Modern history

Social and Cultural Ferment in the North



Charles Grandison Finney, one of the greatest preachers of the nineteenth century, was born in 1792 and raised in rural New York State. As a young man, Finney studied the law. But in 1821, like many others of his generation, he experienced a powerful religious conversion. No longer interested in a legal career, he turned to the ministry instead.

After being ordained in the Presbyterian Church, Finney joined "New School" ministers who rejected the more conservative traditions of the Presbyterian Church and embraced a vigorous evangelicalism. In the early 1830s, while his wife, Lydia, remained at home with their growing family, the Reverend Finney traveled throughout New York State preaching about Christ's place in a changing America. He held massive revivals in cities along the Erie Canal, most notably in Rochester, and then moved on to New York City. He achieved his greatest success in places experiencing rapid economic development and an influx of migrants and immigrants, where the clash of cultures and classes fueled fears of moral decay. Spiritual renewal could rescue the young nation from sin and depravity.

Finney urged Christians to actively seek salvation. Once individuals reformed themselves, he said, they should work to abolish poverty, intemperance, prostitution, and slavery. He expected women to participate in revivals and good works but advised them to balance these efforts with their domestic responsibilities, an ideal modeled by his own wife.

In many ways, Amy Kirby Post fit Finney's ideal. She raised five children while devoting herself to spiritual and social reform. However, Amy Kirby was born into a large, close-knit Quaker family in the farming community of Jericho, New York. While most Quakers believed in quiet piety rather than evangelical revivals, their faith also provided solace in times of sorrow. In 1823, at age twenty-one, Amy became engaged to a fellow Quaker in central New York, where her sister Hannah lived with her husband, Isaac Post. But her fiancé died in June 1825 just before their wedding. Hannah took sick a year later, and Amy nursed her until her death in April 1827. She stayed on to care for Hannah's two young children and two years later married Isaac Post.

Amy experienced these personal upheavals in the midst of heated religious controversies among Quakers. In the 1820s, Elias Hicks claimed that the Society of Friends had abandoned its spiritual roots and become too much like a traditional church. His followers, called Hicksites, insisted that Friends should reduce their dependence on disciplinary rules, elders, and preachers and rely instead on the "Inner Light"—the spirit of God dwelling within each individual. When the Society of Friends divided into Hicksite and Orthodox branches in 1827, Amy Kirby and Isaac Post joined the Hicksites.

In 1836 Amy Post moved with her husband and four children to Rochester, New York. In a city marked by the spirit of Finney's revivals, Quakers emphasized quiet contemplation rather than fiery sermons and emotional conversions. But the Society of Friends allowed women to preach when moved by the spirit. Quaker women also held separate meetings to discipline female congregants, evaluate marriage proposals, and write testimonies on important religious issues.

Amy Post's spiritual journey was increasingly shaped by the rising tide of abolition. Committed to ending slavery, she joined non-Quakers in signing an 1837 antislavery petition. Five years later, she helped found the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society, which included Quakers and evangelicals, women and men, and blacks and whites. Post's growing commitment to abolition caused tensions in the Hicksite Meeting since some members opposed working in "worldly" organizations alongside non-Quakers. By 1848 Post and other radical Friends had withdrawn from the Hicksite Meeting and invited like-minded people to join them in the newly established Congregational Friends. Their meetings attracted abolitionists, advocates of Indian rights and women's rights, and peace activists, all causes Post embraced.

THE AMERICAN HISTORIES of Charles Finney and Amy Post were shaped by the dynamic religious, social, and economic developments in the early-nineteenth- century United States. Finney changed the face of American religion, aided by masses of evangelical Protestants. The rise of cities and the expansion of industry in the northern United States made problems like poverty, unemployment, alcohol abuse, crime, and prostitution more visible, drawing people to Finney’s message. Other Americans brought their own religious traditions to bear on the problems of the day. Some, like Post, were so outraged by the moral stain of slavery that they burst traditional religious bonds and reconsidered what it meant to do God’s work. For both Finney and Post, Rochester—the fastest-growing city in the nation between 1825 and 1835—exemplified the problems and the possibilities created by urban expansion and social change.

Portrait of Jarena Lee, the first female preacher of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, 1844. Library Congress

The Growth of Cities

Commercial and industrial development, immigration from Europe, and migration from rural areas led to the rapid growth of U.S. cities from 1820 on. Urbanization stimulated economic expansion but also created social upheaval. Cultural divisions intensified in urban areas where Catholics and Protestants, workers and the well-to-do, immigrants, African Americans, and native-born whites lived side by side. The emergence of a middle class of shopkeepers, professionals, and clerks might have bridged these divides, but most middle-class Americans highlighted their distinctiveness from both the wealthy few at the top and the mass of workers and the poor at the bottom.

