In the thirty-three years following the Battle of New Orleans, the United States would extend its imperial reach across a continent vast, diverse, and already inhabited. The history of the United States can be understood only in relation to the continental setting within which it unfolded. The human geography of North America in 1815 included peoples of several races, many languages, and sometimes incompatible aspirations. Innumerable tribes of Native Americans maintained de facto independence of three great mainland empires: the United States, Mexico, and British North America. The imposition of U.S. authority all the way to the Pacific, so clear by 1848, represented an astounding transformation when one considers the state of North America in 1815.
Within the United States, the overwhelming majority of the population in 1815 engaged in agriculture. The largest number were family farmers, who lived lives of hardship and toil, conditioned by earnest hopes for a better standard of living. Their agricultural practices husbanded scarce resources and squandered those, like land, that they found plentiful. Sometimes their ambitions included taking the lands of others. A distinctive group of Americans consisted of those enslaved; among the harsh realities of their lives, they nursed aspirations of their own. The United States in 1815 was still an open-ended experiment, mostly potential rather than actuality. Amidst a continent of unrealized possibilities, the various peoples of North America pursued diverging visions of the future.
In 1815, as today, the largest metropolis on the North American continent was Mexico City. At that time it held about 150,000 people—almost as many as the two largest cities in the United States (New York and Philadelphia) put together.1 Beginning in 1521, the Spanish had built it on top of the even more populous Aztec city of Tenochtitlán, founded in 1325. The Catholic cathedral, constructed on the site of the Aztec temple by the central plaza now called the Zócalo, had just been renovated in 1813. “This city is truly a magnificent one,” marveled Stephen Austin
1. U.S. Census Bureau, www.census.gov/population/documentation/twps0027/tab04.txt (viewed Feb. 24, 2007).
when he arrived in 1822.2 La ciudad de México boasted botanical gardens, an art academy, the world’s best mining college, and a distinguished university. Remarkably for cities at the time, it had wide streets lighted at night, paved sidewalks, and a system of public transportation.3 The newly independent Mexican nation that Stephen Austin visited stretched from Panama to Oregon, occupied an area approximately equal to that of the United States, and included about two-thirds as many people. Yet in 1847, this proud capital city would stand conquered, occupied like a fallen Rome and (as a Mexican government committee warned in 1821 might happen) stripped of half its vast domain by barbarians from the north.4 After the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, the United States would rank far larger than Mexico in both area and population. Through waging war, the United States wrought a momentous transformation in international power.
In 1815, Mexican independence lay six years in the future, and the chief executive occupying the Palacio Nacional was still the viceroy of New Spain. The mother country had recently granted a written constitution, and Mexico sent representatives to the Spanish Cortes (parliament). Fighting for Mexican independence had begun five years earlier, but for the time being Spanish officials seemed to have overcome the rebels and felt confident that royal authority would prevail. Overt disloyalty actually constituted less of a problem to central control than the difficulties of communication and transportation. Lack of roads and restrictive imperial regulations intended to monopolize trade for the benefit of the home country had hindered Mexico’s economic development, and strong traditions of regional autonomy prevailed. The newspaper press flourished in the capital, but people who lived in other cities experienced remarkable isolation. A small creole elite of European descent dominated the country; a mestizo (mixed-race) middle class supplied its energy; but the Native American peasantry, even within the national heartland, mostly remained outside the mainstream of national life. Throughout their villages, and across the open spaces of the northern borderlands, people had little awareness of the larger world. In some remote areas, especially the far north and south, Indian tribes remained virtually independent of Spanish
2. Quoted in Gregg Cantrell, Stephen F. Austin, Empresario of Texas (New Haven, 1999), 112.
3. Michael Meyer and William Sherman, The Course of Mexican History (New York, 1990), 361–69; Jonathan Kandell, La Capital: The Biography of Mexico City (New York, 1988).
4. Nettie Lee Benson, “Texas Viewed from Mexico,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 90 (1986–87): 227.
law, language, and culture, at times indeed waging war against them. Mexico City’s lack of effective communication with and control over the vast northern territories would make it difficult to protect them against the ambitions of an expansionist United States.5
The most distant of all New Spain’s far-flung lands was Alta (Upper) California. In 1815, its northern boundary remained undefined. Spain claimed the coast all the way to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, but British, Russian, and American merchants and explorers had been active in that vicinity for a generation.6 In 1812, the Russians had established a fur-trading post at Fort Ross on Bodega Bay. From San Diego to San Rafael above San Francisco Bay, the Spanish maintained their authority through a system of military bases (presidios) and missions operated by the Franciscan order of friars. Each mission community strove for substantial economic self-sufficiency through a mixture of agriculture and artisan manufacturing. The missions had been located, with the orderliness of absolutism, so that each lay a day’s journey away from the next one along the royal highway (el camino real).
The California missions provoked controversy, in their own time as well as in ours. The Franciscans intended to Christianize the local Indians and teach them useful skills. If the Natives adopted Western civilization they could become gente de razón (“rational people”) and taxpayers. Critics in Mexico and Spain claimed that the friars exploited their charges. Worst of all, contemporaries correctly observed, the missions incubated illness, by concentrating vulnerable populations in places where they became exposed to unfamiliar diseases. Between 1769, when Hispanic settlement began, and the end of Spanish rule in 1821, the Indian population of Alta California declined from approximately 300,000 to approximately 200,000.7
The disease problem in the California mission communities was all too characteristic of encounters between European and Native American peoples. A population lacking any acquired immunity, either inherited or individual, to unfamiliar diseases can suffer rapid fatalities of catastrophic proportion during what is called a “virgin-soil” epidemic of infectious disease. Europeans themselves suffered virgin-soil epidemics of bubonic
5. See Timothy Anna, Forging Mexico (Lincoln, Neb., 1998), 34–76; Brian Hamnett, Roots of Insurgency: Mexican Regions, 1750–1824 (Cambridge, Eng., 1986).
6. See David Igler, “Diseased Goods: Global Exchanges in the Eastern Pacific Basin, 1770–1850,” AHR 109 (2004); 693–719.
7. James Sandos, Converting California (New Haven, 2004), 113–14; Robert H. Jackson and Edward Castillo, Indians, Franciscans, and Spanish Colonization (Albuquerque, N.M., 1995), 44–51; Sherburne Cook, The Population of the California Indians (Berkeley, 1976), 43–44; Walter Nugent, Into the West (New York, 1999), 35–38.
plague from Asia in the fourteenth century and of syphilis following the return of Columbus’s men. The ravages suffered by the inhabitants of the New World from unfamiliar European contagious diseases—including smallpox, measles, and influenza—were compounded by the disruptions of warfare and losses of food-producing land to the intruders. The resulting mortality, considered collectively, constituted one of the most gigantic calamities ever to befall the human race. Population estimates for the Americas on the eve of European contact vary widely, but even the most conservative ones indicate horrific death rates soon thereafter. Within central Mexico, population had bottomed out a hundred years or so after the Spanish conquest and slowly began to rebound, though at about 6 million in 1815 it remained far below the estimated numbers for the subjects of the Aztec Empire, notwithstanding immigration from the Old World.8
In the United States, the Constitution exempted “Indians not taxed” from the census. In 1820, however, the federal government engaged Jedidiah Morse, a noted scholar, to undertake a comprehensive examination of the Indian tribes within the United States. Morse’s book-length report estimated the Indian population at 472,000, most of them living west of the Mississippi River in the Louisiana Purchase or in the Oregon Territory under joint U.S.-British authority. The original inhabitants of California, Texas, and the other Mexican lands that would be annexed by 1848 probably numbered a third to a half of a million. These figures do not include people of mixed ancestry living with white or black Americans and undifferentiated from them. But they certainly represented a dramatic decline from the Amerindian population of the same area c. 1600, which most scholars currently estimate at around 5 million, perhaps even 10 million.9 Dispersed, nomadic peoples suffered less from contagion than concentrated village-dwellers like the Mandans, whom recurrent smallpox epidemics reduced from 9,000 c. 1750 to 150 in 1837. Many white contemporaries, even if compassionate, agreed with Alexis de Tocqueville that the Indians were “doomed” to die out entirely.10
8. See Russell Thornton, American Indian Holocaust and Survival (Norman, Okla., 1987), 15–41; David Jones, “Virgin Soils Revisited,” WMQ 60 (2003): 703–42; Elinore Melville, “Disease, Ecology, and the Environment,” in The Oxford History of Mexico, ed. Michael Meyer and William Beezley (New York, 2000), 222–26.
9. Jedidiah Morse, Report to the Secretary of War on Indian Affairs (New Haven, 1822), 375; Alan Taylor, American Colonies (New York, 2001), 40.
10. Loretta Fowler, “The Great Plains from the Arrival of the Horse to 1885,” in Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas: Vol. 1, North America, ed. Bruce Trigger and Wilcomb Washburn (Cambridge, Eng., 1996), pt. 2, 21; Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. Phillips Bradley (1834; New York, 1945), I, 342.
Because of the transatlantic slave trade, Africa too contributed diseases to the deadly mixture. Malaria and yellow fever, transmitted between human hosts by mosquitoes, came to the Western Hemisphere on the slave ships. Yellow fever, widespread in the Caribbean, periodically visited as far north as Philadelphia. In the early nineteenth century, malaria spread from the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts to become endemic throughout the vast Mississippi basin. In the case of these diseases, white people had no more immunity than Native Americans; malaria had killed a high proportion of early English colonists in Virginia, and the “ague,” as they called it, remained a curse for many settlers in the swampy lands or river bottoms of the Midwest.11
The oldest, most populous, and most economically developed of the Spanish borderlands was New Mexico. There Santa Fe and Taos became important commercial hubs, linked with El Paso and Chihuahua by New Mexico’s own camino real. Yet relations with the local Indian nations had remained problematic ever since the great Pueblo uprising in 1680. The prolonged war for Mexican independence that began in 1810 prompted the Spanish government to withdraw the troops protecting the province against Apache and Navajo raiders to more critical duties elsewhere, and for self-defense the nuevomexicanos contracted their settlements.12 They remained a potential market for U.S. traders whenever the Spanish mercantile rules could be lifted.
Between the Rio Grande (then usually called the Rio Bravo) and the Nueces River countless cattle grazed. The Mexicans were the first cowboys, called vaqueros; they invented the horned saddle and the technique of roping from horseback. The cattle they rounded up for branding in the Nueces strip were longhorns, tough beasts descended from animals brought from Spain, some of which had gone wild and adapted to the dry environment. In 1846, this would constitute the “disputed area” between the United States and Mexico and witness the outbreak of the Mexican–American War. The Mexican rancheros would lose their lands and herds, but their successors would retain their occupational terminology: “corral,” “remuda,” “rodeo,” “sombrero,” “pinto,” “chaps” (chaparajos), “mustang” (mesteño), “lariat” (la reata).13
Northeast of the Nueces stretched Texas, or Tejas. Nominally an outpost of New Spain in 1815, this had long been a borderland where Spanish,
11. Gerald Grob, The Deadly Truth: A History of Disease in America (Cambridge, Mass., 2002).
12. See David J. Weber, The Spanish Frontier in North America (New Haven, 1992).
13. Terry Jordan, North American Cattle-Ranching Frontiers (Albuquerque, N.M., 1993), 152–53.
French, British, and American traders, soldiers, and settlers rotated a kaleidoscope of alliances, trade agreements, and wars with each other and the Kiowa, Comanche, Wichita, Jumano, Caddo, Apache, and more. Europeans call such a border region with no functioning sovereign power a “marchland”; American historians term it a “middle ground.”14 Like the whites, some of the Indian tribes had only recently pushed their way into the Texas region. In a strategic borderland, Native peoples enjoyed their ability to play off the competing European powers against one another; conversely, however, whites played off Indian tribes against each other too. Warfare and trade among these diverse peoples coexisted in parallel; a group could buy weapons from one party to make war on another, or steal horses from one to sell to another. In Texas, as in New Mexico and elsewhere in North America, captives taken in war could be turned into trade goods by being held for ransom or sold as slaves; alternatively they might be tortured and killed, adopted, or even married.15
Adding fuel to the fierce intergroup rivalries in Texas and the southern Plains was the introduction of the horse, a Spanish contribution even more important than cattle. Like the longhorns, some of these horses had escaped and turned feral, only to be redomesticated by Native Americans. More commonly, however, horses diffused north from Mexico by being stolen or sold from one human owner to another. During the eighteenth century, horses revolutionized hunting and warfare on the Great Plains, as they had done on the steppes of Central Asia five thousand years earlier. The nomadic way of life quickly adopted by the Comanche, Cheyenne, and Sioux, so famous and heroic, would have been impossible without their skillful exploitation of the possibilities created by horses. Other tribes, like the Pawnee, retained permanent villages and used hunting with horses to supplement their agriculture. But the horse shifted the military balance in favor of nomads and against villagers. Horses served as an end as well as a means of warfare, since most battles between tribes originated in raids to capture another’s horses. In an economic sense, many of the nomads became primarily pastoral people, that is, herders of their horses, and only intermittently buffalo hunters.16
14. Richard White gave us the term in The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region (Cambridge, Eng., 1991).
