Poverty and Inequality in Jacksonian America

Jacksonian America is not the work of one man. Jacksonian America is not all about Andrew Jackson even if he was arguably the most influential person in this period of American history.

But without the contribution of others it would be impossible to understand the transformation of America from 1815 to 1848 (Howe, p.5). It was a major transition period from independence and Civil War. It must be made clear that Jacksonian America is complicated with many forces trying to form the nation into a democracy that was supposed to be a showcase for the whole world to see.

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It is a time full of contradictions of progress and poverty. It is interesting to point out that in the midst of freedom and technological breakthroughs the forces that work on 19th century America created inequalities within society. The following is an attempt to merely scratch the surface and explain the reason why poverty and social problems were the norm rather than the exception.

Jacksonian America

The fitting backdrop for Jacksonian America is none other than the American Revolution that shattered British hegemony in the New World. Without the controlling power of the British Crown the new rulers of the American continent were fittingly called American citizens. But shortly thereafter they realised that freedom and self-determination is very much different from progress and social order.

The new leaders must form a new government. This does not assure them of sustained reform that could help realise the dreams of everyone. But they have no choice but to experiment with democracy especially after their experience with being a colony under Great Britain. One of the reactions of the leaders and most especially the presidents under this period was to impose a policy of non-intervention by the federal government.

It was an experiment in governance that has its share of breakthroughs and challenges, one that is expected of fledgling nation that is also a union of different states. Needless to say the American people had to go through the valley of death and persevere against the storms that come their way in order to succeed in their task of nation building.

It was not an easy road to take. At the end of the Jacksonian era the conflict and the problems were too much to take. In addition the grand design which was known as the Union was tested severely as independent states felt that power was concentrated in the North.

The Civil War that followed drastically altered the social landscape and looking back it was the defining moment for the United States of America. However, the great nation that emerged from the ashes of war could not be fully appreciated if the events and the various forces that shaped it in the Jacksonian era is left unexamined.

For the sake of simplicity this study will focus on three major forces that shaped Jacksonian America and these are political, social, and economic. These three are related, each one affecting the other. The policies created by the administration of Andrew Jackson affected the lives of many people. Historians are in agreement that, “The Jacksonian era began well before the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828 and reflects more than simply the issues and policies advocated by Jackson and his Democratic supporters” (Doutrich, p.xv).

At the same time the prevailing social forces that existed long before Jackson was sworn into office also affected the politics of the era. And there is no need to elaborate that the economy and how goods and services were created was a determining factor in the actions and decisions made in Jacksonian America.

These three forces can be easily understood by substituting terms that are more familiar. These are the Industrial Revolution, Negro Slaves, and Jacksonian Democracy. All these three combined to create a nation that has to balance between the need to build factories in the North and plantations in the South.

The factories attracted many rural folks to move to the cities. The economic engine created by landowners in the South required the use of Negro slaves. They perpetuated this mode of economic growth even if the use of humans as beasts of burden contradicted the ideals of their so-called democratic government.

The Industrial Revolution

The extreme inequality that created a living hell for many American families during this particular era could not be fully understood without discussing the Industrial Revolution in the context of the United States.

The sudden proliferation of factories coupled with social and economic factors such as the decline of farm income. According to experts there are three major reasons why families left their rural abode to risk everything in the city and these are: population growth; rising property taxes; and declining farm profitability (Lehman, p.8).

Other experts clarified this statement by saying that “The onset of the industrial revolution brought about a great shift in population, drawing people from farms into burgeoning cities (Gillham, p.25). This trend continued until there are more people in the cities as compared to those living in farms. This is the beginning of a great shift in the social structure of America (Freeman & Soete, p.30).

The industrial revolution is the by-product of technological and social changes that swept America (Brezina, p.54).Technology played a crucial role and according to one commentary, “Technology is largely concerned with the process of transformation – the transformation of raw materials into useful or aesthetically pleasing articles” (Derry & Williams, p.259).

