Friday, August 31, 2012

Jacksonian Lecture 1: Introduction to the Early American Republic, 1801-1848

Opening Lecture, August 30, 2012.
by Bradley J. Birzer

These years proved an anxious time for Americans. I can’t imagine a generation with a more difficult task—how to live up to what the founding fathers had given them.

The Revolutionary Generation had spoken, acted, and achieved with a deep-seated confidence.
And, as they surveyed the land to the West, they felt a sense of overwhelming Providence.

John Adams, for example, had said as early as 1765:
“I always consider the settlement of American with reverence and wonder, as the opening of a grand scene and design in Providence for the illumination of the ignorant, and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all over the earth.”

Of course, we can think of the excellent work by our own brilliant scholar and gentleman, Richard Gamble.  Much of this anticipates American exceptionalism—especially given the Puritan idea of a “City Upon a Hill” and rethinking at the time/renaming of the Plymouth Combination as the “Mayflower Compact” to give it a less religious feel.

Americans had several questions to ask during the early Republic:

  • How could they possibly live up to the Revolutionary generation–both the intellectuals who declared Independence, wrote the Northwest Ordinance, and the Constitution and the soldiers who gave their lives for the Patriot cause? Why had God granted the Patriot movement so many heroes and gifts? Why wasn’t he granting the same types of men and women now? The burden was immense. Madison had issued the challenge to his own generation and later generations rather bluntly in 1787 in Philadelphia: “It is more than probable we are now digesting a plan which in its operation will decide forever the fate of republican government.”[quoted in Major Problems of the Early Republic, 20]. Probably true, but this leads to all kinds of questions and those answers each have huge implications. 
  • How find virtue necessary to support a republic–especially in a commercializing society? A) Religion seemed one obvious answer–but what about all the Roman Catholics and bizarre sects developing? Second Great Awakening quite different from the First Great Awakening. B) What about warfare? But, that goes against the Republican fear of a standing army? 
  • Is America a Nation? And, if so, in what sense? Something akin to an Old Testament Nation or like a modern Nation State? Or, a federal system–something unique in the world. And, if federal–which sections, which layer, is the most powerful? What about huge differences, such as between the North and the South? Every nationalist, ironically, had his own vision of what a nation should be. 
  • Are we a new or old people? Are we the descendants of the Romans and the Greeks or something new, the country of the future? Or, both? Regardless, America needed a myth–something to hold it together, to bind all Americans into one? 
  • Should the Republic be a passive model or an active advocate of further Republicanism? 
  • Are we a Republic or a democracy? Can democracy produce a natural aristocracy, or is that passe? Or, does it produce military demagogues like Andrew Jackson? Indeed, the transition from a J.Q. Adams to an Andrew Jackson is one of the most important transitions in American History. It signaled the end of the Old Republic. 
  • What to do with the Indians? Empire of Liberty or Manifest Destiny? Republic or Empire? 
  • What is the role of the Man of Letters–or should a free society have such a thing? Could it possibly corrupt us? Isn’t it decadent? 
  • What about unfree peoples–such as those from Africa? 
  • How keep up with immense technological change? (these years saw the widespread use of the steam engine as well as the advent of the Railroad). And, what does it mean? Though, usually celebrated. 
Such questions kept persons up at night. Anxious, anxious years as American attempted to define itself. And, of course, in many ways America failed and did so horrifically– 
  • the Civil War was a result of the compromises, the bickering, the anxiety of the men of the Early Republic. 
  • Imperialistic expansion, the complete annihilation of Indian Rights and dignity. 
  • Utopian reform movements and their egalitarian monstrosities–would be the non-violent (usually) and often religious brethren of the atheist French Revolutionaries and the forerunners to the twentieth-century ideologues, the harbingers of death 
  • Extreme nativism 
But, amazing personalities–from James Madison to James K. Polk, from James Fenimore Cooper to Herman Melville, from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Joseph Smith.

And, we find some of the most important political debates ever in U.S. history.

And, the anxiety came because Americans knew how well they had it. Washington Irving, for example, wrote in 1832:
I come from gloomier climates to one of brilliant sunshine and inspiring purity. I come from countries lowering with doubt and danger, where the rich man trembles and the poor man frowns–where all repine at the present and dread the future. I come from these to a country where all is life and animation; where I hear on every side the sound of exultation; where every one speaks of the past with triumph, the present with delight, the future with glowing and confident anticipation. 
But, with anxiety also comes energy. And, the Early Republic was nothing if not filled with intense energy. Everywhere: in government, in reform societies, in business, in westward movement (six new states just between 1816 and 1821).
Almost dizzying and overwhelming. “Jacksonian man” was restless man, man on the move.

Such restlessness and energy very evident in birth rates. The World has never seen anything like the American birthrates during this time period (and up to 1870).  The average woman on the frontier had about 13 children.

One Congressman stated: 
I invite you to go to the west, and visit one of our log cabins, and number its inmates. There you will find a strong, stout youth of eighteen, with his Better Half, just commencing the first struggles of independent life. Thirty years from that time, visit them again; and instead of two, you will find in that same family twenty-two. That is what I call the American Multiplication Table.
Almost all population increase during our time period was internal. That is, very, very little immigration. That would begin in full force in 1848–with the influx of Irish Catholics and German Catholics and Lutherans.

Up until then, free America meant Protestant Anglo-Saxon-Celtic America.

And, yet, all were welcome to come.  As John Quincy Adams put it–in an official pronouncement from the state department: 
The American Republic invites nobody to come. We will keep out nobody. Arrivals will suffer no disadvantages as aliens. But they can expect no advantages either. Native-born and foreign-born face equal opportunities. What happens to them depends entirely on their individual ability and exertions and on good fortune.