"Tales of the Early Republic"
"Jacksonian Miscellanies" Archives

A History Resource, and an Experiment in Hypertext Style

John Rubens Smith (1775-1849) West Front of the United States Capitol Watercolor on paper, ca. 1830

<>From the Library of Congress Web Site  (Pointers to more images here)

by Hal Morris, Copyright 2010

Permission is permitted to duplicate for your own personal use.

May not be duplicated for profit, or for multiple distribution, without permission by author.

Some Key Features of this site:
Full text of
Abdy, Edward S., Journal of a Residence and Tour in the United States (3 vols, London, 1835).  This book is most valuable, in my opinion, as a guided tour of the scattered free black communities in America in the 1830s, and the kind of life they were living.  Its 3 volumes and approx. 1200 pages describe the author's 1-1/2 years in the United States.  Much of his time was spent in various free African-American communities, from those in large cities like New York, Boston, and Pennsylvania, to those of many smaller cities, as well as several beleaguered clusters of farmers in Indianna and Ohio.  Nearly half the book either describes the people of these communities, or describes the mostly very racist attitudes of "white" Americans towards them.  It is typical of Abdy's perspective that he felt a need to coin the word Africo-Americans.  There are very few copies of this book outside of the larger college research libraries.  Harper Brothers started to publish it in the U.S., but decided not to, in the current atmosphere of anti-abolitionist hysteria, so it was only published in London until the 1960s, when the Negro University Press issued a small run of a facsimile edition.

 Readings in Jacksonian America: An outline of some available, mostly online, readings (most complete in the area of religion)

Tales of the Early Republic is a organized collection of essays, original sources, and reference material about a part of what is called the Early American Republic. Nearly all of it is about the years from 1815 - 1850, and it is especially focused on the 1830s.

It is basically a work of text, albeit hyper-text, and not of multi-media. Its aims as an "experiment in hypertext style" are discussed below.

Timeline of the Jackson Era:

A Large Collection of Original Sources:

A Complete Book, Describing New York from 1816 to 1860 Online:

How to characterize this period? There is much justification for the title: Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830, that Paul Johnson gave to his international study of the early years of the period. The birth of the modern United States could be placed, I think, a few years later, more in the center of the period.

In material terms alone, America underwent phenomenal change. It more than doubled in territory, and likewise in settled territory. With the transportation revolution of canals, railroads, and better wagon roads, trips of a week were reduced to a day, and day trips to a couple of hours. Circuit riding lawyers and judges, who once spent months on the road, from town to town could spend weekends at home. Distant parts of the U.S. could fulfill each other's needs and wants, knitting the nation together as a functioning whole, so that American manufacturing, with a vast market to serve, could grow from infancy to being a ubiquitous part of life.

The telegraph annihilated distance, where news was concerned. No longer would it be possible to fight battles weeks after an armistice was signed; in the westernmost states, yesterday's Senate debate would be printed in the local newspaper today, instead of a month from today.

Socially, habits of deference to class superiority -- between white men anyway -- died out, as did the remaining laws that supported such deference. American mass politics, with its cheerful orchestrated hoopla, was created by Jacksonian Democrats in the late 1820s, then used to defeat them in the "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too", or "Log Cabin and Hard Cider" campaign of 1840.

America first developed a national literature: Irving and Cooper, read by an international audience, and then the Transcendentalists and their fellow travelers, like Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Melville.

The Protestant ideal of knowledge and understanding of the Bible, and of nature, replacing "priest craft" -- of reasoning ones way to a correct understanding of God -- reached its high water mark as science seemed to contradict parts of the Bible, as the latest philosophers attacked logical "proofs" of Christianity, and as scholarly projects to trace the Bible to its origins foundered.

Something else took hold: something that looked to some like a direct encounter with God, and to others like a mere passion induced by charismatic evangelists. The action oriented Methodists, whose handbook was called a "discipline", not "confession" or "catechism", methodically harvested souls in the vast spaces of the frontier beyond the reach of institutions adapted to a more static order of society. Presbyterian revivalists deepened religion in the northeast, and exhorted men -- and women, to do active good to their fellows.

As religion embraced emotion, faith, and will, America's colleges, became more dedicated to teaching practical knowledge, and less to religion and the formation of character.

Regardless of denomination, people were fired up with dreams of the perfectibility of the world. Atheists, those of relaxed religious beliefs, and the most passionate and rigorous Christians dreamed a thousand different dreams of a great rebirth of the world, and started dozens of experiments in communal living.

