American Politics.


Dorothea Dix was a 19th century reformer who launched  her career in March 1841 when she became infuriated at the mistreatment of patients in a mental institution in Massachusetts. She successfully petitioned to have heating for patients in such institutions and by doing so she launched her career as an advocate for humanitarian treatment of the mentally ill. Like so many women and men of her era she was motivated primarily by a deep religious conviction and she was only one of many such people living throught the ‘second great awakening’ that was to shape a host of reforms that swept the United States after 1820.

The Republican Party of 1824 was under increasing pressure brought about by westward expansion, industrialization and cotton cultivation in the south. These forces would eventually split republicans into two groups – those who thought state control was the way forward became Democrats and those who sought national control became National Republicans or Whigs.

Political democratization took several forms. States started to abolish exclusivity of voting rights to landowners. Formerly appointive offices became elective and as the voting landscape changed so did control of power. It was now necessary to court voters and this meant grand parties, hosting of community leaders to political affairs and enamoring the voters with charm and diplomacy to ensure office was secured. Transportation and communications system were changing and thus the electorate became more politically astute and well informed. Women a free blacks were disenfranchised but opposition to ‘common people’ (meaning adult white males) was becoming a formula for political suicide.

In 1824 sectional tensions brought the ‘era of good feeling’ to an abrupt end. Five candidates ran for office of President and John Quincy Adams was favorite whose only real opposition was Andrew Jackson. He went on to win more popular votes than any candidate but failed to gain a majority as demanded by the constitution. It had to go to the House Of Representatives for a final decision but another candidate, third in the running, Henry Clay of Kentucky aligned himself to Adams in a trade for a high office deal and so Jackson’s hopes were immediately dashed. The so called ‘corrupt bargain’ was to cast a long dark shadow over Adams term of office.  Adams sought ‘improvement’ in education, communication, transport but his ambitions met with growing political opposition and his views only guaranteed him one term of office.

As Adams’ popularity declined Jackson’s rose. Jackson was a war hero and a link to the glorious past and Jackson’s widespread support created a modern political machine that would create a new political system; Adams men or National Republicans and Jackson’s men Democratic Republicans. The only one to truly recognize this fact was Martin Van Buren who saw that the two-party system of politics where the splintered political system could be naturally divided into two opposing groups. Then the parties could compete and a winner would emerge. Jackson ran for the newly renamed Democratic Party and was successful while Adams ran for the National Republicans thereby giving shape to the American two party system. The mudslinging began almost immediately with allegations of murder, debauchery and extravagance being thrown from both sides but Jackson’s team had better aim after Adams men accused Jackson of being an illiterate backwoods man and thereby characterizing him as a ‘common man’ which was exactly what the people seemed to want in office. Jackson won the election with more than twice the electoral vote of Adams. The popular vote was much closer which highlighted the reality of the sectional bases of both parties and the accuracy of Van Burens astuteness in observing that the American political landscape was changed forever.

As an opponent of corruption and privilege Jackson made the civil service his first target. He enforced the ‘rotation’ system and made sweeping changes to staff holding high office. But his motives were questioned by his enemies as ‘the spoils system’ and those selected for high office seemed to be more friends than enemies. This was a start of a new Presidency that would be rife with problems and the first major one was the Nullification Crisis.?

Jackson and his vice president John C. Calhoun, an ardent nationalist, had presidential notions and wanted to succeed Jackson after only one term. To do this he had to maintain the support of the South which was growing opposed to Tariffs which they blamed for migration of cotton cultivation, dramatic increases in cotton and reduction in British demand for their products. However, opposition was not just economic. Southerners believed that if the Federal government could interfere with one law it could interfere with another and thus ‘slavery’ could arrive on the table for abolition. Moods were changing in relation to slavery across the nation and newspapers such as The Liberator had come into being and they wanted slavery abolished as quickly as possible. The big issue between Jackson and Calhoun was the question of the Tariff of 1828.

