The Pre-dawning of an American Tragedy
Economic, Social and Political Institutions
The Eastern regions of the United States experienced tremendous economic and social growth during the first decades of the nineteenth century. Encouraged by waves of work-hungry immigrants, business-friendly laws, and the promises of a resource-rich land, businessmen invested mightily in their schemes and plans for settling the new country before them.
The American economy enjoyed unprecedented growth for much of the 1800s. Capital, resources, land, and foreign labor were plentiful, and all these factors combined to engender fertile economic conditions for new generations of entrepreneurs and businessmen. Economic growth was also aided by the country’s emerging legal system, which was fiercely protective of private property and determined to enforce contractual agreements.
As the nineteenth century progressed, two distinct economic systems emerged in the North and South. In the North, the opening of the Merrimack Manufacturing Company in Massachusetts in 1823 marked the introduction of the English factory system to America. This triggered the rapid development of a manufacturing-based economy in the North, an economy that was further buoyed by improved transportation options and increased harvesting of raw materials. Fledgling labor organizations began to sprout up as well in the latter part of the 1830s.
In the early 1800s, the nation’s woeful road system quickly gave way to water transportation. The latter option was aided immeasurably by the construction of the Erie Canal (1817-1825), which linked the New York canal system to Lake Erie at Buffalo and opened the Great Lakes region to commerce, as well as the development of the St. Lawrence Sea way, a series of canals, dams, and locks along the U.S.-Canadian border which allowed travel from the Gulf of St. Lawrence in the Atlantic to the Great Lakes. Thousands of miles of canals were built throughout the first half of the nineteenth century; most of them financed by state and local governments. The canal and river systems, though, eventually gave way to the “Iron Horse”-the locomotive. Railway lines proliferated and became the preferred mode of delivery. Railroads also proved essential to the development of the nation’s ever-expanding western borders, and railroad hubs in cities such as Chicago were quickly established to transport crops of the plains back to eastern markets. By 1860 more than thirty thousand miles of railroad track had been laid–nearly as much as in the rest of the world combined.
In the South, meanwhile, the region’s economy was fused to the institution of slavery. Agricultural in nature, Southern business interests relied on slaves to harvest the cash crops (especially cotton) that were sold to customers in urban and industrial markets. As abolitionist pressures from the North grew, slave-holders grew increasingly concerned.
Two issues dominated American politics in the first part of the nineteenth century: expansion and slavery. Perhaps inevitably, the two issues became tangled together over time, a development that contributed to the slide toward war that nearly tore the nation apart.
After America’s ill-fated attempt to annex Canada, the country turned its expansionist attention to the west. In the 1840s America wrested the republic of Texas and another large region (which included modern-day California, Nevada, Utah, and most of New Mexico and Arizona) away from Mexico. The mountains, deserts, and forests that comprised these territories were hundreds of miles away from the eastern United States, but their acquisition nonetheless had a tremendous impact on the relationship between the established Northern and Southern states.
As the United States continued its expansion, it became increasingly difficult for it to maintain its balancing act between the North and the South regarding slavery. As new states and territories joined the nation, debate over whether they should be admitted as “slave states” was furious. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 (which secretary of state and future president John Quincy Adams perceptively called the “title page to a great tragic volume”), the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 were all engineered in the hopes of satisfying both sides, but these legislative efforts ultimately failed. Abolitionists continued to rage against the enslavement of blacks, while Southern states felt that the balance of power in Congress between slave and non-slave states was being gradually eroded. The Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision (1857) further heightened tensions between the North and South.
During the first half of the nineteenth century, political parties evolved in accordance with patterns of ethnicity, religion, region, and economic class. Leading political parties included the Jeffersonian (National) Republicans, who favored high tariffs and the institution of a national bank; the Whigs, a party that grew out of the National Republican Party and several smaller political factions; and the Jacksonian Democrats–named after party giant Andrew Jackson–who held sway from 1829 to the dawn of the Civil War.
The issue of slavery, however, finally caused the Democrats, traditionally a coalition of various economic and ethnic groups, to splinter. The two groups each fielded a candidate for the 1860 presidential election, but the anti-slavery Republicans of the North were able to push Abraham Lincoln to the presidency despite the fact that he won only 39 percent of thepopular vote (and only two counties in all of the South). His election further convinced the South that separation from the Union was necessary.
American law and interpretations of justice underwent dramatic transformation in the first half of the nineteenth century. American law was based in large measure on English common law, but U.S. politicians, lawyers, and communities shaped and altered that foundation to address uniquely American issues such as land settlement.
