OVERVIEW / U.S. History I

Economic Growth & Development
Part 2: Societal Changes

The economic expansion between 1815 and 1860 was reflected in changes in American society. The changes were most evident in the northern states, where the combined effects of the transportation revolution, urbanization, and the rise of manufacturing were keenly felt. In the northern cities, a small, wealthy percentage of the population controlled a large segment of the economy, while the working poor, whose numbers swelled by large‐scale immigration, owned little or nothing. Despite the “rags‐to‐riches” stories that were popular during the period, wealth remained concentrated in the hands of those who already had it. Opportunities for social mobility were limited, even though personal income was rising. Certainly there were craftsmen who entered the middle class by becoming factory managers or even owners, but many skilled workers found themselves as permanent wage earners with little hope for advancement.


The legal position of women in the middle of the nineteenth century was essentially the same as it had been in the colonial period. Although New York gave married women control over their property in 1848, it was the only state to do so. The beginnings of industrialization did change the role that urban, middle‐class women in particular played in society. Because of the rise of manufacturing, goods mat were once made in the home and that provided an important source of additional income (especially clothing, but also a variety of household items) were produced in factories and sold at low prices. Rather than contributing to the sustenance and economic welfare of their family, women were expected to create a clean and nurturing environment in the home, while their husbands became the sole breadwinners and dealt with the outside world. An important element of this doctrine of “separate spheres,” or “ cult of domesticity,” was the role of mothers in preparing their children for adulthood. Indeed, women were having fewer children on which to lavish their attention. Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, the birth rate in the United States declined steadily, the drop sharper in the urban upper and middle classes. Although considered an economic asset on the farm, children could be a financial burden in the cities, where clothing, food, and other necessities had to be purchased. Middle‐class women controlled the size of their families through abstinence or the birth control methods available at the time, including abortion.


On the eve of the Civil War, there were just under half a million free blacks in the United States, and slightly more than half lived in the southern states, particularly Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina. Southern free blacks, or “free persons of color” as they were called, could not vote, hold office, or testify against whites in court. Most were laborers, although some were artisans, farmers, and even slaveowners themselves.

Although slavery had been abolished in the northern states by 1820, the status of free blacks there was not much different from that of free blacks in the southern part of the country. More than ninety percent of the northern blacks were denied voting rights; the notable exception was in New England. New York required blacks to own at least $250 worth of real property to vote, and New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut rescinded black suffrage in the early nineteenth century. Segregation was the rule, and blacks were denied civil liberties by both law and tradition. Only Massachusetts allowed blacks to sit on juries, and several Midwestern states prohibited blacks from settling within their boundaries, using laws comparable to those banning free blacks from entering the southern states. In the northern cities, competition between blacks and immigrants—mainly the Irish—for low‐wage, unskilled jobs created tensions that erupted in violence. A series of race riots occurred in Philadelphia between 1832 and 1849.