In the case of the industrial revolution, technology was not only utilized to transform raw materials, the same was also used to transport them. The development of railways paved the way for the sudden upsurge of the U.S. industrial economy (Deane, p.10).

It was a technology that originated from abroad. An Englishman, named George Stephenson and his sons developed the first successful steam locomotive that was later called the Rocket in 1829 (Sakolsky, p.6). It was indeed a technological breakthrough and soon, “railroads based on steam locomotives grew explosively across England. In just fifteen years, 2441 miles of track had been laid to carry not only cargo but people as well” (Sakolsky, p.6). It did not take long before the United States began using steam locomotives.

At first the transportation of goods was the most important thing but only a few realised that the technology would be used to create an unexpected result, the mass movement of people from small towns to cities. But a city must be established first to attract workers from the provinces.

It is important to point out that in 1830 the United States saw its first railway and an observer made the following comment “After 1848, Chicago became the main hub for transportation with many different rail lines and a canal system terminating there” (Sakolsky, p.7). This was the beginning of the creation of mega-cities that would transform the social and economic landscape of America.

At first the most conspicuous development was the migration of farm workers to the city hoping to get better jobs as opportunities in rural areas began to dry up.

Afterwards it became more obvious that it was only the American farmers and their families that left their hometowns to risk everything in the city; immigrants were also increasing in numbers (Stout, p.29).

Many of the immigrants have the same stories to tell of impoverished homesteads and the frustration of not being able to provide for their children (Gordon, p.55). As a result it was easy to find urban centres bursting at the seams. Overcrowding, pollution and terrible sanitary conditions was the expected outcome of mass migration to cities.

This irresistible pull of urban centres continued into the latter part of the 19th century. The number of immigrants swelled and many more people were directed towards the cities. This led into another phenomenon which is the presence of hired workers that were so numerous that businessmen found a way to exploit the sudden increase in the workforce coupled with low demand for work. This gave rise to a new class of people. At the same time a new pattern of economic growth was made manifest in the mass production of goods.

An observer began to lament the negative impact of the industrial revolution and he wrote, “As more and more people moved to America’s cities to take advantage of all these opportunities, the character of the United States changed. America was no longer a land dominated by farmers, but one dominated by city dwellers living off of wages” (Sakolsky, p.7). But there is more bad news for those who brought their families with them.

Technological advancements in the transportation sector as well as radical changes in the manufacturing industry was all the spark that was needed to create an industrial economy that was rivalled only in Europe. However, the general public and its leaders were caught unaware of the serious repercussions. The first thing that people notices was the harsh and inhumane conditions tolerated by the workers in factories.

The consequences of the economic force that swept America in the early 19th century created a mass of people destitute, lacking the confidence that they once enjoyed when they were still farming. The same thing was felt by the immigrants that did not expect the impact of being a second-class citizen in another country.

But now they are in the city as wage earners, receiving money not enough to properly clothe their bodies and to satisfy their intense hunger. They needed more than money to reclaim the dignity that made them human. The social inequality that they suffered has to be addressed but during this time the situation was so bleak that it was hard to believe that things could change for the better.

The head of the family was pressured to provide for the family that joined him in his quest for a better life. But in most cases the income of the husband is not enough. Thus, the wife had to work. However, there are cases wherein the children were forced to help and subjected to the same harsh treatment reserved for adults. Women workers were common that there existed boarding houses to cater to them. But the conditions were as bad as in the tenements.

According to one factory worker, “six girls often slept in one room, in three double beds” (Pessen, p.119). If this was not enough these women were expected to work 13 to 14 hours a day (Pessen, p.119). They were considered as contract labourers working in an unhealthy confined space for many hours every single day (Pessen, p.119). They were afraid to break the strict laws that governed the factory because it would be difficult to find work elsewhere.

