Exam preparation materials

Chapter 27

Ten Important Social and Economic Issues in U.S. History

In This Chapter

● Picking up on the big trends in U.S. history

● Understanding how social and economic forces provide stability

● Seeing how change infiltrates the established social structure

The AP test pays special attention to social and economic trends. These trends both keep society the same and allow room for change.

If you don’t think social and economic issues matter, take a look at your friends. Most of them probably come from the same basic social and economic background you do. The United States is the largest, most diverse multiethnic and multiracial society in history, but every one of the U.S. presidents up to 2008 have been a white male, and all but one have been white male Protestants. Economic and social structures tend to keep society the same.

Despite established structures, change happens. In the 1800s, people usually worked 10, 12, or even 14 hours a day. Today, if your boss forced you to work more than eight hours a day without special pay, he’d be breaking the law. In 1950, most Southern restaurants, hotels, and movie theaters didn’t allow blacks to even come in the door. Now this behavior would get them in serious trouble and insult all their customers. In 1916, how much a woman cared about politics was irrelevant; in most of the United States, she couldn’t even vote. Now women are in office everywhere. Trends show how society changes.

Economic and social trends are an important part of the big AP test. Here are ten of the most important.

Establishing U.S. Diversity

The United States is the most diverse country in the world today, but it was already that way at the time of the Revolution. Diversity helped to build understanding and bring new ideas to the U.S. Every major country in the world has contributed citizens to the United States. The Germans, Irish, Chinese, Polish, Japanese, and Africans have all taken turns being discriminated against and finally celebrated as part of the American experience.

Ethnic discrimination isn’t quite over in the United States, but it raises its ugly head less in this country than in any place else on earth. The U.S. actually maintains a diversity visa, which provides a worldwide lottery for 50,000 people from countries that haven’t sent many new citizens to the U.S. The people who win the drawing get to live in the United States. More than 7 million hopeful immigrants apply every year.

Defining the American Identity

What does it mean to be an American, a full citizen of the United States?

Along with diversity, the meaning of American Identity has changed through the years. Right after the Revolution, the Naturalization Act increased the time an immigrant had to wait to become a citizen from 5 to 14 long years in an attempt to limit American citizenship to only those who were born in the country. This long wait ended soon after Jefferson became president when the Alien and Sedition Acts were largely repealed in 1802.

The Know-Nothing Party (1855) briefly elected mayors in Boston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco on a platform of allowing only native-born Protestants to hold office. They had to say they knew nothing when asked because their movement was something of a guilty secret. The platform of the Know-Nothings quickly faded, and most of them joined the Republican Party and fought against slavery.

The 1950s saw an anti-Communist scare that tried to define real Americans as those who supported repression of certain political opinions. This behavior was so out of line with the beliefs on which the U.S. was founded that, after a few years without a Communist invasion, even rabid anti-Communists were ashamed of these tactics.

American identity has grown with the country and increasingly represents a bridge anyone can walk across if they believe in freedom.

Creating American Culture

Culture sounds like fat ladies at the opera, but it’s really the sum total of all the stories, songs, and ways of living that are important to people in any given time and place. Americans have made culture, and it has also made them. In the colonial period, religious notions of creating the perfect home for a particular religion inspired some settlers to come to America. Movements like the First Great Awakening showed people from different denominations and settlements that they shared a common emotional response to God. Culture brings people together by helping them get a broader picture of their place in the world.

Reaction to pressure from the French and the American Indians as well as British authorities built up the idea in American culture of the rough-and-ready frontiersman shown in The Last of the Mohicans and in the image of the Minuteman with his rifle and plow. During the Revolution, patriots made it a point of honor to sing “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” a song originally intended to mock their backwoods pretensions to civilization:

Yankee Doodle went to town, a-riding on a pony, stuck a feather in his cap, and called it macaroni.

Yankee Doodle was a derogatory name the British used to describe what they believed to be the silly, rustic colonists who thought going to town was the most exciting event of the year. A-riding is Scotch-Irish slang and also probably used derogatorily; the fact that Yankee Doodle rides a pony probably implies that he can’t afford an actual horse. Similarly, he can’t afford a fancy European hat, so he sticks a feather in his old three-cornered hat and calls it macaroni in hopes of associating it with high French and Italian fashion.


American culture may not have been fancy, but it was effective. Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped ignite the Civil War. Books like The Jungle, written by muckrakers trying to prevent corruption from being swept under the rug, built support for progressive reform. Women’s clubs helped get the vote for females and contributed to the freedom of blacks and the spread of public education. The image of Uncle Sam updated the backwoods Yankee Doodle Dandy to a kindly uncle — dressed in the American flag — who knew the right (patriotic) thing to do.


The United States at the time of the Revolution was a country of young people. Without a hereditary aristocracy, the 2.5 million scattered settlers, mostly farmers, who made up the country at the time of the Revolution, relied on whoever had the energy to get the job done. Jefferson was only 33 when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, and Washington was 43 when he took command of the Continental Army. The 56 delegates to the Continental Congress weren’t the richest men in America; those people mostly stayed loyal to the King. The early Congressmen in 1775 showed how mobile people in America already were — more than a quarter of them had lived in two or more states.

At the time of the Revolution, about 60 percent of the Americans were from England with the next biggest groups being African slaves at 15 percent, the Scotch-Irish at 8 percent, and Germans at 7 percent. The California Gold Rush of 1849 populated the West Coast almost overnight with the first 100,000 Americans settlers. The average American lived longer at the time of the Revolution than they did during early heavy industrialization a hundred years later in 1890.