15. See Jeremy Adelman and Stephen Aron, “From Borderlands to Borders,” AHR 104 (1999): 814–41; James Brooks, Captives and Cousins: Slavery, Kinship, and Community in the Southwest Borderlands (Chapel Hill, 2002).
16. Pekka Hamalainen, “The Rise and Fall of Plains Indian Horse Culture,” JAH 90 (2003): 833–62; Elliott West, The Contested Plains (Lawrence, Kans., 1998), 49–71; John Ewers, Plains Indian History and Culture (Norman, Okla., 1997), 170–72.
Many misconceptions regarding the American Indians of this period remain prevalent. Their societies were not static, necessarily fixed to particular homelands and lifestyles. They evolved and changed, often rapidly, sometimes as a result of deliberate decisions, both before and after their contact with whites. Native societies did not live in isolation until “discovered” by intruders; they traded with each other, exchanging not only goods but ideas and techniques as well. As early as the year 900, the cultivation of corn (maize) spread from Mexico to the inhabitants of what is now the eastern United States. “For hundreds of years,” notes the historian Colin Calloway, “Indian peoples explored, pioneered, settled, and shaped” their environment. Long before the Jacksonian Democrats conceived the program of “Indian Removal” from east of the Mississippi,
tribes had migrated of their own volition. When the Native Americans first met whites, they integrated them into their existing patterns of trade and warfare, sometimes allying with them against historic enemies. They welcomed the trade goods on offer, especially those that made life easier like firearms, kettles, and metal tools.17
Though their white contemporaries generally thought of them as hunters, the Native Americans were also experienced farmers. Throughout much of the United States they typically grew corn, squash, and beans together, cultivating them with a hoe. East of the Mississippi their crops provided more of their food than hunting and gathering did. Potatoes, tomatoes, and tobacco, indigenous American products eagerly taken up by Europeans, played a less important role in Native agriculture. In most tribes, farming was traditionally women’s work and hunting, men’s. Well-intentioned whites encouraged Indian men to downplay hunting, take up farming, and use plows pulled by draft animals. By 1815, white agricultural practices had been extensively adopted among several Amerindian nations east of the Mississippi; so had cattle-raising.18 Some Native communities and individuals had become economically scarcely distinguishable from their white neighbors. On the other hand, the strong economic demand for deerskin and furs encouraged the Indians to pursue deer, beaver, and buffalo with renewed vigor rather than abandon the chase in favor of agriculture.
The numerous Native American nations were at least as diverse as the different European nations (linguistically, they were more diverse), and they adapted to contact with the Europeans in different ways, often quite resourceful. The Navajo transformed themselves from predatory nomads to sheepherders, weavers, and (later) silversmiths. Indians usually adopted aspects of Western culture that they found appealing and rejected others. Individuals did not always choose wisely: Exposed to alcohol, some became alcoholics. (Conversely, whites exposed to tobacco often became addicted to it.) Some Indians converted to Christianity, like the Mohican Hendrick Aupaumut, who preached pan-tribal unity and peaceful coexistence with the whites. Others undertook to revitalize their own religious traditions, as did the Seneca Handsome Lake and the Shawnee prophet Tenskwatawa, whose brother Tecumseh preached pan-tribal unity and
17. Neal Salisbury, “The Indians’ Old World,” WMQ 53 (1996): 435–58; Colin Calloway, One Vast Winter Count (Lincoln, Neb., 2003), quotation from 17.
18. See, e.g., James Carson, “The Choctaw Cattle Economy,” in Cultural Change and the Market Revolution in America, ed. Scott Martin (Lanham, Md., 2005), 71–88; Robbie Ethridge, Creek Country (Chapel Hill, 2003).
militant resistance to the whites.19 Despite the shocking fatalities from unfamiliar diseases, most Native peoples did not despair, nor (whatever whites might think) did they think of themselves as a doomed race. Their history is one of resilience and survival, as well as of retreat and death.
East of the Mississippi, the soggy, swampy Gulf region remained another multiethnic borderland (or “middle ground”), with Florida belonging to Spain, the white population of Louisiana still predominantly French and Spanish, and several powerful Indian nations asserting independence. The “Old Southwest” was a volatile area. Only gradually did it come under U.S. control. During the American War for Independence, the Spanish had allied with the rebels and conquered West and East Florida from the British. (West Florida extended along the Gulf Coast from what we call the Florida panhandle through what is now Alabama and Mississippi into Louisiana; the Apalachicola River divided the two Floridas from each other.) At the peace negotiations in 1783, Spain had been allowed to keep the Floridas as consolation for not having succeeded in capturing Gibraltar from the British. In 1810 and 1813, an ungrateful United States had unilaterally occupied chunks of West Florida. Policymakers in Washington had their eyes on East Florida as well.
The Native Americans of the Old Southwest had been caught in a time of turbulence by the coming of the Europeans. The indigenous Mississippian civilization had declined and left in its wake a variety of competing peoples somewhat analogous to the tribes that migrated around Europe following the disintegration of the Roman Empire. Those who called themselves the Muskogee played a pivotal role; whites named them the Creek Indians because they built their villages along streams. One branch of the Creeks had migrated southward into Florida, where they linked up with black “maroons” escaped from slavery and became known as Seminoles. The main body of Creeks, led by their chief Alexander McGillivray, had negotiated a treaty with George Washington’s administration guaranteeing their territorial integrity; they formed a national council and created a written legal code. But a civil war broke out among the Creeks in 1813, and the dissident “Red Stick” faction, who resented the influence of white ways, staged an ill-
19. Rachel Wheeler, “Hendrick Aupaumut,” JER 25 (2005): 187–220; Anthony Wallace, Death and Rebirth of the Seneca (New York, 1972); R. David Edmunds, The Shawnee Prophet (Lincoln, Neb., 1983).
advised and bloody uprising against the Americans and their Native supporters.20
Around the Great Lakes lay another historic “middle ground” where European empires and Native peoples had long competed with each other. In the eighteenth century, British, French, Americans, and the First Nations (as Canadians today appropriately call the Indian tribes) had all jockeyed for advantage in the rich fur trade and waged repeated wars on each other. Following independence, the Americans had nursed the delusion that Canadians would welcome them as liberators from the British. After two U.S. invasions of Canada, in 1776 and 1812, had both been repulsed, most Americans had given up this fantasy. The border between Canada and the United States began to take on a permanent character. Canada became a place of refuge for former American Loyalists who had experienced persecution in their previous homes and emphatically rejected U.S. identity. To the Catholic Quebecois, Yankee Protestants seemed even worse than British ones and the United States a de facto ally of the godless Napoleon.
By 1815, the land around the Great Lakes was losing its character as a “middle ground” where Native peoples could play off the competing white powers for their own advantage. The once-powerful Iroquois, a confederation of six nations, no longer found themselves in a position to carry out an independent foreign policy. When war came in 1812, the Iroquois north of the border supported their traditional ally, the British. Those to the south attempted neutrality but were compelled to fight for the United States against their kinsmen. The Canadian–U.S. border had taken on stability and real meaning. The Treaty of Ghent brought an end to sixty years of warfare over the Great Lakes region, going back to Braddock’s expedition of 1754.21 Yet contemporaries did not know for sure that the wars were all over. They worried that the area might revert to instability and took precautions against this. In the 1830s, armed rebellions among both Anglophone and Francophone Canadians, coupled with friction between the United States and Britain, would confront American policymakers with that very real possibility.
20. Thomas Clark and John Guice, Frontiers in Conflict: The Old Southwest, 1795–1830 (Albuquerque, N.M., 1989); L. Leitch Wright Jr., Creeks and Seminoles (Lincoln, Neb., 1986). On the Mississippian civilization, see Bruce Smith, “Agricultural Chiefdoms of the Eastern Woodlands,” in Trigger and Washburn, Cambridge History of Native Peoples: North America, pt. 1, 267–323.
21. Alan Taylor, “Upper Canada, New York, and the Iroquois Six Nations,” JER 22 (2002): 55–76; David Skaggs and Larry Nelson, eds., Sixty Years’ War for the Great Lakes (East Lansing, Mich., 2001).
White attitudes toward the Native Americans varied. Some viewed them as hostile savages needing to be removed or even exterminated. More sympathetic observers thought the Natives could and should convert to Christianity and adopt Western civilization. Whether they would then continue to exist as separate communities or be assimilated remained unclear; Washington’s administration had assumed the former, but Thomas Jefferson hoped for the latter.22 Disagreement over “Indian policy” turned out to be an important issue separating the political parties that would emerge during the coming era. Despite all the mutual cultural borrowing between Native and Euro-Americans, neither cultural synthesis nor multicultural harmony achieved acceptance with the white public or government. Indians frequently intermarried with whites, as well as with blacks both enslaved and free, in all “middle ground” areas, and persons of mixed ancestry (sometimes called métis, a French term) like Alexander McGillivray often negotiated between their parental backgrounds. As time passed, however, such intermarriage became less acceptable in white society.23
In the nineteenth century, two territorially contiguous empires expanded rapidly across vast continental distances: the United States and Russia. The tsarist empire was an absolute monarchy with an established church, yet in one respect surprisingly more tolerant than republican America. The Russians showed more willingness to accept and live with cultural diversity among their subject peoples.24
The volcano of Tambora on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa erupted in a series of giant explosions commencing on April 7, 1815, and lasting five days. It was the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history, far surpassing that of Krakatoa in 1883 or Mount St. Helens in 1980. The volcano and the tsunami it generated killed some ten thousand people; many more died from indirect consequences. Gases emitted by Tambora included sulfur, which formed sulfuric acid droplets high in the atmosphere. For months, these droplets slowly girdled the Northern Hemisphere, absorbing and reflecting the sun’s radiation, lowering the surface temperature of the earth. Sunspot activity compounded the meteorological
22. Reginald Horsman, “Indian Policy of an ‘Empire for Liberty,’ ” in Native Americans and the Early Republic, ed. Frederick Hoxie et al. (Charlottesville, Va., 1999), 37–61.
23. See Margaret Szasz, Between Indian and White Worlds (Norman, Okla., 1994); and Theda Perdue, “Mixed Blood” Indians (Athens, Ga., 2003).
