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"WE ARE A NATION OF CHANGES"
America at the Crossroads in the 1830s
"it was the best of times. It was the worst of times." When Charles Dickens penned these now familiar words of contradiction, he was not speaking of the United States in 1830. Yet the contradiction surely applied, for during this turbulent decade Americans agreed that their country was changing rapidly. But whether the changes they witnessed were for the good or bad, they sharply disagreed.
No one could deny that the nation was growing, both physically and in population. Eight new states had come into the Union since the century began and two more would join before the decade ended. The nation's population had soared, growing from under four million in 1790 to almost thirteen million by 1830. Although the great wave of German and Irish immigration lay ahead in the 1840s, roughly a hundred thousand new Americans would arrive in the United States before the decade was over. Yet if the nation was growing larger, there was a sense that it was also becoming more intimate, for a revolution in transportation and communication
was in full swing. Toll roads crisscrossed the country, creating a transportation network unimagined in the eighteenth century. The heavily traveled National Road had snaked its way through the Appalachian Mountains since the 1820s, and by 1830 it reached as far as the Ohio River. Construction on a state-of-the-art highway soon followed, and by 1838 it carried people and produce as far as Illinois. A system of canals, including the famous Erie Canal, now linked the western countryside to the cities of the Northeast. Americans were already growing accustomed to the marvels of new technology, for since the late eighteenth century, steamboats with fanciful names such as Car of Neptune, Firefly, and Vesuvius could be seen on the Hudson, Delaware, and Savannah rivers. But an even faster, if noisier, form of transportation was beginning to appear on the landscape: the railroad. Americans who had seen Peter Cooper's "Tom Thumb" steam locomotive make its first run in 1830 knew they had been given a glimpse of the future.
Cheaper printing technology and improved mail service were creating a more intimate America as well. Letters posted in Buffalo, New York, sped south in the holds of canal boats, reaching New York City in a remarkable six days. The same letter could reach New Orleans in only two weeks. Affordable books, pamphlets, and newspapers now reached homes that had once boasted of nothing but a family Bible. The statistics were dazzling: in 1790, 92 newspapers were published in the United States, with a circulation of four million; by 1835, there were 1,258 newspapers reaching ninety million readers. By 1836, instant communication seemed possible, as Samuel F. B. Morse perfected his electric telegraph.
Changes in the American economy were no less dramatic. In the North, production had begun to move out of the household and into shops and factories, while in the South, King Cotton claimed its throne. The signs of prosperity were everywhere: not only in urban mansions and Southern plantation homes but also in the luxuries that graced the tables of the nation's middle class. Signs of expanding democracy were just as obvious, at least for the white male population. The older notion that only men of property should enjoy full citizenship had given way to the demand for wider participation in choosing those who made the laws and set the policies for the nation. The "era of the common man" was in full swing by the 1830s, and as the number of voters swelled, a new breed of professional politicians emerged to woo their support and to offer policies that served their interests.
Along with these changes came a new national ethos. The brash nationalism that had followed the War of 1812 produced a cultural revolution. Young American artists turned their backs on Old World subjects, preferring to capture on their canvases the natural beauty of their country's mountains and rivers. The romance with the American landscape, embodied in the Hudson River school of artists, had its literary counterpart in the works of writers such as James Fenimore Cooper, who created characters and plots drawn from local myths and local history. Americans even had their own dictionary, thanks to Noah Webster-another sign, if one was needed, of independence from their English past.
At the same time that American artists were discovering the aesthetic soul of the nation, American religious leaders were discovering the democratization of the human soul. A religious revival swept the nation in the early nineteenth century, carrying the message that everyone was capable of attaining salvation, that heaven's doors opened to the penitent sinner, and that there was room for all in paradise. This Second Great Awakening, as historians came to call it, declared that men and women could shape their own destiny if they embraced Christ. And if salvation was within the reach of everyone, surely life on earth could also be improved. Missionary societies took up the task of converting those they called heathens at home and abroad. Utopian communities sprang up, each an experiment in new social arrangements that might guide the way to a perfect society. Reformers organized campaigns against alcoholism, sexual immorality, the abuse of the insane, the handicapped, and the criminal. By the 1830s, Americans could speak of a "benevolent empire" of devoted men and women, eager to eradicate all social ills and imperfections.
