Chapter 19 An Era of Expansion and Reform

Section 3 Expansion and Reform in the United States

When the United States ratified its Constitution in 1788,[48] the new nation consisted of 13 states along the Atlantic coast and territories that stretched westward to the Mississippi River.[49]  The young nation was born during a time of European turmoil, and most Americans wanted to stay out of European affairs and develop their nation in peace.  They did this so successfully that during the next 100 years the U.S. grew to almost four times its original size.  Although the U.S. tried to avoid European conflicts, the nation had its own serious problems to face.

Territorial Expansion and Democracy

During the late 1700s and 1800s, the United States expanded rapidly, taking both its ideals and its problems across the continent.  This expansion began almost immediately after the founding of the nation.  The U.S. acquired land from France,[50] Spain,[51] Mexico,[52] Great Britain,[53] Russia,[54] and Hawaii.[55] By 1898, the United States had expanded to its current borders.

            This expansion created opportunities for many Americans, but it also created serious problems.  To provide white settlers with land, the U.S. government forced the Native Americans to leave their traditional lands and move west into the Great Plains.  By the 1850s the white settlers' demand for land increased so much that the government began to confine the Native Americans to reservations.[56]  This provoked nearly fifty years of conflict as the Native Americans and the U.S. Army clashed over ownership of the land.[57]

            As the United States grew, sectionalism began to become a problem.[58]  During the early 1800s, three major sections emerged: the urban and industrial Northeast, the agricultural South, and the frontier region of the West.  With such different ways of life, people in each of these regions held very different views on national issues. However, the question of slavery became the nation's most divisive issue.

Conflict over slavery. The controversy over slavery in the United States existed even before the founding of the nation.  Quakers protested the institution of slavery as early as 1688,[59] although opposition to slavery was slight until the early 1800s.  In 1808 Congress abolished the foreign slave trade,[60] primarily because the internal slave trade was so profitable that slave owners had no need to import slaves from Africa.[61] 

            Soon after the American Revolution, some northern states abolished slavery altogether,[62] and southern states such as Virginia and Delaware discussed the possibility of abolition.[63]  Many abolitionists believed the Enlightenment ideals that served as the foundation of the United States would result in the end of slavery.[64]  In the early 1800s, however, a boom in the cotton industry strengthened the institution of slavery.  Grown in the southern states, cotton required strong laborers, and plantation owners believed they needed slaves to make a profit.

            As settlers moved westward, slavery grew more controversial.  Congress had to decide if slavery were to be permitted in the new territories.  To avoid a direct confrontation over whether slavery should be abolished, Congress made many compromises.  The Missouri Compromise of 1820 allowed slavery only in the southern part of the Louisiana Purchase.  The balance between slave and free states was preserved when Arkansas and Michigan, a slave state and a free state, were admitted to the Union together.[65] By the mid-1800s, however, the issue could not be ignored.  As a New York senator remarked:

“Every question, political, civil, or ecclesiastical [religious]—however foreign to the subject of slavery—brings up slavery. . . . We hear of nothing but slavery, and we can talk of nothing but slavery.”[66] 

With every compromise over slavery, the nation grew closer to a direct confrontation over the issue.

The American abolition movement.  Many abolitionists had hoped that once the slave trade became illegal, the practice of slavery would gradually fade away.  When it did not, abolitionists began to confront slavery head-on.[67] Some hoped to send some former slaves to Britain's colony in Sierra Leone, but when Britain refused to accept them, the Americans established their own colony in Liberia.  This colony soon ran into the same problems the British one had, including disease, conflicts with the indigenous populations, and few provisions.[68]

            In 1833 a group of prominent abolitionists formed the American Anti-Slavery Society.  Its members included Frederick Douglass, the fugitive slave whose powerful words inspired many to join the cause,[69] William Lloyd Garrison, the journalist who helped shape public opinion,[70] and Sojourner Truth, a former slave who campaigned both for abolition and women's rights.[71]

            The United States faced a more difficult task in ending slavery than the British did.  First, slavery existed within the U.S., while in Britain slavery existed primarily in the colonies.  Second, in America freed slaves would face the problems of facing racial discrimination and of finding jobs and housing, while in Britain there were few freed slaves at all.  Third, in America there was conflict between the federal and state government over who would have the right to legislate over slavery.  In Britain, Parliament alone had the right to make such laws.

Secession and civil war.  The election of 1860 provoked a direct confrontation over slavery.  Abraham Lincoln, who campaigned against the spread of slavery to new states and territories, was elected president. His election contributed to the secession, or withdrawal, of 11 southern states and the beginning of the Civil War.  The 11 southern states formed the Confederate States of America in 1861 and fought a bloody civil war that lasted four years. 

