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America's History in the Making

Antebellum Reform

Theme 1

The first half of the 1800s brought rapid social, economic, and technological changes, which laid the groundwork for reform.

At the time of the American Revolution, commerce still depended heavily on access to the ocean: it cost about as much to move goods ten miles on land in a wagon as it did to ship them across the Atlantic Ocean.

The invention of steamboats, canals, and then railroads early in the nineteenth century changed all of this. The transportation revolution—along with the application of steam to manufacturing, and other inventions, such as the cotton gin—made it much more lucrative to produce and move crops and goods in both the North and the South after the War of 1812, particularly by the 1830s.

But this economic transformation began to divide the nation. The gap between rich and poor widened, particularly in the nation’s burgeoning cities. Tens of thousands of immigrants, many of them Catholics from Ireland and Germany, arrived annually by the 1830s, and their numbers increased sharply in the 1850s. Southern prosperity boomed, distinguishing itself by relying on cotton rather than manufacturing or urbanization.

Industrialization brought profound cultural changes to the North. Working-class life became more difficult and regimented. Factory workers produced goods consumed by a growing middle class. Middle-class housewives often had the economic means to purchase soap, clothing, and other household goods that they previously had to produce themselves. This freed their time to focus on matters outside the domestic sphere.

Primary Sources