The Tariff of 1828 was a protective tariff passed by the Congress of the United States on May 19, 1828, designed to protect industry in the northern United States. It was labeled the Tariff of Abominations by its southern detractors because of the effects it had on the antebellum Southern economy. The major goal of the tariff was to protect industries in the northern United States which were being driven out of business by low-priced imported goods by putting a tax on them. The South, however, was harmed directly by having to pay higher prices on goods the region did not produce, and indirectly because reducing the exportation of British goods to the US made it difficult for the British to pay for the cotton they imported from the South. The reaction in the South, particularly in South Carolina, would lead to the Nullification Crisis that began in late 1832. The Tariff marked the high point of US tariffs. It was approached, but not exceeded, by the Smoot–Hawley Tariff Act of 1830. Calhoun opposed the tariff on constitutional grounds and embraced the view that the Union was a compact by which the states had conferred limited and specified powers on the federal government. The imposition of tariffs to raise funds for common purpose, such as defense, were constitutional to Calhoun and the enforcement of any tariff for any other purpose that could be deemed detrimental to State economic growth and prosperity could only be imposed with state co-operation and agreement. In 1828 Calhoun campaigned, against his President, arguing that aggrieved states had the right to nullify the law within its borders. Jackson responded by devising two policies; one to appease the South and one for all others. The first was to pay out surplus money to all states to balance the distribution of wealth and thus appease dissent. Secondly, Jackson wanted to reduce tariffs from sky high levels of 1828 and thus appeased Calhoun who did not want to be seen to be at loggerheads with Jackson but Southerners remained dissatisfied. Calhoun and Jackson had other personal problems with each other and these were added to when Jackson discovered that Calhoun had been a long time enemy of his and had advocated punishment for him in the past for his unauthorized raid into Spanish Florida. Jackson wanted to eliminate Calhoun from public life at all costs. The stage was now set for the Nullification Crisis. In 1831 Calhoun  admitted to his opposition to Jackson  and some months lat in 1832 a South Carolina convention nullified the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 and so Jackson went to war with Calhoun. He sent weapons to loyal Unionists in Carolina and in December 1832 he issued a proclamation that, while promising South Carolinians further tariff reductions, condemned nullification as unconstitutional which he emphasized had established a ‘single nation’ not a league of states. The crisis eased when Jackson signed into law two measures (the olive branch and the sword) namely, a Compromise Tariff Bill of 1833 which provided for a gradual reduction  of duties between 1833 and 1842. The sword was the Force Bill which allowed the president to use arms to collect customs duties in South Carolina which nullified it immediately but accepted the Compromise Tariff Bill. The nullifies defiantly toasted their success and commended ‘the great compromiser’ Kentuckian Henry Clay who had negotiated the peace deal and, according to Southerners, ‘saved the country’ by his efforts.

The gap between rich and poor was widening in the 1830s and Jackson blamed this on Banking. He was not a successful businessman in the past and despised banks. He had no issue with individual wealth accumulation but wanted to obliterate wealth accumulation through corruption and privileges. The Second Bank of the United States had a monopoly over funding to state banks and also had the right to demand repayments in specie (gold or silver). The government had little or no control over the banks and Jackson wanted to end this situation. Henry Clay courted the banks in a bid to help him win the White House and managed to fast track a Bill that would secure banks from government control. Jackson vetoed the Bill and denounced the banks as a private and privileged monopoly that drained the west of specie, eluded state taxation and made the rich richer and the potent more powerful. Clay failed to persuade congress to override Jackson’s veto and pinned his hopes on gaining the presidency himself. Jackson had made his position clear on many issues. He was a staunch defender of Unionist philosophy but he believed that the states were too diverse to take instruction from Washington. The safest way was to allow state freedom so that they would remain content and reject dangerous doctrines like nullification.  Breaking his promise to retire he ran again and was successful and now ready to dismantle the Bank of the United States.

Jackson’s veto of the re-charter ignited controversy. The opposition were not happy about his efforts to destroy the Bank and this created greater public interest in politics and the economy. By 1840 the Whigs and the Democrats were fundamentally divided over the bank. Money took the form of IOUs (promises to redeem in specie) and they fuelled economic development by making business easier. But when notes depreciated because of public doubts about a banks solvency, wage earners suffered because they were paid in paper rather than specie. Paper money also encouraged economic speculation. Farmers who had bought land on credit were left in debt when prices dropped. Would the US embrace swift economic development at the price of speculators languishing while others got rich or would the nation opt for modest growth based on honest hard work and frugality? Between 1833 and 1840 these questions were dominant.

Jackson could have let the Bank to die in 1836 but he feared its power and decided to act fast. The Bank anticipated the move and started to call in loans and credit. Jackson reacted by removing federal deposits and place them in state banks but the move backfired. The state banks got cash rich and started to loan out large sums of cash for land purchase and thus Jackson’s policy was producing the very kind of economy he wanted to suppress.

During Jackson’s second term the opposition gave way to the new Whig Party and his opponents promptly aligned themselves to this new political entity. Southerners saw it as a chance to punish Jackson for his stance on nullification and his war on the Banks created similar results.  Southerners also feared the lack of wealth distribution on internal improvements and that it was unfairly balanced between north and south. This would mean that Southerners would lag behind the wealthier north and so much money was tied up in slavery that it made the situation more volatile as a mood of anti-slavery was creeping in outside the southern states.