The country’s fledgling court system showed little inclination to use law as a device to enforce Christian concepts of morality, instead devoting its attention to the issues of property, business, and commercial contracts. As judicial decisions proliferated, they formed a body of case law that often addressed questions not yet discussed by the country’s legislative arms. “Instead of upholding the ideal of a stable and balanced social order,” noted the authors of The Great Republic, “the law gave increasing priority to economic growth,” encouraging individual enterprise, initiative, and competition.
Several legal decisions rendered during the first half of the nineteenth century had an enduring impact on both the nature of the American legal system and the sociological landscape of thecountry. In 1803 the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Marbury v. Madison, authored by Chief Justice John Marshall, established the judicial branch’s authority to invalidate federal laws that it deemed unconstitutional, a power that has been invoked with significant effect in the ensuing two centuries of America’s history. Other Supreme Court decisions (such as McCulloch v. Maryland in 1819 and Cohens v. Virginia in 1821) asserted the sovereignty of federal law over state law, thus strengthening the hand of Congress and confirming the power of the Constitution.
Another landmark legal decision reflected America’s struggle with the issue of slavery. The 1857 Dred Scott decision, which denied the appeal of a slave who petitioned for freedom on the grounds of his extended stints in “free” territory, further inflamed passions concerning the subject, and many scholars argue that the decision made the Civil War inevitable.
The sociological make-up of the American people underwent a dramatic transformation in the first half of the nineteenth century. The first Americans–overwhelmingly British and Protestant–were joined by an ever-widening range of emigrants from Poland, Germany, Ireland, and other European countries with different political views and religious faiths. These newcomers embraced the uniquely American vision of the young country as a place of opportunity and possibility. Most of these immigrants settled in the cities of the North, where factories were an increasing presence in theeconomy. The Irish, who accounted for more than 40 percent of the immigrants to America in the 1840s, were forced to contend with sometimes violently anti-Catholic feelings in their new land, but they nonetheless managed to accumulate significant political power in major Northern cities. By 1860 eight cities had swelled to populations of more than 150,000; only seven cities in all of England were of that size. Despite the surge in immigrants, however, most Americans continued to live in rural areas; this was especially true in the South. In 1860 four out of five Americans lived on farms or in communities of less than 2,500. The influx of immigrant families, coupled with the growing size of American family units, resulted in a nation in which children were seemingly everywhere. By 1830, nearly one-third of the country’s white population was under the age of ten.
Other events during this period had an enduring impact on American society as well. In 1848 more than two hundred women and men met at Seneca Falls, New York, to hold a conference on women’s rights. This convention, which charged that women should have the same rights as men in the realms of voting, education, employment, and property ownership, is commonly regarded as the birthplace of the American women’s movement.
Native American tribes east of the Mississippi River, meanwhile, saw their cultures uprooted and discarded by the steadily encroaching white population. Some tribes were housed on reservations located on unfamiliar land, while others fled in search of land where they might be left undisturbed. Even tribes that sought to adopt “civilized” ways were swept away. A notorious example of this was the removal of the Cherokee nation to Oklahoma during the winter of 1838-39. This journey, in which many members of the tribe perished, became known as “The Trail of Tears.” But all the Indian nations were victimized. Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole from the South and northern tribes such as the Ottawa, Huron, and Miami were all dislocated. These refugees eventually met on the western side of the Mississippi, land of the proud Plains Indians.
The American medical establishment continued to look to Europe for guidance in understanding the human body, but individual Americans did provide notable contributions. Philip Syng Physick is generally acknowledged as the man who established surgery as a specialty in America, while Daniel Drake was a tremendously influential educator. In addition, the author Oliver Wendell Holmes was the first to recognize that puerperal (childbed) fever was a contagious malady.
Both European and American physicians of the early nineteenth century supported general regimens of “diet, exercise, rest, baths and massage, bloodletting, scarification, cupping, blistering, sweating, emetics, purges, enemas, and fumigations,” according to Medicine: An Illustrated History. “There were multitudes of plant and mineral drugs available, but only a few rested on sound physiological or even empiric foundations.”
The threat of diseases such as yellow fever (which killed thirteen thousand people in the Mississippi Valley in 1843), cholera, and smallpox continued to terrorize the American people, but these maladies proved even more deadly to Native Americans who came into contact with whites. Smallpox epidemics decimated entire tribes of Indians, whose immune systems were particularly vulnerable to such unfamiliar diseases.
