American Society in the Antebellum Period

The antebellum years in America were characterized by growing differences in the nature of northern and southern society. Following the invention of the cotton gin the southern economy was transformed into one of slave plantations for the production of cotton. That condition in the south led to a growing sense of alienation between that portion of the country and the northern areas. The fact that slavery still existed in 15 states was a huge factor in the difference between North and South, but the differences in the two economies led to secondary issues.

There is no escaping the fact is slavery was the overriding issue of contention between the two sections of the country. Opposition to slavery had begun to appear as early as the late 1600s, when certain religious groups expressed their disapproval of the institution. The abolition of slavery in the northern states began during the Revolutionary era and continued until it was illegal in all northern states. Certainly there were instances where the slavery issue rose to prominence, such as during the debate over the Constitution, the Missouri Compromise of 1820, and so on. But with the emergence of the abolitionist movement, led by men such as William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, the issue rose higher in American consciousness and remained a key problem until the southern states finally seceded in 1861.

The difference between the two economies of north and south led to differences over other issues, such as the tariff, national policy on land sales, the development of the National Bank, and so on. Those issues are discussed in detail in the section on sectional differences. The nullification crisis of 1832 was a focal point of differences over the tariff.

In addition to the economic issues and the social problems relating to slavery, other matters rose to prominence during the antebellum years. The women’s rights movement emerged, as women protested what they perceived as unfair treatment and antidemocratic practices regarding their sex.

Immigration patterns also played a part in the growing alienation between North and South, especially when economic conditions in Ireland related to the potato famine sent new waves of immigrants to the United States. Because slavery existed in the South, immigrants seeking better economic conditions were loath to settle in the South, feeling that they would have to compete with what they saw as free labor. That factor sharpened differences between North and South further, even as older generations of Northerners did not look favorably upon the flood of the primarily Catholic Irish.

American society was also transformed by the impact of the Industrial Revolution on the printing industry. New forms of presses made it possible to publish large file names of newspapers very cheaply. The phenomena known as the penny press led to the fact that by 1860 there were several thousand different newspapers in the United States, which made average Americans much more aware of the issues that existed in the country. That press was not necessarily a neutral, or unbiased press, as we have come to expect today. Very often publishers had an agenda which they put forth in their newspapers. Nevertheless, the proliferation of reading materials led to more public awareness of the issues of the day.

In a somewhat similar vein, a literary movement in America blossomed during the pre-Civil War years, as American literature, led by writers such as Walt Whitman, Edgar Allen Poe and others, raise the level of literary sensibility to new levels, as American literature began to challenge the primacy of English publishers.

Another factor in the drawing changes in American society was the religious movement, generally identified by the phenomena known as the Second Great Awakening. Religious patterns shifted, somewhat in response to the growing wave of Catholic immigrants, sometimes as result of new religions such as Mormonism that emerge during that period.

Needless to say the other area that transformed American culture was characterized by the phenomenon of manifest destiny, the notion that America was destined one day to occupy the entire northern hemisphere of America. While that never came to pass, the country nevertheless expanded, hastened by the Mexican-American War, the discovery of gold in California, and growing pressure to redefine the borders between the United States and Canada. Those issues are also covered in a separate section.

An Age of Reform

In a sense it is correct to say that America has been in a constant state of reform. The fundamental changes in relationships between the people and their government brought about by the American Revolution was one of the greatest reforms in Western history. The further growth of democracy certainly reformed the political system in America and set an example for other countries. Nevertheless, there were certain ages in which reform ideas rose to prominence, and the antebellum period in America was one such age.

Some of the reforms that began in the decades before the Civil War, such as the temperance movement, did not come to fruition until decades later when the prohibition amendment was passed. That particular experiment in reform, of course, did not work out, as the amendment was repealed 15 years later. But institutions such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving find their roots in the original temperance movement.

Other reforms that came to prominence in the antebellum period included prison reform, reform of the treatment of mentally disabled people and the beginning of the women's rights movement. All of those issues have continued into modern times, and it can safely be said that those particular reform movements have never ended.

