rural and agrarian. As late as 1860, over 80% were overall, but by then industrialization and urbanization were well underway in the North and that sections population was 40% urban. Mexico City was still the largest urban area in North America at the start of this period, while big cities were few and far between in the United States. With the exception of river ports like St. Louis and Cincinnati, almost all of them were on the ocean, since water transportation was far cheaper than overland movements before the invention of railroads. Washington, DC was still roughly the geographic center of the country, on the dividing line between North and South.

By 1848, with the annexation of Texas and the northern half of Mexico the borders of the United States extended to the Pacific Ocean, but in 1815 only one million people lived west of the Appalachian Mountains. Slavery had also expanded to the west during that time, especially because of the great cotton boom and the growth of the textile industry, but it had been abolished almost everywhere in the North by the 1840s. At the beginning of the Civil War, over 90% of blacks still resided in the Southern states and the vast majority of them were still slaves. Contrary to the expectation of the Founders, slavery did not wither away and die everywhere after the Revolution, but had expanded greatly and become more profitable than ever before. Uniquely in the Americas, the slave population grew mostly by natural increase, since the black growth rate of 2% per year was almost as high as that for whites. Importation of slaves from Africa had been banned in 1808, although the trade still continued illegally down to 1861, but due to the growth of the domestic slave population, the African slave trade was no longer necessary for the Southern planters. In 1820, the Missouri Compromise quieted the conflict over the expansion of slavery and it did not revive again until the battles over the admission of Texas in 1836-45 and the status of slavery in the new territories sieved from Mexico after 1846.

At this time, the overwhelming majority of whites in the U.S. were small family farmers, mostly self-sufficient in food and clothing, but also engaging in home manufacturing and the sale of some products in local markets. Since money was in short supply, almost all of their trade was conducted through barter, with the accounts kept in shillings and pence. No national currency existed yet in the rural hinterlands, but rather a wide variety of state and local currencies and notes of often dubious value, literally printed up in basements. Before the railroads, no national system of timekeeping existed, and most of the population lived on local time. Before the railroads and factories became important, farmers hardly needed clocks since they judged time more by the sun, moon and seasons, as had most people throughout history before the era of industrialization.

In an era before machinery, command over labor to work the land was the real key to achieving wealth and social status. Feudal aristocrats had always understood this, as did the Southern planters who ended up copying their customs and manners. As a group, they were the wealthiest people in the United States in 1815 and also dominated the state governments in the South, where they owned the best land. They controlled the Senate in Washington up to the Civil War and slaveholding planters occupied the White House most of the time between 1789 and 1860, including George Washington, Tomas Jefferson, James Madison and Andrew Jackson. When they did not, Northerners who were closely allied with the planter interest such as Martin Van Buren and James Buchanan held to top job, with the New England abolitionist John Quincy Adams being a conspicuous exception to this rule. In the South, about one-third of white families owned at least one slave, while one-eighth owned twenty or more, but the general rule held that the best way to advance in wealth and power was to force others into laboring on the land. Few opportunities existed for landless or poor whites in the South, though, which is why European immigrants mostly avoided this section of the country. Indeed, there was a large migration of poor whites out of the South in search of land in the Free States or the Western territories. Very frequently, these migrants and their descendants were quite adamant about never allowing slavery to expand because of the negative effect it had on poor whites. Abraham Lincoln was a prime example of such Upper South migrants, who argued that common white people had a better chance to become land owners in the North and West because slavery was kept out. Lincoln's vision of free labor in America did not mean wage labor in factories or working for others, which he regarded as only a temporary condition on the road to becoming an independent property owner or small farmer and proprietor. Wage labor was still uncommon in the U.S. In 1815 and for many decades thereafter, at least in regions where the factory system did not yet exist.

America's independent white farmers did not consider themselves to be like European peasants, paying rents to landlords and tithes to the state-supported church. Feudalism like this had existed to some degree in North America before the Revolution, but its institutions were relatively weak and easily overthrown. Few white Americans had landlords in 1815, although a minority owed mortgages to banks -- which were also thought of as unpopular, aristocratic institutions. As a group, they were fiercely proud and independent, and had fought two wars against Great Britain to prove the point. Most were also evangelical Protestants of Northern European ancestry, and tended to be more conformist in moral and religious matters than in economics and politics. Their lives were harsh by modern standards and lacked conveniences like running water, indoor plumbing, antibiotics or anesthetics. Birth rates were high -- an average of seven children per family -- but so were death rates and perhaps only 5% lived to age 60. Most of the country that belonged officially to the United States on the map was unexplored and unvisited by whites, apart for a few intrepid hunters and wanderers. Native Americans controlled most of the West and the Louisiana Purchase, divided up into a variety of nations like the Sioux, Cheyenne and Kiowa. These nations fought and traded with each other regularly, long before they had any contact with whites, although they also purchased manufactured goods like knives, guns and cooking utensils in exchange for animal pelts. Both Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson believed that federal policy should be to remove all Native Americans west of the Mississippi River to make room for white settlement, and Jackson used the army to do this after the passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. In the early republic, the general assumption was that both land and freedom should be reserved for whites only.

The World That Cotton Made

After the War of 1812, millions of acres of confiscated Indian land became available in Alabama and Mississippi, which grew rapidly and were admitted as states in 1817 and 1819. Most of their inhabitants came from other Southern states, and these new lands were opened up to cotton production and became a market for slaves from the Upper South. Cotton was already becoming the main U.S. export by this time, and most of it went to the textile industries in Britain and France. In 1800, 9% of the world's cotton came from the U.S. But this grew to 68% on the eve of the Civil War, and as Eric Hobsbawm and other historians pointed out, with the British textile mills no market for this slave-grown product would have existed, at least not on nearly the same scale.

In the Deep South, the "black belt" of rich, dark soil became the center of cotton production from South Carolina to Texas, and floods of speculators descended into the new territories to buy up this land for $2 an acre. By 1818, over two million acres had been sold by federal land offices, and the phrase to 'do a land office business' entered American English at this time. By federal law, buyers had to pay at least 26% down on a minimum purchase of 160 acres, which Congress later reduced to 80 in order to attract more small farmers. So many buyers appeared that land began selling at $5-8 an acre or over $50 if it has access to water transportation. In 1800-20, U.S. cotton exports grew by 1,000%, and the U.S. surpassed India as the…

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