Digital History>eXplorations>The Duel: Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr>Teacher Resources>The United States in 1804

The United States in 1804

NOTE: This information is from the National Park Service website,
The Lewis and Clark Journey of Discovery:

Population | Diseases | The Arts | Crime & Punishment | Alcohol | Military


In 1804 the United States was growing rapidly in population as well as territory. The 1800 census indicated that the nation was composed of about 5.3 million people. The 17 states in the Union in 1804 were Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire and newly-admitted Ohio. The flag had 15 stars and 15 stripes, and wasn't changed until 1818, despite the fact that several more states entered the Union. After 1818 the flag went back to having just thirteen stripes, representing the thirteen original states.

The U.S. was then a predominantly rural nation, with only 1 in 20 of its citizens living in towns of over 2,500 people; four of every five were farmers. All were used to hard work, with long days (14-16 hours in the summer) and seasonal changes in labor and diet. Work began for children at an early age, with little time for schooling. The average household was composed of six people, but many families were very large, exceeding ten children. Most lived in small, one story houses, many with just one or two rooms.

The average age of Americans at the time of Lewis and Clark was young, probably about 16 years of age in 1800; today it is about 34. The average height of Americans was about 5'8" tall, belying the old maxim of historic site docents who delighted in telling the public how "people were shorter in those days." The average height of Americans in the early 21st century is about 5'9". However, in 1800 Americans were taller than their European counterparts by about 2 to 3 inches. Heights in the army in 1804 ranged between 5'5" and 6'4½".

Back to Top


Although the average age at death was lower than today, that did not mean that people died younger. The statistics of the average age at death were younger because of a great deal of infant mortality, caused by contageous diseases like measles, whooping cough, scarlet fever, pneumonia, polio, smallpox, yellow fever, malaria, typhiod fever, tuberculosis and other maladies which have since been controlled by vaccines and inoculations. If a person lived to their 20s they were just about as likely to reach 70 or even 80 as today's population.

Medicine and medical knowledge was primitive, with no internal surgery being performed. Operations consisted of amputations of limbs or trephanning, a procedure by which a hole was cut in the skull to relieve pressure on the brain. Many doctors had no medical training at all, and even the ones who had gone to a medical school knew relatively little about what made a person sick or well. Doctors in 1804 diagnosed by evaluating the individual symptoms displayed by a patient rather than what those symptoms might mean in combination. Doctors still felt that all disease was caused by an imbalance of "bodily humors." The four "humors" were blood, saliva, urine and feces. If a person was sick, it was likely (according to this theory) that their body had produced too much of one of the bodily humors. This is why doctors resorted to bleeding their patients - that is, actually opening up a vein on a person's arm with a razor-sharp instrument and taking a measured amount of blood before bandaging the wound. Doctors at the time believed there was more blood in the human body than there really is - in fact, they believed that there was twice as much blood in each person. Needless to say, taking blood from a person fighting an infection is not helpful; taking copious amounts of blood will eventually kill the patient. Often people who had simple maladies were killed by doctors who drained them of too much blood.

In addition to professional men like merchants, ship owners, teachers, professors, clergymen, lawyers and doctors, the majority of United States citizens were laboring men and women. The era's jobs included farmer, tailor, shoemaker, coppersmith, hatter, blacksmith, carpenter, cooper, tobacconist, gardener, miller, printer, clothier, musician, distiller, harnessmaker, cordwainer, sadler, barber, weaver, tanner, currier, chairmaker, cabinetmaker, hosier, baker and laborer.

Back to Top

The Arts

There were very few people in the United States involved in the arts in 1804. There were a few theaters in the largest cities. A small number of famous painters, like Gilbert Stuart, Charles Willson Peale and John Vanderlyn had emerged, and itinerant artists roamed the countryside, ready to paint portraits and tavern signs in a primitive style. No authors or poets of any note had yet appeared, save Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson and other writers on American liberties, and a young African American poet from Boston named Phillis Wheatley. However, true artistry was being produced in the beautiful furniture and silver work of the period in such cities as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Charleston.

Back to Top

Crime & Punishment

Life in the early 19th century could be brutal. This was underscored by the public's fascination with hangings, bear-baitings, cockfights, and gouging contests - in which men purposely grew their fingernails long so that they could gouge out their opponent's eyes. It is certain that the Marquis of Queensbury's rules were not observed in popular bare-knuckle fistfights held throughout the country. For the upper classes, a verbal slight or insult could end in a duel and death. Being arrested or convicted of a crime could land one in a prison, many of which were set up in old mines and decrepit buildings. Damp conditions, vermin and contagious inmates created shocking conditions and often led to death. Many were imprisoned and endured such conditions merely because they were in debt or mentally impaired. At the turn of the 19th century people were ordinarily executed only for murder, but minor crimes such as forgery resulted in having one's ears cropped. Branding on the forehead with letters (such as "M" for manslaughter) was practiced in New England, along with public whippings for petty theft. It was at the time of Lewis and Clark, in fact, that statute law was changing throughout America to eliminate such "cruel and unusual punishments," replacing public tortures with incarceration. Pennsylvania abolished flogging in 1790, Massachusetts outlawed mutilation in 1805, and Connecticut's last public whipping was in 1828.

Back to Top


Drinking hard liquor was part of the way of ordinary life during the period of Lewis and Clark. The yearly consumption of liquor at the time of the American Revolution, reported Jack Larkin, Chief Historian of Old Sturbridge Village, "has been estimated at the equivalent of three and one-half gallons of pure two-hundred-proof alcohol for each person. After 1790 American men began to drink even more. By the late 1820s their imbibing had risen to an all-time high of almost four gallons per capita."

Back to Top


The entire strength of the U.S. Army in 1804 totaled just 3,220 officers and men - in a nation of over 5.3 million people. In case of imminent danger, the responsibility for the defense of the nation was placed upon militia organizations rather than the regular army.

Back to Top

Copyright Digital History 2021