            With more people, railroad lines, and resources, the North had a strong advantage over the South.  However, the South had the advantage of fighting to defend its own soil, while the North had the daunting task of conquering a territory almost as large as Western Europe.   Nevertheless, the South's disadvantages proved too strong to overcome, and with its troops hungry and in rags, the South surrendered in 1865.

            In January 1863, before the war's end, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in those parts of the country "still in rebellion against the United States."  After the Civil War, Congress passed constitutional amendments that abolished slavery, gave former slaves citizenship and equal protection under the law, and granted them the right to vote.

            The cost of preserving the Union had a tragically high price.  More than 600,000 people died,[72] and families had been torn apart as brother fought against brother.  Freedom did not solve the problems of the former black slaves, who now had no homes and no jobs.  The war left deep scars on the nation that remained well into the 1900s.

Women's suffrage.  After gaining experience in the abolition movement, many American women began to focus on their own struggle for equality.  As in Britain, women's rights were restricted.  They had limited educational and employment opportunities.  Married women could not own property, and divorced women could not get custody of their children.[73] 

            After gaining political experience in the abolition movement, many women realized that they would have to campaign on their own behalf.  This became clear in 1840 at the World's Anti-Slavery Convention in London.  William Lloyd Garrison asked,

“With a young woman placed on the throne of Great Britain [Queen Victoria], will the philanthropists of that country presume to object to the female delegate from the United States as members of the Convention, on the ground of their sex?”[74] 

The answer was yes.  The convention refused to allow them to speak, and this convinced Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott to lead a campaign on behalf of women's rights.

            In 1848 Stanton and Mott organized the Seneca Falls Convention, the first women's rights convention in the United States.  Delegates to the convention drew up the Declaration of Sentiments, a list of reforms needed to strengthen women's legal position.  The most important demand was the vote.

            As in the British women's suffrage movement, two different styles of campaigning emerged.  The National American Woman Suffrage Association, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, tried to work peacefully through the system, trying to persuade legislators to grant women the vote.  The National Woman’s party, led by Alice Paul, took a more radical approach, using protests, picketing, and hunger strikes to draw attention to their cause.  Finally in 1920, with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, women won the right to vote.

Social and Political Reforms

The United States experienced tremendous growth from 1865 to 1900. Cities doubled and tripled in size, and a network of railroads crisscrossed the nation to link the cities together.  Millions of immigrants came to the United States lured by the hopes for prosperity, but many of them only found dire poverty and exploitation.  Many people began to demand change.

New immigrants.  For decades, immigrants had come to the United States from Great Britain, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries.[75] In the late 1800s immigration increased from southern and eastern Europe, especially Italy, Russia, and Austria-Hungary.  The United States absorbed more immigrants than any other country in the world.

            Most new immigrants lived in slums in major cities and working at menial jobs for low wages.[76]  In many northern cities, large communities developed as new immigrants settled near others who had come from their homelands.[77]  In this way, they could maintain their customs and culture.

            However, immigrants were encouraged to assimilate into American society.  Many immigrants, especially the younger ones, eagerly adopted American ways and abandoned their traditional dress, language, and customs in favor of American ones.  This caused conflict between older immigrants, who cherished their tradition, and the younger generations.

Education reform.  Education was one means of assimilating immigrants into American society.  Reformers hoped that by giving children the values of hard work and respect for authority, they would become productive citizens and workers.[78]However, until the 1840s, most schools were private, and many parents could not afford to send their children.  The few public elementary schools that existed had little money for books, supplies, or teachers' salaries.  Therefore, the quality of education in these schools was often poor.[79]

             Some reformers worried that existing schools were inadequate.  They campaigned to open well-funded public schools to provide a decent education for all children. The first public high school opened in Boston in 1821,[80] and the first statewide system of public elementary education was established in Massachusetts in the 1830s.[81]  These served as a model for public education for all children.

            Despite these reforms, however, education did not become equally available to all children.  Some working-class and farming parents objected to public schooling because they depended upon their children's labor.  By the 1850s few towns allowed African American children to attend their public schools, and free blacks had to set up private schools that did not have the benefit of being supported by tax dollars.[82]  Women did not have equal access to education, and reformers established high schools and colleges to give women the opportunity of an equal education.[83]

Settlement-house movement. Immigrants and other poor people lived in cramped and squalid conditions.  They paid high rents for tiny tenement apartments, cramming entire families into one or two rooms.  Outside, industrial pollution, raw sewage, and piles of garbage created such unhealthy conditions that residents often fell victim to disease and even death.

