A Portrait of America, 1830
In 1830 America boasted a population of approximately 13,000,000 people distributed among 25 states. Andrew Jackson, the "Great Commoner", was President. It was a land filled with unbridled pride and a confident optimism that the future would be better than the present. The revolution that created the country had ended only forty-seven years before. America had emerged victorious from the War of 1812 – the country’s "Second War of Independence" – only fifteen years earlier. The Erie Canal – the pathway that would open up the West – had been completed five years earlier. America’s first locomotive, the "Tom Thumb", made its first run that very year. America was growing, there was plenty of land available to start a new life and certainly the future would be better than the past.
Thomas Low Nichols captures this climate of optimism in a survey of life in New England in the 1830s. Born in New Hampshire in 1815, Nichols grew up to be a journalist and prolific writer. His writings promoted health foods, free love, spiritualism and other new ideas. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Nichols and his wife left America to live in England as a protest. While there, he published a number of works including a memoir of his youth in New England that provides us insight into life in America in the early nineteenth century:
"Every boy knew that. . .there was nothing to hinder him from being President; all he had to do was to learn."
We traversed our rough New England roads with mail-coaches, drawn by four or six horses, at the rate of six or eight miles an hour. . .
The roads, never very good, were very bad in the spring, when the melting snows and the up-heaving of the frost made mud a foot or more in depth. In swampy places logs and poles were laid across, to form a roadway called corduroy, over which vehicles bumped and jolted at the slowest pace. . .There were a few turnpike roads, made and kept in repair by companies, who gathered tolls for their use; but these were never properly made.
. . .My father had been drafted as a militia-man during the war of 1812, and might have fought in the famous battle of Plattsburg had not his business engagements made it necessary for him to hire a substitute, by which he lost not only much glory, but the bounty-money and a hundred and sixty acres of land, which was afterwards given to every surviving soldier whose name could be found upon the rolls of the army. But, though compelled by circumstances to forego the honours and profits of serving his country during the war, he was full of martial spirit, and rose in the militia from the ranks to be corporal, sergeant, ensign, lieutenant, captain, major, and finally the colonel of a regiment. We had drills, training's, officers' drills, and once a year that glorious military spectacle of the muster of a whole regiment, and every few years the general muster of an entire brigade. . .