24. Cf. Meinig, Continental America, 185–88, 195–96.
effects. By mid-1816, strange disturbances affected the weather and ocean currents in the North Atlantic. Snow fell in New England in June, July, and August; otherwise little precipitation appeared. South Carolina suffered a frost in mid-May. Widespread crop failures led to food shortages in many parts of North America and Europe. No one who lived through it would forget “the year without a summer.”25
To people whose lives were governed by the sun—by the hours of daylight and the seasons of the year—the weather mattered a great deal. Even in the best of times life was hard in North America, the climate harsher than that of western Europe and West Africa, its temperatures extreme and storms violent. During what is called “the little ice age” of 1550 to 1850, the growing season shortened by a month, diminishing the size of harvests. A season of bad weather implied not only financial losses but hunger, cold, and curtailed communication. After the harrowing experiences of 1816, many Yankee farm families—particularly in northern New England—despaired of eking out a living where they were and moved west. Some speculated that the bizarre summer that year heralded the approach of Judgment Day and the millennium.26
Agriculture provided the livelihood for the overwhelming majority of all Americans, regardless of race. Even people engaged in other occupations usually owned farmland as well. The clergyman had his glebe, the widowed landlady her garden. The village blacksmith supplemented his income with a plot of land. Geography as well as climate imposed constraints on people’s livelihoods. Much depended on access to navigable water. With it, one could market a crop nationally or internationally; without it, the difficulty of transporting bulky goods overland could limit one to a local market. Trying to find a product that would bear the cost of wagon transportation, many backcountry farmers hit upon distilling their grain into spirits. As a result, cheap whiskey flooded the country, worsening the problem of alcohol abuse that Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia had identified.27
Life in America in 1815 was dirty, smelly, laborious, and uncomfortable. People spent most of their waking hours working, with scant opportunity
25. R. B. Stothers, “The Great Tambora Eruption of 1815,” Science 224 (1984): 1191–98; Gregory Zielinski and Barry Keim, New England Weather, New England Climate (Hanover, N.H., 2003), 35; John D. Post, The Last Great Subsistence Crisis in the Western World (Baltimore, 1977), 1–27.
26. C. Edward Skeen, 1816: America Rising (Lexington, Ky., 2003), 9–12; Allan Kulikoff, From British Peasants to Colonial American Farmers (Chapel Hill, 2000), 80–83; Michael Barkun, Crucible of the Millennium (Syracuse, N.Y., 1986), 108–11.
27. Mark Lender and James Martin, Drinking in America (New York, 1987), 30–40.
for the development of individual talents and interests unrelated to farming. Cobbler-made shoes being expensive and uncomfortable, country people of ordinary means went barefoot much of the time. White people of both sexes wore heavy fabrics covering their bodies, even in the humid heat of summer, for they believed (correctly) sunshine bad for their skin. People usually owned few changes of clothes and stank of sweat. Only the most fastidious bathed as often as once a week. Since water had to be carried from a spring or well and heated in a kettle, people gave themselves sponge baths, using the washtub. Some bathed once a year, in the spring, but as late as 1832, a New England country doctor complained that four out of five of his patients did not bathe from one year to the next. When washing themselves, people usually only rinsed off, saving their harsh, homemade soap for cleaning clothes. Inns did not provide soap to travelers.28 Having an outdoor privy signified a level of decency above those who simply relieved themselves in the woods or fields. Indoor light was scarce and precious; families made their own candles, smelly and smoky, from animal tallow. A single fireplace provided all the cooking and heating for a common household. During winter, everybody slept in the room with the fire, several in each bed. Privacy for married couples was a luxury.29
In recent years, one would find a similar standard of living only in the third world. The gross domestic product per capita of the United States in 1820 was about the same as that of Ecuador or Jordan in 2002.30 But although this is an instructive comparison for us, it was of course not one made by contemporaries. They compared their lot with that of European peasants of the time and felt good about it. Most white Americans lived on family farms and worked land that they owned or squatted on. A farm of one’s own had been the dream of Old World peasantry; it seemed the key to dignity and economic security. Only a minority of American farmers owed rent to a landlord; none owed tithes to a bishop or abbot; taxes were low. Many did owe mortgage payments to the banker who had advanced them money to buy their farm; resentment that might have focused
28. As an English visitor, William Faux, complained in 1819; quoted in Suellen Hoy, Chasing Dirt (New York, 1995), 7–8. The physician is cited in Charles Rosenberg, The Cholera Years (Chicago, 1987), 18.
29. See Jack Larkin, The Reshaping of Everyday Life (New York, 1988); David Danbom, Born in the Country (Baltimore, 1995); Priscilla Brewer, From Fireplace to Cookstove (Syracuse, N.Y., 2000).
30. Historical currency conversions provided by www.westegg.com/inflation and 2002 GDP tables at www.studentsoftheworld.info/infopays/rank/PIBH2 (viewed March 8, 2007).
on a nobility or an ecclesiastical establishment instead often turned toward banks, indispensable and yet unpopular.
The drastic decline of the Native population left a land-to-population ratio very favorable for the settlers coming in from the Old World. The historian John Murrin has called them the “beneficiaries of catastrophe.” They were able to marry earlier than their relatives in Europe, set up housekeeping on their own, and have more children. Because of their high birthrate, the population of the United States approximately doubled every twenty years. By 1815, it had reached almost 8.5 million, even though the Napoleonic Wars had dampened immigration from Europe and the importation of slaves from Africa became illegal in 1808. Vital statistics bore out the benefits of America for its white settlers and their descendants. At five feet eight inches, the average American man was four inches taller than his English counterpart and as tall as his successor who was drafted in World War II. His health reflected the benefits of the land-to-population ratio: abundant food and rural isolation from contagious disease.31
The American of 1815 ate wheat and beef in the North, corn and pork in the South. Milk, cheese, and butter were plentiful; potatoes came to be added in the North and sweet potatoes in the South. Fruits appeared only in season except insofar as women could preserve them in pies or jams; green vegetables, now and then as condiments; salads, virtually never. (People understood that low temperatures would help keep food but could only create a cool storage place by digging a cellar.) Monotonous and constipating, too high in fat and salt, this diet nevertheless was more plentiful and nutritious, particularly in protein, than that available in most of the Old World. The big meal occurred at noon.32
American farm families generally produced partly for their own consumption and partly for sale or local barter; historians term this practice “composite” farming. Virtually no farm families expected to satisfy all their wants by purchase; neither could any possess the range of skills and tools that would make them entirely self-sufficient. Historians have tried
31. John Murrin, Beneficiaries of Catastrophe (Philadelphia, 1991); Peter McClelland and Richard Zeckhauser, Demographic Dimensions of the New Republic (Cambridge, Eng., 1982); Robert Fogel, “Nutrition and the Decline in Mortality Since 1700,” in Long-term Factors in American Economic Growth, ed. Stanley Engerman and Robert Gallman (Chicago, 1986), Table 9.A.1. For the World War II draftee, see David Kennedy, Freedom from Fear (New York, 1999), 710.
32. Sarah McMahon, “Laying Foods By,” in Early American Technology, ed. Judith McGaw (Chapel Hill, 1994), 164–96; Jane Nylander, Our Own Snug Fireside (New York, 1993), 96–98, 187–93; Danbom, Born in the Country, 99.
to sort out the extent of their market participation under varying circumstances. From the family’s own point of view, however, this issue seemed less important than that their activities, taken as a whole, enabled them to survive and prosper.33 Whether producing for a market or their own consumption, their way of life depended on the practice of thrift. When a husband hammered together a stool and his wife made the children’s clothes, they were not being “thrifty” in the same way that someone shopping for groceries today is thrifty by remembering to use a coupon. They were performing their occupations, earning their living, just as much as when the man plowed the field or the woman churned butter to sell in the village. Their thrift was a necessity, not an option. Thrift demanded the family set aside enough corn or wheat to be able to seed next year’s crop, feed the animals, and go on farming. Significantly, the very word for their occupation, “husbandry,” also meant thrift, as in the expression “to husband resources.”
So many and varied were the aspects of farm labor that unmarried farmers were exceedingly rare; to operate a farm household took both a man and woman. And so the word “husband,” originally meaning “farmer,” came to mean “married man.” Typically, American farms were economically individualistic, operated by a single nuclear family, not an extended kin-group or communal enterprise. Families might supplement their own labor with that of a “hired man” or “hired girl” (called a girl because not yet married), but wage labor was relatively expensive, and the employee expected decent treatment. The preferred sources of agricultural labor consisted of family members, neighbors offering reciprocal favors, or (for those who could afford the investment) bound workers, indentured or enslaved. Children could perform many of the necessary errands and tasks: fetching water from the well, feeding chickens, collecting firewood. Foresight, not irresponsibility, prompted farm couples to have many children. In 1800, the white birthrate stood at an average of seven children per woman; by 1860, when it had declined to five, the rural percentage of the population had fallen from 95 to 80.34
Although the particular crops grown varied with the local climate, some principles of family farming were common to all regions. Following
33. Among many works, see esp. Richard Bushman, “Markets and Composite Farms in Early America,” WMQ 55 (1998): 351–74; Christopher Clark, The Roots of Rural Capitalism (Ithaca, N.Y., 1990).
34. Herbert S. Klein, A Population History of the United States (Cambridge, Eng., 2004), 78; Mark Cairnes and John Garraty, Mapping America’s Past (New York, 1996), 94–95. See further Christopher Clark, Social Change in America: From the Revolution Through the Civil War (Chicago, 2006), 141–44.
the principle of “safety first,” newly settled agricultural families generally began by growing food for their own consumption, then turned as quickly as possible to supplementing this with something they could market. Their “market” might be a neighbor—or a “factor” who would ship the produce halfway around the world. A composite-farm family could simultaneously live in a local world of barter and engage in international commerce.35 Market success and a measure of self-sufficiency were not even incompatible goals. Big landowners producing staple crops for export and commanding a large labor force (perhaps enslaved) achieved the greatest degree of self-sufficiency. They could afford to grind their own grain and employ their own artisans like blacksmiths, carpenters, and saddlers. When an ordinary farming family needed something they could neither produce for themselves nor swap with a neighbor, they could visit the local storekeeper. With currency chronically scarce, people seldom paid for their purchases using actual coins or banknotes. Instead, the storekeeper kept an account book, which recorded who owed what. When the husband bought a tool, he was debited; when the wife brought in a surplus cured ham, she was credited. In many little towns, the storekeepers still kept their accounts in shillings and pence fifty years after the Revolution. If customers had been paying cash, it would have made sense to convert to dollars and cents, but since nobody expected this, why not go on using the old-time familiar units of exchange?36
Most family farms relied on crude agricultural methods and the natural fecundity of the soil. Their wooden plows differed little from those used at the time of the Norman Conquest. Livestock foraged for themselves, so they bred unselectively and their manure did not accumulate for fertilizer. Fences encircled the cultivated land to keep the animals out, not in. Clearing land to plow was arduous labor, and a man might leave tree stumps in his fields for years rather than go to the work of removing them, even if this required him to use a hoe instead of a plow. As Virginian James Madison, a critic of prevailing methods, complained in 1819, “Whilst there was an abundance of fresh and fertile soil, it was the interest of the cultivator to spread his labor over as great a surface as he could, land being cheap and labor dear.” Madison spoke for an enlightened
35. Gavin Wright, The Political Economy of the Cotton South (New York, 1978), 69–72; Martin Bruegel, Farm, Shop, Landing: The Rise of a Market Society in the Hudson Valley (Durham, N.C., 2002), 5.
