With an election on the horizon, the United States is about to undertake yet another exercise rooted in American ideology. Nevertheless, recent events have exasperated a seemingly divided nation, leaving many to wonder if there is hope in restoring unity. In hindsight, American history is laced with many a fracture upon political, social, and economic lines. None as profound as those witnessed in the 19th century with sentiments so strong, they would lead to civil war.
A nation at its youth, colonial Americans lived a simple life during the Second Great Awakening. The nearly ten million were predominately English and Protestant. Rural communities dotted the eastern third of a country expanding as the Louisiana Purchase (1803) created an additional 828,000 sq. mi. of land. They were farmers, merchants, and artisans. Horses powered machinery. Women remained in the home, raising the children. Pre-industrial man was a self-sufficient man, upholding his freedom and sobriety, guided by a strong moral center with spiritual ties to salvation. What he could not produce, he imported.
The rivers were far-reaching but by no means efficient. Navigation was slow and the ability to deliver goods was untimely. American imports were costly but that changed around 1820. New advancements for railroads and steamboats facilitated travel and gained momentum as the democratic republic sought new ways to deliver a more progressive nation to the people.
President John Quincy Adams (1825-1829) initiated a federally funded project known as the Transportation Revolution. It transformed America’s infrastructure through improved roads, railways, and man-made canals. The Erie Canal (1825) created an artificial waterway between the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes. In addition, the evolution of communication and the telegraph interconnected the population within seconds, as opposed to weeks. Mostly confined to New England, commerce expanded westward alongside these sprawling transportation hubs, building factories with modern, steam powered machinery along the way. Rural Americans relocated to the city as the demand for labor precipitated a full-scale American Industrial Revolution.
Into the 1830s, the notion of standardized precision of products through mass production was uniquely American. Most anything could be mass produced cheaper and better. Profit-driven industrialists used the factory system to build larger corporations that prospered as they capitalized upon productive employees possessing Protestant-Christian virtues in punctuality, reliability, and discipline. The once artisan became obsolete, now selling his craft as a mere laborer. Women entered the workforce. Factories demanded labor of all skill levels, moreover, created new and highly skilled occupations in its path such as machinists, millwrights, and engineers. A drive toward literacy and a new system of public education would also supply sorely needed skilled workers.
The flourishing economy attracted an influx of immigrants from Europe seeking opportunity. About 750,000 Germans, Irish, and Catholics arrived in the 1820s-1830s and another 4 million through the 1850s. The new capitalist society was a quick and difficult transition for many. Specialization of labor generated a system of class relations: master, journeyman, employer, and employee, often causing tension. Immigration and extreme demographic changes caused cultural friction. Nativism grew among Protestant-Christians. Yet pluralism abounded, creating the new face of a growing, consuming American industrial middle-class.
In contrast, the South thrived as state law protected a unique way of life based upon its agrarian tradition. There were no factories nor rapidly expanding cities. Southern culture consisted of a patriarchal society. Chivalry was embraced as a distinct hierarchy thrived, based upon race, gender, and the institution of slavery at its core.
Slavery was legal throughout colonial America but later abolished north of the Mason-Dixon Line with state or federal legislation such as the Northwest Ordinance (1787.) Looking westward, any boundary issues were solved when Congress set a dividing line in the Missouri Territory at 36° 30’, a resolution called the Missouri Compromise (1820.) Slavery remained in the south due to the lucrative nature of the business. Fertile land, ideal climate, and the availability of slaves from the African slave trade allowed southern farmers to fully equip their plantations for mass production of cotton and other crops. By law, this ruling class could continue to purchase humans to retain as property, affording them all rights of custody and servitude.
The institution of slavery was extremely vital to southern prosperity. A slave owner purchased males and females until the federal Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1807. To increase the workforce, he encouraged procreation. While slave marriages were outlawed, they still created familial relationships and produced offspring. Unfortunately, due to the harsh nature of the institution, family structure was often broken through resale and trade within the South. Breakdown of the family was just one issue that angered Abolitionists, a group that arose from the Second Great Awakening movement.
The South demonstrated a superiority in agriculture, contributing greatly to the flourishing American economy. Despite its “shortcomings,” Southerners were able to justify a superior culture and their reciprocal relationship to the Negro, who made this all possible. Yet they found no shame in human bondage. When slaves resisted or escaped, the South used the power of federally mandated fugitive slave laws. The Great Awakening prompted great criticism and opposition on both sides of the Mason-Dixon. Lack of “Yankee ingenuity” in the South was considered “dead weight” to the growing North and while they acknowledged state law, they answered to the call of a “higher law.” They established the Underground Railroad, resisted federal agents seeking runaways, and advocated for Personal Liberty Laws (1840s.)
