America in the 1850s

Slavery and Sectional Animosity

How restless, or movement-oriented, were the Americans of 1850?

They were extremely restless. Fifteen years earlier, the astute Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville noted that an American had no sooner finished the roof on his house before he tried to sell it, and that he had no sooner planted his garden than he wanted to hire other men to harvest the crops. There were, of course, some exceptions to the rule. A Bostonian often remained a Bostonian for life, and the same could be said for a resident of Charleston, South Carolina. But these cities, as interesting and evocative as they were, did not represent the fullness of the American experience, which was much better explained by a look at New York City and New Orleans.

If Manhattan demonstrated the restless energy of the immigrant from overseas, then New Orleans did the same for the immigrant from elsewhere in the nation. By 1850, New Orleans was very prosperous, thanks to the ever-increasing number of steamboats that plied the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. No one predicted that New Orleans would overtake Manhattan in terms of population—the latter had a strong head start—but in terms of commercial energy, the two places had much in common.


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