As difficult as it is to make sense of this thirty ring circus, the end result is, I think, that Americans of 1850 seem not all that different from us, while those of the revolutionary period seem much more distant and abstract.

Tales of the Early Republic aims to tell a portion of these stories. It cannot be made into one story; I doubt that in any place and time were the headwaters of change more widely spread over the landscape.

Tales of the Early Republic is also very much a conscious exploration of style -- not of surface style or polish, in which it is weak, but of "How should hypertext historical presentation be structured?" A "Web site" isn't a book, a movie, or a video game, though it can be and has been made to look like any one of these. Why is a conscious exploration of style needed? Suppose modern movie technology had showed up all at once, like a genie out of a bottle. Would people who only knew plays, books, and pictures, have produced great looking movies with that technology? I suspect not. Effective styles generally take years to evolve.

The subject matter -- the early American republic, is suited to this experiment; no single narrative can represent this era; one tends to wander around in it, following dozens of paths that intertwine, but fail to converge. Hypertext, unlike the traditional book, permits this style of exploration.

My hope is that this unlinear era will be much better appreciated in the new medium. Maybe networked hypertext will reshape people's taste in history towards the formative eras, and away from the stories of good guys conquering bad guys. Changes in the medium do result, over time, in changes in taste, and the content that serves our tastes. It is hard to imagine Cary Grant "making it" in the silent film medium. He needs his voice. I suspect that the Early American Republic, so neglected by most Americans, will find its voice in this new medium.

I even suspect that by learning to appreciate, and enjoy wandering around in this era, we (and I'm thinking particularly of the more casual amateur historian) may better understand other eras, because to a large extent, they only seem to fit tidily into those smooth, soon-to-be-a-major-motion-picture narratives.

Caveat: These web pages do not live up to this nice manifesto I have made, but they represent an ongoing attempt to do so, and provide glimpses of the possibilities which I believe exist.

The  Hayne-Webster Debate

An item, of some scholarly appeal is the complete text of the Hayne-Webster Debate. This debate, in the Senate, in January 1830, established Daniel Webster as the champion of a strong union (vs. a weaker association of the states), in an age when interpretations of the Constitution were in flux. The text is enough to fill up about 100 pages in a typical book format. It was the "big news" of the day -- we know because so many of the single sheet (4-page) newspapers of 1830 printed long excerpts of the debate over several (weekly) issues -- leaving other news on the back burner.

This presentation of the debate is intended as an interesting example of hypertext style, in what might be called the "zoom lens style".

Following a brief overview and contextualization, the speech itself is presented on three different "scales", or levels of detail:

Staying at a particular point in the debate, one can "zoom" up and down in level of detail; e.g., reading the summary to get an overview, and scanning the outline as a refresher, or to find a particular point to look up in the full text.

You might also wish to explore a short essay on the American Whig Party, to which Abraham Lincoln belonged for most of his political career, or a Short Biography of Andrew Jackson, or an interpretation of Social Changes in Jackson Era U.S.A.

Or you can start with mini-biographies of Lyman Beecher, father of Harriet Beecher Stowe (of Uncle Tom's Cabin fame) and of other notable children, or you might start in with John C. Calhoun. Lyman Beecher and Calhoun are exactly household names, but both are extremely central to the stories of the Early Republic, and I have taken special care to see that they are well linked to other parts of this collection of writings.

If you like to browse reference works, you can go straight to the biographical dictionary, or the (quite limited) geography of the U.S. - a repository of descriptions of states, towns, counties, rivers, mostly focused on what they were like, and the events that occurred there in the 1820s and 1840s.

There are also small but growing reference works on schools of the time, important churches, a fairly extensive bibliography, a glossary, and set of day-by-day timelines in a very early stage of development.

I spend some time (though far less that I wish) exploring other history sites on the Web. Some that may be of interest to you are:

What's So Special About the U.S. in the 1830s and 1840s?

The era often called the "Jackson Era", was a critical formative time for the United States. For some, at least, life style changed as drastically as in the twentieth century. The Railroad turned weeks of arduous travel by stagecoach into days, and days into hours. News reached the frontier, by telegraph, instantly, instead of taking weeks.

