American Transformation.


By 1840, most migrants desired and expected a better version of life they had known in the East, more land, and more crops. Several factors nurtured this expectation, the growing power of the federal Government, its often-ruthless removal of the Indians from the path of white settlement and a boom in the prices of agricultural commodities after the war of 1812. Americans began to move West from 1791 onwards seeking security and a new life. Pioneers moved as families rather than individuals and settled near navigable waters especially near the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. It was not until the spread of canals in the 1820s and 1830s, and later of railroads did Westerners feel free to venture far from rivers. Migrants carried with them the values and customs learned in the East regardless of origins. Most Westerners craved sociability. Rural families joined with their neighbours for sports, markets, and festivals. These activities brought communities and families together and the West began to develop a character of its own and community spirit was high. The far West was also being explored and exploited by fur traders, trappers and frontiersmen (explorers and hunters) who were mostly notorious as survivors of harsh surroundings.

To facilitate Westward Expansion the Government invested in new roads, giving free land to men who enlisted (Military Bounties) and also invested in canals and railroads to keep the Westward movement vibrant. The same government that aided the whites were brutal to the Indians. Westward settlers found sizable numbers of Indians in their paths, especially in the south, home to the five civilised tribes, Cherokees, Choctaws, Creeks, Chickasaws and Seminoles. Trading and interbreeding with whites had turned the tribes into ‘mixed bloods’ who shared civilised traditions with the new immigrants. Forced to give up its lands and migrate, the Cherokee people suffered disease, hunger, and exhaustion on what they remember as ‘the trail of tears’. The Indian removal act of 1830 demanded the removal of Indian nations from their homelands to Indian Territory in Oklahoma and many Native Americans suffered from exposure, disease, and starvation en route. Many died on the trail and the five civilised tribes were decimated.

Rising prices of agricultural product created new demands for land. American farmers found brisk trade in wheat and corn in the US and in Europe. Industrialisation and urbanisation in the US shifted workers from agricultural to non-agricultural employment. The wests splendid rivers system made it possible for farmers to ship wheat and corn around the country. Mostly to New Orleans from where it was forwarded to other beckoning markets. Government policies made west farming possible and high prices made it attractive. Along with this, the demand for cotton was also on the increase as cotton clothing came into fashion. The south was gripped in ‘cotton fever’ as the climate was perfect for cotton cultivation leading to the establishment of large plantations.

The Growth of The Market Economy: Traditional farmers were primarily subsistent (catered for themselves only) but with wheat and cotton, demanding high prices a growing number of farmers added cash crops to meet the demands. In the south, slaves became a valuable commodity and the sale of slaves grew into a huge business as other states transferred their slaves to the south. Virginia became a ‘negro growing’ state to cater for this demand. Virginia exported up to six thousand slaves to other states in the US every year.

Most of the public domain found its way into the hands of small farmers because speculators gained nothing from holding on to land for long periods of time. The existence of squatters, people who had helped themselves to land, was a persistent problem. They saw themselves as somehow ‘sacred’ people who had earned their land by discovering it and working it prior to the arrival of immigrants. They were eventually given exemption from having to purchase their land. Small farmers who rented land from wealthy speculators began to drown in debt and were forced to keep moving forward west and this the ‘moving frontier’ refers not only to the obvious fact that the line of settlement shifted farther west with each passing decade, but also to the fact that the same people kept moving.

The land boom collapsed in 1819 as the states banks loose practises caused complete panic. A combination of bumper crops in Europe, a recession in Britain and American farmers over-borrowing from the banks and depending on exports to repay debts led to a state of economic chaos. Land speculators, financed by banks, were the biggest losers as land prices plummeted and the credit squeeze drove down prices of wheat, corn, cotton, and tobacco. Farmers were left cash strapped, landowners left unpaid, and banks blamed for causing hard times. It was clear that farmers needed to look elsewhere for markets. They realised that they had relied too much on exports and thus came the need for new forms of nationwide transport systems.

Western and eastern farmers needed to connect, roads were expensive and slow, horse drawn carriages were limited and so the waterways seemed to be the best option. Steamboats, canals, and railroads lured private investment. The Mississippi river hosted hundreds of steamboats used in summer for tourism and as commercial transport systems for the rest of the year. Transport charges dropped dramatically and inter-state trading prospered. The canal boom was hit by a recession in 1830 when government withdrew investment and turned to less expensive railroad systems. Cities lacking inland waterways found rail systems far more attractive. Cheaper to build and maintain and much faster than canal ways. However, the system of railways were not built by state governments but by private investment and this resulted in railroads demanding constant repairs. Secondly, it was cheaper to transport bulk by canal. These two factors meant that the arrival of railway systems was a slow process. The transportation system speeded the growth of towns and cities. Small towns turned into cities and cities into thriving metropolises. This growth occurred with dramatic suddenness all over America, but especially in the west.

Industrialisation gave an added boost to the growth of cities and towns. Industrialisation changed lives; former agricultural workers only familiar with working at their own pace now went to factories operating machines from sunrise to sunset and changing their daily routines to accommodate the clock instead of themselves. Industrialisation was caused by demand for shoes, clothes, and food and by the transportation revolution that created greater connections between south and the west. Tensions ran high in rural economies, too many people and too little land, so mass migration into cities to work in the factories was a very viable option. The gap between the rich and the poor continued to widen and in the big cities, a small fraction of the people owned a huge share of the wealth. Splendid social clubs and residences set the rich apart. Few of these wealthy people had earned it. Most of them were born into wealth. The usual way to wealth was to inherit it, marry into it, or invest very wisely. The myth of hard-earned wealth was only a myth. There were few exceptions to this rule. On the other end of the scale were paupers. Circumstantial paupers, such as the disabled or elderly, and self-inflicted paupers such as alcoholics and those unwilling to work. In the lowest orders were the Irish who were notorious paupers and Catholics who became a nation of wanderers and scroungers who were perceived as a burden on the state. The protestant majority of America had little or no time for Irish Catholics who had been forced from their homeland by the British to the new world in search of a better life. Just below the Irish in terms of prejudice were the blacks. Although slavery had almost disappeared by 1820, laws continued to restrict blacks. Laws against blacks prevented voting, migration between states, banishment from some states, segregated schools, alms-houses and hospitals. Blacks were forced into the least paying jobs and rarely owned real estate. The blacks started to establish their own churches, which then led to the education of black children in black schools. The reality of life for the vast majority of black Americans was that they were less than human.

Many factors influenced industrialisation. Along with economic factors such as the fallout of the Embargo Act of 1807 whereby merchants had to redirect capital into factories, the era of good feelings proved tariffs were needed to protect the American economy from foreign competition and america possessed an environmental advantage. In the late 18th century the population was expanding with little land to support it. Small farmers began to expand their incomes by starting small workshops in their homes to produce items for sale at markets. High wages spurred the search for new machinery that would replace workers and, if possible, Americans would copy foreign designs.

Primary Source

Boyer, Clark & Halttunen

The Enduring Vision


Posted on March 30, 2012, in American History. and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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