Freedom and Equality in 19th century America

Updated on May 31, 2013

By far, the most contentious issues of the nineteenth century were those of freedom and equality. The question that drove these contests over freedom and equality centered on which social groups in American society should be allowed freedom and equality. Throughout the nineteenth century, a fluctuating standard existed for freedom, with very different levels of freedom existing for each group, while equality decreased over time and a polarized class system was formed. This is most highlighted by the removal of Native Americans in the south, the expansion of rights and social oppression of Blacks, and the addition of opportunities to women during the nineteenth century. Further, the creation of a class system with a radical difference between the wealthy capitalists and the poor wage workers illuminates the loss of equality that laid the foundation for the progressive movement.

While Native Americans never had the rights and freedoms of Whites, the amount of freedom or sovereignty, when considering the Indian Removal Act, that they possessed was drastically reduced by the end of the 1840s. To many Americans, including President Andrew Jackson, the extension of any freedom to the Indians did not even seem possible. Due to their “savage habits” as Jackson referred to them, their was a question as to whether they could even be considered citizens. Further, because the Indians recognized themselves as their own nations, the question of invading the sovereignty of the states was a major question, which Jackson outlined in his address to Congress, and used as an argument in favor of the Indian Removal act. Indeed, this was not universal amongst all Native Americans. As Senator Sprague explains, many of the Indians, particularly those from the Cherokee tribes, had strived to incorporate themselves into white culture and to adopt many of the laws and customs that were considered “civilized”. But, racist attitudes amongst most decision makers, and especially President Jackson ultimately prevailed to pass the Indian Removal Act, mandating all Indians in the south to be relocated to west of the Mississippi. This event killed any hope that the Indians had for advocating for themselves throughout the nineteenth century and erased their freedoms until the progressive era.

In contrast to Native Americans, Blacks actually saw a considerable increase in freedom after the end of the Civil War, at least officially, though the actual level of freedom and equality appeared to be much less, particularly in the South. The passage of the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments freed Blacks from slavery and prohibited any person or governments to infringe on their rights as citizens. However, their was a great deal of debate over how many rights would be extended to freed Blacks, with the southern Democrats particularly against extension of any rights at all. With the introduction of the Civil Rights Bill in 1866, any one born within the United States was considered a citizen and it “spelled out rights they were to enjoy equally without regard to race– making contracts, bringing lawsuits, and enjoying the benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property.” The extension of these rights to Blacks, while a necessary and positive development, provided a basis in the South, and in the North though not as severe, for a social backlash against Blacks which had dire consequences.

In the South, state and local governments, as well as white individuals found many means to limit the freedom and equality of Blacks despite that passage of the three amendments and the Civil Rights Bill. The most notable of these was the system of sharecropping. Whites would own a great deal of land and Blacks would work the land for a cut of the crop. However, this meant that the white farmers could dictate much of the working conditions to the Blacks. Additionally, there was the rise of the Redeemers in the South. This was a collection of individuals who sought to undo the all the work that was done during Reconstruction, and to “reduce the political power of blacks.” By pushing out black politicians, Whites were able to control all realms of political and economic change, and pass legislation that was greatly detrimental to Blacks, such as increased vagrancy laws and laws that “gave the planter control of credit and property.” By the end of the nineteenth century, the granted rights that Blacks had under the Constitution had been severely limited, and would remain so until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

Women saw very little change in their level of freedom in the United States throughout the nineteenth century, however there were a few distinct developments. The situation of women at the beginning of the nineteenth century was what it had been for the last hundred years. They were expected to take care of the home and the family, as well as bear and raise the children. All matters of money and politics was left to the husband, and under the idea of coverture, any rights that a women possessed were only through her husband. In the Jeffersonian era of the early 1800s, one unique development for women was the extension of republican ideals to them. While they were still discouraged and prevented from being active in politics and lacked equality under the law, they were educated “so that they could be better wives, rational household managers,” and most importantly “better mothers for the next generation of virtuous republican citizens –especially sons.” This education provided all of those benefits, but also provided women a sense of autonomy and determination, though they still remained oppressed within society by the dominant male population.

In addition to this extension of republican ideals, women began to enjoy some select economic boosts, particularly the ability to seek employment in certain industries, specifically the textile industry. In Lowell, Massachusetts, girls and women of all ages were able to enter this industry as lowly “factory girls.” Though the hours were long, and the work could sometimes be dangerous, this allowed women to provide for themselves and their families economically, and not only in the traditional means. However, the wages earned were never used to benefit the women, but instead to better the men of the family. The primary use of the money was “to secure the means of education for some male member of the family”, which could often not be afforded through the families other income. Thus, the extension of economic opportunities to women did little to actually increase their equality.

As the United States expanded and industrialized, a pool of labor was needed by the wealthy capital holders to build and work for low wages, which lead to a widening gap between them and their workers. People began to find employment in the increasing number of factories throughout the United States as a way to make a living, or as a means to attain some sort of social mobility, and earn enough to one day own their own capital. This led to the biggest disparity of wealth ever seen, with the capital owners bringing in great sums of money, while only having to pay their workers a paltry sum. With little regulation until the progressive era, the economic inequality was immense between the workers and the capital holders. This created an urban class system in the United States that, while seriously altered, can still be seen well into the twentieth century.

Freedom and equality looked very different for each social group during the nineteenth century. Unfortunately, all of these groups were still marginalized entering into the twentieth century, which provided a great catalyst for the progressive movement. Though changes had been made as the nation industrialized, the wealthy, white, male still prevailed as the dominant figure in American politics and social standings. This would remain the situation for the next several generations, until the social changes of the second half of the twentieth century really altered these notions.


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