Northern reformers were also working against Jackson and wanted slavery and liquor abolished, education improved and the general elevation of public morality. Reformers found the Whigs more attractive than the Democrats. The Whigs wanted more involvement in society and the economy while the Democrats believed that it was not good to impose uniform ds on a diverse society. The reformers, mostly Protestant, despised Irish Catholics and saw them as drunken lazy slobs and the Irish went into the Democratic Party. By 1836 the Whigs had become a national party with broad appeal in both North and South.

Jackson’s popularity was a tough act to follow and the Whigs could not succeed, in this short time, in taking the White House. However, even though Martin Van Buren won for the Democrats it was obvious that trouble lay ahead because of the loss of Democratic votes to the Whigs who came close to victory.

After Jackson’s departure the Panic of 1837 began. In 1835 and 1836 the banking credit and loans business was booming and commodity and land prices soared. But in May 1837 prices began to tumble  and bank after bank began to suspend specie payments. After a short rally by 1839 the banks began to collapse and The Bank Of The United States failed and banks throughout the nation began to collapse. The ensuing recession was severe as wages fell, prices soared and the population saw this as punishment from God and the end of the world was imminent.

Van Buren ran again for the Democrats while the Whigs opted for a single candidate (not to make the same mistakes of 1836), William Harrison, a farmer with few enemies. The Democrats made a fatal mistake and tagged him “Old Granny” a man who loved sipping cider in his old Log Cabin but the tag backfired because the image of an ordinary man being victimized by an aristocratic Van Buren who lived in regal splendor drinking fine wines while people were hungry on the streets. The Whigs used Democratic tactics against the Democratic candidate. Harrison had a clear victory because of economic depression and the ‘log cabin’ campaign but there was also another factor. The social and moral reform movements that emerged in the 1830s were gaining momentum and they originated not in politics, but in religion.

Historians contend that in 19th Century America religion was the foremost of the political institutions. In other states religion and politics were at odds with each other but in America they were intimately united. However, this is not to say that religion ruled but that it was compatible with politics rather than antagonistic.  Just as Americans expected politicians to address the common man they also insisted that ministers preach to ordinary people. Ministers had to speak the language of the heart and not theological complexities. They also insisted on doctrines that put individuals in charge of their own destiny and that anyone could attain heaven. In short, Americans wanted a ‘democratic’ heaven over which they could have some control. The harmony between religion and politics gave rise to the religious revivals known as The Second Great Awakening.

The Second Great Awakening: This ignited in the 1790s and swept across America during the half century that followed. But as the revivals progressed they also transformed. The second coming of Jesus was proclaimed and repentance was necessary in order to reap the rewards of eternal life. The most famous gathering took place in Kentucky in 1801 when a huge congregation of mixed religions assembled to hear sermons, sing hymns and be saved. The frenzy had some extreme features as men and women rolled around like logs, jerked their heads furiously and barked like dogs. The whole affair, critics claimed, was mo lustful than spiritual with “more souls begot rather than saved”. Of all the religious movements it was the Methodists that proved the most dominant. They argues that religion was about the heart and not the head. They travelled from place to place on horseback bringing with them the word of God. They went to remote areas and set up weekly classes before departing. These classes formed a Methodist code of behavior known as ‘Discipline’  which reinforced family and community values.

In the 1820s the Second Great Awakening had begun to move Eastward. The man who spearheaded the revival of New York was Charles Finney who had experienced a powerful religious conversion. He became a Presbyterian Minister and started to conduct revival camps from New York to Boston. His experience and spiritual wisdom made him ‘the father of modern revivalism’. He used techniques such as a conversion chair where people sat and were surrounded by the congregation who prayed over them to cleanse their souls for the re-entry of Jesus. Finney’s congregation would leave meetings with a cleansed soul with all guilt washed away and were ‘Born again’. Finney had a large middle class following and was also a favorite of most women whom he converted before converting their family.

The Unitarians: Revivals drew criticism. It was doubted by some that revivalists had any sacred power to change anybody and they were condemned as fakers and charlatans for trying. The influential ‘Unitarians’ who believed that Jesus was not divine but no more than a human model for moral life had some considerable support in wealthy circles. They contended that moral goodness is cultivated over time and not instantly by barking like dogs. The Unitarians, who influenced Dorothea Dix, claimed that all Christianity had one purpose: “the perfection of human nature, the elevation of men into nobler beings.”