The Lure of Urban Life

Across the North, urban populations boomed. As centers of national and international commerce, seaports like New York and Philadelphia gained the greatest population in the early to mid-nineteenth century. But boomtowns also emerged along inland waterways. Rochester, New York, first settled in 1812, was flooded by goods and people once the Erie Canal was completed in 1825. Between 1820 and 1850, the number of cities with 100,000 inhabitants grew from two to six. In the Northeast, some farm communities doubled or tripled in size and were incorporated into neighboring cities such as Philadelphia. By 1850, among the nation’s ten most populous urban centers, only two—Baltimore and New Orleans—were located in the South.

Cities increased not only in size but also in the diversity of their residents. During the 1820s, some 150,000 European immigrants entered the United States; during the 1830s, nearly 600,000; and during the 1840s, more than 1,700,000. This surge of immigrants included more Irish and German settlers than ever before as well as large numbers of Scandinavians. Many settled along the eastern seaboard, but others added to the growth of frontier cities such as Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Chicago.

Irish families had settled in North America early on, most of them Scots-Irish Presbyterians. Then in the 1830s and 1840s, the Irish countryside was plagued by bad weather, a potato blight, and harsh economic policies imposed by the English government. In 1845—1846 a full-blown famine forced thousands of Irish farm families—most of them Catholic—to emigrate. Young Irish women emigrated in especially large numbers, working as seamstresses and domestics to help fund passage to the United States for other family members. Poor harvests, droughts, failed revolutions, and repressive landlords convinced large numbers of Germans and Scandinavians to flee their homelands as well. By 1850 the Irish made up about 40 percent of immigrants to the United States, and Germans nearly a quarter (Figure 11.1).

Commerce and industry attracted immigrants to northern cities. These newcomers provided an expanding pool of cheap labor that further fueled economic growth. Banks, mercantile houses, and dry goods stores multiplied. Industrial enterprises in cities such as New York and Philadelphia included mechanized factories as well as traditional workshops in which master craftsmen oversaw the labor of apprentices. Credit and insurance agencies were created to aid entrepreneurs in their ventures. The increase in business also drove the demand for ships, newspapers catering to merchants and businessmen, warehouses, and other trade necessities, which created a surge in jobs and attracted even more people.

Businesses that focused on leisure also flourished. In the 1830s, theater became affordable to working-class families, who attended comedies, musical revues, and morality plays. They also joined middle- and upper-class audiences at productions of Shakespeare and nationalistic dramas in which strong and clever Americans triumphed over English aristocrats. Minstrel shows mocked self-important capitalists but also portrayed African Americans in crude caricatures. One of the most popular characters was Jim Crow, who appeared originally in an African American song. In the 1820s, he was incorporated into a song-and-dance routine by Thomas Rice, a white performer who blacked his face with burnt cork.


Immigration to the United States, 1820-1860 Famine, economic upheaval, and political persecution led masses of people from Ireland, Germany, and Britain to migrate to the United States from the 1820s through the 1850s. The vast majority settled in cities and factory towns in the North or on farms in the Midwest. An economic recession in the late 1850s finally slowed immigration, though only temporarily.

Museums, too, became a favorite destination for city dwellers. Many were modeled on P. T. Barnum’s American Museum on lower Broadway in New York City. These museums were not staid venues for observing the fine arts or historical artifacts. Instead, they offered an abundance of exhibits and entertainment, including wax figures, archaeological antiquities, medical instruments, and insect collections, as well as fortunetellers, bearded ladies, and snake charmers.

The lures of urban life were especially attractive to the young. Single men and women and newly married couples flocked to cities. By 1850 half the residents of New York City, Philadelphia, and other seaport cities were under sixteen years old. Young men sought work in construction, in the maritime trades, or in banks and commercial houses, while young women competed for jobs as seamstresses and domestic servants.

The Roots of Urban Disorder

In addition to stimulating economic growth by providing the labor that made industrial development possible, immigrants also transformed the urban landscape in the nineteenth century. They filled factories and workshops, crowded into houses and apartments, and built ethnic institutions, including synagogues and convents—visible indicators of the growing diversity of the American city.

Such marks of difference aroused growing concern among native-born Protestants. Crude stereotypes of immigrant groups appeared more frequently, and anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism flourished in the 1830s and 1840s. Jews, who were long denied admission to skilled crafts and professions in Europe, had little choice but to pursue commercial ventures. Yet they were portrayed not as well-educated businessmen but as manipulative moneylenders. Similarly, many Irishmen enjoyed a beer with friends after laboring at difficult and low-paid jobs. But rather than being viewed as hardworking comrades, they were often pictured as habitual drunkards.

Rural Americans, seeking better jobs and new social experiences, added to urban diversity. Native-born white men often set out on their own, but most white women settled in cities under the supervision of a husband, a landlady, or an employer. African Americans, too, sought greater opportunities in urban areas. In the 1830s, more blacks joined Philadelphia’s vibrant African American community, attracted by its churches, schools, and mutual aid and literary societies. New Bedford, Massachusetts, a thriving whaling center, provided employment for black men, including growing numbers of fugitive slaves, as well as for American Indians from the region. Although relative racial tolerance prevailed in New Bedford, in most urban areas racial minorities faced hostility and discrimination that limited their opportunities.