This section of the website does deal with the prominent movements of that era. Although it cannot necessarily be considered a social reform as in the case of mental illness, American literature also took on a different cast in this period, and we will discuss that evolution briefly as well.

One area that called out for reform was the institution of slavery. Northern states had begun to abandon slavery during the Revolutionary era, and in the all northern states the institution had all but disappeared by the 1840s. In the South, however, the “peculiar institution” took on new life as the cotton economy continued to thrive. Thus this age of reform is also known as the antebellum period—the period leading up to secession and civil war, with the focus sharply on the slave-holding states. We will discuss that further in the Civil War section.

From time to time America has gone through periods during which various movements were underway to improve aspects of American culture. Many of those reform movements were centered on associations or organizations created for just that purpose. One of those was the temperance movement, an effort that grew out of the fact that Americans were prodigious consumers of alcohol. Thousands of distilleries produced millions of gallons of various alcoholic beverages, including whiskey, beer, wine, hard cider, and other consumables. The average consumption of alcohol among Americans was several ounces of alcohol per day, a rather startling figure when one considers that the young, old and many women consumed very little alcohol. Those who did drink drank a great deal, sometimes with serious consequences for themselves and their families. In 1833 the American Temperance Union was formed to try to promote responsible drinking.

Some of those reformers took a hard line and insisted on absolute abstinence from alcohol. More moderate temperance reformers merely urged people not to drink to excess, something which people addicted to alcohol could handle only with difficulty. In various regions experiments were made with closing taverns or cutting off sales of alcohol under various conditions, and many towns went dry during the 1830s and 40s. Although efforts to control drinking were less than completely successful, the per-capita consumption of alcohol was reduced between 1830 and 1860. Following the Civil War, the softer temperance movement evolved into the more severe prohibition movement, which finally achieved victory with the 18th amendment passed in 1919.

It is interesting to note that one of the first public speeches given by young Illinois politician Abraham Lincoln was on the subject of temperance.

The temperance movement was but one effort to create something approaching a utopian society. Often driven by religious fervor, groups of Americans began to form various utopian communities, some of which were short lived, others of which persisted into the 20th century. One such religious group were the Mennonites of Pennsylvania, who based their community upon literal interpretation of the Bible and who sought to prepare themselves for what they believed was the coming millennium. Another religious society which grew up in New York state were a group that believed in the second coming of Christ and whose enthusiastic dances lead them to be called Shakers. Shaker communities spread throughout the Northeast, and that group reached its peak membership between 1830 and 1860.

Other utopian groups included the Oneida community, which started in Vermont; the New Harmony community which grew up in Indiana; and Brook Farm, best-known of all utopian communities because illustrious figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller supported it as it grew in New England in the 1840s.

Education Reform. Partly because of the belief that good Christians should be able to read the Bible, education took hold early in colonial America. Spurred by Jefferson's belief in the value of education for a self-governing people, movements to provide free public education for all young people spread across the nation. Although America already had what was probably the highest literacy rate in the Western world, most education was conducted at home, in church or by private tutors. By 1830 state-wide school systems had not yet been developed. An early adopter, New York City had established a Public School Society in 1805, and by 1850 New York City schools had educated some 600,000 youngsters.

It was easier to establish schools in the more densely populated regions of the country; thus education tended to be centered more in the Northeast and in the areas of the cities than on the  Southern and Western frontiers. In Massachusetts Horace Mann led the movement for statewide education systems and fathered many reforms, including "normal schools" for the education and training of teachers. Mann and other reformers preached the value of education for its democratizing effect and persuaded citizens that it was in their best interest to pay taxes for the support of schools. By 1860 the public school movement had spread to parts of the South, but literacy remained highest in the band from New England across New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

At the time of the Revolution nine colleges had been founded in the United States. Following the Revolutionary period, some 50 additional institutions of higher education were created, although not many survived. By 1840, however, over 70 colleges and universities existed, many of them as church related schools. Following the example of Jefferson's University of Virginia and the United States Military Academy at West Point, which had been founded in 1802, more practical and technical college curricula were developed to replace the theologically oriented programs of study established at the religious-based colleges. Among the earliest state colleges established were agricultural and mechanical colleges which eventually became Michigan State and Pennsylvania State universities.

