The work required for daily life in the early nineteenth century included felling trees, chopping firewood, churning butter, milking cows, slopping hogs, digging potatoes, plowing, planting and harvesting fields, hoeing weeds, husking corn, drying hay, spinning thread, and sewing -- just to name a portion of the necessary chores to maintain a household. This section deals with outdoor work, performed mainly by men. Much of the work typically performed by women is included in domestic life and fashion.
DeTocqueville wrote in his diary, "In the sections of Kentucky and Tennessee that we traversed the men are tall and strong...They have a national physiognomy and a rough and energetic appearance. They are not, like the inhabitants of Ohio, a confused mixture of all the American races; on the contrary, they are all spring from the same stem and belong to the great Virginia family. They possess, then, to a much greater degree than all the Americans we have seen up to now, that intuitive love of country, a love mingled with exaggeration and prejudices, entirely different from the reasoned sentiment and refined egoism that bear the name patriotism in almost all the States of the Union" (Pierson, 587).
This description of the physical strength of American men, particularly those in the frontier South and West, is no doubt a result of the hard labor that was required year round to provide food, shelter and income for farming families. Although society's needs were supplemented by the work of men in different venues, at the turn of the century four fifths of Americans farmed the land. This number was beginning to decrease, yet in 1840 -- after Tocqueville's visit -- the percentage of farmers still included two-thirds of the population. Farmers relied heavily on the labor of animals in order to plow fields in preparation for planting corn, wheat and rye, but the change to machine driven agriculture was beginning.
The move from hand labor to machine labor was brought about by the invention of useful tools in the nineteenth century that made it possible for one man to do the work that previously required many hands. The scythe and cradle continued to be used in the Northern states well into the nineteenth century because their smaller grain crops were easily handled by this method. But in the West and South, where land was plentiful, the new machines made it possible to sow and harvest greater amounts of land with less manpower.
Obed Hussey and Cyrus McCormick were the first men that succeeded in inventing machine harvesting tools that were practical and useful. Hussey's reaper for cutting grain was completed in time for the 1833 harvest and received its patent on December 31, 1833 (Langdon, 316). Cyrus McCormick received his U.S. patent just six months later and a rivalry ensued. McCormick, being possessed of a businessman's nature, made better choices and remained a success, while Hussey progressed little within the business world and died in 1860 -- just two years after selling out his business. The inventions of these men revolutionized the lives of farmers.
Although deTocqueville did not participate in the work of the Americans, there are a few general observations made by deTocqueville about everyday attitudes of American men including, "...in sum then, men in America, as with us, are arranged according to certain categories in the course of social life; common habits, education, and above all wealth establish these classifications. But these rules are neither absolute, not inflexible, nor permanent. They establish temporary distinctions, and do not form classes properly so called. They give no superiority, even in opinion, to one man above another, so that even though two individuals never meet in the same salons, if they meet on the public square, one looks at the other without pride, and in return is regarded without envy. At bottom they feel themselves equal, and are" (Pierson, 551).
This may have been true for most white men, but of course did not apply to the African-Americans who had arrived as slaves, but the method of planting and farming on large plantations was a different lifestyle. The earlier description accurately applied to small, family run farms. The majority of physical labor on plantations was accomplished by field hands with the supervision of a white overseer. The slaves' work alternated between planting row after row of cotton and weeding. The backbreaking job of picking cotton off the sharp bolls during harvest season was a constant provess of dropping the cotton into huge sacks worn around the neck.
White men who had the "privilege" of slave ownership did little work for themselves. DeTocqueville observed this phenomenon in a cabin in Tennessee, " It was in one of the many forested valleys of the region, he wrote, that we discovered one evening a cabin, made of wood, whose poorly joined walls allowed one to see a great fire flaming in the interior. We knocked: two great roguish dogs, big as donkeys, come first to the door. Their master follows close, grips us hard by the hand, and invites us to enter.You push open a door hung on leather hinges and without a lock...Here you find a family of poor people leading the lazy life of the rich...Not even the most miserable planter of Kentucky or Tennessee but represents marvelously the country gentleman of old Europe. A fireplace as wide as half the room and with an entire tree burning in it, a bed, a few chairs, a carbine six feet long, against the walls of the apartment, a few hunter's accouterments which the wind was bowing about as it chose, and the picture is complete. Near the fire is seated the mistress of the lodge, with the tranquil and modest air that distinguishes American women, while four or five husky children rolled on the floor, as lightly clad as in the month of July. Under the mantel of the chimney two or three squatting Negroes still seemed to find that it was less warm here than in Africa. In the midst of this collection of misery, my gentleman did not do the honours of his house with the less ease and courtesy. It's not that he forced himself to move in any way; but the poor blacks, soon perceiving that a stranger had entered the house, one of them by orders of the master presented us with a glass of whisky, another, a corn cake or plate of venison; a third was sent to get wood. The first time I saw this order given I supposed that it was a question of going to the cellar or woodhouse; but the axe strokes that I heard ringing in the wood told me soon that they were cutting down the tree that we needed. It's thus they do everything. While the slaves were thus occupied, the master, seated tranquilly before a fire that would have roasted an ox to the marrow of his bones, enveloped himself majestically in a cloud of smoke, and between each puff related to his guests, to make their time seem less long, all the great exploits that his hunter's memory could furnish him" (Pierson, 585).
The constant labor was varied somewhat for whites and blacks alike by season, climate and occasional travel in order to trade. After some time in this section of the country, Tocqueville's attitude developed from condescension to a realization of their trials. He summed up the peculiarities of the Americans in Kentucky and Tennessee thus, "They are southerners, masters of slaves, made half wild by the solitude, and hardened by the hardships of life."