Since many of the were unskilled workers the wages were not enough to break free from the cycle of poverty because the usual wage only amounts to $2 to $2.75 per week. The humiliation does not end there because the wages were paid at infrequent intervals (Pessen, p.119). Women had to endure this kind of working conditions the whole year through.

There is also another type of factory system that involved women and children. It is called the Fall river type wherein the whole family works for an employer. In Massachusetts women and children made up more than half the labour force under the family system (Pessen, p.119).

In Pennsylvania on the other hand, it was estimated “that one fifth of the factory workers were children under 12 years of age” (Pessen, p.119). In this state, the women had nothing to look forward to because the wages can go as low as fifty cents per week in the year 1832 (Pessen, p.119). Children were paid significantly less.

The hidden side of Jacksonian America

An overview of American history between 1815 and 1848 should not be limited to the impact of the Industrial revolution and how poor families were forced to leave their farms and move to overcrowded cities in search of greener pastures. It is also important to look into the problem of slavery in the Jacksonian period.

Nevertheless, it is understandable why many would focus on the plight of factory workers and its connection with the politics of the day. This is because the workers in factories are American citizens who believed in the promise of a new beginning. When they suffered the indignity of working in a job that only gave them low wages the cry of freedom and revolution became a bitter memory that could have easily made many to be cynical.

However, a recounting of Jacksonian America is incomplete if the spotlight is not trained on Negro slaves. If this study is all about poverty and poor women working to help provide for their families, it is inconsistent if the discussion does not provide space to talk about women working in plantations located in the South. This is an important facet of Jacksonian America because there is evidence to show that what goes on in the plantations had a direct effect on the industrial economy of the nation.

Historians pointed out that “American cotton mills, stimulated by increase iin southern cotton production grew rapidly … in 1813 a group of Massachusetts merchants, the Boston Associates, pooled their capital and developed a system of large-scale textile mills” (Doutrich, p.xvii). But in direct contrast the increase in the number of factories in the north had no effect whatsoever to the institution of slavery in the southern states.

This is an important issue to discuss because the plight of women working long hours inside a factory is something that can provoke the strongest feelings especially from people in the 21st century who cannot fathom why working women allow their employers to treat them that way (Rodgers, p.3)

If people find it disgusting as to the way employers exploited women and children, how much more is the reaction if they realise that in the Southern part of the United States women are subjected to more horrifying treatment. Slaves were not even given the dignity to earn wages or even the right to be a citizen of America. They were slaves and they were the property of their masters.

This is the hidden side of Jacksonian America. Politicians kept silent about the plight of the Negro slaves in the South. Businessmen behaved the same way. There were many justifications made to ease the burden of thinking about the absurdity of the idea that men can own other men. As a result the issue of slavery did not take centre stage and main reason for the lack of debate is that no one from the other side can come in and make known what exactly was happening in the plantations.

All of that changed when Negro slaves were able to escape a life of servitude and moved north. When some of them learned to read and write they became eyewitnesses that suddenly have found the voice and the medium to proclaim their message for all those who are willing to hear. One such example was Frederic Douglas. He was a former slave who turned his life around to become an abolitionist – fighting for the freedom of fellow slaves that suffered under the hands of their owners.

The eyewitness account of what transpired in the plantations revealed the fact that the women in factories may have had a terrible time dealing with the shock of working in squalid conditions but they have nothing when it comes to the black women working as slaves. In the words of a fugitive slave, “It is not he who has stood and looked on, that can tell you what slavery is – ‘tis he who has endured” (Yetman, p.1).

There is no need to elaborate the fact that slaves are “the most unenvied and poorest group in American life” (Pessen, p.83). In factories located in the northern part of America, workers are forced to endure poor working conditions but they still have the freedom to leave if they feel that they could no longer endure what was happening in the factories. But the slaves do not have the same luxury.

Consider how they were treated, there were considered as nothing more than mere property by wealthy landowners. According to the law in the Southern states, “slaveholders have ordained, and by law established, that the children of slave women shall in all cases follow the condition of their mothers; and this is done too obviously to administer to their own lusts, and make a gratification of their wicked desires profitable as well as pleasurable…” (Douglas, p.15).