Steadily accumulating knowledge did gradually translate into longer life spans. The cities of the East, though, were burdened by overcrowding and wretched sanitary conditions. They became breeding grounds for infectious diseases such as tuberculosis; in the late 1850s, American cities had the highest death rates in the world. Rural communities across the country, meanwhile, often relied on midwives for medical attention, especially in the area of child delivery. Women’s efforts to gain further medical education were thwarted at seemingly every turn, and few women were able to obtain advanced degrees. Finally, however, the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania–the first women’s medical school–was established in 1850.
Nineteenth-century America featured a wide array of religious faiths that served as a unifying element for communities across the country. The evangelical zeal that swept the country in the first part of the 1800s was especially evident in such regions as Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee, home to pioneers who used religion as a central building block in the creation of communities. Fledgling Methodist and Baptist denominations proved adept at speaking to the common populace, and this ability vaulted them past older Protestant faiths to become the largest denominations in America by 1820.
As freedom of religion became entrenched as a core principle of the American idea, new religions without Old World ties popped up, and existing denominations continued to splinter. But while these faiths differed in various respects, they were unified in their passion for America and took pains to emphasize that the country was a nation inextricably intertwined with God.
As the century progressed, religious revivalism assumed ever-greater importance all across the nation. Religious practices, however, were shaped by regional interests and viewpoints. This led most Southern churches to deny that slavery was an immoral practice in Christian society; failure to defend the practice might, in fact, threaten a church’s very survival. Conversely, many leading abolitionists of the era were Quakers or other religious figures from the North who charged that the practice of slavery was an abominable violation of the tenets of the Christian faith. Free blacks, meanwhile, weary of discrimination in both the South and the North, formed their own “African” churches. These were primarily Baptist or Methodist denominations.
At the same time that this growth in religion was taking place, American audiences of the nineteenth century became fascinated by science and technological advancement, which they saw as key weapons in the battle to tame nature and construct better lives for themselves. Attempts to understand the human mind and other intangible aspects of existence received great attention as well. This interest contributed to the popularity of phrenology, a practice wherein a person’s character could allegedly be determined by an examination of the form and shape of the person’s head. The theory of evolution espoused in Englishman Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), meanwhile, set off a huge controversy on both sides of the Atlantic.
Inventions proved to be of tremendous importance as well. Steam locomotives chugged across the nation’s rail lines by the 1830s, accelerating the development of America’s transportation infrastructure, and 1839 marked the first appearance of vulcanized rubber, the invention of Charles Goodyear. Other notable inventions included Samuel Morse’s telegraph (1844), Elias Howe and Isaac M. Singer’s sewing machines (1846 and 1850), and the Bessemer method of steel production (1856) developed by English inventor and industrialist Henry Bessemer.
Perhaps no era in America history has left so indelible a mark on the nation’s psyche as the Civil War that tore through the country from 1861 to 1865. For years the Northern and Southern regions of the United States had crafted compromise legislation intended to patch up the lengthening philosophical rifts between the two sides, but by the 1850s many people on both sides felt that their differences on such issues as slavery could not be reconciled. The election of Abraham Lincoln to the country’s presidency in 1860 struck Southerners as a direct threat to their way of life, and they quickly embarked on a course of secession. Lincoln, though, was determined to preserve the Union by any means necessary. The result was war. “Entirely unimaginable before it began,” wrote Ric Burns and Ken Burns in The Civil War, “the war was the most defining and shaping event in American history-so much so that it is now impossible to imagine what we would have been like without it.”
By the middle of the nineteenth century, slavery was entrenched in the agriculture-based Southern economy (cotton, the South’s single biggest crop, accounted for three-quarters of all U.S. exports in 1850). Bondage had long been an institution in the South, but with the explosion of cotton production following the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, slavery became even more important. In addition, capital investment in slaves was a
central part of the South’s economic structure by the mid-1800s.
Many slaves were held on giant plantations, and some wealthy slave-holders owned hundreds of blacks. These families were able to lead lives of leisure up in the plantation house while their slaves toiled in the surrounding cotton fields. This dynamic spurred the birth of an aristocratic sort of lifestyle for rich whites. “The plantation ideal more than ever dominated the South,” wrote Arthur Charles Cole in The Irrepressible Conflict. “To become a large planter was the aspiration of every ambitious youth…. The planter-aristocrat on his broad acres represented a leisure class that was genial, picturesque
Blacks, of course, viewed the practice of slavery quite differently. Though their numbers were nearly equal to the white population in the South-in 1860 four million blacks and five and a half million whites populated the eleven states that eventually seceded–their status as human chattel precluded them from exercising any control over their lives or the lives of their families. “A slave entered the world in a one-room dirt-floored shack,” wrote Geoffrey C. Ward in The Civil War. “Drafty in winter, reeking in summer, slave cabins bred pneumonia, typhus, cholera, tuberculosis. The child who survived to be sent to the fields at twelve was likely to have rotten teeth, worms, dysentery, malaria. Fewer than four out of one hundred slaves lived to be sixty.” Sold on the auction block, forbidden to read or write, subject to the whims of their masters, generations of slaves worked the hot fields of the South as voiceless cogs in the region’s agrarian machine.