To date, the democratic republic generally agreed upon American industry over foreign competition, centralized banking, modern infrastructure, economic growth, and mobility. By this time, Americans had already started moving west. The government assisted in clearing the way by purchase, compromise, war, and annexation. In addition, the Indian Removal Act of 1830 greatly reduced America’s true natives, confined to the government’s “less desirable” land. But onto the Great Plains and Pacific Coast they left in droves, leaving behind overcrowded cities, violence, poverty, and strained class relations.
America forged on with expansion. If more land was good, then “from sea to shining sea” must be better. Some suggested modeling American ideology. Then conformity would spread over time. Others felt it necessary to conquer. Fearing industrialist expansion was an effort to exert the power of the federal government, President Andrew Jackson vetoed the re-charter of the Second Bank of the United States in 1832. The backlash led to the creation of a two-party political structure, the Democratic Party and the Whig Party.
Democratic President Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) and his followers believed in the voice of the common man and mobility of the culturally diverse, even though Jackson was responsible for the removal of native Americans via the Trail of Tears. They supported small, rural, un-intrusive state government, the same government that perpetuated slavery in the South. The Democrats upheld slavery and wanted it expanded with the acquisition of new territory.
The Whigs (or Patriots) upheld the values of native-born Protestants. They were the voice of education, social reform, temperance, and abolition. Whigs believed in the power of Congress and a strong federal government, federal bank, and protective tariff. They were the industrialists that perpetuated modernized infrastructure. They believed slavery was morally wrong and a (socially and economically) backwards institution. Whig member Abraham Lincoln compared slavery to a cancer that needed to be purged.
Fulfilling his Manifest Destiny of 1845, President James K. Polk (1845-1849) garnered more land than any other American president. Starting with Texas, whom entered the U.S. as a slave state, the Jacksonian Polk waged Mexican war to supplement more land, which the Whigs opposed. As a result, a southern border was established and 500,000 sq. mi. of land annexed, including California. The British agreed to Polk’s acquisition of Oregon Territory which also expanded the U.S. east to the Rockies. Abolitionists viewed the expansion nothing more than a Democrats’ conspiracy to extend slavery. In 1846, Pennsylvania Congressman Wilmot Proviso attempted unsuccessfully to propose a ban to slavery expansion. Neutrality laws were greatly debated. Some southern states threatened to secede until the establishment of the Compromise of 1850, another congressional “solution” allowing states upon admission to choose by popular vote.
The Compromise upheld until the discovery of gold in the state of California hastened westward travel through midland America, specifically Kansas Territory and Nebraska Territory to the north. These territories began to populate as the nation proposed expansion of the railroad, connecting east to the west. To find favor with Southern legislature, Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois proposed dividing these territories, essentially overturning the 36° 30’ resolution. When it passed on May 20, 1854, the backlash shattered the Whig Party. As a result, the yet-to-organize Kansas formed two territorial governments and became the battleground for pro-slavery and free-soil sentiment. Once a platform for debate, the murder of a free-soil Kansas settler by a slavery supporter sparked a chain of violent events. In 1856, a pro-slavery mob invaded the town of Lawrence, Kansas, destroying businesses and burning the home of the free-soil governor. Two days later, Abolitionist John Brown led four of his sons to a pro-slavery settlement at Pottawatomie, Kansas. The men brutally dragged and beat 5 men to their death. The violence continued until its eventual “free” statehood admittance in 1861, thus coined the name “Bleeding Kansas.”
“Bleeding Kansas” instigated more violence that erupted the next few years in the name of slavery. In 1856, Massachusetts Senator was brutally beaten with a cane in the Senate Chamber after delivering his “Crime Against Kansas” speech. John Brown’s violence against slavery continued in 1856 at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. A 36-hour standoff led to his capture and subsequent hanging, sending fear and outrage throughout the South. Southern Democrats, now weakened, looked to the government for protection from other violence. Without strength, they cannot protect slavery. Some feared the institution of slavery may be nearing its end.
With an impending election in 1860, several smaller parties such as the Free-Soil Party, the Know-Nothings, Nativists, and the American Party, united to form a strong Republican Party endorsing anti-slavery campaigns. A young Whig-turned Republican Abraham Lincoln surfaced as a viable candidate. Lincoln felt if the Constitution made no reference to slave ownership and the Constitution applied to every state, then America cannot continue to be ½ slave and ½ free. If a white person is allowed the opportunity to better himself, so should the black man. His rhetoric would continue through the 1858 debates. His integrity, moderation, and commitment to Republican ideology would win him the nomination and subsequent presidential victory.
The election of 1860 is considered a milestone in American politics. There was much fascination and excitement. The media uncovered a smear campaign full of character assassination, scandal,and, abuse of power. Yet the overwhelming issue led to a serious struggle and all-out war between two bi-partisan groups. Exactly 150 years later and another election on the horizon, character assassinations, scandal, and abuse of power still ring throughout bi-partisan groups as they work to deliver a better America. The struggle remains as the forum has changed in what some have called the new “Age of Impeachment,” leaving many to wonder if there ever will be unity. Maybe it is the struggle that keeps us in-check and makes our America so great.