1815-1850: Government and Politics: Overview
1815-1850: Government and Politics: Overview
Postwar Nationalism. In January 1815 Americans had reason to feel a new sense of nationalism and patriotism. They had held off Great Britain’s military forces in the War of 1812, and if they had failed to resolve the issues that caused the war, they had at least lost no territory. Nationalism grew as word; spread that a ragtag American army under Gen. Andrew Jackson had defeated a large British force at the Battle of New Orleans (which took place after the peace treaty ending the war had been signed in Europe). Postwar nationalism found its political expression in the decisions of the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice John Marshall, that interpreted the Constitution to strengthen the federal government, and in the diplomacy of Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, under whose direction the United States formally annexed Florida from Spain and reached a series of important agreements with Great Britain, ultimately leading to the declaration of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823.
“Era of Good Feelings.” Even as news of Jackson’s victory at New Orleans and the peace treaty were received in Washington, D.C., a group of Federalists arrived in the Capital with demands for constitutional revisions prepared by the Hartford Convention. The convention, attended by Federalists opposed to the war and to Jeffersonian rule, had met in December 1814 to consider New England’s secession from the Union. In the aftermath of the war, the convention’s flirtation with secession seemed like treason. Its Federalist sponsors were permanently discredited, and the Federalist Party quickly faded away in most areas of the country. The demise of the Federalists left the Democratic-Republican Party alone in the political arena. Though there were frequent intraparty conflicts, the Republicans faced no serious opposition from 1815 to the late 1820s. This period, free from party strife, was known as the “Era of Good Feelings.” Ironically, after the Federalists disappeared, the National Republicans embraced an economic program remarkably similar to their old foes. The War of 1812 exposed the need for internal improvements such as roads and canals to transport the military, for a central bank to provide a stable source of credit, and for a tariff to protect industries that had sprung up in the absence of trade with Britain. In his first postwar message to Congress, President James Madison outlined a program that included these features. Henry Clay, Speaker of the House, believed that this program, dubbed the “American System,” would unite the country physically and economically. In 1816 Congress created the Second Bank of the United States, instituted a protective tariff, and passed several internal improvement bills.
Democracy. Before the Revolution most of Britain’s North American colonies limited the privilege of voting to those who owned a specified amount of property or paid a certain amount of taxes. After the Revolution most of the new state constitutions expanded suffrage by reducing property qualifications. In some states anyone could vote, including women, free African Americans, and Native Americans, as long as they met the property qualifications. Another wave of suffrage expansion occurred in the early nineteenth century. Western states entered the Union with constitutions that had no property or tax requirements at all, allowing universal white adult male suffrage in part as a means of attracting settlers. This trend spread east, where Connecticut abolished property requirements for voting by 1818. Massachusetts followed in 1821 and New York in 1826. The expansion of the electorate altered American politics, as more people were allowed to vote and more of those who held the franchise used it. The percentage of eligible voters participating in presidential elections nearly tripled from 1824 to 1840, when a record 80 percent of those eligible went to the polls. However, even as states were allowing nearly all white males to vote, they also began to disenfranchise other groups of citizens. In 1838, for example, Pennsylvania amended its constitution so that African Americans could no longer vote; other states later did the same. If the period after 1830 was the “Age of the Common Man” because he was allowed to vote, that right was often gained at the expense of others. Democracy was further limited by some American constitutional forms that isolated elected officials from voters. State legislatures, not voters, chose United States senators and would continue to do so until the early twentieth century. Some state legislatures, notably South Carolina’s, also continued to select presidential electors, while in other states voters continued to cast ballots for electors rather than for presidential candidates.