It was an age of religious revivals and temperance crusades that halved the per capita alcohol consumption. A time of exotic movements: the Anti-masonic party, hundreds of experiments in communal living, and the formation of some very extreme offshoots from the Christian tradition, like the Mormons and the Millerites (who lived by the belief that God would sweep away the old world, "about 1843 or 1844"). The 1830s and 40s "transcendentalist" movement has left us familiar with the names, at least, of Emerson and Thoreau.

It was an era of Abolitionism and Anti-abolitionist riots. 1829 was the year in which David Walker, a free black man in Boston, printed and distributed his bitterly eloquent Appeal, and 1830 was the year of his mysterious death. 1831 was the year in which William Lloyd Garrison launched the most influential Abolitionist newspaper, and the year in which Nat Turner led fellow slaves to slaughter 55 slave owners, and some 200 black men and women (mostly innocent) were slain in revenge. In Cincinnati, sons of slave owners were abolitionized, and a riot of the white citizens made hundreds of blacks flee to Canada (for which many Southerners blamed Garrison and/or Walker).

In the midst of it, South Carolina declared she would exempt herself from the federal tariff (import tax) laws. The defeat of this scheme, partly through Jackson's very credible military threats, started a generation of southerners thinking about secession.

Another Note On "The Web", the Jackson Era, and the Future of Access to Difficult Subject Areas

The Web, and any media that evolves from it, can facilitate a new style of reading -- involving a more creative and active mental process, with far more freedom to read, without extensive preparation or guidance, material in which every sentence contains an unfamiliar word or allusion. This will have a dramatic affect on the accessibility of writings of the past, that were not "written for the ages", as well as that of difficult areas of technical endeavor.

Suppose you are reading an 1840s newspaper article or pamphlet, which is full of references to a couple of dozen Kentucky Whig leaders, and half or more of it seems to consist of innuendoes about the character of those people, and tangential references to this or that local event of the 1830s. You may feel you are getting almost none of the real meaning. Unless you are in a good library, near the Dictionary of American Biography, or "Biographical Sketches of Prominent men of XXX County", you may just have to stop reading till you can get to such a place. If the newspaper is in one place and the other resources are someplace else, you may just have to take notes, make lists of questions: Who was Mr. A, Mr. B., etc.; take notes on the answers to those questions, run back to the newspaper archive, etc.

What is possible in the very near future is to "click on" the names of the mystery people, see who they were and what they did, and in seconds be back to the main text.

In any difficult and unfamiliar area of knowledge one may find oneself unable to read anything that was not specifically written for the beginner. So what happens if there is nothing written for the beginner? Suppose when it was written all those obscure points were just obvious to the writer and all the readers? As a computer analyst, I've encountered areas of computer application which evolved through the efforts of a few dozen people, who have since gong on to other jobs, so that one simply cannot read the first line of any document without needing to run to an (often nonexistent) glossary, or spending hours or days trying to learn from someone (if anyone can be found) whose forte is not communication.

But back to the early republic: I believe it feasible, at least technically, to put all known printed material from the America of the 1820s and 30s,and important earlier material, into electronic form. The average newspaper put out only 200 pages a year. Yet these writings are excedingly difficult to access, largely due to the limited press runs of anything written before the use of mechanized printing. I.e. the quantity to digitize is small, and the rewards large.

The field of History of the Early Republic has a relative paucity of printed material and no legal difficulties about ownership of content. I believe, more Americans would be interested in the subject if it were not so difficult to begin to understand it. Thus an experiment in this area of scholarship could, by revealing the potential of the new media, be a pioneering effort for other areas of knowlege, which will have more difficult legal and economic issues to deal with.

More Historiography, and

Other Qualities of the Early Republic Period

To find such a thing as a "usable past", or history from which we can learn something applicable to the present, I think we need to focus on periods of organic change, and on the points of origin of that change.

I have sort of a "triage" theory of history. There are dull times, which we needn't examine very closely, and there are "mad" times, when all the wisdom in the world wouldn't help things without a huge dollop of luck, and finally formative times, like that in which, simultaneously, colonial culture grew into American culture, and the agrarian way of life grew into the beginnings of our present, technological way of life. Ironically (since the word is so popular among military history buffs), by my "triage" theory of history, wars aren't so interesting, though they tend to attract us -- or many of us -- emotionally.

For half-baked ruminations on the state of the world, and how to save it, the nature of the (human) beast, self-explorations, and the like, see Essays on Broad Subjects

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