1783-1815: Lifestyles, Social Trends, and Fashion: Overview
1783-1815: Lifestyles, Social Trends, and Fashion: Overview
Distinct Culture. At the end of the Revolutionary War the United States became an independent political state, but the diverse population was hardly unified. The inhabitants were of different races and ethnicities and had no official religion or common culture. By the end of the War of 1812 the United States had begun to live up to its name. Americans were starting to develop a cultural identity that drew upon their varied heritages and assimilated them into a national character.
Statistics. The federal census of 1790 recorded the population as 3, 929, 214 and the land area of the country as 867, 980 square miles. Men and women of British descent were the single largest group of Americans, representing 50 percent of the entire population in the original states; the rest included Africans, Germans, Dutch, French, and Native Americans. The United States at this time was predominantly rural, with only one in twenty Americans living in a city or town of more than 2, 500 people. In fact, as late as 1840 only one in nine Americans lived in urban settings. Federal censuses between 1790 and 1820 reveal that an average of six people lived in each free American household. This figure, large not only by today’s standards but also by those of contemporary Europe, indicated a growing country. By 1820 the American population had jumped to 9, 638, 453 and the country’s land area to 1, 753, 588 square miles.
American Farmer. The English traveler Frances Trollope noted that the American people were “a busy, bustling, industrious population.” Merchants and artisans played an important part in the economy, but “farming absorbed society,” according to Samuel Goodrich of Connecticut. In 1800 four-fifths of all families farmed the land for themselves or others. The rhythms of farm work—plowing, planting, cultivation, and harvest—occupied the daily lives of most people. Tobacco, rice, wheat, and cotton were common crops, but the most important was corn. Across the nation families, white and black, grew corn, a staple in the diets of both people and livestock.
Ideas of Revolution. Between 1783 and 1815 Americans developed a profound sense of their virtue as a people. Not only did they successfully win their independence in 1783, but they also managed to reiterate their national integrity by defeating the British in the War of 1812. Patriotic zeal during this period helped bring the nation’s first holidays and celebrations into existence, including Independence Day, Washington’s Birthday, Thanksgiving Day, and Columbus Day. Democratic-Republican societies also arose to celebrate republicanism at home and abroad. Nevertheless, American notions about challenging authority were affected in the 1790s by the French and Haitian revolutions. The American spirit in the early days of the Republic was marked by consolidation, not revolution. Many Americans, particularly the New England Federalists, were horrified by the overthrow of the French monarchy in 1789 and the execution of the king and queen four years later. Southern slaveholders saw the 1791 insurrection in Haiti as an object lesson in slave revolt.
Frontiers and Freedom. Americans perceived freedom as a release from oppressive religious, political, and economic constraints. The vast frontier offered what seemed to be limitless freedom, though it was often seized at the expense of Native Americans. Westward expansion forcefully demonstrated American vision, energy, resourcefulness, and determination. It also shaped American culture as pioneers found themselves transformed by the forces of survival. Such legendary figures as Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone became national heroes because they exemplified the self-reliance that Americans came to value above all other qualities.
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