            Because no government assistance was available, some reformers established settlement houses, or community service centers, in poor neighborhoods.  The settlement-house movement began in Great Britain, where Toynbee Hall opened in the East End of London in 1884.  Five years later, Jane Addams established the first American settlement house at Hull House in Chicago. Hull House offered day care, adult education, and employment assistance to the poor.[84]  Hull House served as a model for others, and by 1900 almost a hundred settlement houses had opened across the country.[85]

Political reform.  By the early 1900s, reformers turned their attention to politics.  In the late 1800s, the American political system had grown corrupt at all levels.  In New York City, for example, the Democratic Party machine, called Tammany Hall, controlled city government.  Political machines selected candidates for elections, pressured voters into voting for certain candidates, and stole money from city treasuries.  During Theodore Roosevelt's presidency, reformers campaigned to break the political machines.

            Two ways in which reformers gave power back to the voters was through the direct primary and the secret ballot.  The direct primary allowed voters to select their party's candidate for election.  The secret ballot let voters cast their ballots without pressure from political machines. In addition, three other election reforms returned power to the voters: initiative, referendum, and recall.  The initiative allows voters to introduce legislation, while the referendum compels the legislature to vote on an initiative.  The recall allows voters to remove an elected official from office by calling for a new election.[86]  These measures helped break the power of the political machines.

Economic and Industrial Reforms

In industrialized cities in the late 1800s, cruel poverty lived side by side with tremendous wealth. Two theories combined to produce these abuses.  The first was laissez-faire economics.  Most business leaders believed that regulation would harm the economy.  However, the lack of regulation also allowed employers to exploit their workers. 

            The second theory was social Darwinism, a theory that tried to apply the biological principles of natural selection to society.  Unfortunately, the most influential proponent of the idea, the Englishman Herbert Spencer, did not really understand Darwin’s theory. Consequently, social Darwinism became an excuse for what Spencer, not Darwin, called “survival of the fittest.” According to Spencer and other social Darwinists, society progressed through competition, and only the "fittest" people, businesses, or nations would prosper.  Social Darwinists believed that helping the poor was harmful, because society could only prosper through competition.

            During the end of the 1800s, a few businessmen grew extremely wealthy.  Andrew Carnegie, for example, became the world's richest man through the steel industry.  By controlling the companies that produced the materials and services upon which his steel company depended, he was able to make tremendous profits.  He also drove smaller, less efficient companies out of business.

            During this time, the government cooperated with big business.  It placed high tariffs on imports to keep the price of domestic goods low.  For example, Congress imposed tariffs on imported steel in 1875 that made foreign steel 40 percent more expensive than American steel.  However, government slowly began to regulate big business. In 1890 Congress passed the Sherman Antitrust Act, which prohibited companies from creating monopolies that controlled entire industries.

Industrial reform.  Progressive reformers also worked to change industrial conditions.  Reformer's attention focused on workplace safety after a tragic fire in a New York City factory.  In March 1911 more than 100 people were killed or injured in a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York City.  Many were trapped in the building, because there were only two stairways in the building and most of the exits were blocked. This tragedy caused a public outcry over dangerous working conditions, and New York lawmakers responded by passing the nation's strictest fire code.[87]

Labor unions.  Although middle-class reformers led most reform movements, workers also fought to improve their working conditions through labor unions.  By the early 1900s the major labor organization was the American Federation of Labor, or AFL.  Founded in 1886,[88] the AFL was composed of many smaller unions that organized skilled workers.[89]  The AFL unions grew quite powerful, although most industrial workers remained outside the union movement.[90]

            Another union took a socialist approach to improving working conditions.  The Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW, opposed the capitalist system.  The tactics of the IWW included strikes, boycotts, and industrial sabotage.  Because the IWW advocated overthrowing capitalism, many Americans grew fearful of its power.  Eventually the IWW's strikes became less effective, and after the government cracked down on its activities, the IWW gradually faded from power. 


Section 3 Review

IDENTIFY and explain the significance of the following:


American Anti-Slavery Society

William Lloyd Garrison

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Seneca Falls Convention

settlement house


social Darwinism

LOCATE and explain the importance of the following:

Great Plains

Louisiana Purchase

Confederate States of America

1.      MAIN IDEA  How did American expansion contribute to the growing conflict over slavery?

2.      MAIN IDEA   How did reformers solve the social problems that arose from industrialization? 

3.      GEOGRAPHY  What role did geography play in the spread of slavery in the United States?

4.      WRITING TO CREATE  Imagine that you are planning a demonstration for women's suffrage.  On a sheet of plain paper, design a flyer that will encourage people to attend.  Be sure to include several reasons why women should have the vote.

5.      SYNTHESIZING Why was abolishing slavery more difficult in the U.S. than in the British Empire?