In the Northern states of America, meanwhile, voices calling for abolition of the institution of slavery had grown progressively louder during the first half of the nineteenth century. By the1850s, most citizens were quite familiar with the living conditions in which blacks were forced to live in the South; they had been educated by an avalanche of abolitionist mailing campaigns, door-to-door visits, pamphlets, and meetings, all of which castigated Slave-holding as a shameful and wicked practice. Southerners, though, were defiant. This defiance could be traced in large measure to economic concerns, but Southerners also resented abolitionists’ appropriation of the moral high ground in the debate. After the 1831 Nat Turner Rebellion, in which Turner, a black freeman, led a slave revolt in Virginia that resulted in the deaths of fifty-seven whites, apologists for slavery defended the practice with renewed vigor, even going so far as to call it a good and moral institution.
The growing tension between North and South was evident in the nation’s political arena as well. As Western lands were brought into the Union, Southern congressmen jockeyed to have them admitted as slave states; Northerners, on the other hand, sought to include them as “free” states where
In the 1850s the government cobbled together a number of notable agreements designed to prevent a rupture in the Union. In the Compromise of 1850, the United States turned its attention to Western territories gained in the War with Mexico a few years before; California was admitted as a free state and slavery was prohibited in the District of Columbia, but the legislation called for state citizenry to determine the presence or absence of slavery in New Mexico and Utah, a principle known as popular sovereignty. The Compromise also included a controversial new Fugitive Slave Act that enabled slave owners to retrieve runaway slaves more easily from the North. Only four years later, however, a new law left the uneasy truce of 1850 broken in the dust.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 jettisoned the 1820 Missouri Compromise (which had outlawed slavery in territories north of Missouri’s southern boundary), calling instead for an arrangement wherein territories seeking statehood were left to decide for themselves whether to allow slavery within their respective borders. The Act outraged many Northerners and sparked the dissolution of the Whig Party and the creation of the Republican Party (largely composed of Whig Party remnants and Northern Democrats who were unhappy with their party’s pro-South stance). By 1860 the South viewed the Republican Party, which boasted a number of important abolitionist voices, as a direct threat to their way of life.
The 1854 legislation also resulted in bloodshed and escalating ill will between America’s Northern and Southern blocs. In 1855, when Kansans were called on to vote on whether to allow slavery, thousands of pro-slavery Missourians poured into Kansas to vote illegally. While the majority of the actual natives of Kansas were “free-soilers” opposed to slavery, the votes of the Missourians enabled slavery supporters to gain control of the territorial legislature. Furious free-soilers defiantly formed their own legislature and petitioned for admittance into the United States as a free state. Violence broke out between pro- and anti-slavery factions all along the Missouri-Kansas border, and the badly splintered nation’s spiral toward civil war accelerated.
Congressmen took to arming themselves before attending sessions of Congress, and in May 1856 House member Preston Brooks, a Southerner, violently beat Republican Charles Sumner in the Senate chambers after the latter gave a speech that included a stinging rebuke of slaveholders (Sumner was unable to return to his job for three years). The ugly incident further inflamed passions between the two sides, as Southern papers hailed Brooks as a defender of Southern honor and Northern commentators castigated him as the inevitable product of a region made mean and corrupt by slavery.
In 1857 the Supreme Court–which had a Southern majority at the time–ruled that Congress had no power to limit slavery in the Western territories. This decision, known as the Dred Scott case in reference to the slave who brought the suit, also held that blacks–whether free or enslaved-were inferior beings who could not hold U.S. citizenship, and ruled that slaves were the property of their owners no matter whether they had ever resided in
The Dred Scott decision further aggravated sectionalism and galvanized abolitionists, who felt that the decision might extend slavery. “To the utter amazement of the abolitionists,” wrote Alan Axelrod and Charles Phillips in What Every American Should Know about American History, “the court had invoked the Bill of Rights in a ruling that denied freedom to a black slave. For the southern slave-owners, the decision implied that slavery was safe–and according to the reading should be protected–everywhere in the nation.”