36. Ruth Cowan, Social History of American Technology (New York, 1997), 39–43; Nylander, Our Own Snug Fireside, 46–47; Benjamin Klebaner, American Commercial Banking (Boston, 1990), 12; Larkin, Reshaping Everyday Life, 38, 53.
minority of agricultural reformers, often large landowners living in areas long under cultivation, who recommended means of conservation such as crop rotation and fertilization. Their ideas would spread, along with technological improvements in plowing, harrowing, and threshing, during the years after 1815.37
Almost all life’s activities went on within the household setting: production as well as consumption, birthing and child-rearing, transmitting the rudiments of literacy, caring for the sick and those few persons who lived to old age. Work we would label “manufacturing” took up a lot of a typical housewife’s time. A government report in 1810 estimated that two-thirds of all clothing and linens were produced in households. Such production would not necessarily be for the woman’s own family, for merchants “put out” spinning, weaving, and sewing to women to do at home for payment. The early industrial revolution would not put an end to such home manufacturing. When women could buy fabrics instead of having to weave them, they did not stop making clothes at home. They welcomed new technology, including eventually sewing machines, as enabling them to clothe their family better or to earn more money.38
The man was the “head of the house,” by both law and custom, and he could exploit the labor of other family members, as his predecessors had done for centuries. Yet in practice, the other members of the household enjoyed increasing autonomy in white America, and fathers could not control whom their sons or daughters married. In the decades to come, men would lose much of their legal control over the property and labor of their wives and children. Despite the common law of “coverture,” which deprived married women of legal independence from their husbands, women almost always looked forward to the prospect of marriage. Only by marriage could a woman acquire a home of her own; as a spinster, she would have to live in some other woman’s home. Except for some aspects of dairy farming, custom clearly labeled most work activities as either men’s or women’s. A family farm worked best when husband and wife cooperated closely and accorded each other mutual respect. Enslaved women, however, could be set tasks otherwise reserved for men.39
37. Peter McClelland, Sowing Modernity: America’s First Agricultural Revolution (Ithaca, N.Y., 1997); Madison quoted on 41. See also Brian Donahue, “Environmental Stewardship and Decline in Old New England,” JER 24 (2004): 234–41; Steven Stoll, Larding the Lean Earth: Soil and Society in Nineteenth-Century America (New York, 2002).
38. Laurel Ulrich, The Age of Homespun (New York, 2001), esp. 37–38.
39. See Nancy Osterud, Bonds of Community (Ithaca, N.Y., 1991); Hendrik Hartog, Man and Wife in America (Cambridge, Mass., 2000); Carole Shammas, A History of Household Government in America (Charlottesville, Va., 2002).
It was a young society: The census listed the median age as sixteen, and only one person in eight as over forty-three years old.40 Women bore children in agony and danger, making their life expectancy, unlike today, slightly shorter than that of men. Once born, infants often succumbed to diseases like diphtheria, scarlet fever, and whooping cough. One-third of white children and over half of black children died before reaching adulthood. The women had enough babies to beat these grim odds. To help them through labor, neighbors and trained midwives attended them. Doctors were in short supply, hospitals almost unknown. This proved a blessing in disguise, for physicians then did as much harm as good, and hospitals incubated infection. The upside of rural isolation was that epidemics did not spread easily.41
The widespread distribution of land had powerful consequences, psychological and political as well as economic. Ownership of his own land meant a lot to the American husbandman. It meant that one’s livelihood was not dependent on the goodwill of another, as was the case, presumably, with tenants, serfs, indentured servants, wage-workers, or chattel slaves, as well as women and children. Americans affirmed a resolute egalitarianism among white men. The custom of shaking hands, a gesture of social reciprocity, replaced bowing. Not only the widespread ownership of land but also the widespread ownership of horses fostered a rough equality of esteem among free adult males. In the Spanish language, the word for “gentleman” (caballero) literally means “horseman.” In a society where riding a horse did not signify a special status, neither did the designation “gentleman.” The American husbandman nurtured a pride comparable to that of a European gentleman; he defined himself as a citizen rather than a subject, and he did not hesitate to assert his rights as he saw them.
Political leaders had to take account of this yeoman’s worldview, especially his aversion to taxes and suspicion of all authority (except, sometimes, that of religion). American republican ideology gave formal expression to the outlook. Thomas Jefferson was the leading formulator of the ideology during the Revolution and also proved its most successful political practitioner afterwards. This republican ideology had intellectual precursors in England: John Locke’s social-compact philosophy and the writings of the eighteenth-century “commonwealthmen” who traced
40. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States (Washington, 1975), I, 19.
41. Larkin, Reshaping Everyday Life, 75–76; Donald Wright, African Americans in the Early Republic (Arlington Heights, Ill., 1993), 68–70; Laurel Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale (New York, 1990).
their lineage to the English Puritan Revolution. Although historians have pointed out intellectual differences between Locke and the commonwealthmen, Americans of Jefferson’s generation were interested in what they had in common: their defense of liberty. Besides asserting individual rights and equality, Jefferson’s republican ideology celebrated popular virtue and free enterprise, in religion and politics as well as in economic undertakings; it expressed deep suspicion of pretensions to power and privilege.42
This was not a relaxed, hedonistic, refined, or indulgent society. Formal education and family connections counted for comparatively little. The man who got ahead in often primitive conditions did so by means of innate ability, hard work, luck, and sheer willpower. Disciplined himself, he knew how to impose discipline on his family, employees, and slaves. Impatient of direction, he took pride in his personal accomplishments. An important component of his drive to succeed was a willingness— surprising among agrarian people—to innovate and take risks, to try new methods and locations. With an outlook more entrepreneurial than peasant, the American farmer sought to engross more land than he could cultivate in hopes that its value would rise as other settlers arrived.43
For most white men, this proud, willful independence derived from having one’s own land. However, one did not actually have to operate a family farm to embrace such an outlook. Thinking of their tools and shop as the equivalent of a family farm, artisans appropriated the yeoman outlook to themselves. So did planters using slave labor, for they did not apply the rights they claimed for themselves to people of other races. Indeed, slaveowning planters like Jefferson wrote the most learned expositions of the yeoman ideology and exploited it most successfully in their political leadership.
Although independent of higher classes of persons, the American husbandman remained dependent upon nature. This dependence he from time to time acknowledged to God; more often, his wife acknowledged it. The earthquakes centered along the New Madrid Fault in Missouri during the winter of 1811–12, the greatest ever recorded in North America, provoked religious revivals. The prevailing versions of Protestantism preached a stern morality and self-control. Such austere religion did not
42. The secondary literature on this subject is enormous. See James Kloppenberg, “The Virtues of Liberalism,” JAH 74 (1987): 9–33; Joyce Appleby, Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination (Cambridge, Mass., 1992).
43. For portrayals of this outlook, see Jon Butler, Becoming America (Cambridge, Mass., 2000); Joyce Appleby, Inheriting the Revolution (Cambridge, Mass., 2000).
foster the traditional high arts of music, painting, and sculpture. It did foster literacy for Bible-reading, broad participation in decision-making, and a sense of equality among the lay members. “Membership” in a church, however, was often a closely guarded privilege, and many more people attended services than attained full membership. The characteristic American religious harvest festival, Thanksgiving Day, spread from New England, where it had been observed since colonial times, to other parts of the young republic. (On the other hand, most Protestants shunned celebrating Christmas as a Catholic corruption of Christianity.)44
Their respect for religious tradition reminds us that these Americans displayed less individualism in their culture than they did in their economic activity. Although separate conjugal families each operated their own farm, most people thought of themselves as members of a local community. They usually lived in communities with others of their own background. Euro-Americans already represented a variety of such backgrounds, the Mid-Atlantic states being especially diverse, including substantial Dutch, German, and Swedish minorities. Highland Scots sometimes still spoke Gaelic upon arrival; Germans perpetuated their language for generations in their well-defined enclaves. Immigrants from Ireland, usually Ulster Presbyterians in this period, often settled in remote Appalachian places because earlier arrivals had claimed the more favorable locations. (Though later termed “Scots-Irish,” at this time they more commonly called themselves Irish Protestants.) In areas dominated by whites, the remaining Native Americans typically lived in villages of their own. Besides ethnicity, religion constituted a common tie binding local communities. Quakers and Baptists wanted to live where they could worship with others of their persuasion. In New England, descendants of the seventeenth-century Puritans still predominated, their distinctive villages centered on a “green” and a Congregational meetinghouse. These were the people properly called “Yankees,” a term that southerners would come to apply to all northerners, and foreigners to all Americans.45
Besides the minister, the local community also supplied other occupational specialists like the blacksmith, the storekeeper, and the miller. In some places it might also provide common pastureland and a school.
44. James Penick, The New Madrid Earthquakes (Columbia, Mo., 1976); Malcolm Rohrbough, The Trans-Appalachian Frontier (New York, 1978), 152; Nylander, Our Own Snug Fireside, 261–76.
45. Donald Akenson, The Irish Diaspora (Toronto, 1996), 253–54; Edward Grabb, Douglas Baer, and James Curtis, “The Origins of American Individualism,” Canadian Journal of Sociology 24 (1999): 511–533.
Neighbors bartered with each other and joined in occasional collective efforts like barn raising or corn husking. Their willingness to come to the rescue (if, say, a building caught fire) supplied a primitive kind of insurance. Institutions of local government generally approximated a freeholders’ democracy—explicitly so, in New England town meetings. But within the small communities, consensus appeared more often than divisions of opinion. Local pressures to conformity of opinion were substantial. Ordinary people usually regarded outsiders with suspicion, especially those with pretensions to elite status.46
For all the political liberty that American institutions and ideology promised to adult white men, in practical terms most lives were disciplined and limited by the economic necessities of a harsh environment and the cultural constraints of a small community. Instead of “freedom” from demands, it might be more accurate to think of the American husbandman as possessing “agency,” that is, the ability to act purposefully in the service of goals. The goals might come from family, community, religion, or personal ambition.47
In the America of 1815, a network of unpaved short roads connected family farms with nearby towns or docks on navigable streams. Seldom more than rutted trails, littered with boulders and tree stumps, these “country roads” were muddy when it rained, dusty when dry, and frequently impassable. Local authorities supposedly drafted neighboring farmers to work on the roads during the agricultural slack seasons. Such grudging labor under inexpert direction did not maintain the roads beyond the barest minimum. While these pathways permitted farm produce to be hauled a few miles to a local market or place of storage, they were hopeless for extended journeys. Most long-distance travel and commerce went by water, which explains why most cities were seaports—Cincinnati on the Ohio River and St. Louis on the Mississippi being notable exceptions. To transport a ton of goods by wagon to a port city from thirty miles inland typically cost nine dollars in 1815; for the same price the goods could be shipped three thousand miles across the ocean.48
46. There are many fine studies of particular communities. Examples include John Brooke, The Heart of the Commonwealth (New York, 1990); John Faragher, Sugar Creek (New Haven, 1986); Randolph Roth, The Democratic Dilemma (Cambridge, Eng., 1987); Robert Gross, “Agriculture and Society in Thoreau’s Concord,” JAH 69 (1982): 42–61.
47. An idea explored more fully in James Block, A Nation of Agents (Cambridge, Mass., 2002).
48. George Rogers Taylor, The Transportation Revolution (New York, 1951), 15–17, 132–33.
Though peace came to the Atlantic world in 1815, distance remained for Americans “the first enemy,” as it had been for inhabitants of the Mediterranean world of the sixteenth century.49 If distance is expressed in terms of time of travel, the country was far larger then than now. To get from New York City to Cincinnati on the other side of the Appalachians took nineteen days in 1817. Travel over water was always faster; sailing along the coast, one could get from New York to Charleston in eight days.50 During the war, the British blockade had cut off the coastal traffic, forcing Americans to rely on difficult overland routes. Slow travel restricted communication as well as commerce, making it difficult to receive news, control armies in the field from Washington, or organize a timely protest against a government action.
The distribution of population reflected the existing realities of transportation and communication. Most Americans lived not far from the coast. Of the 7.23 million people counted in the third census, taken in August 1810, only about 1 million lived in the new states and territories west of the Appalachians. The mean center of population was located in Loudoun County, Virginia, forty miles from Washington, D.C.51 Extensive American settlement in the continental interior awaited improvements in transportation, both to get the people in and to get their products out. Improvements in communication had perhaps even more far-reaching consequences. For example, they would greatly facilitate the development of mass political parties in the coming years. It is no accident that so many leaders of these parties would be newspapermen, or that the largest source of political party patronage came from the Post Office.52
The “frontier” in 1815 was not so much a specific line on a map as any area where it was hard to get produce to market. In such a place, economic self-sufficiency was involuntary, forced upon the settlers. They had traded consumer civilization for land, but they did not want the trade-off to be permanent. With few exceptions, westward migrants worked impatiently to liberate themselves from the oppression of isolation. The exceptions to
49. The apt term of the great French historian Fernand Braudel, in The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, trans. Sian Reynolds (New York, 1976), I, 355.
