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The period of United States history from around 1820 to 1845, is often called the "Jackson Era", after Andrew Jackson, president from 1829-1837. He was the only two term president of the era, and by far the most memorable one. It presents a spectacle of rampant growth, diversification and redefinition of culture as dramatic as any time in American history, which some see as the period in which the American character took shape.
At the beginning of the era, there was hardly anything that could be called a factory, and the seaboard cities from Baltimore to Maine specialized in overseas shipping. In the 1820s and 30s, a strong manufacturing interest began to grow. The centrally located coastal states, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and above all New York, began to leverage their geographical strengths by building roads and canals, to attempt to occcupy the center of a web of commerce. The great Erie Canal, completed in 1826, made the western New York State frontier blossom, and provided a water route between one of the worlds great harbors and some of the farthest reaches of the American wilderness. Thus New York became the "Empire State".
During this period, technological change (the railroads and steam boats) turned weeks of arduous travel into days, and days into hours; and the telegraph gave the farthest provinces an immediate awareness of events all over the country, instead of learning events weeks after they occurred.
The English American colonies began to be settled two hundred years before this era, not long after the Elizabethan age. In the South, some of the earthy quality of the period portrayed by Shakespeare clung on - especially the very personal, and rather flamboyant nature of power.
The urbanizing North was changing its way of life - moving away from older mores and customs founded on a mystique of power and honor. In the new society, "objective", inanimate, countable realities, like money ("old money" or new) counted for more than ones family name, or "gentlemanly honor", or at least this trend had advanced farthest in this part of the country.
The South was far more static. Force was the "bottom line" of many social relations. The aura of power, on the one hand, and of visible servility on the other, was the main thing that minimized the actual use of force. Slaves were "broken" much like horses. The less force it took to control a slave, the more work the master could get from them. When the system "worked", the slave was taught to respond to whips, threats, and finally gentle commands. Their servility was constantly tested by insults and "gentle" but insulting familiarity.
The maintenance of this old form of social control (in some ways a step backward from the middle ages) kept alive old habits, like the Southerner's willingness to risk his life in a duel rather than tolerate an insult, and a certain tendency to gleeful cruelty. The duel and mob justice (e.g. lynching, or tarring and feathering), were once widespread throughout the country. In the North they died somewhat before the Jackson era. In the South, dueling remained common, amazingly common among Southern congressmen for instance, up to the civil war. And the custom of mob "justice" survived in the South almost to the present.
The South was already growing resentful and nervous about its diminishing strength within the nation; becoming worried about its autonomy, as it saw a tendency of the states to draw together into one unit, spanned by canals, turnpikes, and railroads. Some southerners were coming to perceive themselves as "colonized", or virtually enslaved by the North, as when Robert Y. Hayne, in 1830, said "we stand towards the United States in the relation of Ireland to England".
Why did the South lag behind in technology, so as to become the producers of raw materials for the North? As concentrations of capitol developed in the South, why did this not contribute, as much as in the North, to the development of manufacturing, banking, and transportation networks?
The labor pool of the South was largely trapped in fixed roles. There was virtually no such thing as a literate working class. Literacy endangered the master's ascendency over the slave. And the typical planter could not admit that the wage laborer was a man like himself, only born by chance in humbler circumstances. He was too committed to economic differences being a reflection of the kind of person one was.
Too often, the self-respecting poor man scraped out a living on a farm rather than work "like a nigger", as they were apt to describe it, for another man. The younger son, who got trained to the genteel professions of law and medicine would often abandon this career of working for others if he ever acquired enough money to become a planter. And the slave was, of course simply trapped.
Success at law and politics, of high military office was perhaps the most respectable alternative to the plantation life for a "gentleman". But lawyers, like Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay, often set up moderate sized plantations with names like the Hermitage and Ashland, so they could live the true life of a gentleman.
If the poor Southerner was to rise in society, to become a "gentleman", with such a view of the world, his main route was by going West, where the land was cheap and fertile, and the "old families" were absent or less dominant, at least.
And so Southerners did go West at first in far greater numbers than did Northerners; populating Tennessee, Kentucky and Georgia, and later, like Lincoln's family moving from Kentucky to Indiana and Illinois, or from Tennessee to states like Alabama and Louisiana, or even, like Davy Crockett and Sam Houston, from Tennessee into the part of Mexico that became Texas.
