American society in the 1800s had a rough edge to it. In a nation made up of people of diverse backgrounds and heritage, social controls needed to be strict and enforceable. The extreme economic inequality of Americas cities and the wide open moral code of the frontier led to a culture of crime and violence that still plagues our country. During the 1800s, professional police forces were established in cities, towns, and territories across the continent. On the frontier, justice was often swift and severe, with hanging judges making their reputations as representatives of the law in a lawless land. Long prison sentences in miserable conditions were the rule for criminals, and many a prisoner might have preferred the option of a quick execution. Before the reform of the legal system, which is an ongoing process, there was definitely a separate law, and a separate standard of penalties, for the rich and for the poor. The evolution of a humane penal system and a fairer protection of all citizens under the law is an important contribution of 1800s America to the modern world.
With the principles of democracy firmly established after the War for Independence, Americans in the 1800s took their politics very seriously. As more and more male citizens gained the right to vote, elections became very public, hotly contested, and sometimes even violent. In the cities and towns of America, politicians courted political power and influence among new immigrant communities; buying votes and stuffing ballot boxes was shockingly common. While the major national political issues of foreign policy, taxation, the abolition of slavery, and states rights took center stage in Congress, Americans split along regional and party lines that still exist in the twenty-first century. Scandals over greed and corruption caused whole city governments to fall, but America also produced some of the greatest statesman and political leaders in its history. Former slaves, poor immigrants, and women demanded their right to vote.
From an isolated and inward-looking new nation clinging to the East Coast, America in the 1800s grew in size, strength, and military might. From the War of 1812 to the century-long campaigns of conquest against Native American peoples, territorial expansion through war with Mexico to the great national tragedy that was the Civil War, American soldiers and sailors forged a tradition of pride and heroism that is part of our national heritage. Sometimes misguided, sometimes truly inspired, nineteenth century America produced some of the greatest military leaders and witnessed some of the bloodiest battles in our history. Behind the scenes, and often neglected in our official histories, the life of America's citizen soldiers was a tough and brutal one. Patriotism, heroism, and human folly all combine in the story of the roots of Americas rise to the status of world military power.
We're all here because of people who met and fell in love in the past! In the 1800s, most young men and women were bound by powerful traditions of family, church, and society that limited their choices in romance and marriage. As an economic and community-building institution, marriage options were traditionally controlled by the older generation. Marriages were often arranged by families, and the bride and groom's personal feelings for each other were much less important than they are today. But as in so many other ways, America was a new and more open society. Communities of people from different and diverse backgrounds were established in a new land, and young people came together in a freer, more open environment. Romantic love flourished in the America of the 1800s as it never had before, with a whole variety of courting and marriage customs, many of which we still cherish today.
While often behind the scenes and hidden from history, women in 1800s America worked side by side with men in building our nation. On the frontier, strong, capable women worked as hard or harder than their menfolk, taming the land and raising the crops while shouldering the responsibilities of keeping house and caring for the children. The life of the farm wife in the settled parts of the country was one of sunup to sundown labor in an era with few modern conveniences. And in urban areas, working class women were a major part of the workforce in an industrializing economy, while middle and upper class women influenced America's social movements, supported charities, and helped beautify the gritty cities. In the course of the 1800s, new labor saving technologies in the home, improved health conditions, greater economic and educational opportunities, and a growing sense of their rights helped to empower women and started the movement toward full equality with men that continues to this day.
For most of the 1800s, children were considered small, unruly adults who needed to be strictly disciplined and put to useful work as soon as they were able. The very concept of childhood itself, as a carefree, innocent time, is a result of increasing economic stability and changing family roles in the 1800s. Before child welfare laws were enacted and compulsory education enforced, children made up an important part of the industrial and agricultural workforce in 1800s America. Toys and time for games and fun may have been a luxury, but kids will be kids, and the adults that loved them made sure their lives weren't all work and no play. The establishment of public schools, more humane working conditions, and expanding economic opportunities helped improve the life of Americas children in the 1800s, but they worked hard and their pleasures were simple ones.
Founded on the principles of religious freedom, America in the 1800s was fertile ground for the expansion of religious movements and all kinds of experiments in spiritual matters. Americans in the 1800s took their religion very seriously. Away from the authority of established churches, the American frontier from upstate New York to the wilds of the Utah territory was a hotbed of new, radical religion based on a personal experience of salvation, direct revelation, and enthusiastic, highly emotional gatherings at camp meetings. At the forefront of the movement to abolish slavery and women's rights, idealistic men and women in the more established Protestant churches heard a new social gospel from an educated and progressive clergy. Meanwhile, large numbers of Catholic immigrants and Jews from Central and Eastern Europe established their own religious institutions in a new land. The religious history of America in the 1800s is rich and diverse and highly influential in the social and political evolution of our country.