Sectional Conflict. Sectional conflict over slavery’s expansion disrupted postwar nationalism in 1820. Missouri, the first settled area of the Louisiana Purchase to apply for statehood, sought congressional approval to create a state constitution. Nearly 16 percent of Missouri’s residents were slaves, and it was likely that Missouri would enter the Union as a slave state. New York representative James Tallmadge sought to amend Missouri’s enabling act with two provisions that would have barred more slaves from entering the state and gradually emancipated the slaves already there. In a purely sectional vote, northerners favoring and southerners opposing, Tallmadge’s amendments passed in the House but failed in the Senate. Eventually, Congress admitted Missouri; as a slave state and Maine as a free state to maintain the balance between the sections. The Missouri Compromise also banned slavery in the Louisiana Purchase north of 36° 30’. The Compromise seemed to settle the slavery issue’, but statesmen such as Thomas Jefferson considered the open dispute over slavery to be , a “fire bell in the night,” signaling great danger ahead for the Union.
Second Party System, The Missouri crisis scared many Americans who worried that sectional conflict over slavery would destroy the Union and end the nation’s republican experiment. Many politicians, such as New York’s Martin Van Buren, also feared that the postwar economic program of banks, tariffs, and internal improvements would create monopolies and an economic upper class that would destroy the liberty of the common people. Sensing that the one-party rule of the Era of Good Feelings had allowed the rise of sectionalism and encouraged excessive government intervention in the economy, Van Buren and others hoped to re-create the dynamics of America’s first party system. That system, formed in the 1790s when Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians debated economic issues and foreign policy, had held sectionalism in check by focusing political conflict on the direction the republic would take. Van Buren especially sought to revive the Jeffersonian alliance between New York and Virginia and to return to the days of partisan conflict over fundamental economic issues rather than sectional conflict over slavery. There were those who opposed political parties, which Madison and other Founding Fathers had characterized as destructive, self-interested “factions,” but in the 1820s numerous local party organizations began to form to contest presidential elections; these eventually coalesced into the Democratic Party. Later, the Whig Party formed to oppose Democratic policies, thus creating what historians have called the Second Party System.
“Corrupt Bargain.” Unlike most previous presidential elections, the contest in 1824 offered no clear successor to the incumbent. Initially, five possible contenders offered themselves to succeed James Monroe: John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, William Crawford, Henry Clay, -and John C. Calhoun. Calhoun realized that Jackson, Crawford, and clay, all from the Second -weakened his chances. He withdrew and became the sole vice-presidential candidate. In the election none of the four remaining candidates won more than half of either the popular or the electoral votes. Jackson had the most, followed by Adams, but since Jackson failed to get a majority of the electoral vote, the election, under the terms of the Constitution, was to be decided in the House of Representatives, with each state delegation casting a single vote. Adams’s supporters approached Clay (who had finished third), knowing that Clay wanted to become secretary of state and that he and Adams held similar ideas about governmental policy. Adams, with the support of Clay’s followers, won thirteen states to Jackson’s seven, and almost immediately Adams named Clay secretary of state. Infuriated Jacksonians believed that what they called the “corrupt bargain” between Clay and Adams had stolen the presidency from the “people’s candidate,” Jackson. Jackson’s followers, now including Van Buren, began organizing for the next election even before Adams’s inauguration. The corruption charge haunted Adams and Clay for the next four years, and Jackson soundly defeated Adams in 1828.
Jackson. To many, Jackson’s victory in 1828 represented the triumph of the common person over the political and social elite. In reality it was only one of many examples of the increasing democratization of politics. Even before 1828 popular attacks on privilege were taking place throughout the nation, and Jackson’s presidency saw a series of conflicts that pitted the common people against privileged individuals and institutions. Reforms in law resulted in judges being elected rather than appointed. Some states dropped legal and medical training and licensing requirements. In upstate New York tenants undermined large landlords and helped secure a new state constitution that outlawed feudal land tenure. Jacksonians generally opposed all concentrations of power, from private monopolies to government-run banks, but at the same time Jackson did not hesitate to use the government’s power to protect the people’s liberty. During the battle to recharter the Second Bank of the United States, Jackson argued that the bank was a “monster” that concentrated power in the hands of a few directors, at the expense of the people who fell victim to monetary policy benefiting only elites. When South Carolina tried to nullify the 1828 federal tariff, Jackson planned to use federal troops to collect the tariff in the state. Rather than support South Carolina’s brand of states’ rights, Jackson asserted that only the federal government had the power to protect all Americans; a national government weakened by nullification was in no position to defend common people from the privileged.
