A Growing Country
No visitor to the United States left a more enduring record of his travels and observations than the French writer and political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville, whose Democracy in America, first published in 1835, remains one of the most trenchant and insightful analyses of American social and political practices.
Tocqueville was far too shrewd an observer to be uncritical about the United States, but his verdict was fundamentally positive. “The government of a democracy brings the notion of political rights to the level of the humblest citizens,” he wrote, “just as the dissemination of wealth brings the notion of property within the reach of all men.” Nonetheless, Tocqueville was only one in the first of a long line of thinkers to worry whether such rough equality could survive in the face of a growing factory system that threatened to create divisions between industrial workers and a new business elite.
Other travelers marveled at the growth and vitality of the country, where they could see “everywhere the most unequivocal proofs of prosperity and rapid progress in agriculture, commerce, and great public works.” But such optimistic views of the American experiment were by no means universal.
One skeptic was the English novelist Charles Dickens, who first visited the United States in 1841-42. “This is not the Republic I came to see,” he wrote in a letter. “This is not the Republic of my imagination. ... The more I think of its youth and strength, the poorer and more trifling in a thousand respects, it appears in my eyes. In everything of which it has made a boast — excepting its education of the people, and its care for poor children — it sinks immeasurably below the level I had placed it upon.”
Dickens was not alone. America in the 19th century, as throughout its history, generated expectations and passions that often conflicted with a reality at once more mundane and more complex. The young nation’s size and diversity defied easy generalization and invited contradiction: America was both a freedom-loving and slave-holding society, a nation of expansive and primitive frontiers, a society with cities built on growing commerce and industrialization.
The South, from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River and beyond, featured an economy centered on agriculture. Tobacco was important in Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina. In South Carolina, rice was an abundant crop. The climate and soil of Louisiana encouraged the cultivation of sugar. But cotton eventually became the dominant commodity and the one with which the South was identified. By 1850 the American South grew more than 80 percent of the world’s cotton. Slaves cultivated all these crops.
The Midwest, with its boundless prairies and swiftly growing population, flourished. Europe and the older settled parts of America demanded its wheat and meat products. The introduction of labor-saving implements — notably the McCormick reaper (a machine to cut and harvest grain) — made possible an unparalleled increase in grain production. The nation’s wheat crops swelled from some 35 million hectoliters in 1850 to nearly 61 million in 1860, more than half grown in the Midwest.
By 1850 the national territory stretched over forest, plain, and mountain. Within its far-flung limits dwelt 23 million people in a Union comprising 31 states. In the East, industry boomed. In the Midwest and the South, agriculture flourished. After 1849 the gold mines of California poured their precious ore into the channels of trade.
New England and the Middle Atlantic states were the main centers of manufacturing, commerce, and finance. Principal products of these areas were textiles, lumber, clothing, machinery, leather, and woolen goods. The maritime trade had reached the height of its prosperity; vessels flying the American flag plied the oceans, distributing wares of all nations.
An important stimulus to the country’s prosperity was the great improvement in transportation facilities; from 1850 to 1857 the Appalachian Mountain barrier was pierced by five railway trunk lines linking the Midwest and the Northeast. These links established the economic interests that would undergird the political alliance of the Union from 1861 to 1865. The South lagged behind. It was not until the late 1850s that a continuous line ran through the mountains connecting the lower Mississippi River area with the southern Atlantic seaboard.
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