It is not only the lack of freedom and the absence of wages but also on how women were treated by their masters. It has been said that excessive punishment is one of the ways that a slave holder can dominate the slaves. As a consequence the whip is the favourite weapon to terrorize the women and men. The naked backside of Negro slaves provided the target. Farm animals may have fared better compared to the slaves.

According to eyewitness reports, women slaves did not only suffer physically but emotionally as well. In the factories the hard work, low pay, and the hazards involved in dealing with machines is also an emotionally draining routine but it is nothing compared to the emotional torture suffered by women slaves in the South. There is a practice perpetuated by many slave owners and it is the deliberate separation of women and their children.

There is a practical reason why slave owners had to separate a weaned child from his or her mother. But this does not mean that they have the right to do so. Without a doubt the practice comes from a depraved mind for who can separate children from their mother? But slave owners cannot see beyond the idea that their slaves are also human.

Thus, an eyewitness account recounted the effect on the mother and he wrote, “For what reason this separation was done, I do not know, unless it be to hinder the development of the child’s affection toward its mother, and to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child” (Douglas, p.5). In the factories women were exploited but at least they went through a hiring process.

In the case of women slaves, they were a by-product of a breeding process

From the point of view of a woman, Sarah Frances Shaw Graves, who happened to be a former slave, the plantation owners cannot see the humanity of the Negro slave and by doing so they can easily justify cruelty of their actions. They were considered like breeding animals as seen in the following account “My papa never knew where my mama went, an’ my mama never knew where papa went …

They never wanted mama to know, ’cause they ‘knowed’ she would never marry so long she knew where he was … Our master wanted her to marry again and raise more children to be slaves” (Douglas, p.6).

In case of overcrowded cities the only reason for existence is to be used as a tool to produce goods and services. The owners did not bother to improve the skills of the women and children working for them. The same thing can be said of the women slaves working in the plantations. They do not have access to resources that could have helped them break free from their current status as a slave.

Thus, education or the lack of it is a means of control. By keeping slaves uninformed deprives them of the capacity to think outside the walls of their prison. This makes the idea of freedom as unpalatable as the thought of being a slave for life. There is no means of livelihood outside the invisible walls of the prison created by the slave masters. The mind is controlled in this most cruel manner.

According to a former slave, “The greater part of the plantation owners were very harsh if we were caught trying to learn or write …. Our ignorance was the greatest hold the South had on us. We knew we could run away, but what then?” (Douglas, p.12).

The reason for the obsessive means of control and subjugation is based on the desperate need of slave owners to control a workforce that is suited for farming. The wages and low earning capability of the workers found in factories is also a means of control but the same system of wages cannot be sustained in the South and therefore the system of slavery is the ideal way to sustain a way of life in the South.

Although thousands of slaves were bought and sold in America and the perpetuation of the said system was never in decline during this period, it can also be said with certainty that during the Jacksonian era the seeds of Negro emancipation began to sprout. Abolitionists began to speak against the institution of slavery and argued convincingly that this has to end (Doutrich, p.192).

Women in Jacksonian America

So far there are two types of women workers covered in the previous discussion. The female factory worker is someone exploited by a new system that enable them not to work in farms but in cities. In exchange for their time and work in the factories they received wages. The slave woman on the other hand works in the fields in the South. But instead of receiving wages she is made into a slave without rights and existing only to provide work for her master.

But not all the women in Jacksonian America can be categorized into these two major groups. There are those who are free. There are those who are free and yet did not choose to exchange their freedom with a chance to earn money working in a factory. These women joined their respective families and their husbands to move westward.

The need for more land and to acquire it without having to spend a small fortune requires an expansion westward. Although the ideals of freedom and independence were played out in the West, these women could not say that they have a much better life than the women working in factories and the women that work as slaves.