50. Menahem Blondheim, News over the Wires (Cambridge, Mass., 1994), 11, 17.
51. The mean center of population has moved westward with every decade’s census. In 1980 it crossed the Mississippi River. http://www.census.gov/geo/www/cenpop/meanctr.pdf (viewed Feb. 23, 2007).
52. See Richard John, Spreading the News (Cambridge, Mass., 1995) and Richard Brown, Knowledge Is Power (New York, 1989).
the rule consisted of religious communities like the Pennsylvania Amish, who deliberately insulated themselves from the outside world, and some people, mainly in the milder climate of the South, who seem to have preferred subsistence to market farming as a way of life. Historians now realize that there were fewer of the latter than they once thought. Even farmers in the remote southern piney woods raised cattle and hogs for market.53
The simple methods of agriculture limited the number of people the land would support. As a result, explosive population growth prompted migration inland. From the standpoint of the United States as a nation, this westward movement brought expansion and increased power. But from the standpoint of the individuals involved, westward migration did not necessarily constitute a success story. It might well reflect a disappointment in the East, the crop failures of 1816 being the most dramatic example. Often soil exhaustion prompted a move. A Virginian complained in 1818, “Our woods have disappeared and are succeeded, too generally, by exhausted fields and gullied hills.”54 A large landowner could allow some fields to lie fallow until they recovered fertility; a small-holder could not. For him, a move west constituted a resurgence of hope. Families usually stayed in the same general latitude when they moved, so they could keep their accustomed farming practices and use their seed crops. But sometimes farm families would fail and move repeatedly in a recurring cycle of hope and despair. Moving entailed risk. For the first few years in a new location, the family’s living standard would probably fall. Unless they simply “squatted” on land they didn’t own, the family might well have to borrow money to pay for their new land. People lacking the requisite ambition or access to credit might end up as tenant farmers or, if unmarried, look for wage work.55
Unfortunately, although farm families moved west in hope of a better life, in these early years their migration often took them farther away from access to markets, toward less rewarding forms of agriculture, and intoconflict
53. Jeremy Atack et al., “The Farm, the Farmer, and the Market,” in Cambridge Economic History of the United States, ed. Stanley Engerman and Robert Gallman (Cambridge, Eng., 2000), II, 245–84; Bradley Bond, “Herders, Farmers, and Markets on the Inner Frontier,” in Plain Folk of the South Revisited, ed. Samuel Hyde Jr. (Baton Rouge, 1997), 73–99.
54. Quoted in Stoll, Larding the Lean Earth, vii.
55. See Alan Taylor, “Land and Liberty on the Post-Revolutionary Frontier,” in Devising Liberty, ed. David Konig (Stanford, 1995), 81–108; Richard Steckel, “The Economic Foundations of East-West Migration During the 19th Century,” Explorations in Economic History 20 (1983): 14–36.
with the Native peoples. In fact, once on the frontier, white settlers did not always pursue a way of life strikingly different from their Indian neighbors’; both mixed agriculture with hunting. In the Old Southwest, both whites and Indians raised a lot of cattle to sell for their hides and tallow, more practical to ship a long way than unrefrigerated beef. All too often both peoples succumbed to alcohol abuse. In sum, the agricultural economy of 1815 contained no necessary tendency toward economic development or diversification. Instead, the westward movement tended to perpetuate a dispersed population practicing relatively primitive agricultural methods.56
The United States in 1815 resembled the economically developing countries of today in many ways: high birthrate, rapid population growth, most people being in the agricultural sector, and surplus rural population migrating in quest of a livelihood. Poor transportation meant that many farms in the hinterland operated only just above subsistence level. As usual in such countries, communication was slow; infectious disease was prevalent; conflicts among ethnoreligious communities sometimes became violent. Save in New England, free public education represented the exception rather than the rule. Like developing countries generally, the United States needed to import manufactured goods and paid for them with agricultural staples and the export of raw materials like timber, tar, and fur. Over the next three decades the United States would confront many issues common in developing countries: how to attract or mobilize investment capital; how to provide municipal services (police, water, fire protection, public health) for the suddenly growing cities; how to create and fund a system of public education capable of delivering mass literacy; how to combine industrialization with decent labor conditions and hours of employment; how to arbitrate disputes between indigenous peoples and white settlers intent on expropriating them. Realizing the hopes of America’s family farmers and the transformation of their underdeveloped country awaited the coming of trade, transportation, and communication. With them, everyday life would improve significantly both for those agriculturalists who could get more produce to market and for the growing number of townsfolk who bought that produce. For the very poor and for those enslaved, however, little would change.
56. Christopher Clark, “Rural America and the Transition to Capitalism,” JER 16 (1996): 223–36; Elliott West, “American Frontier,” in The Oxford History of the American West, ed. Clyde Milner et al. (New York, 1994), 114–49; Forrest McDonald and Grady McWhiney, “The Antebellum Southern Herdsman,” Journal of Southern History 41 (1975): 147–66.
Aaron Fuller of Massachusetts had reason to worry about the future. He had not yet established himself in farming (or any other career), and his wife had just died, leaving him with four small children. In September 1818, Fuller wrote out an account of “The Life I should like.” He hoped someday to own a “mercantile business,” large enough to “employ two faithful clerks.” He also hoped to farm “about fifty Acres of Good Land,” not only for economic reasons but also because agriculture was “of the greatest importance to the whole human family—it supports life & health.” Fuller hoped that his business and farm would keep him out of debt but not bring in so much income that he forgot to “use economy” or became “slothfull & indolent.” His vision of happiness hinged, he realized, on finding the right wife—“a partner,” “affectionate,” “prudent,” and a good cook. Aaron Fuller’s dream came true. Within two years he had remarried, to Fanny Negus, who took good care of his four children and bore him seven more in the course of their twenty-five years together. The two of them operated a bakery, an inn, and a farm in the Connecticut River valley that sold livestock, cranberries, corn, and dairy products. The historian Catherine Kelly offers their partnership as an example of “companionate marriage,” both emotionally fulfilling and economically productive.57
Aaron Fuller’s dream was the typical American dream of his generation, though it did not come true for everyone. A family farm offered the key to a life of “virtue”—a word then used to mean wholesome, productive, public-spirited independence. What made for independence in this sense was not literal economic self-sufficiency but self-employment, heading a household of one’s own, and owning real estate in fee simple, clear of mortgage indebtedness. Aaron Fuller’s linking of agrarian virtue with small-scale commercial endeavor was not unusual. When Alexis de Tocqueville visited from France in 1831, he noticed that “almost all farmers of the United States combine some trade with agriculture; most of them make agriculture itself a trade.” As early as 1790 the Jeffersonian Albert Gallatin, an astute economic observer, had remarked: “You will scarcely find a farmer who is not, in some degree, a trader.”58 Farming certainly had its commercial aspect. If a farmer could market a good crop
57. Catherine Kelly, In the New England Fashion: Reshaping Women’s Lives in the Nineteenth Century (Ithaca, N.Y., 1999), 93–98, discusses and quotes from Fuller’s manuscript.
58. Tocqueville, Democracy in America, II, 157; Gallatin is quoted in Bruce Mann, Republic of Debtors (Cambridge, Mass., 2000), 209.
and get a merchant’s “bill of exchange” in return, he might clear his account with the storekeeper and have enough left to invest in one of the recently invented agricultural implements, like a steel plow. Demand generated by prosperous farmers helped encourage the new industries of New England.59 Still, as Aaron Fuller’s manuscript indicates, many family farmers aspired to competence rather than wealth.
The synthesis of agriculture and commerce such as Aaron and Fanny Fuller practiced had profound cultural as well as economic consequences in the early nineteenth-century United States. The way they and others succeeded in realizing their vision of the good life strengthened their purposefulness and reinforced the dignity of their labor and thrift. The availability of such opportunities on a relatively wide scale fostered individual autonomy, even within the family, weakening patriarchal traditions and encouraging sons and daughters to strike out on their own. Like the early-modern European advocates of free enterprise, Americans of the Fullers’ generation thought of their economic careers as making a moral and political statement on behalf of freedom. Despite the continued exclusion of women from the “public sphere” of politics, wives laid (a modest) claim to the gratitude of the commonwealth, for were they not “republican mothers,” responsible for rearing future citizens?60 It is no accident that the word “liberalism” came to have both an economic and a political meaning—although our generation often finds this a confusing ambiguity. In early nineteenth-century America, economic development in regions such as southern New England, western New York and Pennsylvania, or Ohio was associated with the appearance of social reform movements.61
The woman of the house often led the way in establishing commercial contact with the wider world beyond the local community, through her desire to introduce amenities into the rustic simplicity of her home. From the peddlers who called with increasing frequency over the years, she could purchase a clock for the mantel, a second book to go with the Bible, and even porcelain cups. The traveling artisan could make furniture better than
59. Naomi Lamoreaux, “Rethinking the Transition to Capitalism in the Early American Northeast,” JAH 90 (2003): 437–61; David R. Meyer, Roots of American Industrialization (Baltimore, 2003), 11, 34–36.
60. Linda Kerber, Women of the Republic (Chapel Hill, 1980), 199–200, 228–31, 283–88; Mary Beth Norton, Liberty’s Daughters (Ithaca, N.Y., 1980), 228–35, 247–50.
61. See Joyce Appleby, “The Vexed Story of Capitalism Told by American Historians,” JER 21 (2001): 1–18; Thomas Haskell, “Capitalism and the Origins of the Humanitarian Sensibility,” in The Antislavery Debate: Capitalism and Abolitionism, ed. Thomas Bender (Berkeley, 1992), 107–60.
her husband’s best efforts. She might have earned the money to pay for these things herself, with “put out” work. So, despite occasional reproaches from neighbors that she was introducing unbecoming “luxuries,” she initiated the democratization of refinement. Sometimes her husband resisted. The famous itinerant preacher Peter Cartwright remembered how, in the 1820s, he had to urge a Methodist layman to spend some of his savings on furnishing his primitive cabin, so as to “give your wife and daughters a chance” at a decent life.62 More often the husband cooperated in improving the family’s standard of living. After all, if he could be addressed as a “gentleman,” should not his home reflect gentility? A successful yeoman family looked forward to dividing the downstairs into two rooms (one of them bravely named “the parlor”) and adding a full upstairs, perhaps with additional fireplaces and chimneys. In warm climates, a prosperous family would build a separate structure for cooking, to keep from overheating the main house. A few even had their portraits painted by itinerant artists.63
Many of the items in the peddler’s pack or on the storekeeper’s shelves came from overseas: “dry goods” (that is, textiles of wool, linen, and silk), “wet goods” (wine, gin, brandy, and rum), household hardware, cutlery, firearms, tools, and the aptly named China-ware. Besides manufactured products such as these, the United States also imported unfinished iron, citrus fruits, coffee, tea, and cocoa. Even prior to independence, American consumers had played an important role in the economy of the British Empire, which has been called “an empire of goods.” The colonists employed for political advantage the leverage this provided them. Before having recourse to arms, they famously collaborated to boycott British imports as a way of protesting against parliamentary taxation.64 More recently, when the Jefferson administration had embargoed all overseas trade, the impact on the American economy had been very serious. Americans paid for their imports with exports that included wheat, tobacco, rice, lumber, “naval stores” (turpentine, tar, and tall pines for ships’ masts), animal hides and pelts—and, by 1815, cotton. Indeed, all the countries bordering on the Atlantic had long been integrated by a complex network of trade routes that, despite the efforts of
62. Allan Kulikoff, Agrarian Origins of American Capitalism (Charlottesville, Va., 1992), 49; Peter Cartwright, Autobiography, ed. Charles Wallis (1856; New York, 1956), 169–70.