The Church Of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons founded by Joseph Smith, a New York confused boy who grew up to create a religion founded on a discovered book of revelation pointed out to him by an Angel named Moroni. In short, Mormonism contends that an ancient Hebrew prophet came to America and created a prosperous nation  to await Jesus. Some dark sin was caused during the wait and as punishment God created the Indians who, by the time Columbus got to America, had forgotten the entire affair. Mormonism had placed America as the center of religious history. Smith revealed his ideas to doubtful Protestants and was persecuted as a heretic and he absconds to live with the Indians whom he wanted to convert. They built a city called Nauvoo in Illinois but in 1844 a group of dissident members, vexed on the plural marriage issue, had him thrown into jail and later murdered him and his brother.

Mother Ann Lee, the founder of ‘The Shakers’ had a following who believed she was the Daughter of God just as Jesus was the son of God. The Shakers had convulsive like fits while worshipping and pursued religious perfection. They produced furniture noted for it’s beauty but also strived for complete celibacy. Children would be adopted or fostered to prevent sexual activity. The practiced christian socialism and shared land and implements to create remarkably prosperous villages.

The relentless struggle for divine perfection, spiritual independence was compatible with social requirements of all individuals. Saved souls could unite in the purpose of elimination of all evil in society. To achieve this, a wide range of social services began to spring up in civilized America. Abolition of slavery, rights of women, temperance, humane treatment of criminals and the insane and public eduction were all on the reformers agenda. All conflict was perceived as the clash of good and evil and they had God on their side so could not lose. Those churches that refused to condemn any evil, mostly slavery, we’re themselves condemned. The age of Reform drew its fuel from the evangelical revivalists and they had the power of God to help them convince a spiritually malnourished society.

Early 19th century Americans were heavy drinkers. One reason for this was the state of agriculture. Prior to the transport revolution, farmers who could not transport their corn and rye began to manufacture whiskey. Drunkenness pervaded which resulted in many social problems such as domestic violence, disease and economic failure. The American Temperance Society was formed in 1826 and rapidly increased its membership nationwide. Even women and children, as victims of violence and poverty, we’re becoming members. The main targets of the temperance reformers were the working classes but the workers showed little interest until the argument that society would collapse if drinking were to take hold was floated. In dread of losing their jobs or businesses and temperance spread farther and faster as the movement won new support and now began to demand prohibition. The campaigners fought a hard but successful battle and by the 1840s consumption had dropped to less than half  it’s peak rate in the 1820s.

The typical American school in the early 19th century was rural. Reading and counting were the main activities for the classroom of mixed ages from three to twenty. Parents were satisfied with these arrangements but reformers wanted a better system to equip children for a growing economy. Reformers wanted state support for education, extending school time, standards textbooks, a grade system and compulsory attendance. The purpose of school was to spread industrial values and combat ignorance. Industry, honesty, sobriety and patriotism were the values to be instilled in all students. School reformers prevailed after a struggle because their opponents failed to unify. Women wanted reform because it would improve opportunities and they were right. By 1900 over 70% of teachers were women. The school system was soon seen as a way  for creating a common American culture out of a diverse society. However, black children did not enter public school, reformers did not include them in their plans, black children encountered hostility and violence.

Anti slavery sentiment flourished in the Revolutionary era. The northern states had emancipation schemes in place but the South had a growing dependence on slavery and that was unlikely to change for the foreseeable future. Colonization in Liberia, West Africa was a northern proposal for a solution to the problem but most African Americans did not want to be transported to a new continent. They saw themselves as African American and demanded the right to be treated as citizens of America. Black activist David Walker, born a free man, led an anti-white campaign and he urged slaves to rise up and murder their masters if slavery were not abolished. In the 1830s Black leaders began holding conventions devoted to abolishing slavery in the South and repealing discriminatory black codes in the North. White abolitionists launched campaigns to stop new slaves from being transported into the Union. William Lloyd Garrison of New England launched a newspaper ‘The Liberator’ which established him as  the most prominent and provocative of all white abolitionists. He filled his paper with stories of slave mistreatment and thereby appealed to the humanity of his vast readership to abolish slavery. He wanted immediate emancipation without compensation to slaveholders. He also wanted full equality with whites and formed the American Antislavery Society to achieve this end.

