Life in the North from 1790 - 1860: the North from after the Signing of the Declaration to the start of the Civil War

Changes in the North after the Signing of the Declaration:

This covers changes in the North from about 1790 to approximately 1820.

New England farmhouse

After the signing of the Declaration of Independence, most of America was composed of backcountry subsistence farmers, working to provide food, etc. for their family on their own and not much more. There was some industry, centered in the cities, usually arranged in ways that helped fathers support their families and assert their patriarchal authority. However, as less and less land became available, more sons moved off of the farms of their families to the frontier and the growing seaport cities, causing them to have populations of more younger males. During this time as well, the overseas demand for American goods was growing, especially for American food, strengthening industry in seaport cities. Wage labor became more popular during this time, supporting the increasing labor force in the cities. Paternal power declined as more young people believed that they would do their own work, without help from their fathers. Another example of declining authoritative power was in the democratic call for equal rights (for all white men). Religion of the time reflected this as well, with increasingly democratic messages and beliefs.

Henry Clay's American System promoted national economic growth through government. It called for protective tariffs, causing the first of these to be legislated in American history; internal improvements, such as roads, canals, and railroads, which connected different regions in the North, helping the economy; and second national bank, which was chartered by Congress. The improved transportation, mostly through state efforts, had, by 1840, caused the Market Revolution because of the huge reduction in the time and money it took for goods to move across the country.

see Internal Developments from 1820-1830
see the Crisis of the 1850s: Economy


Because of the agricultural successes of west New York and the Old Northwest, New England farmers could not compete. But, the factories and cities in the Northeast provided those farmers with a market for goods, strengthening the internal northern economy. New England farmers thus became dependent on the market for goods they could not themselves produce. Families also became smaller, as farmers switched to using new techniques or raising livestock no longer needed many children to help run the farm. Raising children and household work became centered on the female. That same household also began to seem more private than before, and necessitated increased comfort and privacy.

There was also an amount of social unrest, caused by the need for very quick adaptation to a rapidly changing, impersonal economy. See unions, below. Women's roles began to change, as they no longer worked on a family farm beside their husbands, but had to search for employment either in domestic service or teaching. Factory jobs (see below for Lowell system) were uncommon. Most working women were single; if they married, they left their jobs and stayed at home. Women during this time, both in rural and urban areas, gained slightly more control over their lives socially. Arranged marriages were less common, and some women chose to have less children. However, legal and political restrictions did not change. As for slavery, many believed that it would quietly disappear as the tobacco plant exhausted the land and with slave importation made illegal. However, the cotton gin and the huge cotton industry it caused put an end to those ideas, even as unease about slavery grew (shown by the argument over the Missouri Compromise).

see Antebellum Reform Movements - Temperance Movements

Growth and Expansion


During this time, the North's population grew. (see right, visual) One major cause was immigration, mainly from Europe. Those in Europe dissatisfied with society there could come to the new, democratic country to try to make a new life, attracted by cheap land being offered in the West. Some came to escape wars or religious persecution, while others were simply looking for new economic opportunity. The other significant group of immigrants were unwilling Africans brought by the slave trade. The other major cause was an increase in natural births, which accounted for the doubling in population from 1800 - 1825, and again from 1825 - 1850; but after 1830 or so immigrants from Ireland, Germany and Great Britain also constituted a big part of the growth. This caused the first Nativist reaction.

Industrial Revolution

This covers the Industrial Revolution, the speedy growth of American cities that assisted commercial agriculture and/or the rural domestic market. This was the greatest period of urban growth in American history, and was centered in the Northeast. Approximately from 1820 - 1860.

Growth of Industry

Influenced by several factors, such as inventions, corporations, factories (see below), labor, and the development of unions. Many American inventors' work resulted in improved technologies. The most famous, Eli Whitney, invented (or at least got the credit for inventing) the cotton gin (1793) and making rifles using interchangeable parts, which provided a basis for future mass production methods in northern factories. Corporations, supported by state laws and Marshall's pro-economy Supreme Court, provided capital for large ventures such as railroads or factories. Labor was at first a problem, until the middle of the century when immigrants began to be used more widely as a source of labor. Before that, under the Lowell system factories recruited young women (see below), and many factories used child labor. Trade (craft) unions began being organized in major northern cities beginning from the 1790s and increased as the factory system spread. They supported skilled workers who were forced to work in factories because they could not compete with cheap, mass-produced factory goods. Main early goal was to reduce workday to ten hours. However, there were many obstacles, such as immigrant replacement workers (think later scabs), state laws that outlawed unions, and frequent economic depressions with high unemployment.



There were two types of factories, both of which supported the burgeoning industry of America. The first were textile mills, under the Rhode Island or family system. Based in southern New England, an entire community was built around the factories, with villages surrounded by farmland owned by the same company as the mills. The other type of factories worked under the Lowell or Waltham system, which was more northern. It began during the 1820s, with capitalized, mechanized mills that did not require skilled workers, and with mostly young, single women working the mills. These women mostly tended to keep their wages, saving them for dowries, clothes, and books. Thus, wage labor became a liberating path for many young women.

Middle Class

A middle class was created in American cities during this time, creating a consumer class that increasingly bought and sold goods. These came from white-collar workers such as smaller merchants, lawyers, salesmen, clerks, and accountants. Most of them, therefore, were from New England, the center of the factories, and with very commercialized farms. This middle class believed strongly in the power of the individual, because their own successes were obviously the work of man and not a higher power, even against traditional religious ideas like predestination, and the power of God in everyday life. The new idea was that people were "morally free agent[s]" (LEP 266), and was reflected in efforts both in Sunday school to develop proper moral ideas in children and in the idea that mothers needed to prepare their children for life as well.

Poor Classes

These were varied in the North, considering settlers from the South, northern farmers, wage laborers, and immigrants. However, they all shared a certain cultural conservatism. They still believed that everything that happened was God's work, called providence. Some talked about the possible ending of the world as the millennium approached. Many criticized the growing market society as a loss of culture and a descent into more worldly concerns. This is partly shown by the efforts of Joseph Smith, Mormon prophet who tried to reassert traditional culture, such as patriarchal authority.

Ideas and Culture

Because they're important.

  • Transcendentalists: writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, emphasized importance of individual self and nature, challenged growing materialism and established church doctrines
  • Religious utopias: withdrawing from society to create the ideal community; Shakers, New Harmony (nonsecular), Oneida
  • Arts and Literature showed democratic feelings of Age of Jackson in painting, architecture, literature (eg. The Scarlet Letter)