Even as cities promised better lives for many immigrants and migrants, they also posed dangers. Battles erupted between immigrant and native-born residents, Protestant and Catholic gangs, and white and black workers. Robberies, gambling, prostitution, and other criminal activities flourished. Diseases spread quickly through densely populated neighborhoods. When innovations in transportation made it possible for more affluent residents to distance themselves from crowded inner cities, they leaped at the chance. The first horse-drawn streetcar line was built in New York City in 1832, and as lines multiplied there and elsewhere, wealthy families moved to less crowded neighborhoods away from the urban center.

Violence increased as economic competition intensified in the 1840s. Native-born white workers and employers pushed Irish immigrants to the bottom of the economic ladder, where they competed with African Americans. Yet Irish workers insisted that their whiteness gave them a higher status than skilled blacks. When black temperance reformers organized a parade in Philadelphia in August 1842, white onlookers—mostly Irish laborers—attacked the marchers. Blacks fought back, and the conflict escalated into a riot.

Americans who lived in small towns and rural areas regularly read news of urban riots, murders, robberies, and vice. Improvements in printing created vastly more and cheaper newspapers. Tabloids wooed readers by publishing sensational stories of crime, sex, and scandal. Even more respectable newspapers carried stories about urban mayhem, and religious periodicals warned their parishioners against the city’s moral temptations. After Congress funded construction of the first telegraph line in 1844 between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., news could travel even more quickly. In response to both a real increase in crime and a heightened perception of urban dangers, cities—beginning with Boston in 1845—replaced voluntary night watchmen with police forces. Fire companies, too, became established parts of city government, and city and county jails expanded with the population.

The New Middle Class

Members of the emerging middle class were among the most avid readers of the burgeoning numbers of newspapers and magazines. They included ambitious businessmen, successful shopkeepers, doctors, and lawyers as well as teachers, journalists, ministers, and other salaried employees. In Britain, the middle class emerged at the turn of the nineteenth century. In the United States, it was still a class in the making, rather than a stable entity, in the first half of the nineteenth century. At the top rungs, wealthy entrepreneurs and professionals adopted luxurious lifestyles. At the lower rungs, a growing cohort of salaried clerks and managers hoped that their hard work, honesty, and thrift would be rewarded with upward mobility.

Education, religious affiliation, and sobriety were important indicators of middle- class status. A well-read man who attended a well-established church and drank in strict moderation was marked as belonging to this new rank. A middle-class man was also expected to own a comfortable home, marry a pious woman, and raise well-behaved children. Entrance to the middle class required the efforts of wives as well as husbands, and so couples adopted new ideas about marriage and family. They believed that marital relationships should be based on affection and companionship rather than the husband’s supreme authority. As partners for life, the husband focused on achieving financial security while the wife managed the household. The French traveler Alexis de Tocqueville captured this development in Democracy in America (1835). “In no country,” he wrote, “has such constant care been taken . . . to trace two clearly distinct lines of action for the two sexes.” The millions of women who toiled on farms and plantations or as mill workers and domestic servants certainly challenged this notion of separate spheres for men and women, but it captured the middle-class ideal.

The rise of the middle class inspired a flood of advice books, ladies’ magazines, religious periodicals, and novels that advocated new ideals of womanhood, ideals that emphasized the centrality of child rearing and homemaking to women’s identities. This cult of domesticity seemed to restrict wives to home and hearth, where they provided their husbands with respite from the cares and corruptions of the world. But wives were also expected to cement social and economic bonds by visiting the wives of business associates, serving in local charitable societies, and attending prayer circles. In carrying out these duties, the ideal woman bolstered her family’s status by performing public as well as private roles.

Middle-class families also played a crucial role in the growing market economy. Although wives and daughters were not expected to work for wages, they were responsible for much of the family’s consumption. They purchased factory-produced shoes and cloth, handcrafted clocks and cast-iron stoves, fine European crystal, and porcelain figures imported from China. Some middling housewives also bought basic goods once made at home, such as butter and candles. And middle-class children required books, pianos, and dancing lessons.

Although increasingly recognized for their ability to consume wisely, middle-class women still performed significant domestic labor. Only upper-middle-class women could afford servants. Most middle-class women, aided by daughters or temporary “help,” cut and sewed garments, cultivated gardens, canned fruits and vegetables, plucked chickens, cooked meals, and washed and ironed clothes. As houses expanded in size and clothes became fancier, these chores continued to be laborious and time-consuming. But they were also increasingly invisible, focused inwardly on the family rather than outwardly as part of the market economy.

Middle-class men contributed to the consumer economy as well. Most directly, they created and invested in industrial and commercial ventures. But in carrying out their business and professional obligations, they supported new leisure pursuits. Many joined colleagues at restaurants, the theater, or sporting events. They also attended plays and lectures with their wives, visited museums, and took their children to the circus.


• Why did American cities become larger and more diverse in the first half of the nineteenth century?

• What values and beliefs did the emerging American middle class embrace?

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