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Reading, Writing, And History

July 2024
11min read

Setting the Pattern

The first half of the nineteenth century in America sometimes appears to have been little more than an eventful and confusing prelude to the great trial by fire which was to be the American Civil War. It began with the first bright triumph of Jeffersonian democracy, and it ended with the development of sectional feelings so intense that the country narrowly escaped being fragmented; here perhaps was simply a time of preparation, in which nothing had been finally settled, a time that could do no more than germinate a conflict whose outcome could not be foretold. America was still in a process of becoming, not yet sure that it was a nation or that it could develop a genuinely national significance.

Yet some sort of pattern was being set. The familiar statement that the country would ultimately be shaped by its “continental destiny” may be nothing more than a half-mystical catch phrase born out of later knowledge, but something was working. By the time of the Mexican War the weight of the future was exerting its effect; the storied lost cause was possibly lost more than a decade before it was born.

This, in any case, is the judgment of Charles M. Wiltse, a man well qualified to have an opinion on the matter. As the distinguished biographer of John C. Calhoun, Mr. Wiltse has studied this period in much detail and with a discerning eye; and in his most recent book, The New Nation , he argues that between 1800 and 1845 America did in fact attain nationhood. The Civil War, at frightful cost, merely ratified a decision that had already been made.

When the century began nothing had been settled. The ordinary American in 1800, as Mr. Wiltse says, was “proud of his country but not quite sure whether his country was the United States or only that one of them in which he happened to live.” The end of the strange and apparently pointless War of 1812 did indeed leave most Americans feeling that at last they were on their way, but nobody was quite sure where they might actually be going. Aaron Burr, General James Wilkinson, and the Essex Junto had shown that the paths might be various and divergent. The exuberant nationalism of the immediate postwar years gave way, in less than a decade, to intense contention.

The debate over the Missouri Compromise in 1820 brought this contention to a head. It was the permanence of the Union itself that was at stake here; the cultural and economic division between slave-state South and free-state North had already become of critical importance. Even this early, as Mr. Wiltse sees it, the South had developed “a social and political unity that could not tolerate change”; at the same time the free states, caught up by industrial growth, were becoming more and more diversified and hence more and more committed to change. The South bore the burden of slavery, which Mr. Wiltse aptly calls “the costliest and least efficient labor system ever devised by the wit of man for his own degradation”; yet any attack on this system had to appear, to southerners, as a threat to southern prosperity and freedom; and in a truly unified nation slavery must cease to be merely a local institution and must instead be everyone’s responsibility.

The New Nation: 1800–1845, by Charles M. Wiltse; edited, with a foreword, by David Donald. Hill and Wang. 237 pp. $4.50.

Sectional strife and sectional compromise, accordingly, marked the coming decades. By one expedient and another, the breaking point was staved off, and an uneasy balance was maintained. Yet the balance was forever tilting against the southern section. Wedded to the belief that the slave system was permanent, the South became more and more static; but elsewhere there was an intense and increasing dynamism, born of the rush to occupy western lands, of the accelerating pace of industrial development, and of the spirit of the age itself. The dynamism was bound to win. Mr. Wiltse writes:

The truth was that the United States of the nineteenth century was in many respects a forerunner of the great powers of the modern era—a nation occupying a vast territory, with a heterogeneous economy in which measures helpful to one interest might well be hurtful to another. France and Britain still relied on the exploitation of alien peoples in colonial empires; Spain and Russia were still sunk in feudalism; Germany and Italy had not yet been born. Only in America was the typical economy of the twentieth century being worked out, with all the false starts, mistakes, and growing pains that are the normal lot of the pioneer. Had it not been for the moral issue raised by the existence of slavery, American sectionalism would undoubtedly have worked itself out earlier than it did.

By 1846 this struggle could go only one way. Slavery was going down the drain, no matter what anybody might do about it. The irrepressible conflict might by this time have become genuinely irrepressible, but its end was foredestined. The balance of power lay with those who believed that the United States was one nation, and nothing the southern section could do would restore the old equilibrium. In 1846 the South was about to make its great strike—the war with Mexico, to result in the acquisition of Texas, the empty plains to the west, and the California empire on the edge of the sunset. Texas would become a slave state, but it would be balanced by Oregon, overbalanced by California, and eventually doomed by the broadened horizon which could be reached only by a whole country.

Mr. Wiltse sums it up very well:

The dogma of state sovereignty had been kept alive, in spite of the nationalistic forces released by the second war with Britain, by the urgent need of a substantial agricultural interest to protect itself against a more profitable and more aggressive industrialism. The slave-based nature of the agricultural interest gave a moral character to the industrial challenge, but the contest did not differ in essence from the upheavals then beginning in Europe out of which would come the end of serfdom, and ultimately the concept of a balanced economy in which subsidies—to agriculture as well as to industry—would be freely used as instruments of policy. … The kind of particularism represented by states rights became obsolete when the advance of the industrial revolution concentrated physical power at the only governmental level with resources adequate to support the new technology, and enough disinterestedness to seek reconciliation of conflicting interests.