In 1860, though, disagreement within the Democratic Party over slavery led to a formal split between the two wings. Northern Democrats nominated Stephen Douglas for the presidency of the United States, while John C. Breckenridge was the nominee of the Southerners. The Republicans, meanwhile, nominated the moderate Abraham Lincoln, who was able to secure the presidency by carrying the North. The South viewed Lincoln’s ascension to the highest position in the land as an unmitigated disaster. One Southern paper called his election the greatest evil ever to befall the country, and he was burned in effigy in town squares across the South. Of greater import, however, was the reaction of the South Carolina legislature: they called for a convention to discuss seceding from the Union.
After years of negotiation and compromise, both sides sensed that confrontation was inevitable. Other issues were important factors in the Civil War–property rights, states’ rights, Southern disaffection with the might of the Northern industrial economy–but slavery was the major issue, and the very nature of the institution precluded satisfactory compromise. As Lincoln once wrote to a Southern politician, “You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. That I suppose is the rub. It certainly is the only substantial difference between us.”
On December 20, 1860, South Carolina announced its secession from the United States. Other slave-holding states followed, citing the supremacy of states’ rights over federal law. Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana all left the Union before Lincoln’s March 1861 inauguration. Texas followed suit as well, ignoring the words of Governor Sam Houston, who was removed from office for his efforts to keep the state in the Union:
“Let me tell you what is coming…. Your fathers and husbands, your sons and brothers, will be herded at the point of the bayonet…. I tell you that, while I believe with you in the doctrine of States’ Rights, the North is determined to preserve this Union.”
In February 1861 delegations from the seven seceding states met in Alabama and drafted a Confederate Constitution. Jefferson Davis was elected president of the new Confederate States of America. In the following months–as the first blood of the American Civil War was shed–Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina joined their fellow slave-holding states under the Confederate Flag.
In April 1861 Confederate forces fired on a Union garrison at Fort Sumter, located in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. This attack is regarded as the opening engagement of the Civil War (or the War between the States, as it was known in the South). Lincoln responded with a naval blockade. Avenues of discussion seemed exhausted; the North would have to preserve the Union by force.
The North did have some significant advantages. “Omitting the deeply divided border states of Kentucky and Missouri,” observed Robert Paul Jordan in The Civil War, “five and a half million white Southerners faced a total white population of some twenty million. The Union boasted more than eight out of ten factories, more than 70 percent of railroad mileage, all the fighting ships, and most of the money. What the South did have was faith and a consummate will to fight: faith in its cause and the will that springs like a well of strength when one’s homeland must be defended.” The South also had General Robert E. Lee, a brilliant military strategist who outmaneuvered Union forces for much of the war.
The Union Army’s early bid to capture Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital, was foiled by their defeat at Bull Run in July 1861, one of several early Confederate victories. Union forces returned to the same region a year later, only to be driven into retreat by Lee-led rebel forces in the Seven Days’ Battle. Seizing the momentum, Lee made a push for Maryland and Pennsylvania that was checked by Union General George B. McClellan in September 1862 (this clash featured a September 17 battle at Antietam Creek in Maryland that proved to be the single bloodiest day of the entire Civil War). That same month, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order which abolished slavery in the Confederacy (but not in slave states such as Kentucky, Delaware, and Maryland, which had remained in the Union).
By late 1862 and early 1863 it was clear that the conflict was going to be a long and bloody one. In December 1862 the Federalist forces of the North lost another big battle, this time at Fredericksburg, Virginia. In early May 1863, Lee guided the rebel army to yet another important victory in Virginia, at Chancellorsville, but he lost his best general, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, to friendly fire in the process. Further west, however, Union troops under the command of General Ulysses S. Grant sliced through the Deep South and assumed control of the Mississippi River in the Vicksburg Campaign. Grant’s triumph came in the same month–July 1863–that the Confederate Army suffered a costly and demoralizing loss at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The Battle of Gettysburg decimated Lee’s forces, and the defeat marked a significant turn in the fortunes of the Confederacy.
In March 1864 Lincoln appointed Grant to head all Union troops. The president had been bitterly disappointed with the unassertive performances of Grant’s predecessors, but Grant proved an implacable and effective leader. Relying on superior numbers, Grant and his generals systematically pushed their Confederate foes southward, and Lee and Grant engaged their armies at several memorable junctions. But while the Union army finally had the upper hand, Lincoln’s job was in jeopardy; Northern voters were weary of the bloodshed, and the Democrats had nominated George B. McClellan, the hero of Antietam, who vowed to end the war.
In September 1864, however, the North learned that Union troops under the command of General Willia
The Pre-dawning of an American Tragedy