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America at the end of the 18th century


George Washington in America
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George Washington was unanimously elected the first president of the United States in 1789. He presided over a revolutionary republic that was overwhelmingly rural. The country’s 4 million people filled the nation’s territory at only 1.7 per square km (4.5 per square mile; the comparable figure for 1998 was 29.5 per square km, or 76.4 per square mile).

Most Americans lived in rural, self–sufficient neighborhoods. Farm families produced a variety of plants and animals, consumed much of what they produced, and traded much of the rest within their neighborhoods. Since the mid–18th century Americans had been sending surpluses to Europe and to the slave islands of the Caribbean; in return they received molasses, rum, crockery, tea and coffee, ready–made cloth, and other European (primarily British) manufactured goods.

Two groups were more heavily dependent on international trade, and both had tended to support the new Constitution. The plantation slave–masters of the South grew staple crops for world markets: rice and indigo in South Carolina and Georgia, tobacco in North Carolina and the Chesapeake. The markets for these goods were in Europe (again, primarily England). Northeastern seaport merchants also had a vital stake in overseas trade. From the 1790s to 1820, southern farms and slavery changed dramatically. In the Chesapeake, tobacco had worn out much of the soil, and world markets for the crop were down. Chesapeake planters began growing less tobacco and more grain, a change that required fewer slaves.

Many planters trained their slaves as carpenters, blacksmiths, and other craftsmen and rented them to employers in the towns. Other planters, believing that the natural rights philosophy of the revolution left little moral room for slavery, freed their slaves; but many more simply sold their slaves at high prices to cotton planters farther south and west.

In the 1790s planters south of Virginia had found that they could make money by growing cotton, thanks to the cotton gin invented by American Eli Whitney to separate sticky seeds from the cotton fibers. The result was a stunning boom in cotton. The United States produced only 3,000 bales of cotton in 1790; that figure jumped to 335,000 by 1820. The cotton boom created a brisk market in slaves. From 1778 to 1808 the United States imported as many African slaves as it had imported during the whole previous history of the slave trade. Nearly all of these slaves entered the country through Charleston or Savannah and ended up working the cotton plantations of the Deep South. Another reason for the rise in slave imports was a promise in the Constitution that the national government would not end the nation’s participation in the international slave trade until 1808, and planters wished to stock up before the market closed. The slave–driven economy of the late 18th and early 19th centuries produced huge amounts of plantation staples, nearly all of them sold to international (primarily English) buyers.

In 1790 there were few cities. Only 5 percent of the population lived in towns with more than 2,500 inhabitants. And only five communities (Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Charleston) had more than 10,000 inhabitants. Each of these five cities was an Atlantic seaport and handled the exporting of American farm staples and the importing of Old World manufactured goods. They performed very little manufacturing of their own. After 1793, when Britain and France entered a long period of war, American seaports handled increased exports as war–torn Europe bought a lot of American food. They also began to handle more of the trade between European countries and their island colonies in the Caribbean.Thus the work of the plantations, the seaport towns, and (to a lesser extent) the farms of the United States was tied to foreign trade. The new government of the United States worked to foster and protect that trade, and these efforts led the new nation into the War of 1812. "USA" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.

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