Settlement in the midwest (the far West back then) began from the South, rivers being the only decent "highways", and the queen of rivers, the Mississippi, having its outlet in the deep south.
This migration of Southerners led to one of the first major crises of the Union, when Missouri, which extends nearly as far north as does Illinois, applied to become a new slave state, reversing somewhat the tendency towards the disappearance of slavery in the North. This lead, in 1820, to the fiercest fight yet seen in Congress, and threats of Southern succession when Northerners attempted to block Missouri's statehood.
The conflict was tenuously resolved in the Missouri Compromise, which extended westward the Mason-Dixon line above which slavery was supposed not to be admitted - with the exception of Missouri, and at the same time, detached Maine from Massachusetts, as a new state, to maintain the balance of free and slave states in the Senate.
Note: Slavery was slower to disappear in the North than one might think. Sojourner Truth was one of the last slaves to be freed in New York state - in 1828. She had to fight a legal battle with the aid of the Quakers, to rescue her six year old son who was illegally sold South. New York was basically in the Northern block in 1820 though. It had few slaves, and a law to eliminate slavery by 1827 (or 1828?) was passed in 1817.
Until the spread of railroads, the West was far better connected to the South than to the North. A primary way of getting farm produce to market, flatboats, could only float downriver, taking bulky goods south, towards the great mouth of the Mississippi. There farm produce was sold and the boats were broken up for lumber. Then the farmer or entrepreneur returned upriver with a much lighter load of "cash", of of those few manufactured necessities needed for farming in the wilderness.
Over time, northerly routes to the West opened up, and far outstripped the Southerly routes. There was the Cumberland road, cutting from the settled part of Maryland to the frontier outpost of Wheeling, Virginia (later West Virginia) on the Ohio, whence travelors could steam or float down the Ohio as far as Indiana. The Erie Canal opened the way from New York city to the Great Lakes, and helped make Chicago a great city with largely Northern sensibilities. Finally the railroads created a dense network across the country -- densest in the North.
The Northern reaches of the Mississippi form the boundary between Missouri and Illinois, giving much of Illinois strong southern tendencies. This, and the growing northease connections of northern Illinois, would in time make Illinois a microcosm of America, with two favorite sons battling for the presidency in 1860.
In politics, the old Federalist Party was dead. They had been strongest in New England, where they had resisted the U.S. entry into the War of 1812. The New England economy, based on international trade, had been devastated by the war.
A number of states, such as New York, abolished property requirements for voting by 1824, and the disintegration of the Federalist party, once the bulwark of wealth and gentility (and property requirements for voting), helps explain this in New York, and perhaps elsewhere. This partially, but only partially, accounts for a near quadrupling of counted voters for the presidency between 1824 and 1828. The 1828 election was portrayed by Democrats as a vindication of the peoples right to chose their president. The Republicans, or Jacksonians, or Democrats as they were eventually called, pioneered new ways of fanning the fires of political enthusiasm, and of turning out the vote. The anti-Jacksonians also waged a vigorous contest, and must have also turned out in huge numbers, to try to turn back "King Mob".
In 1824 there was essentially one large but weak political party, but four major candidates for the presidency, based largely on personal followings. This lead to no candidate getting a majority, though Jackson got a large plurality and ought to have won in a runoff. But the House of Representatives, as directed by the Constitution, selected John Quincy Adams.
In 1828 the Democratic party, was the first to emerge from the wreckage of the old party system. The Democrats was lead by Andrew Jackson with the war-cry of "Corrupt Bargain" -- based on the Speaker of the House, Henry Clay's arm-twisting to make Adams president, and his subsequent appointment as Secretary of State (which til then was regarded as the main stepping stone to the presidency).
Jackson won, and his very dynamic, aggressive, and controversial presidency spurred the development of the second party, the Whigs. Their name, echoing British history, designated them as anti-monarchical, in opposition to the man they called King Andrew the First.
The Whigs, at first, had little in common but violent opposition to Jackson. Later, they became more coherent but became, in the process, decidedly the less popular party. Jackson retained his strong hold on the American psyche, and his name was synonymous with the Democratic party until at least the Civil War. The Whigs gained only two presidencies, and did so by heading the ticket with figurehead military heroes, who did little or nothing to promote their agenda. Both died early in office and were succeded by Vice Presidents who might as well have been Democrats.
