As the economy and population of the United States grew after the War of 1812, three distinct regions of the US began to form with each region centered around a unique economic opportunity. Small farming was the focus in the West; cash crops grown using slave labor the focus in the South while factories, especially textile factories became the focus in the North. Each region will develop differently and have different political priorities.
The War of 1812 brought us closer together as a country. We began to think of ourselves as Americans first. Feelings of national pride (especially after Andrew Jackson’s dramatic victory at the Battle of New Orleans) increased. Also on the increase was economic growth. The defeat of Napoleon meant that international trade could resume. The defeat of the Native groups in both the Northwest and the South meant that settlers could expand into those territories.
The “Rule of 72” is a simple math trick you can use to determine how long it takes something to double. Take the percentage growth and divide it into 72. That’s how long it will take to double in size. For the Northwest, a population growth rate of 4% meant that the population would double in just 18 years (72 divided by 4). Compare that with a 2% population growth rate – that would require 36 years for a doubling. A lot of this growth could occur because the power of the Natives had been crushed when Harrison defeated Tecumseh at the Battle of Tippecanoe in Indiana.
Steel plows are better than iron plows, which are brittle and can break when they hit a rock. Steel plows don’t break nearly as easily and last longer. Both the steel plow and the mechanical reaper meant farmers could grow more food with less effort and expense. More food grown at low cost means food prices go down. Soon it makes sense to transport food from the west to the cities of the east. Better roads and canals help reduce trip times which means food has a chance to reach markets before it spoils.
The fastest travel of all in the early 1800’s was by steamboat. Now people and goods could move from New Orleans to Pittsburgh along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers in just a few weeks instead of a few months. As transportation costs go down, it becomes profitable to sell and move goods (like food) over ever-increasing distances. Cheap, fast and reliable transportation helped grow the American economy
The lesson of infrastructure is that roads, bridges, canals etc. are almost always going to have benefits that outweigh their costs. Yet, the Erie was surprisingly unpopular while under construction. New York’s governor DeWitt Clinton was criticized for his support of the project . When completed, the canal brought immediate economic gain to both New York and the farmers of the West who could now quickly and cheaply get their food products from their farms to the markets of New York City. The reverse also held – ships could unload their cargo at New York City and then be able to move those goods via canal to the western states in justa few days. The Erie Canal was one of the best investments in infrastructure ever made.
The needs of the Western citizens centered around expansion. New areas were being settled, new towns were constantly forming. To connect all these new settlements, roads and canals were needed. To buy the equipment to start a farm or a business, banks were needed for loans. And at all times, the threat of Native attack existed, requiring a large and active army to protect the people of the western states and territories.
Merchants in the West will be in favor of a national bank that can require notes to be converted into gold on demand (redemption). This reduces the risk of banks issuing too many notes and possibly going bankrupt. But farmers and entrepreneurs in the West will want banks to be able to make as many loans as possible – even if sometimes banks go bankrupt. A bank that is “free” is one that doesn’t have to redeem its paper (soft) money for gold (hard) money.
The Cotton (en)Gin(e) turned cotton into the primary cash crop of the South and set off a revolution in textiles. Cheap cotton meant cheaper clothes and now even poor people could afford to have multiple sets of pants, shirts, dresses etc. Cheap cotton became the raw material for the textile factories of the Northern states which we will discuss tomorrow.
Cheap cotton and the skyrocketing demand for cheap clothing creates an entire economic system. England produces most of the world’s clothes, thus England buys most of the South’s cotton. The rest Is sold to textile factories in the North. Making all this extremely profitable is the free labor of the slaves. As southern territories like Mississippi and Alabama are cleared of Natives, the cotton plantation system can expand into these new areas. Every aspect of this economic system centered around the need to employ slave labor. Slavery meant huge profits for the plantation owners. By the 1850’s, Mississippi is the wealthiest state in the US – all that wealth built on the backs of slaves.
You can see on this map the areas where slaves made up more than 50% of the total population were the areas best suited for growing cotton: the Mississippi Delta, the coastal plains of Texas and the rich soil belts of Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. The areas where slaves were rare were typically areas too cold, too mountainous, with soils too poor to grow cotton. These settlement patterns will persist after the slaves are freed.
As discussed earlier, cheap cotton meant cheap clothes and for the first time in human history, poor people could afford multiple sets of clothes. Before cheap cotton, a poor person had one outfit to work in and (perhaps) a nicer outfit to go to church in – and that was it. As you might imagine, multiple sets of clothing allowed for improved cleanliness and better hygiene.
The focus of the South on cotton brought cotton plantation owners huge profits. But growing cotton year after year depletes the soil. Within 20 to 30 years, once productive soils are completely depleted and unable to grown any more cotton. Depletion meant that Southern landowners were always thinking about finding new land. Also, the same families kept increasing their wealth – and using their cotton profits to import luxuries from England. So the cotton wealth never “trickled down” to other people. This income inequality meant that only a few people controlled most of the wealth in the South. The South was an aristocratic society.
Given that slavery was the cornerstone of their wealth, Southern politicians refused to discuss any modification of slavery. They also wanted runaway slave laws enforced that would make Northern states return any escaped slaves who made their way to the free states of the North. Such fugitive slave laws were very unpopular in the Northern states who, by the 1830’s, had banned slavery within their territories. Great Britain also made slavery illegal in the 1830’s.
Given that cotton was the source of their wealth and that most of their cotton was sold to England, Southern politicians were against tariffs on imported goods. Tariffs helped Northern industry but made imports of English goods more expensive – which hurt Southern plantation owners who bought most of their luxury items directly from England.
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