They may be a little better off but there was a steep price to pay for moving westward. In the words of one historian it was a constant battle for survival and this prompted many to say “Those who lived there were not just settlers … they were warriors for the cause, men and women alike” (Caughfield, p.4).

Poverty in 19th Century America

In the beginning of the Jacksonian era, many were still convinced that an American must support his family by tilling the ground and working as a farmer. Many are in agreement that “Within the United States, the overwhelming majority of the population in 1815 engaged in agriculture” (Howe, p.19).

But change was inevitable. Those who were left behind in the rural areas to continue working as farmers felt the blow of poverty so severely that later on many of them would follow the footsteps of those who left their hometowns for the city. It was discovered by researchers that “middle wealth groups held very little wealth in America” during that time (Pessen, p.83).

Those who tried to escape the poverty in farmlands were not as fortunate when they reached the cities. Aside from small income that they were able to receive from their hourly labour, when they are home they come face-to-face with a discouraging sight, their families living in a small room.

It was normal to see 55 families in one tenement (Pessen, p.85). Each family had to learn how to squeeze themselves into one room because that is the only space that they can afford in the cities. According to a report these families “huddled to the rear … victims of a parsimonious building policy which meant crowding, noise, inadequate sanitation, lack of facilities for rubbish removal” (Pessen , p.85). This is merely scratching the surface when it comes to describing the poor Americans during the Jacksonian era.

Welfare Reform

The degree of poverty experienced by many Americans in the Jacksonian era calls for the assistance of private and government funded charitable organizations. Poverty is a cycle that keeps on going until someone does something to alter the course of a person’s earning capacity. Consider for instance the challenges faced by families who left everything behind to live and work in the cities only to find out that there is no work waiting for them.

For those who are fortunate enough to find work are not better than the unemployed because they have to work long hours and yet at times unable to collect their pay check. And when they are able to collect their wages are not enough to cover basic needs. The poverty experienced on a wide scale can be traced back to the impact of the war against the British Crown.

There were many who responded to the call for help. In fact, there were a good number of benevolent societies that were established to help those in need. However, the private charities were “inadequate to help the war’s many refugees and broken families” (Streissguth, p.5).

But the Americans made a clamour for a public system of social welfare, “In New York, for example, agencies were set up under state management for sheltering the poor and mentally ill” (Streissguth, p.5). Another system adopted was the auctioning of the poor and the highest bidder gets the chance to take care of them. But in many cases the poor were turned into indentured servants for an indefinite time (Streissguth, p.5). This has enraged many people and the practice died down.

By the year 1824 the problem on how to deal with poverty has reached a crisis point and this prompted New York secretary of state John Yates to issue the statement “Our poor laws are manifestly defective in principle and mischievous in practice … under the imposing and charitable aspect of affording relief exclusively to the poor and infirm, they frequently invite the able-bodied vagrant to partake of the same bounty” (Streissguth, p.5). Changes were made but the need still outweighs the outpouring of support from good hearted citizens.

It became clear that state governments were greatly involved in the helping the poor but the federal government was not involve in the alleviation of poverty in the U.S. This was highlighted when the United States congress passed a bill in 1854 that granted public lands to the states in order for them to build homes for the insane and just as quickly, President Franklin Pierce vetoed it.

He made the following comment, “I cannot find any authority in the Constitution for making the Federal Government the great almoner of public charity throughout the United States” (Streissguth, p.7). As a result the pubic welfare system of America was never nationalized until the turn of the 20th century (Streissguth, p.7). This means that as poverty levels increased due to the effect of Jacksonian politics and the industrial revolution, there was no nationalized program to soften the impact of poverty in the lives of many people.

It can be argued that Jacksonian democratic principle was the driving force that created all the problems that has been pointed out in the discussion. It is therefore important to find out the core principle of Jacksonian politics to better understand the consequences of policies created to govern the nation.