The period saw great shifts in the US's religious and moralistic tendencies. Starting around the turn of the century, the Methodist church took much of the country, especially the Southwest, by storm. It had a highly organized structure and a system of circuit riders who preached where there was no church (meaning: most of the West). This and its strong leadership, enthusiasm, and orientation towards making new converts, positioned the Methodist church to rush into the vacumn of religious institutions (or any institutions) in the West. Their willingness to allow poorly educated men to preach also helped make explosive growth in the West possible. (See Peter Cartwright's autobiography, and also contrast remarks below on the Congregationalists and Presbyterians).
Religious revivals -- camp meetings where thousands of rural people met and basked in religion for days -- sometimes transformed whole communities from general drunkenness to a more sober, more community-based way of life. Often ministers of many denominations preached at once, in various tents throughout the camp.
In New England, the Puritan migrations were not only the first settlements, but nearly the whole basis of the population -- until the mid-nineteenth century flood of Irish and other European immigrants (see Albion's Seed)
The Presbyterian and Congregational churches of the Northeast, partially merged into one body, were largely from the Puritan tradition. They set the highest standard for an educated clergy, founding Harvard, Yale, and Princeton as institutions of religious education. They promoted a literate population in general.
The Congregationalists had abandoned the idea of a highly structured church hierarchy, on the Roman or Anglican model; instead they believed in the individual discovery of the Truth, and of the right of the congregation to have the minister they wanted -- something denied to them in the 1620s in England.
The religious revivals that were sweeping the country - particularly the camp meetings, involved highly wrought emotional sermons running for days. The resulting conversion experiences often were accompanied by violent shaking or falling down in a swoon.
Early Methodists (see Cartwright and Asbury) and other "enthusiastic" denominations were more than satisfied with such goings on. But the "Sons of the Pilgrims" (see Lyman Beecher for one side of the controversy) largely saw reason and learning as the path to God. They revered their highly learned clergymen as necessary guides to the understanding of God and salvation.
So the Northeastern Presbyterian/Congregational clergy at first resisted emotionality as a means of conversion (frontier Scotch-Irish Presbyterians may be a different case <== Click here to comment on this).
These churches also originally held to the Calvinist doctrine of election and predestination. Taken together they implied that God saw where all things were tending, and had determined at the beginning who would be saved and who would not. All humans were innately depraved, but God, through grace selects some for salvation. Based on this idea, it was considered a presumption on God's prerogatives to try to "take heaven by storm" as some of the revivalists seemed to be doing.
Two factors began to change this.
First, the support of the old New England churches was threatened from within and without. In Massachusetts, and especially around Boston, many Congregationalist churches, with no real organizational changes, changed their doctrine to that of Unitarianism. Early in the century, Harvard, the onetime Puritan bastion, came under Unitarian leadership. At the same time they were threatened "from without" by the aggressive prosthelitizing of the new denominations.
The other factor was that the Calvinist doctrine began to be questioned by important people within the "Presbygational" leadership. These included Timothy Dwight, the dynamic President of Yale, Nathaniel Taylor and Lyman Beecher, and a young firebrand named Charles Grandison Finney, a rebel in the Presbyterian church who began leading fiery revivals throughout Western New York State (see article here on Rochester, or A Shopkeeper's Millenium, or The Burned Over District).
Much of the strictness of church doctrine remained, but a kind of optimism was added, much in tune with other social movements in the country. They believed in the minister's power to convert. Rather than simply "speak the truth" (and sometimes punish the recreants), Beecher and Finney resorted to any psychological tricks that would aid in the snaring of souls. Beecher spoke of a "clinical approach" to winning souls, while Finney, who at first shocked Beecher, would eventually write a textbook on how to lead a revival.
Jonathan Edwards represents the old tendency when he speaks of a revival as something with which God blessed the community. It seems to never occur to him to speak of "leading a revival", much less to make it sound like a military campaign.
The new evangelists counted their converts and sometimes referred to them as "slain". There was also an optimism about what the saved could to towards bringing the whole world into (their notion of) enlightenment, and a determination to get right to work at it, and encouragment of new converts to get involved in the effort. Thus a strain of reformism came out of this revivalism.
From the 1820s through the 1840s, many Americans expected to see a perfect world just around the corner; or saw the potential, if the right steps were taken. This took the form of a number of fringe religious sects, of tendencies within the major denominations, of Transcendentalists, and of atheistic Fourierists.You can support this site at no cost if you make an Amazon purchase using this link to get to Amazon: Thanks