Native Americans. Jackson’s Indian policy generated still more conflict. The official policy was to remove Native Americans to land west of the Mississippi River, supposedly to protect the Indians. In reality, Indian removal opened land to white settlers. One group that managed to hold out was the Cherokee Nation in northwest Georgia. One of the “Five Civilized Tribes,” the Cherokees had adopted a variety of European-American political, economic, social, and cultural forms. When Georgia began surveying Indian land to sell it, the Cherokees sued in federal court to halt the encroachment. In the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Marshall agreed that the Cherokee treaties with the federal government guaranteed Indian land. Marshall, however, had no power to enforce the decision, and Presidents Jackson and Van Buren used federal troops to evict the Native Americans from their land. Sent on a “Trail of Tears,” several thousand died during their forced migration to Oklahoma.
Foreign Policy. George Washington’s Farewell Address warned Americans to avoid entangling alliances with Europe. Although this set the United States on a course of isolationism, in the early nineteenth century Americans often acted assertively to resolve pressing diplomatic problems. After the War of 1812 the United States and Great Britain signed the Rush-Bagot Treaty (1817) to demilitarize the Great Lakes, and the Convention of 1818 fixed the border between the United States and Canada and resulted in the joint occupation of the Oregon Territory. Under the Adams-Onis, or Transcontinental Treaty, of 1819, Spain ceded Florida to the United States, and after a series of colonial revolts in Central and South America were followed by European threats to restore Spanish rule by force, Secretary of State Adams and President Monroe prepared the Monroe Doctrine. Perhaps the most important statement in American foreign policy in the nineteenth century, the doctrine asserted American control of the Western Hemisphere and warned European nations against any further colonization or interference. It also confirmed the United States’ commitment to isolation by disavowing American involvement in European affairs. In 1842 the Webster-Ashburton Treaty fixed the northeastern boundary between the United States and Canada and provided for joint patrols off Africa to end slave trading. The Buchanan-Pakenham Treaty of 1846 ended the joint occupation of Oregon and divided the territory at the forty-ninth parallel.
Mexico. The United States was even more aggressive in dealing with Mexico. Since becoming independent Mexico had encouraged American settlement in Texas, then a part of Mexico. These settlers eventually rebelled and won their independence in 1836. Texans desired annexation by the United States, but many Americans objected to adding a vast new piece of slave territory. By the mid 1840s, however, the belief that it was the manifest destiny of the United States to spread liberty across the continent triumphed. Annexation led to war with Mexico, which had never accepted the loss of Texas. The Mexican-American War lasted two years and cost the lives of nearly seventeen thousand Americans, mostly from disease, and approximately fifty thousand Mexicans. In the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo the United States paid Mexico $15 million to obtain much of the modern American Southwest, including all or part of California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona.
Territorial Expansion. The acquisition of so much territory led to renewed sectional conflict. Even before the end of the war, northern Democrat David Wilmot attempted to attach a proviso to an appropriations bill that would have prohibited slavery in land taken from Mexico during the war. Northerners believed that if America was truly an “Empire of Liberty,” then slavery must not expand into acquired territory. Southerners argued that the territories belonged to all Americans and that slavery restrictions denied them their property rights. Between 1846 and 1850 Congress was deadlocked. After settlers discovered gold in California in 1848, tens of thousands of “49ers” flooded the state looking to strike it rich. California now needed some form of civil government. Hoping to avoid further agitation over slavery, President Zachary Taylor wanted to bypass the territorial stage and admit California as a free state. Some suggested extending the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific Ocean. Others believed in popular sovereignty, the policy that a region’s settlers should decide slavery’s status without outside interference. A serious sectional breach appeared imminent until the Compromise of 1850 resolved the crisis—but only temporarily.
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