The First Great Transformation of America

American Flag

The first half of the 19th century was a time of rapid and massive changes in everyday life in America.

Between 1800 and 1850, a span of only two generations, population growth and advances in technology brought about changes in almost every aspect of American life. These changes were swift and permanent, and for the most part unexpected; Americans of 1850 lived in a nation that would have been nearly inconceivable to their own grandparents a half-century before.

The Population Explosion

The 1800 US census determined the population of America to be 5.3 million. By 1850, that number had more than quadrupled to 23.2 million. When President Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana territory from France in 1803, he estimated that it would provide space for the next hundred generations of Americans. Two generations later, it was essentially filled, and Americans were settling the areas to the northwest and along the Pacific coast. Soon after 1850, the United States was larger than any European country except Russia and France.

The Transportation Revolution

In 1800, nothing moved faster than a running horse or a sailing ship. People and goods – and therefore information as well – could travel either along dirt roads or downriver on flatboats or over the sea. It cost as much to send freight thirty miles overland as it did to send it across the Atlantic. But by 1850, roads had been macadamized, 3700 miles of canals had been built, and steamboats plied the waters of every navigable river in the country. Of even more importance was the railroad. By 1850 the United States had 9000 miles of rail, more than any other country in the world – and ten years later had an additional 21,000 miles, more than all the other countries in the world combined. People and goods were now able to travel to far more distant places in far less time; and, thanks to the spread of the telegraph in the 1840s, information could now travel anywhere the wires were run in virtually no time at all.

The Economic Transformation

In 1800, most Americans produced almost everything they needed for their own daily lives. They grew the food they ate, made the clothes they wore, built the houses they lived in, educated their children, treated their illnesses, buried their dead. If they lived in a town or city, they might work in a shop or market near their home; otherwise, their workplace was their home. By 1850, all that had changed. Because of the population explosion, more people lived in cities; because of the transportation revolution, goods were cheaper and the markets for them were more expansive. The result was specialization and the division of labor. Individual production by skilled craftsmen gave way to much cheaper mass production in factories.

The changes of the first half of the 19th century were not universal throught the nation. For many decades, village blacksmiths and shoemakers and printers coexisted with factory workers and millhands. But the pattern laid down during those two generations eventually became the dominant pattern, not only for the United States, but for much of the world – a pattern that is only now beginning to change again.


  1. McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988, pp. 6-15.