63. David Jaffee, “Peddlers of Progress,” JAH 78 (1991): 511–35. More generally, see Richard Bushman, The Refinement of America (New York, 1992); John Crowley, The Invention of Comfort (Baltimore, 2001).
64. See T. H. Breen, The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (New York, 2004).
metropolitan governments, often broke the bonds of the mercantile systems of the rival empires. The coming of peace to the Atlantic world in 1815 found the British and French Empires greatly diminished, the Spanish and Portuguese Empires in the final stages of disintegration. International commerce consequently expanded in response to increased freedom of the seas, and so did the opportunities for American agricultural producers to find markets abroad.
Ocean travel was easier than overland travel, and ocean commerce far greater in scope. People had been crossing the Atlantic regularly for more than three hundred years; no one crossed the North American continent above Mexico until Sir Alexander Mackenzie’s Canadian expedition in 1793–94; the only Americans to have done so in 1815 were the veterans of Lewis and Clark’s expedition of 1805–6. A typical ocean crossing from New York to Liverpool took three or four weeks, but the westward voyage, against prevailing winds and currents, took anywhere from five to eight or even more. (The news that might have prevented the War of 1812 and that which would have prevented the Battle of New Orleans were both carried in westward crossings.) These times had not improved since the middle of the eighteenth century.65
New England Yankees made themselves one of the world’s great seafaring peoples; they had already traveled around Cape Horn and across the Pacific to open the China trade. They had a remarkable amount in common with the Dutch—another seagoing, predominantly Calvinist people who combined agriculture with commerce, practiced religious toleration, and had no compunction about subjugating native populations. Seaport Americans earned livings not only as merchant sailors but also as fishermen, whalers, and shipwrights. North Atlantic cod flourished in vast numbers off the coasts of Newfoundland, Labrador, Nova Scotia, and New England. The fish could be preserved by drying, for even longer by salting. Yankee men who had not secured land to farm or had spare time on their hands in winter could go out on the fishing boats. In colonial times cod became one of America’s important exports, to Europe and to the West Indies. But after the Revolution London clamped down on American rights to fish off the Canadian shore and to sell in the British West Indies. Both would be the subject of diplomatic negotiations after 1815. In the meantime, Yankee fishermen contrived to expand their domestic market.66
65. Ian Steele, The English Atlantic: An Exploration of Communication and Community (New York, 1986), 273–75; Robert Albion, The Rise of New York Port (New York, 1939), 51.
66. Daniel Vickers, Farmers and Fishermen (Chapel Hill, 1994), 263–85; Mark Kurlansky, Cod (New York, 1997), 78–102.
Until 1815, Americans looked principally eastward, toward the Atlantic and Europe. The Battle of New Orleans encouraged them to face westward toward the continent—but not exclusively: They still needed frequently to glance back over their shoulders, toward the ocean that continued to bring them goods, additional people, and new ideas. Atlantic crossing times and costs would both fall steadily over the next thirty-five years and for the rest of the century, integrating commodity markets, even on the North American frontier, in an early example of what our own era calls “globalization.”67
Native Americans showed as much willingness as white people to participate in the market economy. Their aptitude for commerce gave rise to one of the fastest-growing “industries” of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: the fur trade. Tribes all over North America participated, trapping beaver, hunting buffalo, and catching sea otters to sell into what was truly a global market. When the Old Northwest around the Great Lakes ceased to be a “middle ground,” the New Northwest on the Pacific Coast took its place, with Americans, British, and Russians all competing to obtain beaver and sea otter furs. Furs from Oregon sold in China, Hawaii, South America, and Europe. No longer do historians believe that white traders laughingly obtained these pelts for a few trifling beads. On the contrary, Native people drove shrewd bargains and received items of use and value to them—even though, in the Pacific Northwest, they sometimes destroyed their profits in spectacular potlatches to win prestige. Among other benefits, the fur trade promoted peace on the frontier. Nevertheless, it proved but a mixed blessing to the Indians, for it not only depleted their ecological resources but spread unfamiliar diseases, including dependency on alcohol, a favorite item of their purchase.68
Enthusiasm for the fur trade prompted the most powerful tribes of the Great Plains to conclude a peace agreement with each other in 1840 so they could concentrate on lucrative buffalo hunting instead of warfare. By that time they hunted buffalo not primarily for their own consumption but in order to sell the hides and robes to white traders. Serious over-hunting resulted. Meanwhile, the Indians’ new herds of domesticated horses competed with the buffalo for grasslands and sheltered winter
67. See Kevin O’Rourke and Jeffrey Williamson, Globalization and History: The Evolution of a Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Economy (Cambridge, Mass., 1999).
68. James Axtell, “The First Consumer Revolution,” in his Natives and Newcomers (New York, 2001), 104–20; Robin Fisher, “The Northwest from the Beginning of Trade with Europeans to the 1880s,” in Trigger and Washburn, Cambridge History of Native Peoples: North America, pt. 2, 117–82. See also Daniel Richter, “A Quaker Construction of Indianness,” JER 19 (1999): 601–28.
habitats. So did the animals with the wagon trains of white settlers crossing the Plains to Utah, Oregon, and California. The great bison herds had begun to diminish even before “Buffalo Bill” Cody and his fellow white hunters slaughtered meat for the workers on the transcontinental railroad. Despite the mythology of “noble savages” in harmony with nature, in fact Native Americans collaborated with whites in altering their environment and depleting its resources.69
Whites involved in the fur trade followed the examples, sometimes the actual leadership, of French Canadians who had been involved in the enterprise since long before Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase. Besides buying pelts, whites also trapped beaver on their own. Starting in 1825, the firm of William H. Ashley paid salaries to keep white trapper-traders in the wilderness the year round, departing from the depot-based practice of its British rival, the Hudson’s Bay Company. Other “mountain men” worked as free agents or on shares for their creditors. These white men often married Native women, who contributed valuable knowledge as contacts, guides, and interpreters. All would hold an annual rendezvous with each other and traders from many Indian tribes to pool their catches. The trade in beaver furs declined after about 1840, as beaver became harder to find and the fashion for men’s fur hats passed.70
After the proclamation of Mexican independence in 1821, the old Spanish mercantile restrictions on trade with foreigners came to an end. Now, nuevomexicanos could exchange Mexican silver, livestock, and beaver pelts for U.S. cotton textiles and manufactured goods. Traders opened up communication between the western United States and the north of Mexico. Entrepreneurial Mexicans journeyed as far north as Council Bluffs, Iowa, in search of commercial opportunities. The Santa Fe Trail they and their American counterparts followed between New Mexico and St. Louis was surveyed and marked by the U.S. federal government as far as the international border, though no actual roadway was ever laid. In 1833, Bent’s Fort in what is now southeastern Colorado began to facilitate commerce among Americans, Mexicans, and the Indian tribes of the southern Plains; it became “the capital of the southern fur trade.”71
69. Andrew Isenberg, The Destruction of the Bison (Cambridge, Eng., 2000); Elliott West, The Way to the West (Albuquerque, N.M., 1995), 53–83; Dan Flores, “Bison Ecology and Bison Diplomacy,” JAH 78 (1991): 465–85.
70. David Wishart, The Fur Trade of the American West (Lincoln, Neb., 1979); William Goetzmann, New Lands, New Men (New York, 1986), 127–45.
71. Howard Lamar, The Far Southwest (New York, 1970), 46–55, quotation from 46; David Dary, The Santa Fe Trail (New York, 2000), 55–106; Stephen Hyslop, Bound for Santa Fe (Norman, Okla., 2002), 47–50.
During its height in the 1820s and ’30s, the beaver fur trade added greatly to whites’ knowledge of North American geography. The mountain men’s commercially motivated expeditions revealed valuable information about the Rocky Mountains and practicable ways to cross them. The most extensive of the explorations of the American fur trade were those of Jedediah Smith. The fourth of twelve children born to a New Hampshire farming family, he went to work for Ashley’s fur company in 1821 at the age of twenty-two and retraced much of Lewis and Clark’s route up the Missouri in 1822–23. During his short life Smith proved himself a natural leader, an intrepid explorer, and a successful businessman. Taking his Bible and a few companions, this sober, religious young man laid out the route of the future Oregon Trail over South Pass in 1824 and explored the region of the Great Salt Lake. He traveled over the Mojave Desert to Mexican San Diego and returned as the first American (quite possibly the first person) to have crossed the Sierra Nevada and the Great Basin. The next year, he trekked overland a second time to California and thence up the coast by land to Oregon. Along the thousands of miles that he traveled without maps, he fought some Indians, traded with others, survived hunger, thirst, snowstorms, and floods, and got mauled by a grizzly. He successfully challenged the Hudson’s Bay Company in the fur business, and with two partners was able to buy out his employer Ashley in 1826. A rich man when he returned to St. Louis in 1830, Smith had seen more of the Rocky Mountain West than anyone else in his time— and more than most since. He decided to make a final expedition, to New Mexico, partly in order to complete a map of the Rockies he was drawing based on his own experiences. Along the Santa Fe Trail in May 1831, he rode by himself away from his well-equipped wagon train, to look for a water hole. He located the water hole, but so did a Comanche hunting party. When his nervous horse wheeled, they interpreted it as a hostile movement and opened fire. His body was never found.72
In 1815, Isabella, a slave girl of about seventeen living in Ulster County, New York, married Thomas, an older man who belonged, as she did, to the Dumont family. Over the next eleven years Isabella bore Thomas five children, in between stints of strenuous labor in the fields. New York had recognized the legality of marriages between slaves in 1809, meaning that now the couple and their children could not be sold apart from each other. Isabella herself had been sold away from her own parents at the age
72. Dale Morgan, Jedediah Smith and the Opening of the West (Indianapolis, 1953).
of nine for a hundred dollars, when their master died and his estate went up for auction. Isabella’s first owner had been a Dutch American, and the child’s first language was Dutch. Her next owner, an English-speaker, beat her for not comprehending his commands; her back bore the scars for the rest of her life. By 1810, she had been sold twice more (each owner realizing a profit on the transaction), ending up with the Dumonts.
The state of New York had adopted a program of gradual emancipation, decreeing that slaves born after the Fourth of July 1799 should become free at age twenty-eight (for males) or twenty-five (for females). This would allow the owner who bore the cost of rearing the children reimbursement with several of their prime working years. Isabella, having been born before the cutoff date, would remain in slavery for the rest of her life. But in 1817, the New York legislature sped up the emancipation process and decreed that on July 4, 1827, all remaining slaves, whenever born, should become free. Masters would receive no financial compensation from the state but did have one more decade to exploit their chattels’ unpaid labor. Shortly before the final emancipation took effect, Isabella’s five-year-old son was sold away from her, south to Alabama. This constituted a violation of New York law; the newly free Isabella took the remarkable step of suing for and obtaining the boy’s return, an act that set a pattern for her lifetime of resolute opposition to injustice.73
Having developed an active prayer life in childhood under the guidance of her mother, Isabella grew into a fervent “Holiness” Methodist. Once free, she left her husband (who may have been chosen for her by their owner) and became an itinerant preacher. She warned of the Second Coming of Christ and demanded the abolition of slavery throughout the nation. In 1843, she adopted the name Sojourner Truth, appropriate for a traveling herald of the Divine Word. Although illiterate, she spoke powerfully and dictated a financially successful autobiography. Five feet eleven inches tall, with dark skin and a muscular frame, Sojourner Truth commanded attention from an audience. Her resonant voice had a New York working-class accent that never lost traces of the Dutch.74
Of all the many aspects of the early-modern global economy, none was more infamous or more wide-ranging in its consequences than the Atlantic slave trade. Both Great Britain and the United States had passed
73. For the texts of the New York laws of 1799 and 1817, see Jim Crow New York, ed. David Gellman and David Quigley (New York, 2003), 52–55, 67–72.
