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The early to mid-nineteenth century was a time of constant and rapid change for most Americans. The period witnessed an explosion of religious fervor throughout the northern states, with scores of new religious movements all claiming exclusive authority from God; westward territorial expansion of Anglo-Protestant civilization accompanied by the displacement of native populations; the increasingly problematic position of black slavery in American society; the proposed annexation of Texas; the proliferation of urban centers and a dramatic increase in manufacturing; and the dominance of the two-party system in American politics. Some saw in these developments the glimmerings of a perfectible society. Others believed the unfamiliar social and economic landscape was an omen of the nation's downfall.
These intertwined themes of the late Jacksonian period influenced political rhetoric and discourse during the 1844 presidential campaign in very significant ways. This chapter begins with a brief overview of America's western movement and its devastating impact on the life and culture of indigenous peoples. The second section examines Democratic and Whig political philosophies and the emergence of third parties in national politics. The chapter concludes with a consideration of partisan attitudes towards black slavery and the annexation of Texas in the 1840s. The issues touched upon here will reappear in multiple forms and take on various guises throughout the subsequent narrative.
The Promise of America
"What need wee then to feare, but to goe up at once as a peculier people marked and chosen by the finger of God to possess it?" John Rolf, Virginia Colony, 1615
The vision of North America as a Promised Land arrived with the first European colonists. For them America had been saved for the civilizing grace of Christianity and represented an opportunity to establish upon its soil a new utopian society. Individual liberty, the right to do as one pleased without interference, became a national ideal. Native peoples, who had possessed the land for untold generations, presented an awkward challenge to this vision of a New World Eden. To some of the newcomers the first Americans were regarded as a degraded remnant of the Lost Tribes of Israel, a people waiting to be converted to Christ. To others they were less than civilized, destined for removal or annihilation.
The Northwest Ordinance, approved by the United States Congress in 1787, was the first act following American independence to open unorganized land north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi to white settlement, territory that would eventually become the states of Ohio (in 1803), Indiana (1816), Illinois (1818), Michigan (1837), and Wisconsin (1848).
The same year the Northwest Ordinance was passed, John Cleves Symmes, a New Jersey Supreme Court judge, was granted permission to sell two million acres in the Ohio country, a tract located between the Great and Little Miami Rivers, tributaries of the Ohio named after one of the Indian tribes that formerly inhabited the region.
The earliest river town to be established in the Symmes Purchase on the land between the Miamis was named Columbia, at that time a popular allegorical symbol of American exceptionalism. The naming of Columbia proudly compared the settlers' task on America's newest frontier with Columbus's discovery of the New World almost three centuries before, both accepted as predestined events acted out in accordance with God's will. The initial group of Columbia settlers, made up of just over two dozen individuals (twenty men and five women), arrived in November of 1788. Four years later the settlement had grown to more than a thousand residents.
By the mid-1790s Columbia's prospects were in decline, soon to be eclipsed by rival Cincinnati three miles down river, founded shortly after the establishment of Columbia. At first called Losantiville, in 1790 the town was renamed after the Society of Cincinnati, an association of Revolutionary War officers. In 1794 Cincinnati was still "a village of about 100 log cabins, 15 rough frame houses, and 500 people. Most of the trees in the town plat had been cut down. Stores, taverns, and dwellings lined Front Street; Broadway was a cowpath ... Sycamore Street a steep wagon road." Even so, Cincinnatians envisioned a grand future for their frontier town.
Within five decades of its founding Cincinnati had fulfilled its destiny. With forty-three thousand residents in 1840, Cincinnati was the sixth largest and most ethnically diverse city in the United States, and served as the Ohio River gateway to newer settlements in Indiana, Illinois, Missouri and elsewhere further west. There were more people living in Cincinnati in 1840 than inhabited the entire state of Ohio at the time of its formation in 1803. When Charles Dickens arrived in Cincinnati by riverboat from Pittsburgh in 1842, he discovered "a beautiful city; cheerful, thriving, and animated."
For indigenous peoples the promise of America was disease, death, and dislocation. Protestant missionary efforts among the eastern Indian tribes during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century were aimed at convincing Native Americans of their "savagery" and of their need to adopt the superior ways of Christian society. Conversion was seen as "inevitable as it was desirable." As one historian has noted, "missionaries, in short, tried to make Indian men and women into farmers, artisans, and homemakers, mirror images of the supposedly more advanced whites."
Many Native Americans soon discovered, however, that converting to Christianity, adopting the English language, using Anglicized names and following American social custom did not bring them equality in white society. Furthermore, Protestant assumptions about the cultural inferiority of the American Indian were shared by most government leaders. Judged by American lawmakers to be unworthy of liberty, self-government and even citizenship, the removal of Native Americans from their ancestral lands was seen as a necessary precondition for the westward advancement of white Anglo-Protestant civilization.
The language of the Indian Removal Act approved by the United States Congress in 1830 was straightforward. On its face the act provided for "an exchange of lands with the Indians residing in any of the states or territories, and for their removal" into unorganized lands "west of the river Mississippi." The reality was much more brutal. Throughout the 1830s and early 1840s Indian tribes were taken from their native lands and forced to relocate on Western reserves. Many died from disease and never reached their new homelands.
The Wyandot were the one of the last of the midwestern Indian tribes to be removed from east of the Mississippi. In 1842 Wyandot leaders concluded an agreement to cede all of their lands in Ohio and Michigan (with the exception of three burial grounds) to the United States. In return, the Wyandots were to be provided with a "permanent annuity" of $17,500 "in current specie" and receive 148,000 acres of reservation land west of the Mississippi River on which to reside. By the early 1840s, most Ohio Wyandots were baptized Methodists and had adopted Western style dress. Few were full-blooded Indians.