Most colleges limited their enrollment to males. Women such as Emma Willard, however, began to create female seminaries which often had curricula that devolved into increasingly practical courses of study. Oberlin College in Ohio provided both biracial and coeducational opportunities for learning, though female students were not accepted on an equal basis. Side by side with the development of colleges and secondary schools were various associations and institutes that offered free education to the general public. Some of them offered evening classes for working people, and traveling lecturers and experts spoke on a variety of topics, including mathematics, geography, literature, and other fields. At about the same time, a movement to create public libraries surfaced to satisfy Americans’ apparently unquenchable thirst for knowledge. (Benjamin Franklin invented the first lending library, The Library Company of Philadelphia, in 1731.)

Literature: The Romantic Age

The spreading of democracy in the time of Andrew Jackson had an impact not only on the political life of the American people, but also on the feelings Americans had about themselves. In his Democracy in America Alexis de Tocqueville recognized the connections between an emergent in American culture and the growth of American democracy. Rapid expansion of economic opportunities brought about by the creation of factories and the broad expansion of transportation networks helped to create a feeling of connectedness among the American people. Those links in many ways overrode regional differences. The period between the age of Jackson and the outbreak of the Civil War was a time of enormous literary growth in America. Giants such as Emerson, Hawthorne, Poe, Whitman, Melville and other lesser lights began to create a truly American literature that reflected America's cultural maturity.

The blossoming of American literature coincided with the growth of what in the greater literary world is called the Romantic Movement. Romanticism was a reaction to the classicism that characterized the age of the enlightenment, when a common belief existed that the path to truth was that of reason. Romanticism argued that reason, or intellect, could not explain emotional responses to phenomena such as the viewing of a gorgeous sunset, the birth of a child, or the sound of a beautiful melody. The inability to recognize the importance of emotional response to God’s creation made for a sterile existence. Since the emotional or subjective reactions to the world that surround us must necessarily be individualistic, the individual being—the individual—formed much of the focus of the Romantic era.

With American political and legal ethics centered on the rights of the individual, the romantic notion of individualism aptly described what might be called the American consciousness  in its pre-Civil War incarnation. Romantics understood that complete fulfillment of the human experience came from emotional responses to the world; they also recognized the pain and agony that came when individuals encountered the world's harsher realities. Just as the classic writers sought to define the world in terms of rationality and order, the Romantics sought to define the world in terms of beauty and all that the human spirit might obtain through imagination. At the core of much of this romantic philosophy was the idea of transcendentalism, a quest to discover a higher truth than can be obtained by mere observation of the world through consciousness.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the best-known of the transcendental writers of the antebellum period, expressed many romantic ideals in his essays on nature and self-reliance. In The American Scholar Emerson emphasized the interaction between the historical development of a nation and its habits of thought; he wrote in that essay:

The office of the scholar is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances. He plies the slow, unhonored, and unpaid task of observation. … He is the one who raises himself from private considerations and breathes and lives on public and illustrious thoughts. He is the world’s eye. He is the world’s heart. He is to resist the vulgar prosperity that retrogrades ever to barbarism, by preserving and communicating heroic sentiments, noble biographies, melodious verse, and the conclusions of history.

whitmanJust as the literature of the Revolution, such as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, provided a framework for the development of a mature political ideology, romantic literature sought to create a broader framework within which men and women could live more fulfilling lives.

The connection between Romanticism and American patriotism also extended itself to the arts. Romantic, often melodramatic fiction was part of the written word that proliferated in America in the anti-bellum age. And rather than being employed to depict portraits of the wealthy aristocracy, as English painters had done, American artists painted scenes of American life and the beauties of nature.

