By Allen Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College
The urban population of the US soared because the immigrants settled in cities rather than going to the West. Through the 1800s, the United States continued to be a dominantly rural country, but it doesn’t mean that the cities did not grow in size and population. However, that was not all that had changed.
The population of American Cities
According to the 1829 census, only 12 American cities had populations of over 5,000. In 1850, this number rose to 150 cities. In 1820, only 9 percent of the American population was urban, but by 1850, the number had increased to 20 percent. In 1800, there was one city dweller per 15 rural farmers. In 1830, the ratio changed to 10 to 1, and in 1850, five to one.
In addition to population growth, the structure of the cities became more complex as well. New York City’s population exceeded Philadelphia’s and reached 500,000 in 1850.
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The populations of Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore were 100,000 each. Although many immigrants had moved to the West to buy lands, a large number of them built cities like St. Louis and Cincinnati, New Orleans, or Chicago. Originally a military outpost, Chicago turned into a city with more than 30,000 dwellers in 1850.
Challenges of the New Societies
Now, the cities had a combination of settlers from the American republic and those coming from the world capitalist markets of Europe. That integration came at social costs. In colonial cities, goods were manufactured in small scales by a single artisan or mechanic for a single customer.
This domestic system of production was replaced by the putting-out system in which an entrepreneur or capitalist took the source of materials in hand. Instead of an independent artisan, came a wage-labor man. The entrepreneur paid the labor man and kept the profit for himself. It resulted in an imbalance in wealth distribution. In New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, 25 percent of all the taxable wealth belonged to the top one percent of tax-paying citizens. 25 years later, that 25 percent rose to 50 percent.
Life of Black Americans
Those laborers who did not want to be exploited went to the West to become a farmer on the cheap lands they purchased. Still, not everyone could make such a venture. Free urban black Americans did not have this option.
About 250,000 free African Americans lived in the eastern cities of northern states in 1860. Outside New England, not many blacks could vote. Even in the north, most of them had to use segregated facilities on steamboats, railroads, restaurants, and churches. Most of them could only do unskilled and low-paying jobs.
Black Americans lived in American cities, but they were not allowed to be part of them. As they could not join trade deals and churches, they established their own associations and even religious denominations.
While the West was like the Promised Land for white male Americans, black Americans could not go to western lands and even were banned from Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.
Learn more about black Americans and the revolutionary war.
New Political Structures
Even the architecture of houses started to change. People who were always moving began to replace sturdy houses made with mortar and tannin belonging to colonial times with light-weight balloon-frame houses. They could build these houses very quickly, with less labor, and they could destroy them when they moved.
But society is not like a building that can be destroyed and reconstructed easily. It is valued like trust, shared unspoken assumptions, or recognition of places and orders that hold a society together. Because of the confusion created by massive immigration to the West, a feeling of uncertainty and lack of trust emerged. People could not trust each other because they did not know where they came from. There was no place or order, and if anyone did have them, they would not matter. Nobody cared where a person came from. Soon the ideals of republicanism were replaced by individualism, the very notion classical revolutionaries like Jefferson were avoiding. They believed following individual interests would lead to corruption and tyranny.
So, the pursuit of self-interest in the West led to the equal importance of every person in determining policies. A new political notion we now know as “democracy,” which replaced Jefferson’s vision of republicanism he believed had been revived in the 1800 revolution.
Learn more about Republicans and Federalists.
The republican ideology split into two sects, each claiming to pursue real virtues of republicanism. National Republicans supported economic growth and development, while the other sect criticized the National Republican agenda. This second faction formed the Democrat party, based on raw democracy and following Andrew Jackson.
Common Questions about American Rural and Urban Life in the 1800s
In the putting-out system, an entrepreneur or capitalist took the source of materials in hand. Instead of an independent artisan came a wage- labor man. The entrepreneur paid the labor man and kept the profit for himself.
Through the 1800s, the United States continued to be a dominantly rural country, but it doesn’t mean that the cities did not grow in size and population. In 1800, there was one city dweller per 15 rural farmers. In 1830, the ratio changed to 10 to 1, and in 1850, five to one.
Balloon-frame houses replaced the sturdy mortar houses in the 1800s. They were light-weight balloon-frame houses that were cheap and made with light boards and cardboards held together by boards.
Black Americans lived in American cities, but they were not allowed to be part of them. Even in the north, most of them had to use segregated facilities on steamboats, railroads, restaurants, and churches.