According to Jacksonian Democrats there is inherent danger to the idea of a powerful government intervening with the American society. They believed that “if opportunities were left unfettered, a balance of power and wealth would be achieved and that government intervention only worked to upset the balance, not to create it” (Etcheson, p.64). This helps explain why the government seemed powerless to correct some of the obvious problems that plagued the country in that period.

It now makes sense why the government failed to respond effectively to poverty, slavery, and the inequalities created by the industrial revolution. What can be perceived as incompetence is now explained by a political theory on how to deal with the social and economic forces that threatened to pull the nation into different directions.

It is not easy to understand why the federal government turned a blind eye to slavery and allowed the existence of poor working conditions in many factories. This also explains why poor relief was only done at the state and local level and not in a national scale.

The federal government is seen as the arbiter and the mediator. It cannot be perceived as a bully trying to enforce a system that can be beneficial for some and harmful to others. In an ideal scenario the theory may work because opposing forces and a free enterprise is expected to produce the best system.

But there are problems that cannot be allowed to work on its own without the active participation of government. For instance the Negro slaves cannot be free unless someone comes in to break the chains of slavery. The poor families cannot break free from a cycle of poverty unless there is someone willing to give a hand.

The government is too powerful not to do anything. It can be said that this is the fundamental flaw of Jacksonian democracy. There were many times during the Jacksonian period when people were in need of help but nothing was done to either alleviate poverty or to end slavery. Negro slaves were allowed to decay in body and spirit because the government believed that some sort of balance has to be maintained to achieve equal rights and privileges. But just like in the case of exploited workers this policy increased poverty in America.


Jacksonian America was supposed to be a land where there is equal distribution of wealth. This is the premise of the political ideals espoused by Jacksonian Democrats. Thus, the government was not allowed to intervene with society. Instead of creating balance, equal rights and equal privileges, the policy widened the gap between rich and poor.

The impact of poverty and slavery is something difficult to grasp in its entirety. Poverty cannot even begin to describe what Negro slaves experienced in southern plantations. Poverty in the tenements and overcrowded cities is difficult to imagine especially if one will compare it to the improvements that occurred in the 20th century. It must be made clear however that all of these things were a reaction of what happened in the past.

The American Revolution created tremendous pressure on national leaders that were responsible for managing a huge land mass and a burgeoning population. When the industrial revolution transformed how products and services were made and delivered the government simply tried to do what was best in a nation that was supposed to be a model for democracy.

Works Cited

Brezina, Corona. The Industrial Revolution in America. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, 2005.

Caughfield, Adrienne. True Women and Westward Expansion. TX: Texas University Press, 2005.Deane, Phylis. The First Industrial Revolution. UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Derry, Thomas and Trevor Williams. A Short History of Technology: From the Earliest Times to A.D. 1900. New York: Dover, 1993.Douglas, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, An American Slave. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Doutrich, Paul. Shapers of the Great Debate on Jacksonian Democracy. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004.Etcheson, Nicole. The Emerging Midwest. IN: Indiana University Press, 1996.Freeman, Christoper and Luc Soete. The Economics of Industrial Innovation. UK: Routledge, 1997.

Gillham, Oliver. The Limitless City: A Primer on the Urban Sprawl Debate. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2002.

Gordon, Linda. Women, State and Welfare. WI: Wisconsin University Press, 1990.Howe, Daniel Walker. What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. New York: Oxford University, 2007.Lehman, Tim. Public Values, Private Lands: Farmland Preservation Policy. NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

Pessen, Edward. Jacksonian America: Society, Personality and Politics. IL: Dorsey Press, 1978.Rodgers, Harrell. American Poverty in a New Era of Reform. New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 2006.Sakolsky, J. (2005). Critical Perspectives on the Industrial Revolution. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group. Stout, Robert. Why Immigrants Come to America. Westport, CT: Praegers

Publishers, 2008.Streissguth, Thomas. Welfare and Welfare Reform. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2009.Yetman, Norma. “An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives.” Oct. 2007. 16 May 2011 .


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