Walt Whitman was a poet who expressed America’s democratic ideals as well as any writer before or since. He dedicated one of his most famous works, Leaves of Grass, to the “advanced, composite, electric, Democratic nationality.” Although much of his poetry was centered on himself—“I celebrate myself, and sing myself”—he held himself to be a representative of every American, for he said, “every atom belonging to me as good but longs to you.” His compelling images of America in all its complexity reach across all elements of society; he wrote, “I am of old and young, of the foolish as much of the wise.” Whitman’s Civil War poetry reflected the anguish and pain of that conflict, and his poetic eulogy, “Oh Captain, My Captain,” on the death of Abraham Lincoln reflected the greatness of the man and the tragedy of his dying. His poem has been called “a remarkable fusion of public events and private response” and recalls Whitman’s years working in hospitals during the Civil War.


As the 19th century progressed from the age of the Napoleonic wars, many events throughout the world began changing age old social and cultural patterns in ways that affected not only the United States, but every country on every continent. The general movement, especially in Europe, toward more liberal or democratic forms of government and improvements in communications and transportation tended to mobilize populations. Prior to the 19th century the great mass of people could expect to live their lives within a very small radius around their birthplace. But by 1850 populations had begun to move in number, and the results of that movement began to change the face of America.

Industrial expansion in America created jobs that attracted thousands of immigrants to the New World. The most conspicuous of the groups that changed the social makeup of America were the Irish Catholics, who arrived by the thousands in the 1830s, 40s, and 50s. Thus began a pattern that would repeat itself throughout the course of American history: A wave of immigrants from a part of the world that had not brought people to America’s shores before began to accelerate. In the period before the Civil War, that wave included Irish and German Catholics; in the period between the Civil War and 1900, more people came from southern and eastern Europe—Italy, Greece, Poland, Russia, Armenia—as well as Asia. In the decades following World War II, the Hispanic population in America began to grow; and the late 20th and early 21st centuries brought populations from the Middle East, West and Southwest and Asia to America. Every one of those immigration shifts brought out the phenomenon known as “Nativism,” an understandable but generally unfortunate development that tends to lead to discrimination, hostility, and calls for tightening borders and immigration policy. In the beginning of the 21st century the focus is on illegal immigrants in this country, but the pattern is similar to what happened in previous times.

The Irish. The first immigrants from Ireland came mostly from the area known as Ulster, or Northern Ireland, during the 1700s. They were for the most part Protestants, heavily Presbyterian, and not particularly well disposed toward the English, to say the least. Andrew Jackson is the most famous descendent of those early Irish immigrants. Once their Catholic brethren from the South began to arrive, they began to refer to themselves as Scots-Irish in order to distinguish themselves as a separate group.

irishBecause the Celtic Irish, or Irish Catholics, have become so fully assimilated into American society, it is difficult for us to imagine that the reaction of older Americans to the first wave of Irish was as hostile as anything ever seen in this country. One can understand the full history of the Irish in America only by delving into the history of Ireland itself, a history marked by centuries of struggle against what the Irish saw as their British oppressors. English prejudice toward the Irish is centuries old. Cambridge historian Charles Kingsley referred to the Irish as "human chimpanzees" with "skins ... as white as ours." Although tensions between England and Ireland have subsided in the past decade, prejudice against the Irish persists in some quarters.

Most of the immigrants from Ireland between 1830 and 1860 were poor, and many of them spoke Irish, a Gaelic tongue, rather than English. The well-known potato famine of the 1840s drove many Irish to America’s shores. Because many were weak and suffering from various diseases, they often died en route; thus the ships that brought them became known as “coffin ships.” As the Irish population became depleted because of emigrants to the New World, a practice known as the “American wake” began to be part of the process of leaving. As family members prepared to depart, rituals similar to those accompanying a death would be carried out, for the families who remained behind expected never to see their loved ones again.