74. For information on Isabella, I rely on Nell Painter, Sojourner Truth (New York, 1996); for Truth’s accent, 7–8. Reenactors usually portray her, inaccurately, with a southern accent.
legislation in 1807 outlawing the traffic, already notorious for its cruelty, though the Spanish and Portuguese colonies of Latin America still permitted it, and the French West Indies winked at it. The trade had its origins in the post-Columbian demographic catastrophe, which created a severe labor shortage in the New World. European colonizers filled their demand for cheap labor by importing people from Africa. These consisted primarily of prisoners captured in wars between West African nations, supplemented by convicts and victims of kidnapping. The captives would be transported to the coast and sold to Europeans who had secured permission from local rulers to operate trading posts called “factories.” From there they embarked on the horrific transoceanic “middle passage” to the Western Hemisphere. As of 1815, more people had traveled to the New World from Africa via the slave trade than had come from Europe.75
In the United States, depopulation of the Native inhabitants left land inexpensive and widely available once British limitations on westward migration had been removed. Most free people preferred to secure a farm of their own rather than work on someone else’s land. Accordingly, large landowners had imported unfree laborers, first indentured Europeans and then enslaved Africans. Wars in North America, like those in West Africa, also produced captives to enslave, but not in great numbers. Ironically, America’s free land had promoted slavery—for much the same reason that the plentiful lands of Russia promoted serf-dom.76
In 1815, of about 8.4 million people in the United States, almost 1.4 million were held in hereditary slavery, the personal property of their owners. During the colonial period, slavery had been legal in all the future United States, and challenges to its moral legitimacy were rare. But the Revolution popularized Enlightenment ideas, synthesized them with elements of Christianity, and summed them up in the affirmation that “all men are created equal,” in that all possess “unalienable rights.” By the early years of the nineteenth century, scarcely anyone outside the Deep South states of South Carolina and Georgia tried to justify slavery in
75. David Brion Davis, In the Image of God (New Haven, 2001), 64.
76. See Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade (New York, 1997); John Thornton, “The African Background to American Colonization,” in Engerman and Gallman, Cambridge Economic History of the United States, I, 53–94; Juliana Barr, “From Captives to Slaves: Commodifying Indian Women in the Borderlands,” JAH 92 (2005): 19–46; Evsey Dornar, “The Causes of Slavery or Serfdom,” Journal of Economic History 30 (1970): 18–32.
principle. Public opinion in 1815 generally held the institution a regrettable evil, contrary to both Christianity and natural rights. However, in places with large African American populations, the whites worried that general emancipation would jeopardize white supremacy and threaten insurrection, and even where the black population was small, whites worried that freed people might become public charges. Nowhere were whites willing to be taxed to pay compensation to owners for freeing their slaves.
The legal regulation of slavery had been reserved to the states by the Constitution of 1787, and most Americans seem to have assumed that the several states would eventually find ways to eliminate the institution without undue difficulty. Pennsylvania and the New England states, where slavery had never been economically important, had abolished it, either suddenly or gradually, during the Revolution. Thousands also gained their own freedom then, escaping to the British army and sailing to other parts of the empire. Some black men had joined the rebel armed forces too, but in the South they were seldom welcomed as recruits. The Continental Congress prohibited slavery in the Northwest Territory in 1787, so when Ohio was admitted to the Union in 1803 it came in as a free state. New York and New Jersey, having more slaves, had waited until 1799 and 1804 respectively to start their gradual emancipations. According to the census of 1810 they still had twenty-six thousand enslaved residents. New Jersey’s process unfolded so slowly that the state contained a few hundred slaves as late as the 1840s. Isabella’s little boy was far from the only person illegally sold out of state during these long transition periods; kidnappers as well as unscrupulous masters committed that crime.77
The same ideological impulses that prompted northern state emancipations had prompted in the South extensive voluntary manumissions by individual masters, especially in Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. Reinforcing the appeal of liberty, it must be noted, was the depressed market for tobacco in the 1780s and ’90s. Many planters in the Chesapeake region had not yet identified a profitable alternative and found themselves owning more slaves than they knew what to do with. (“I have more working Negros,” complained George Washington, “than can be employed to any advantage in the farming system.”) Those who manumitted significant
77. Arthur Zilversmit, The First Emancipation: The Abolition of Slavery in the North (Chicago, 1967); James Horton and Lois Horton, In Hope of Liberty (New York, 1997), 55–76; Joannne Melish, Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation in New England (Ithaca, N.Y., 1998), 101–7.
numbers included Washington himself and one of the largest slaveholders in Virginia, Robert Carter III.78
By 1815, this first wave of state and individual acts of liberation had largely run its course. Some Chesapeake planters had learned how to put slaves to work growing wheat instead of tobacco. Others sold slaves westward, from the Tidewater to the Piedmont or Kentucky. Delaware undertook no state emancipation program, even though it contained a mere four thousand slaves, three-quarters of its black population being already free. Some Virginians got worried about the number of free blacks in the commonwealth and secured a law requiring any slaves liberated in the future to leave the state. Most disturbing, the shipment of slaves from the existing states into the Louisiana Purchase had been permitted despite a strong effort led by Connecticut senator James Hillhouse to legislate against it. As a result many thousands had been sent off in bondage to Louisiana, even before its admission as a state, to grow sugarcane there.79 Nevertheless, the line between “free” and “slave” states was not yet sharply drawn in 1815. There were many freedpeople in Virginia, many still enslaved in New York. Hardly anyone would have predicted that no more states would undertake emancipation. For the time being, it seemed as if events could move in either a pro- or an antislavery direction, depending on political decisions.
Meanwhile, in the cities, owners often allowed slaves to “hire their own time” in return for a percentage of their earnings. After a number of years of this, bondsmen might save up enough to buy their freedom and that of their family members. By 1830, four-fifths of Baltimore’s black inhabitants were legally free. In the other metropolis of the South, New Orleans, the free proportion was two-fifths. In all American cities, slavery declined. Urban life proved less congenial to slavery than rural largely because masters found it difficult to control every aspect of the slave’s life in the city. Urban slaves were far more likely to make successful escapes. The shrewdest contemporaries came to regard the growth of cities as one of the factors undermining the persistence of slavery.80
78. Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (Cambridge, Mass., 1998), 262–85, quotation from 264. Washington manumitted 124 in his will; Carter manumitted 509. Gary Nash, The Forgotten Fifth: African Americans in the Age of Revolution (Cambridge, Mass., 2006), 66, 104–05.
79. Roger Kennedy, Mr. Jefferson’s Lost Cause (New York, 2003), 210–16; Adam Rothman, Slave Country (Cambridge, Mass., 2005), 31–35.
80. T. Stephen Whitman, The Price of Freedom: Slavery and Manumission in Baltimore (Lexington, Ky., 1997), 1; John Ashworth, Slavery, Capitalism, and Politics in the Antebellum Republic (Cambridge, Eng., 1995), I, 101–8; Richard Wade, Slavery in the Cities (New York, 1964), 243–81.
The combination of state and individual liberations had given the United States a substantial population of free African Americans— approximately 200,000 by 1815. (Actually, more had been freed by individuals—generous masters, courageous escapees, or thrifty self-purchasers—than by state laws.) The large majority of “free Negroes” both North and South lived in cities, where they worked mostly in service occupations. Ironically, emancipated black workers sometimes found themselves excluded from skilled jobs that they had performed in slavery. In the ports, many went to sea: Twenty percent of the sailors in the U.S. merchant and whaling fleets were black.81 (Herman Melville would celebrate the racial diversity of the ship’s crew in Moby-Dick.) The urban African American communities provided their enslaved neighbors both an example of life in freedom and a haven where they might escape and find shelter. Generally excluded from Independence Day celebrations on July 4, the free black communities celebrated historical festivals of their own, observing the abolition of the slave trade, emancipation in New York, and (beginning in 1834) the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies. These communities provided the core audience for antislavery crusaders like Sojourner Truth and her co-workers of both races. Congregations like the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Zion, where Truth worshipped in New York City, became centers of black autonomy. Self-consciously respectable community leaders, often clergymen or businessmen, defended black rights to those outside and preached to those inside the virtues of literacy, hard work, and thrift—both for their own sake and to rebut white racial slurs.82
Sojourner Truth was a tall, strong woman, and the statistics that have survived show black Americans, like white Americans, taller on average than their Old World counterparts. They also had a high birthrate that produced a natural increase of 2 percent per annum, almost as high as that of the white population. (Young Isabella was the last of her parents’ ten or twelve children.) Alone among New World slave societies, the enslaved population of the United States grew independent of importations from overseas. The rice and sugarcane areas of South Carolina and Louisiana, however, constituted exceptions. There severe working conditions and
81. Lois Horton, “From Class to Race in Early America,” JER 19 (1999): 631.
82. See Leslie Harris, In the Shadow of Slavery (Chicago, 2003); Gary Nash, Forging Freedom (Cambridge, Mass., 1988); Elizabeth Bethel, The Roots of African-American Identity (New York, 1997); Patrick Rael, “The Market Revolution and Market Values in Antebellum Black Protest Thought,” in Martin, Cultural Change and the Market Revolution, 13–45.
disease environments resembled those in the West Indies, and the slave population had to be replenished by purchases from elsewhere in the country.83
The key factor in explaining both the Atlantic slave trade and the perpetuation of slavery in the United States was profitability. In the South, when a yeoman farmer purchased his first slave it usually signaled a resolve to emphasize production for the market, that is, for profit as opposed to family subsistence. Had short-staple cotton not emerged in the years after 1815 as an extremely profitable employment for slave labor, finding a peaceful, acceptable resolution to the problem of emancipation might not have been so difficult. Economic historians, after prodigious research and argument, have come to general agreement that Americans who invested in slave property usually made a competitive return on their investment. A lively commerce in slaves, both local and interstate, sustained the economic efficiency and profitability of the slave system. During the period 1790 to 1860, some 3 million slaves changed ownership by sale, many of them several times. Almost all slaveowners bought or sold slaves at some point in their lives. Slave ownership was widely dispersed and yet concentrated: One southern white family in three owned at least one slave; one in eight owned at least twenty, and this one-eighth owned well over half of all the slaves. Many whites who did not own slaves expected to acquire them later in life, and in the meantime might rent their services on a short-term or long-term basis. Thus even nonslaveowners could feel a direct interest in slavery as a system. Prices of slaves eventually rose far above their 1815 levels, primarily because of the demand for slave labor in the cotton fields, bringing substantial capital gains to the owners of slaves and demonstrating broad confidence in the security of that form of investment. Slavery became so profitable, in fact, that it crowded out other forms of investment in the South. By 1850, data show southern planters disproportionately numerous among the wealthiest Americans.84
Slaves being human beings and not machines, and their masters more than “economic men,” the two sometimes related to each other as fellow
83. Robert Fogel, Without Consent or Contract (New York, 1989), graphs on 124, 141; Michael Tadman, “The Demographic Cost of Sugar,” AHR 105 (2000): 1534–75; William Dusinberre, Slavery in the American Rice Swamps (New York, 1996).