Fugitive slaves also had a role to play in abolition and the foremost of these was Frederick Douglas who wrote his autobiography which sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Relations between black and white abolitionists were not always harmonious but racial prejudices were mild by comparision to anti-abolition whites who transferred their hatred to white abolitionists. Abolitionists drew on the language of revivalists and condemned slavery as a sin but issues of strategy and tactics divided those who desired an end to slavery. Garrison advocated non resistance in which the doctrine held that the fundamental evil of slavery was its reliance on force, the opposite of Christian love. Government also rested on cohersion and any person who voted or participated in politics was not a true Christian. The second issue dividing abolitionists was the role of women in the movement. Women participating in this crusade were seen as ‘indelicate’, women should obey men, not lecture them. In 1840 Abolitionists were split on these issues and the break up of the American Antislavery Society that followed did not damage the larger movement.

When the Grimke sisters took up the cause of women’s rights in 1838 they were not just defending their right to participate in the Antislavery movement. They were responding to perceived similarities between women and slaves. Women under slavery were degradated and sexually vulnerable. In the early 19th century women were not allowed to vote, hold public office, educated  or allowed into the professions. Married women had no legal identity, could not own property, control their own earning, sue or be sued or enter a contract. Divorced women could not get custody of their children and domestic violence went unchallenged. Women’s place was in the home and they had no legal rights. However, reform movements gave women a chance to work in public as volunteers and they could claim that their objectives were to clean up society to enhance the quality of home life for all women. Feminism first emerged in abolitionism and it gave its female participants thee courage and inspiration they needed to fight the fight for their own rights. In 1848 New York the first true feminist convention took place at Seneca Falls. It declared that all women were equal and modeled itself on the Declaration of Independence. It passed twelve resolutions that were to be the code of all feminist activities to follow. By 1860 changes started to occur, a New York law allowed married women to vote but it took until 1920 for women to secure a national right, fifty five years after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery.

In the 1820s reformers had started their war on poverty, crime and abuse of mentally or physically challenged people. Secular and religious reformers believed that human nature could be improved  through placement in the proper moral environment. Teh reformers model for this proper environment for paupers, criminals and the insane was an asylum which would remove deviants from corrupting influences by placing them in a controlled environment under moral supervision and disciplined work. Up until the early 19th century the way to deal with such people was through public flogging or execution rather than extended prison terms. Two different types of penitentiary care emerged in antebellum America. The Auburn system forbade inmates any communication with each other and the Pennsylvania System confined prisoners to isolation in a single cell and deprived of human contact with no news or visits from the outside for the duration of the sentence. The poor and mentally ill were inmates in less rigorous institutions where they could be taught (if possible) to work at being virtuous and productive citizens. Insane asylums were set up for the mentally ill but they too had the optimistic believe that insanity was curable through proper moral environments. These institutions, prisons, almshouses and asylums were forms of social control but inmates were not protected from the punishments of incarceration and regimentation.

The reformists belief in the possibility of human perfection found its greatest expression in utopian communities. They began in the 1820s and expanded over the next few decades. These communities were experiments in unification of like-minded people aiming for social and economic harmony and the eradication of evil and the advancement of religious ideals. Scottish mill owner Robert Owen founded New Harmony in Indiana where he improved the home and work life of his community members with the aim of elimination of vice and misery. He believed human character was the fruit of its environment so if the latter is perfect then so will be the former. His community failed because it was too attractive to idlers and fanatics but his ideas inspired more Utopians to follow. Experimental communities multiplied in the 1830s and 1840s many f which had the common belief that modern life in large urban environments was not natural and not helpful to the development of the mind and spirit. The most controversial utopian experiment was the Oneida Community established in 1848 in New York. It advocated Christian communism and renounced private property but, most controversially, in place of conventional marriage it had ‘complex marriage’ in which every male was married to every female. Critics of the community saw it as a free sex for all club and a sex haven designed by its founder, John Humphrey Noyes, but the prosperous Oneida outlived other less radical utopian societies. Utopian communities, despite ridicule, exemplified the idealism and hopefulness of all reform movements in antebellum America.

In conclusion, in the early decades of the 19th Century politics became an activity of the common people. Voting barriers changed, party machines began to expand and religion and revivalism spearheaded the campaign for a better society for all through improving moral behavior. Revivalists challenged the idea of man nor being in control of his own destiny and advocated that all humans, men and women, had the ability to perfect themselves. The election of Andrew Jackson was the will of the people but his dictatorial manner contributed to the emergence of the second party system. Religion gave rise to new reform movements, some seeking legal equality for slaves and women, others wanting temperance, better education, institutional reform and utopian communitarianism. While complaining about the corruptness of politics the reformers made their demands using the same techniques they admonished in the politicians.

Primary Source

Boyer, Clark & Halttunen

The Enduring Vision


Posted on March 30, 2012, in American History. and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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