Some two million Irish emigrated to America in the decades before the Civil War. Because American ports often rejected ships inbound from Ireland (generally via Liverpool), many immigrants made their way to Canada and from there into the United States. Because the immigrants were poor, they were bound to remain close to the ports where they arrived in order to find quick work; thus large concentrations of Irish began to appear in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. As the numbers of Irish increased, so did the level of discrimination and violence directed against them. Anti-Catholic prejudice, which was nothing new in Protestant Europe or America, fueled the fires of anti-Irish discrimination.

When they first began to arrive in America, many Irish felt themselves akin to African-Americans because of what they saw as a common experience of having been enslaved. But because they initially shared the lowest rung on the social order with Blacks, the Irish began to distance themselves from African-Americans. During the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation helped lead to one of the worst race riots in American history in New York City in 1863. Although the draft was a factor in the riots, many poor people felt that releasing blacks from slavery would hurt their economic welfare, and working-class Irish were heavily represented among those who rioted against blacks. (Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White, New York: Routledge, 2008, offers a sharp perspective on the history of American racism.)

The intense discrimination manifested itself in various ways. “Dogs and Irish keep out” signs are said to have appeared on public establishments, as well as ads for employment saying, “No Irish need apply.” (A difference of opinion exists regarding the prevalence and intensity of the signage, but there is no doubt that the discrimination against Irish was real.) Catholic churches were stoned, and a Catholic orphanage in Philadelphia was burned to the ground. As oppressive as the conditions could be, however, the Irish worked hard and eventually prospered. By the turn of the century in 1900, the Irish dominated the Catholic hierarchy in America. In the latter part of the 19th century the Irish were one of the groups that helped construct the earliest transcontinental railroads. Many Irish worked in the coal mines and oil fields of Pennsylvania, and the Irish began to dominate institutions such as metropolitan police and fire departments and urban politics. (The term “paddy wagon” comes from Irish dominance of police forces.)

Prejudice against members of the Catholic faith continued well into the 20th century. The overwhelming defeat of New York Governor Al Smith in 1828 was related in part to his being an Irish Catholic. Thus the election in 1960 of the first Irish Catholic American president, John F. Kennedy, was a political event of significant proportions. Throughout the campaign Kennedy had to respond to charges that his presidency would be subject to pressure from the Vatican. Anti-Catholic prejudice is still alive in some parts of America, though it is not as obvious nor pronounced as it once was.

The Nativist Reaction. Nativism, an attitude driven by xenophobia, an irrational fear of foreigners or strangers, or unfriendliness toward people of a different ethnicity or religious persuasion from one’s own, led to the development of what became known as the Native American Party. Concentrated heavily in the Northeast, the Party achieved some political success, electing officials to local and state governments and sending a few members to Congress. Even those who were not actual members of the American Party often sympathized with nativist attitudes and goals. It should be clear to anyone who follows the news that nativism is not dead in America. The American Party, or “Know Nothings,” will be discussed further below.

Working Class People. As was true even in colonial times, America was seen as a land of opportunity where people willing to work might have an opportunity to raise their standard of living. But the immigrant population generally had to start on the bottom rung of the ladder, arriving as they did with few resources and often mediocre skills. The union movement had not yet taken hold in the 1830s and 40s, and working-class families were obliged to send all members, including children, into the workplace. The economic swings often brought hard times, as in the depression of the late 1830s. By 1850 some states had begun passing laws that attempted to regulate fundamental conditions at the workplace, limiting the work day to 10 hours and controlling child labor.

The socialist movement that progressed in Europe in the mid-19th century did not take hold in America. The abundance of land, the relatively high value placed on labor as railroads were constructed and factories expanded, and the business-friendly Republican attitudes in America impeded the development of a permanent working-class. There was no rigid class structure in America that prevented those who were hard-working—and lucky—from improving their station in life. Cheap land existed in the West for those with the skills to try their hand at farming. Although the distance between the top and bottom echelons of the economic structure remained wide, relatively few workers felt themselves trapped by a system that did not offer them the means to rise in society.

The Women's Rights Movement

Sage American Home | Antebellum Home | Updated December 29, 2016