And yet there was a darker side to all this change. The expansion of the South's Cotton Kingdom also meant the expansion of slavery. If many of the framers of the Constitution had quietly hoped African American slavery would vanish from their republic, the soaring profits enjoyed by Southern planters destroyed that dream. The westward movement of the white population, made possible by improved transportation and fueled by the insatiable thirst for land, was already setting slave master against small farmer in the territories. The West was becoming, in the minds of both political leaders and ordinary citizens, a competitive battleground between the systems of slave and free labor. The decade had begun with an attempt to control the tensions, but few were convinced that the political bandage known as the Missouri Compromise would stop the spread of sectional tensions.
Americans also discovered there was a price to pay for rapid economic growth and expansion when the boom economy of the early 1830s
morphed into the bust economy of its later years. In 1837, panic and widespread depression wiped out rich men's fortunes and destroyed poor men's dreams. Banks that had swung their doors wide closed them tightly soon afterward, leaving farmers and small merchants to mourn the loss of their life savings. Debtors' prisons overflowed and businessmen learned that social mobility was a ladder that could carry them down as well as up.
A new anxiety about rapid change rippled beneath the surface of this age of optimism and belief in progress. By the mid-thirties, a disturbing question began to be raised: where was America headed? Many feared that the land of Jefferson's Protestant yeoman farmer was becoming the land of speculators, bankers, African American slaves, and Catholic immigrants. A belief in conspiracies began to take hold, prompting the rise of the Know-Nothing Party, which accused American Freemasons of dangerous secret rituals, undue influence in business and politics, and even murder. Northern reformers spoke ominously, and often, of the "slaveocracy," a conspiratorial coalition of Southern planters and their Northern business allies. Even the consumer revolution that brought luxuries such as ice cream
to day laborers and fashionable gowns to the wives of clerks proved troubling. The eager embrace of goods seemed to spell a victory for Mammon over God.
Other Americans wondered what traditional values were being lost in the race to modernity. They viewed the lure of the city with alarm, for urban opportunities drew young men and young women away from the watchful eyes of parents and ministers. The city's anonymity-and its decadence-were destroying the morality of their sons and daughters. Certainly those who read the headlines in 1836, detailing the brutal and mysterious death of a young New York prostitute, had reason to fear that vice, violence, and moral corruption were dangers lurking on every city street.
Still others asked who controlled politics in this new age of interest groups and professional officeholders. The expansion of suffrage to all adult white males in most states had unexpected political consequences. Political parties were developing efficient vote-garnering machinery, their candidates willing to make promises to the common man they could not (and never intended to) keep while selling their votes to powerful interests such as the planters, manufacturers, and merchants whose bidding they were more than eager to do.
Everywhere some Americans looked they saw greed, exploitation, sin, and excess-and, just as their more optimistic neighbors were doing, they mounted a determined crusade to improve the world around them. But their reform was harder-edged: if the promise of perfectability resonated with them as it did with their counterparts, the stakes for these reformers were higher. Unless Americans fought the temptations of their changing world, God's wrath would be felt and the nation would be punished. The focus of the energies of a small but determined group soon became the abolition of slavery, for it would carry with it the end to the political and economic power of Southern slave masters and their Northern commercial allies. Abolition would guarantee the fulfillment of the promise of the Revolution: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all.
Over the next two decades, these abolitionists waged a dogged battle against what they considered the unholy alliances of cotton magnates and Northern merchants, Southern and Northern politicians, slave owners and those in the free states who closed their eyes to the evils of the "peculiar institution." Although they were always a small minority, their crusade moved the nation closer to both civil war and emancipation. One of the most remarkable of these crusaders was Angelina Grimké, who began
life as a pampered and self-absorbed child of privilege and ended it as a woman dedicated not only to abolition but also to racial equality.
From the Hardcover edition.