What Was Life Like before the American Civil War?


by Ruth Klien


A common criticism of the United States is its lack of culture when compared to its European counterparts. However, a comparison between a country that has been around for only 245 years with countries that have existed for thousands of years old is a rather flawed way of looking at things.

Despite its short history, America is a nation that has seen its fair share of glory and darkness. The phrase “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is the original American dream and one that has attracted people from all over the world since its declaration of independence.

However, it hasn’t all been good times, and one of America’s darkest moments was its Civil War, which tore the nation apart. It often feels like a defining moment for the country, but people often forget the story of America before its civil war and how it had already grown to be a significant world power.

A Harsh Time for Men, Women, and Children

Let’s go back a bit further in time, before the year 1776 when what was to become America was only thirteen British colonies. The men and women in this pre-American state lived a hard life. 

Taxes were high, and those living in these colonies felt they had no representation by the British government. Moreover, there was a growing belief that the Parliament was going to infringe on their freedom.  There were a number of other factors that lay behind the colonies wanting independence, but that is a story for another time.

For the average colonist at this time, work was tough and often began as early as 12 years. Farming was the most common form of labor, but young children also became apprentices to learn crafts and trades to become cobblers, smithers, or fishermen.

For the women, life was equally harsh, and it wasn't uncommon for them to have anywhere between 5 - 10 children. With mortality rates being close to 30% for children under the age of one, this was sort of needed. Diseases like smallpox and yellow fever were often death sentences making the average lifespan a shocking 35 years of age.

There were no antibiotics and very few treatments for most illnesses, and whenever surgery had to be done, it was done without Anesthesia. Life was also agrarian, and the age of industrialization was yet to arrive. There were also few opportunities for education, and traveling was often a dangerous and life-threatening prospect.

A Dark Harvest: The Fortune Made of Slave Labor

Decades pass, and from the hard work of the men, women, and children during the mid-1700s, the foundations were being secretly laid for what we now know as the United States. In 1776, the 13 British colonies would break away after winning the revolutionary war.

By the late 1700s and early 1800s, life was getting better. Sure, mortality rates were still high, and diseases were still common, but the rise of plantations and the use of slave labor up to the civil war brought considerable wealth into the country.
The saying “Cotton is king” came from it being the primary export that powered the economy of the country, giving America considerable economic power on the world stage.

The economic effectiveness of slavery was obvious as the south had managed to reach a standard of wealth so immense that countries like Spain and Italy were only able to match the same level by the late 1930s.

In this pre-civil war time, America had to come to terms with an uncomfortable reality. Human rights were happening en-masse with the treatment of slaves, but at the same time, from purely an economic view, America was earning its fortune and securing a future for itself through the wealth obtained with slave labor.

This pre-civil war time has also been studied a lot by historical scholars, and there is a wealth of information that can be found online. The website “roadtothecivilwar” is a fascinating resource and a passion project by Robert E Drane, a man with an equally fascinating background.

The website offers three books that can be accessed for free. One of the books examines the lead-up to the civil war and sheds light that challenges a lot of preconceived notions of right and wrong.

The other two books offer the reader a visual treat in the form of a massive photograph collection that brings to light the harsh realities of America in the 1800s.

Such resources are a priceless gift that helps gain an understanding of the complex history behind one of the youngest yet most powerful countries the world has seen.


The story of America is a captivating one. In many ways, it resembles the origin stories of many great empires throughout history.

A turbulent and violent beginning followed by prosperity, more in-fighting, and then more prosperity. Thus the cycle seems to continue until a breaking point is reached.

Though it seems like we live in vastly different times now, there are many parallels to be seen between the past and the current political discourse of the country.