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2 A New and Better Life Antebellum Americans were driven and ambitious people who were out to make the best possible lives for themselves and their families. “Americans enjoyed more opportunity to pursue their ambitions, by foul means or fair, than any other people in history,” noted historian Walter McDougall. After the American Revolution, millions flooded west in search of land, seeking opportunity and security. They were less constrained by their historical and geographical circumstances than any other people, and a resource-rich land without major continental rivals awaited their conquest. Americans also benefited from the new commercial society that emerged in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The Revolution had unleashed entrepreneurial and commercial energies that transformed the country between independence and the Civil War. It weakened the hierarchal, paternalistic society inherited from the English and broke down barriers to the pursuit of individual economic gain. The antebellum United States was, as historian Gordon Wood has argued, “a very democratic and egalitarian society, dominated as it was by common, ordinary people with very vulgar and pecuniary interests.”1 America became a “scrambling, acquisitive, individualistic” society. By the 1820s, it was “perhaps the most thoroughly commercialized nation in the world,” Wood wrote. Nicholas Hesse, a German immigrant who lived in the town of Westphalia, Missouri, confirmed what Wood observed, noting, “Nearly everywhere that I visited an American farmer, his property was offered to me for sale. Everyone paints in lively colors the heralded advantages of his possession .” He further wrote that Americans did not hesitate to “move on again from 16 chapter two a good place, frequently for a great distance if [they] can sell [their] property advantageously.” Another German immigrant in Missouri, Eduard Zimmerman, echoed this, writing that Americans “never become attached to a given region. If they can sell their property to any sort of advantage, they are certain to do so.”2 Americans pursued their own economic self-interest whenever possible. They benefited from their English heritage of capitalism, which stressed such positive economic traits as creativity and ambition, as well as more negative aspects such as impatience and corruption. In Europe and elsewhere, wrote McDougall, “the privilege to manipulate the system to one’s advantage was either reserved to elites or severely constrained: the wily peasant could not go far.” In the United States, by contrast, white males enjoyed greater opportunity to pursue their own desires for economic gain. Common and ordinary people did not accept the hierarchal and aristocratic societies that existed in Europe. Their “separate and strenuous pursuits of happiness,” as Gordon Wood declared, “directed and shaped the values and contours of life to an extent never before or since seen in modern history.”3 Alexis de Tocqueville echoed these comments in his classic study Democracy in America. He wrote that he was “more struck by the innumerable multitude of little undertakings than by the extraordinary size of some of their industrial enterprises.” Almost every farmer combined “some trade with agriculture; most of them have made agriculture itself a trade.” Americans saw settlement as temporary, he wrote, especially in the western states. The continual increase in population usually led to an increase in the price of land and the opportunity for profit. Like Nicholas de Finiels, Tocqueville saw Americans as having a “passion for industry” that viewed farming as a trading venture. In fact, he claimed, “I know of no other country where love of money has such a grip on men’s hearts.”4 Missouri provided opportunity for these ambitious and mobile people, who brought an acceptance of the market economy west with them. Most of these people came from the upper South—Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina. Migrants usually settled near rivers, as soils were more fertile and waterways provided easy transportation and market access. They also brought slavery westward with them. But the peculiar institution did not impede involvement in the growing market economy. Small slave owners and farmers populated Missouri, owning modest amounts of land and a few slaves. They produced a diverse mix of crops and operated more like small A New and Better Life 17 farmers than planters. Southerners had shown an interest in commerce since they had crossed the Appalachian Mountains in the late 1700s. Most Missouri residents did not resist markets. Of course, not everyone wanted to be part of this emerging market society. Some chose to live more isolated lives on the edges of settlement, due to an inability to buy land or...


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