The Challenges Posed By The Westward Expansion For The American Society

After the Civil War, many individuals decided to move westward in hopes of better economic opportunities as well as their beliefs in the Manifest Destiny. Prior to the Westward Expansion, many settlers believed that the territory in the west was a wasteland and only fit for the displaced Indians. However, it became appealing to many as the government offered various incentives to encourage expansion. Thus, for those seeking better financial opportunities, the decision to embark on this journey made sense. Additionally, many individuals believed in the concept of the Manifest Destiny, which not only was the Westward Expansion considered “a desirable objective but an endowment from God through which they could take their democratic republicanism across North America”. However, as migration to the west increased, the Westward Expansion from 1860 to 1890 posed many challenges for the American society such as congestion, immigration, and diverse social classes that resulted from industrialization and rapid urbanization.

Technological innovations in the transportation industry made it easier for people to travel westward, and by 1890 the railroad network had expanded all the way to San Francisco. Along with technological innovations in transportation, other new technologies led to massive growth in industrialization. As workers were forced to work twelve-hour shifts, they lived close to the factories. As a result, urban population grew significantly from 1860 to 1890. For instance, cities like Philadelphia and New York City grew in population size from over 500,000 in 1860 to over 1,000,000 in 1890. However, the most notable change in population size was experienced in Chicago, which grew from over 100,000 to over 1,000,000 during the same period.

Furthermore, by 1890 new major cities were created such as San Francisco, Denver, Milwaukee, and Omaha, just to name a few. As cities grew, congestion posed many challenges that led to an increase in disease, pollution, and crime. According to Konteh (2009), “American cities witnessed deterioration in their sanitary and living conditions during the early years of industrialization”. As a result, common diseases like cholera and yellow fever led to a death toll of over ten thousand lives in several cities including Tennessee and Memphis. Aside from the challenges of urban life, a rise in immigration increased tension as the opportunities that came from industrialization and urbanization attracted European and African American immigrants.

As Westward Expansion continued and new cities were created, they attracted African American and European immigrants. African Americans were primarily motivated to migrate to the west in order to escape racism in the south that resulted from slavery. Referred to as the Great Migration, approximately two million African Americans left the South and went mainly in Upper Midwest and Northeast by the beginning of the Great Depression. Their destination included cities like Philadelphia, New York, Detroit, etc., which accounted for most of the total population of the migration from this ethnic group. Nonetheless, “in virtually all destinations, the southern migrants were greeted with suspicion and hostility by black and white northerners alike”. As a result, they worked in lower paying skilled jobs in mines, meat packing, or construction. Even though African Americans were making more money than in the South, such gains were offset by the cost of living that was higher in the North. Aside from the Great Migration of the African Americans, there also occurred a change in the European immigration in the late nineteenth century.

Northern and West Europe immigrants accounted for the majority of the European immigrant population that increased from approximately 4.85 million in 1870 to approximately 7.29 million by 1890. While immigrants that previously came to American from northern and Western Europe arrived with some funds, southern and eastern Europeans immigrated in order to avoid famine, religious or political persecution, or to avoid forced military service. To manage and process the new wave of immigration, the government opened Ellis Island, where medical personnel inspected them for any signs of infectious diseases. Since immigrants were new to the American culture, language, and way of life, many decided to live close to their relatives or people from their own country. As a result, ethnic communities were created such as Little Italy and Chinatown. With constant changes and chaos from urbanization, working, middle, and upper class of Americans had their own way of coping with the new changes.

To deal with the struggles, the working urban class coped by taking advantage of the machine politics system. The system of machine politics referred to “the process by which every citizen of the city, no matter their ethnicity or race, was a ward resident with an alderman who spoke on their behalf at city hall”. The favors in this system were exchanged by votes and kickbacks to the boss. Additionally, this class found escape in popular culture and entertainment. In contrast, the middle class found relief through suburbanization and education. Additionally, the improved transportation system allowed for this class to escape the challenges of the city by traveling. Lastly, even though the upper class chose to live in urban centers to conduct business, these individuals had luxury, comfort, and conveniences that helped cope with the chaos.

In conclusion, the Westward Expansion from 1860 to 1890 posed many challenges in America. Not only did the expansion result in congestion and an increase in immigration but also led to a higher gap in the social class hierarchy. Congestion led to diseases, crime, and pollution that impacted the health and lives of individuals, while immigration led to increased hostility and racism. Lastly, the chaos that resulted from urbanization led to a further division of social class between working, middle, and upper classes, that had to come up with ways to cope with the changes. Nonetheless, there were some advantages that resulted from expansion such as technological innovation in communication, transportation, and electricity industries that helped individuals cope with the new and complex life.

16 August 2021
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