As the U.S. developed, the percent of residents who had been born in other countries grew from 1 percent in 1810 to almost 10 percent before the Civil War. This jump had an unsettling effect (which I discuss in Chapter 24), but it also provided manpower for the North in the conflict with the South. Bad harvests and revolutionary unrest drove people out of Europe, and family ties with earlier immigrants pulled them in to the U.S.


The U.S. moved from being a prosperous-but-small farming nation at the time of the Revolution to the dominant international economic power with a quarter of the world’s money in the early 2000s. Early colonies didn’t work out as investments for absentee British investors, who subsequently turned them over to the people who lived there. Colonists learned to support themselves quite well; by the time of the Revolution, average American living standards were better than the ones in England. That gave them something to fight for.

Between 1920 and 1985, the U.S. lived through three depressions and six recessions lasting a total of 12 years during that 65-year period. With minor recessions, the U.S. economy was growing about 75 percent of the time and in decline about 25 percent of the time in the 1900s. The Great Depression of the 1930s was by far the worst, lasting almost six years with a downturn continuing until World War II.

Although the United States has experienced bad economic times, its general growth has been consistently good through the end of slavery, the Industrial Revolution, and the postindustrial information society.

Women's Rights

Even though they made up more than half of the population of the colonies at the time of the Revolution, women exercised just about zero percent of the direct political power. They did have social and economic influence, which are evident in the letter in which Abigail Adams asks her Founding-Father husband, future second President John Adams, to “remember the ladies” when proposing rights for the new nation.

Women got their first higher education in the 1830s and began to get together at gatherings of the Second Great Awakening. The Seneca Falls Conference of 1848 started the women’s movement. Women put their own cause on hold to campaign for the abolition of slavery before the Civil War. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, feminist organization grew until the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 gave women the right to vote. Women joined the work force temporarily during World War II and permanently starting in the 1960s. By the 1990s, they were a regular part of the armed forces, and by the early 2000s, 75 Congresswomen were in the Capitol.

Racial Equality

Blacks, almost all of them slaves, made up 15 percent of the U.S. population at the time of the Revolution. The next largest minority from a non-English-speaking area was the German Americans at 7 percent of the population. As the United States grew, other significant minorities were the Irish, Hispanics, Polish, Jewish, Chinese, and Japanese. Each of these groups has been subject to discrimination that was in part proportional to their self-identification as a special group within America. As groups have mixed in American society, prejudice has declined.

Blacks gained freedom from slavery after the Civil War but were still subject to Jim Crow laws until the 1960s. The Chinese and Japanese were excluded from immigration in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but have since become an affluent part of the country. In the early 2000s, 10 percent of the largest counties in the United States were majority minority, meaning that no one race or ethnic group formed a majority of their population. During the same time, four whole states were minority majority: California, Hawaii, Texas, and New Mexico. Culture, population centers, group membership, and even families began to blend across ethnic groups in the early 2000s.


The United States was the most democratic country in the world at the time of its founding. Britain had a parliament, but its members were elected by a small minority of the population and tended to represent the interests of the rich landowners. The U.S. achieved universal white male voting without regard to property ownership in 1824, universal male voting in 1870, universal voting for men and women in 1920, and actual universal voting (including blacks) in 1964.

Major reforms included an end to the Alien and Sedition Acts (1802), more voter participation in elections (1824), the beginning of public education (1850), the abolition of slavery (1865), industrial regulation (1900), pure food (1908), the 10-hour workday (1910), election reform with direct election of the Senate (1914), no child labor (1920), the eight-hour workday and union rights (1935), Social Security (1936), the expansion of higher education (1950), civil rights (1964), Medicare and Medicaid (1966), and the beginning of environmental protection (1970).

U.S. Relations with the World

The United States had an international population even during its colonial period, but the early colonies had few resources to trade with the rest of the world. Tobacco proved a best seller, and merchants joined the international slave trade in the triangular exchange of slaves, sugar, rum, and guns.

After the Revolution, the new U.S. backpedaled hard to stay out of foreign wars until the nation fought the War of 1812 over trade rights. The country expanded west thanks to France’s going-out-of-business sale of the Louisiana Purchase to the U.S. in 1803. The U.S. limited international involvement in central North America by taking half of Mexico’s territory and getting Britain to agree to a compromise border with Canada. Real internationalism by the U.S. started with the Spanish-American War in 1898.

The U.S. tried to stay neutral but was drawn into World War I in Europe. Going back to splendid isolation behind the oceans, the U.S. paid for not helping keep the peace by having to fight World War II against both Germany and Japan. After World War II, the U.S. stepped up to the plate to be a world leader. In the early 2000s, the country began to accept responsibility to work with the rest of the world to limit damage to the earth’s environment.


Spirituality is a human’s relationship with the higher power it feels shapes and binds the universe together. This relationship can be expressed as a deep personal love of justice, such as that of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. It can also come from active participation in a religious organization, such as those supported by Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush.

The U.S. has been a leader in both forms of the expression of spirituality. Early New England was a haven for the specific religious sects of Puritans and Pilgrims; they drove out and even killed people who disagreed with their religions. Freethinkers like William Penn, Jefferson, Thoreau, and Emerson kept the United States open to personal spirituality even though they themselves didn’t go to church. The U.S. has always declined to declare any particular official religion; the very first Amendment to the Constitution separated church and state.

Spiritual revival has played a major role in American history. The First Great Awakening (1740) connected people who would later protect the colonies in the French and Indian War and led the new U.S. to freedom in the Revolution. The Second Great Awakening (1830) laid the groundwork for the women’s movement and for opposition to slavery. Spirituality is a fountain that refreshes committed people.

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