By the middle of the 1840’s this point had been reached. There would be just one country between Canada and the Rio Grande. A few years later, 600,000 young men would have to die to prove this fact, but the fact itself had already taken shape.

Conflict for Power

What had been going on through all of this, however, was more than just a conflict between opposing ways of looking at the kind of nationality that was to develop in America. The demand for states’ rights might, and did, lead at last to an attempt to break the nation into its component parts; but now it is clear that it really represented a determination on the part of the southern economy to maintain control over the federal government. The opposing force, which tried to strengthen the central government at the expense of state authority, was trying to end that control and put the reins in different hands. Basically, here was a struggle for power.

Roy Nichols sees it that way, and he enlarges on this thesis in The Stakes of Power , a cogent book which makes an excellent companion piece to Mr. Wiltse’s book. (As a matter of fact, the two books are meant to go together. Edited and given brief forewords by David Donald, they are the first two in a series of six which will have the general heading, The Making of America.)

Implicit in Mr. Nichols’ argument is the interesting implication that the permanence of the single nation was subconsciously taken for granted even when the danger of a division was greatest. The northern and southern sections had developed economic and social systems with profoundly different requirements. To satisfy those requirements, the leaders of each section had to have power in Washington. Throughout the stormy 1850’s, the South held that power almost completely. There were northern Presidents, but they had been nominated by conventions under southern control. Cabinets were led by southerners, and so was most of the legislative and judicial machinery. What made the crisis of 1860 so dangerous was the increasing frustration of the North over its inability to assert control and the rising apprehension of the South because of the likelihood that the northern bid for power could not be staved off much longer.

Out of this came not only the Civil War itself but the internal struggle which racked the federal government—and ultimately affected the destiny of the entire nation—while the war itself was in progress. As Mr. Nichols emphasizes, Lincoln was so anxious to preserve the Union (which he saw as the symbol of an all-important experiment in democracy) that he was willing to permit slavery to continue to exist if necessary; but the zealots in his party wanted above all to destroy the political power of the South, which was based on slavery, and the act of secession simply intensified the conflict in Washington. Here Lincoln out-maneuvered his antagonists. He put through his own definition of war aims, kept his political forces intact, and showed that he was quite likely to direct the re-construction which would follow victory.

The Stakes of Power: 1845-1877, by Roy F. Nichols; edited, with a foreword, by David Donald. Hill and Wang. 246 pp. $4.50.

Lincoln saw the underlying reality very clearly. When the struggle for power erupted into actual war, the whole situation became fluid; he could not direct the war intelligently without keeping the postwar program always in mind. The war would be followed by a reconstruction, but not by a restoration.

Meanwhile, the economic necessities of the North were finding their outlet. An economic rebuilding of the nation took place in the midst of the war. The subsidy legislation demanded by northern interests, unattainable as long as southerners held power in Washington, was put through while the armies were still fighting—a new banking system, distribution of public lands, aid to western settlement and to European immigration, transcontinental railroads, tariff protection. Mr. Nichols describes it in these words:

… this economic legislation constituted a giant reconstruction project. On the eve of these enactments the United States had been a laissez-faire, individual-enterprise state. It was now transformed into a nation with grand ideas of Federal subsidy, encouragement and protection to corporate enterprise. These grants and subsidies, added to the giant war expenditures, were to stimulate the national economy to take great strides in the mobilization and accumulation of wealth.

The struggle for power, of course, did not end when the war ended, which is why Mr. Nichols carries his book through to 1877 instead of stopping at 1865. That odd chain of events which is spoken of as “reconstruction” involved reconstruction of the nation, not just of the South. Andrew Johnson proved unable to wield the power that Lincoln had exercised. The party zealots took it away from him. The southern states were transformed, not merely because carpetbag governments indulged in riotous extravagance and created an immense burden of debt, but also because their social and economic functions were permanently broadened. The landed elite had lost control, and the idea of state responsibility for education and welfare was introduced into the South.

Hand in hand with this went a similar transformation in the North, and as Mr. Nichols remarks, “a large degree of power was in process of transfer from the government to the leaders of the growing business world.” In the North as well as in the South this was accompanied by distressing scenes of corruption and waste. The redistribution of power, creating first a new political power and second a nonpolitical power which controlled the dominant party organization, kept on working; and finally, as the unhappy Grant administration drew toward a close, a popular revolt began against the generally corrupt alliance between these two powers. The broad compromise which accompanied the advent of the Hayes administration was the symbol of this revolt. Business elements remained dominant, but at least a measure of political influence returned to the reconstructed South.