84. Steven Deyle, Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade (Oxford, 2005), 4–7; Stanley Engerman, “Slavery and Its Consequences for the South,” in Engerman and Gall-man, Cambridge Economic History of the United States, 219–66, esp. 343. For more data, see Fogel’s Without Consent or Contract and its three accompanying volumes of substantiating analysis.
humans. Such relationships most frequently developed between masters and house servants, occasionally between masters and the elite of trusted, skilled supervisors and artisans. Aristotle, who of course lived amidst the practice of slavery, observed that although masters used their slaves as living tools, it was also possible to have between masters and slaves a limited degree of friendship.85 Among slaveholding Americans, small children of both races played together. Masters took an interest in their slaves’ personal lives and probably did not often realize how frequently their meddling was resented. Slaves took an interest in their masters’ personal lives and probably knew more than they let on. Sometimes slaves pretended more affection for the occupants of “the big house” than they felt; sometimes the affection was sincerely reciprocal. Sojourner Truth fondly remembered her former master John Dumont for his “kindness of heart.” But close personal relationships could be unpleasant as well as pleasant; Truth also recalled the abuse she secretly suffered from her mistress Sally Dumont with discreet shame and loathing.86 And always the suspicion lurked that the master (or his teenage son) was taking sexual advantage of the women and girls whose bodies he owned. President Madison’s sister commented in disgust that “a planter’s wife is but the mistress of a seraglio.”87
The African Americans had been Christians since the mid-eighteenth-century religious revival known as “the Great Awakening.” Most states abolished the importation of African slaves well before the federal government’s prohibition took effect in 1808, so African American culture had been evolving on its own for several generations by 1815. The religion of the slaves could underwrite either accommodation or resistance to white authority, but in either case it inspired spiritual strength. Within the Christian tradition as both masters and slaves understood it, they were equal in the sight of God. Many southern churches counted people of both races as members and referred to them in their records alike, as “Sister” or “Brother.” Sometimes a common religion helped individuals bridge the gulf separating them. William Wells Brown, who escaped from slavery in 1834, acknowledged “the greatest respect” for the devout planter John Gaines. Many a master echoed the heartfelt wish of Rodah Horton
85. Politics 1255a–1255b, 1259b–1260b.
86. Narrative of Sojourner Truth, intro. William Kaufman (1850; Mineola, N.Y., 1997), 17, 12.
87. Quoted in George Dangerfield, The Era of Good Feelings (New York, 1952), 213. There is an excellent discussion of master-slave relations in Peter Kolchin, American Slavery (New York, 1993), 111–27.
when an aged slave died in 1836, that “she has gone to a better world I hope.” Preachers frequently urged masters to deal justly and mercifully with their slaves (who might be listening to the sermon too). Counteracting whatever tendencies existed toward human relationships between slaves and masters, however, was a substantial body of advice on plantation management discouraging intimacy and fraternization as inimical to discipline and efficiency.88
The apologetic attitude toward slavery, common around 1815, soon began to be challenged by a new justification for slavery: planter paternalism. In colonial times, masters had candidly and unflinchingly admitted that they owned slaves for profit and that the institution rested upon force. The notion of paternalism provided a framework for discussing slavery different from both naked self-interest and the violation of natural rights. Slaveowners, in response to moral criticism, sought to explain their relationship to “their people” as one of caring for those who could not look after themselves. Negroes as a race, they insisted, were childlike. Demeaning and offensive as this “domestic” attitude toward slavery was, it at least acknowledged that the slaves were human beings and not beasts of burden. Viewed objectively, paternalism seems less an overall characterization of American slavery than a rationalization on the part of the masters. If there is a kernel of truth in the paternalist legend it may be this: While the average slaveowner was forty-three, the average age of slaves was under eighteen.89
Paternalism never extended to include overseers hired by the master. They always had a reputation for cruelty, partly because masters blamed them for whatever went wrong, mostly because of the conflicting expectations placed upon them: to bring in as large a crop as possible, but with as little harm as possible to their employer’s valuable slave property. The reasonably good health of the enslaved population by standards of the day, evinced in their height and natural increase, can be attributed to a diet almost as nutritious as the one free farmers ate. Strong, healthy slaves reflected the conjunction of self-interest with paternalist responsibility on the master’s part. No one explained this better than the distinguished Virginia planter who admonished his overseer not to overwork “a breeding
88. Albert Raboteau, Slave Religion (New York, 1978), 317; John Boles, Masters and Slaves in the House of the Lord (Lexington, Ky., 1988), 2; James Oakes, The Ruling Race (New York, 1982), 114, 153–64.
89. Jeffrey Young, Domesticating Slavery (Chapel Hill, 1999), 133–40, 165–66; John Boles, The South Through Time (New York, 1995), 202. On the ages of masters and slaves, see Oakes, Ruling Race, 195–96.
woman” (his term) but to remember that her healthy baby was worth more money than her extra labor would represent—adding that “in this, as in all other cases, providence has made our interests & our duties coincide perfectly.”90
Almost half of all slaves lived on plantations with at least thirty others in their situation. In some ways, these slaves were relatively lucky. They had more privacy than an isolated enslaved individual or family could expect as the property of a white small farmer. They enjoyed more opportunities for social life and the nourishment of their own distinctive culture, music, and folktales. They had a better chance to find a marriage partner on their own plantation and thus avoid the inconveniences of having a spouse miles away whom they could only see on weekends. Masters of large plantations often allowed each slave nuclear family a garden of their own behind their living quarters; these could consist of several acres. Such slaves managed to engage in small-scale composite farming, supplementing their allotted rations, trading produce with their neighbors, even earning cash to spend on little luxuries. All such privileges were held, of course, on sufferance of their owners. But in their aspirations for a modicum of personal security, dignity, and tangible reward for hard work, enslaved American families resembled other American families.91
Not that slaves felt satisfied with the rewards available to them in their bondage. Some labored diligently for years to buy their own freedom, even though their master could legally take their money and break his promise. Slaves resisted their bondage in countless small ways; they malingered, damaged property, ran away, and in general matched wits with whoever supervised them. The master class labored under no illusions of black contentment. Masters insisted on “pass laws” for slaves found wandering and on “slave patrols” to enforce the laws. (White men were obligated to take a turn on these patrols even if they did not themselves own slaves.) The fear of insurrection haunted the white South; sometimes it is hard for historians to tell real slave conspiracies from ones the whites imagined. This fear profoundly affected all debates over slavery. Although they owned slaves in order to profit, American masters would not even consider a general emancipation in return for financial compensation, such as slaveowners received in the British West Indies in 1833. Most
90. Thomas Jefferson to Joel Yancey, Jan. 17, 1819, Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book, ed. Edwin Betts (Princeton, 1953), 43.
91. Kenneth Stampp, The Peculiar Institution (New York, 1956), 38; Larry Hudson Jr., To Have and to Hold: Slave Work and Family Life in Antebellum South Carolina (Athens, Ga., 1997), 177–84.
southern whites, whether they owned slaves or not, feared emancipation would invite black rebellion.92
Although united in their support for white supremacy, white southerners varied a great deal in other ways. Yeoman farmers lived much like yeoman farmers in the North, even if the prosperous ones had a slave family sleeping on the floor of the kitchen building. Landless whites lived worse, driven to the margins of the southern economy, taking jobs too temporary to justify an investment in slave labor. Because they moved so frequently, they found it hard to get the credit on which most forms of economic improvement depended and might resort to hunting, fishing, or squatting on public land. Recognizing the plight of wage labor in the South, few free immigrants chose to settle there. The middle class of the scattered towns (the South contained few cities) prayed in similar churches, voted for the same national politicians, and belonged to most of the same voluntary associations as their northern counterparts.93 The southern planter class, however, constituted a highly distinctive social group. Much of the romantic mythology surrounding them (even then) was fictional. Hardly ever descended from aristocratic European ancestors, the large slaveholders were modern, not medieval, in their sensibilities. Often parvenus, they operated at the very heart of the global market economy and ran their plantations with as much attention to efficient moneymaking as northern merchants showed for their ships and mills.94
As the historian Joyce Appleby has pointed out, the plantation owners were “the great consumers of the American economy,” with their big houses, their lavish hospitality, their horse races, and hordes of domestic servants.95 In their printed periodicals they read about attractive transatlantic concepts of “politeness” and good taste. The large planters, America’s wealthiest class, were in a position to acquire what others could only sample carefully. In a nation of austerity and thrift, they opted for extravagance, honor, and refinement. Like their exemplar Thomas Jefferson, many American plantation owners lived well and died broke. Americans of the twenty-first century may look back upon them as our precursors in some ways, for like them we too spend even more than our relatively high
92. Stampp, Peculiar Institution, 86–140; John Ashworth, Slavery, Capitalism, and Politics (Cambridge, Eng., 1995), I, 1–8.
93. Charles Bolton, Poor Whites of the Antebellum South (Durham, N.C., 1994), 23–24; Jonathan Wells, Origins of the Southern Middle Class (Chapel Hill, 2004).
94. Besides Fogel, Without Consent or Contract, see Lawrence Shore, Southern Capitalists (Chapel Hill, 1986), 11–15; William Scarborough, Masters of the Big House (Baton Rouge, 2003).
95. Joyce Appleby, Inheriting the Revolution (Cambridge, Mass., 2000), 59.
average incomes and slide more and more into debt to outside creditors (in their case, northerners and Europeans).
Their strong sense of common interest enabled the slaveowning planters to become the most politically powerful social group in the United States. They dominated southern state governments. The Constitution’s three-fifths rule (counting five of their slaves as three free persons) enhanced their representation in Congress and the electoral college. In 1815, they had held the presidency for twenty-two of the past twenty-six years, and they would control it for all but eight of the next thirty-four.96
Washington, D.C., presented a strange aspect in 1815. The ambitious design of the original city planner, Pierre L’Enfant, had been adopted but not implemented. The Capitol and the White House, monumental in design, looked incongruous in their muddy surroundings, their construction (with slave labor) set back years after the British army burned them in 1814. The community had no economic rationale save the government, but the government’s presence in the city remained slight; as a result Washington grew slowly and haphazardly. For decades to come, every visitor would be struck by the discrepancy between its grand ambitions and their limited realization. As late as 1842, Charles Dickens called it a “City of Magnificent Intentions.” Few government officials even lived the year round in Washington, its summers notoriously humid and unpleasant. During the months when Congress met in session (winter and spring), the members roomed together in boardinghouses, then fled back to their families, who had remained in their constituencies. The District of Columbia, like the United States as a whole, embodied big plans but remained mostly empty. America and its capital city lived for the future.97
In 1815, America was still more potential than realization. The Western world looked upon it as an example of what liberty could achieve for good or ill, but the experiment had not yet unfolded very far. The economy remained preindustrial, though its people’s outlook was innovative and ambitious. By 1848, a great deal of development had occurred, often in ways no one would have predicted. Between 1815 and 1848, the United States achieved gigantic expansion from the Atlantic to the Pacific, both in the extension of its sovereignty and in the actual movement of people
96. For more on the slaveholders’ political influence, see Robin Einhorn, American Taxation, American Slavery (Chicago, 2006).
97. John Mayfield, The New Nation, rev. ed. (New York, 1982), 3–5; James Young, The Washington Community (New York, 1966).
on the ground. The widespread participation of Americans in a global market economy had long since turned the Atlantic Ocean into a commercial highway; now, the innovations in transportation and communications would enable Americans to traverse and exploit the vast continent to their west as well. Their imperial ambitions brought them into conflict with the people already living athwart their path, Native Americans and Mexicans. Their ambitions also brought white Americans into disagreement with each other. What version of their society would be projected westward: an agricultural one, producing staples for export to the world, often by means of slave labor? Or the mixture of agriculture and commerce typified by the enterprise of Aaron and Fanny Fuller, producing for domestic consumers, some of them urban? Should America expand much as it already was, or should it be a reformed and improved America that rose to continental dominance and moral leadership?
In the years between 1815 and 1848, two rival political programs appeared, reflecting rival sets of hopes. Some Americans felt largely satisfied with their society the way it was, slavery and all, especially with the autonomy it provided to so many individual white men and their local communities. They wanted their familiar America extended across space. Other Americans, however, were beguiled by the prospect of improvement to pursue economic diversification and social reform, even at the risk of compromising some precious personal and local independence. They envisioned qualitative, not just quantitative, progress for America. In the long run, the choice was more than an economic decision; it was a moral one, as the tall, prophetic figure of Sojourner Truth, preaching the coming judgment like a latter-day John the Baptist, reminded her countrymen.