Chapter 15. Social Life in the Early Republic


From the point of view of the people who were already here, discovery and settlement were invasion and genocide. In 1782 a transplanted European could feel pride in the equality of men regarding women, Indians, and slaves the same as they regarded dogs or cattle.

Possessing land

In the colonies, only possessing land made a man a citizen. Only white male landowners had the right to vote, the right to decide how they should be governed and taxed.

Race and nationality

Race and nationality used to go together, as characteristic as language. A German was a person from Germany who spoke German. In the United States, the concept evolved to become one’s cultural and genetic roots.

Servants and laborers

Masters like to have thought they treated their servants and laborers as equals with good feelings among them, bearing in mind they have servants and laborers, whereas servants and laborers have masters. They like to have us think their people had no envy and were happy with being told what to do.

Teaching the class system

Private schools in Salem Massachusetts were run by “gentlewomen whose fortunes had diminished,” and attended by children of only the best families. Young women were taught to be young gentlewomen with the best manners, decorous and delicate.

Northern vs. southern races

The southern horse was named Sir Henry. The northern horse was named Eclipse. Without regard to the “sectional feeling and heavy pecuniary stakes” from betting, the South lost the race. The northern candidate, John Quincy Adams, narrowly won the next election; the southern candidate, Andrew Jackson, won by a mile after that.

Child labor

At the Waltham Mills near Boston girls and children were employed to mind the cotton spindles and looms. They would come in from family farms and take rooms in boarding houses. This system was considered more enlightened than the English system because it used more labor-saving machinery. As poor Irish immigrants escaped famine they flooded the labor market and brought more child laborers.

Boston Brahmins

Wealth doesn’t abolish superstition, but provides freedom for it to thrive. One superstition is the natural superiority of the higher castes.

Antebellum beauty

The ideal of beauty for young white woman in the antebellum south was a white complexion and soft clean hands. Needless to say, young colored women were ineligible for this distinction.

Criticisms by Dickens

Slavery results in the corruption of both whites and blacks and horrible violence against blacks both male and female. Freedom in America seems to mean the ability to shoot or knife any other American. Overriding commercialism prevents development of a culture that values humor and wider perspectives. Washington, D.C. was a place of chewing tobacco and frequent public expectorations.

Religion vs. law

Abraham Lincoln in Springfield as a young lawyer argued a case pro bono to remove an onerous license on the city’s first theater that was imposed after sermons that declared it unholy. In this case, history and humor prevailed against Puritanical fears.

The telegraph

Cooke and Wheatstone’s multiple-wire telegraph was invented later but proven earlier than the single-wire telegraph system of Morse, Gale, Henry, and Vail. William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone based their work on the research of Joseph Henry and got the idea from Wilhelm Weber and Carl Gauss who made an electromagnetic telegraph in 1833. Without Leonard Gale’s help Morse could transmit only a few hundred yards. Without Alfred Vail, Morse code would consist of only numbers and a code book. International Morse code dropped Vail’s dashes of three different lengths, and only four letters remained the same as the original Morse code. The telegraph was not an American invention nor the work of a single man.


Before anesthesia surgery had to be quick because surgery was painful. William Thomas Green Morton, dentist, believed there must be a way to anesthetize a patient, experimented on himself inhaling ether and morphine, ether and opium, and experimented and on his pet water spaniel and a chicken. His first human patient went out easily, and remained unconscious while Morton pulled his molar; however, Morton panicked when the patient didn’t wake up right away.


Philip Hone in 1849 wrote of the cholera epidemic, “Poor New York has become a charnel house,” observing that doctors were not reporting the full numbers to protect their own reputations. This was part of the third pandemic. Five years later, in London, John Snow traced transmissions to a water pump on Broad Street, thus establishing that cholera was spread by contamination of water; however, doctors in New York City in 1849 didn’t know how it spread.