What, altogether, had been going on? Mr. Nichols puts it this way:

For more than twenty years the American nation had been in the throes of changing its political leadership. In the midforties, the Democratic party, dominated by its Southern leaders, had been in control. This party wanted government to be strong and rambunctious in foreign affairs, truculent toward European powers. But at home it prescribed a policy of inaction, of hands off. Little was to be undertaken and a minimum spent. Such a government, however, was not in step with the times. The great continent and the restless mobile population produced a combination of forces which dictated action, and any government which refused to respond was doomed. The Democratic party under Southern domination felt itself firmly enough established to defy the spirit of the times. The result was disastrous.

Yet the realignment, which resulted in a fearfully expensive war, was not permanent. The end of the reconstruction era “left the issue of who was to control still undetermined.” Never since has there been a new power with greater strength than the one which held sway during the pre-Civil War generation. The elements which contested for such high stakes in the war and postwar years are still present. Politics today still reflects the power struggle.

The Ultimate Destiny

These, of course, are backward glances; things seen from the long perspective, when the dominant forces at work underneath day-to-day crosscurrents and turbulences at last become clear. It is interesting to turn back to see how matters looked, to a foreign observer, at the moment when things were still in a state of flux and when the nation was still groping uncertainly to lay hold on its destiny. How would an outsider see the chaotic United States of the 1850’s?

Philip Schaff was a young German theologian who was dispatched to Pennsylvania in 1844 by the German Reformed Church in response to a plea from the Pennsylvania Synod of that church, which wanted an accredited and learned “Doktor” to teach historical and exegetical theology in a budding backwoods seminary at Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. To the orderly German mind of that day America looked like an utter wilderness of confused and conflicting religious sects, and one of Schaffs colleagues, baffled in the attempt to understand what was going on, cried out: “God forgive Christopher Columbus for having discovered America!” But Schaff came to America, taught at Mercersburg and later at Union Theological Seminary, and established himself as one of the greatest of ecclesiastical historians.

In 1854 he revisited Berlin and there delivered lectures on the state of things in America. These were subsequently made into a book, which is now being reprinted with editing and an introduction by Perry Miller— America: A Sketch of Its Political, Social and Religious Character —and this book shows how a German scholar appraised America at the moment when the nation was stumbling forward to its moment of greatest crisis.

Much of the book deals with the contentions, differentiation, and activities of the various religious denominations in the America of that day and is naturally of interest only to a specialized audience. But Schaff’s size-up of the strange new society of which he had become a part is still worth reading; for he could see something prodigious taking shape underneath the conflict of voices and of interests, and he believed that what he saw was nothing less than the development of a vital force which would provide the world with leadership.

America in 1854 struck him as “a wonderful mixture of all nations under heaven.” To tour America was to tour the world; here was everybody, “an ethnographic panorama,” with a new character somehow emerging from a fusion of the most diverse racial and cultural strains. The American nationality seemed to him to be unquestionably English at its base—but not English as Europeans understood the word. The “well-known spleen,” the stiff awkwardness and insular angularity of the English in Europe, had become modified, and by 1850 Schaff felt that “the Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-American, of all modern races, possess the strongest national character and the one best fitted for universal dominion, and that, too, not a dominion of despotism but one which makes its subjects free citizens.” For the Anglo-American was both liberal and conservative, with the impulse toward freedom inseparably joined to a sense of law and order; “I doubt whether the moral influence of Christianity and of Protestantism has more deeply and widely affected any nation, than it has the Anglo-Saxon.”

Considering what there was to see in America in the mid-1850’s, Schaff was either deluding himself or seeing very deeply indeed. The nation which he believed on its way toward “universal dominion” seemed then to be demonstrating that it could not even maintain secure dominion over its own acres. The Kansas-Nebraska act was jarring the country toward division, and the impulse toward law and order was not strong enough to prevent the wildest sort of lawlessness and disorder along the Kansas frontier. To forecast a great world role for such a country at such a time took an uncommonly perceptive glance.

America: A Sketch of Its Political, Social and Religious Character, by Philip Schaff; edited, with an introduction, by Perry Miller. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 241 pp. $4.25.

Schaff was undismayed. He could see trouble ahead, as clearly as anyone could, but he probably would have agreed with Mr. Wiltse’s finding: the die had already been cast. He believed the Americans were up to something immense: “They wrestle with the most colossal projects. The deepest meaning and aim of their political institutions are to actualize the idea of universal sovereignty, the education of every individual for intellectual and moral self-government and thus for true freedom.” Confidently, he asserted that “the grandest destiny is evidently reserved for such a people.” Then, as briskly as if the impending time of troubles had already been passed, he proclaimed:

In short, if anywhere in the wide world a new page of universal history has been unfolded and a new fountain opened, fraught with incalculable curses or blessings for future generations, it is in the Republic of the United States with her starspangled banner. Either humanity has no earthly future and everything is tending to destruction, or this future lies- I say not exclusively, but mainly—in America, according to the victorious march of history, with the sun from east to west.

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