A great many changes took place in the Americas from 1800 to 1870. The United States more than doubled in size, and its government was set on a firm base. This allowed the country to become strong. Latin America, or Central and South America, won independence from European rule. But traditions established under colonial rule remained strong. So despite strong efforts, democracy did not develop. In all, the 70-year period was a time of both great promise and great hardship.
A strong spirit of reform swept through the United States during the late 1800's and early 1900's. Many Americans called for changes in the country's economic, political, and social systems. They wanted to reduce poverty, improve the living conditions of the poor, and regulate big business. They worked to end corruption in goverment, make government more responsive to the people, and accomplish other goals.
During the 1870's and 1880's, the reformers made relatively little progress. But after 1890, they gained much public support and influence in government. By 1917, the reformers had brought about many changes. Some reformers called themselves progressives. As a result, the period of American history from about 1890 to about 1917 is often called the Progressive Era.
During the Expansion Era, many Americans came to believe that social reforms were needed to improve their society. Churches and social groups set up charities the poor and teach them how to help themselves Reformers worked to reduce the working day of laborers from the usual 12 or 14 hours to 10 hours.
Prohibitionists — convinced that drunkenness was the chief cause of poverty and other problems — persuaded 13 states to outlaw the sale of alcohol between 1846 and 1855. Dorothea Dix and others worked to improve the dismal conditions in the nation's prisons and insane asylums. Other important targets of reformers were women's rights, improvements in education, and the abolition of slavery.
The drive for women's rights. Early American women had few rights. There were almost no colleges for women, and most professional careers were closed to them. A married woman could not own property. Instead, any property she had legally belonged to her husband. In addition, American women were barred from voting in almost all elections.
A women's rights movement developed after 1820, and brought about some changes. In 1833, the Oberlin Collegiate Institute (now Oberlin College) opened as the first coeducational college in the United States. Some men's colleges soon began admitting women, and new colleges for women were built. In 1848, New York passed a law allowing women to keep control of their own real estate and personal property after marriage. That same year, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stan-ton organized a Woman's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y. The convention issued the first formal appeal for woman suffrage (the right to vote). But nationwide suffrage did not come about until 1920.
Education reform. In the early 1800's, most good schools in the United States were expensive private schools. Poor children went to second-rate "pauper," or "charity", schools, or did not go at all. During the 1830's, Hornce Mann of Massachusetts and other reformers began demanding education and better schools for all American children. States soon began establishing public school systems, and more and more children received an education. Colleges started training teachers for a system of public education based on standardized courses of study. As a result, schoolchildren throughout the country were taught much the same lessons. For example, almost all children of the mid-1800`s studied the McCuffey, or Eclectic, Readers to learn to read. These books taught patriotism and morality as well as reading.
The abolition movement became the most intense and controversial reform activity of the period. Beginning in colonial times, many Americans — called abolitionists — had demanded an end to slavery. By the early 1800's, every Northern state had outlawed slavery. But the plantation system had spread throughout the South, and the economy of the Southern States depended more and more on slaves as a source of cheap labor.
The question of whether to outlaw or allow slavery became an important political and social issue in the early 1800's. Through the years, a balance between the number of free states (states where slavery was prohibited) and slave states (those where it was allowed) had been sought. This meant that both sides would have an equal number of representatives in the United States Senate. As of 1819, the federal government had achieved a balance between free states and slave states. There were 11 of each.