On July 9, 1843, the last of the Huron River band of Wyandots, comprised of about 664 tribal members, four dozen wagons and nearly three hundred ponies and horses, departed Upper Sandusky, Ohio and headed south. The weeklong journey took them to the wharfs of Cincinnati on the Ohio where they boarded two steamships, the Republic and the Nodaway, that would take them out West. After departing the Cincinnati docks on July 21 the steamers neared the tomb of President William Henry Harrison, prominently visible on a bluff above the river at North Bend. The Indian elders requested the captain of the Nodaway fire a "big gun" salute to the hero of Tippecanoe. The men of the tribe assembled on the hurricane roofs of the steamships, removed their hats and silently waved them aloft in reverence to the old warrior. A chief stepped forward and spoke for his people. "Farewell Ohio and her braves!"
Republicanism and Third Parties
"The two great parties are so nicely balanced that a straw may decide the fight." D. T. Disney to James K. Polk, October 28, 1844
Republicanism was a founding principle of the American political order that espoused "equality in a society of yeomen freeholders." For Thomas Jefferson the ideal society was a nation of independent farmers, a republican vision that was never fully realized in the United States due to inequalities that were already present in late colonial times with the onset of the market and manufacturing revolutions. One key philosophical change was that the republican ideal of civic virtue, which originally relied upon the "selfless independent citizen as the basis of social harmony," was replaced by "personal ambition and devotion to the acquisition of wealth." By the late eighteenth century the "spirit of free enterprise" became a defining feature of the republican ethic. Political discourse during the Jacksonian period never fully resolved the tension between a rhetoric of social equality and the reality of unbridgeable disparities of wealth and occupation that had already begun to polarize the American electorate.
By the late 1830s a vigorous two-party system had emerged in American politics. The Whig and Democratic parties, each with their own well-defined platforms and political alliances that transcended divisions of geography and social class, determined the agenda of American political life for more than two decades through systematic state and local party organizations. The "two great parties" contested four main issues: the power of the federal government in regional and national development; control over banking, currency and credit; land policy; and internal improvements.
The Democratic Party claimed descent from the Democratic-Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and third president of the U. S. from 1801 to 1809. Andrew Jackson assumed leadership of the Democratic-Republicans in the mid-1820s. Jackson's two-term presidency (1829-37) and that of his successor, his former vice president Martin Van Buren (1837-1841), set the tenor of life and the outlook of an entire generation of Americans. Beginning in 1840, the organization introduced the practice of announcing the official campaign platform during a national convention and became known as the Democratic Party.
The Democrats of the early 1840s were largely neo-Jeffersonians who promoted the (by then anachronistic) view that agriculture was the economic backbone of American society. Democrats actively discouraged the spread of manufacturing and wanted more land in order to sustain the unique character of American social and political life. They believed that the field, and not the factory, nurtured virtue and promoted equality. Workers were happier toiling in the fields than on the factory floor; mines, mills and factories should remain in Europe, they argued. As one historian has noted, there was "no place for a national bank, spindles or assembly lines in the Jeffersonian garden." Progress came to be defined in terms of an ever-expanding frontier, which "obviated the need for an active government and made social reform unnecessary." Indeed, Democrats looked unfavorably upon any government intrusion into the private lives of individuals and believed the federal government should "do nothing" while the states should "do for themselves."
For most Democrats the expansion of the factory system and rise of urbanization as a fact of American life were viewed as a menace to social stability and harmony. The undesirable effects of mob rule and worker unrest witnessed by the major metropolitan centers of New York, Chicago, Cincinnati, Boston, and Philadelphia during the economic recession of 1837 proved that the menace of modernization was real and had to be forestalled. Democrats believed it could be thwarted, at least in part, by allowing access to new lands out West, removing barriers to foreign markets for American agricultural products, and reducing tariffs on imported goods.
Although westward territorial expansion was generally favored by the Democrats, they found it difficult to decide whether newly incorporated states should be slave or free, an issue which also divided America's industrialized north from the agricultural south. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 maintained the awkward symmetry of free and slave states in the Union. (Slave state Missouri was balanced by the admission of a free Maine.) The proposed incorporation of Texas into the Union in 1837 kept slavery and annexation at the forefront of national policy discussions, a double issue that remained unresolved until well after the 1844 presidential election. (See below.)
The American Whig party was founded in 1836 as a coalition to oppose President Andrew Jackson and the Democrats. Henry Clay of Kentucky and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, both former National Republicans, dominated the party during the first decade of its existence. They promoted what became known as the "American System" of protective tariffs, federally sponsored internal improvement projects, a national bank in order to foster a stable currency, and the conservative use of federal land sales to benefit individual states. Whigs sought a strong federal government and were opposed to territorial expansion. Whigs wanted to consolidate and develop existing land and feared sectional crises that might result from uncontrolled land acquisitions. Mines, mills, and factories, distrusted by the Democrats due to their socially destabilizing tendencies, were an essential part of the Whig program.
For most Americans the two sides of the political debate were sharply defined. Jacksonian Democrats became self-described as "egalitarian and progressive" populists, and characterized the Whigs as "aristocratic and reactionary." Another contemporary formulation has the Democrats preferring "freedom and fertile fields" to the "monarchy, mines and manufactories" of the Whig program.
The stability and effectiveness of the two-party system was strained by the unexpected death of the first Whig president, William Henry Harrison, a month following his inauguration in 1841 and the accession to the presidential chair of his vice president, John Tyler. A Whig in name only, Tyler adopted Democratic strategies in many of his policy decisions and in the end became a president without a party.
During the 1840s the Whigs and Democrats could each count on support from about half of the American electorate. In 1844 the voting population of the United States consisted of only adult white males, at that time approximately 2,700,000 strong. (Because women and slaves were dependents, they were deemed ineligible to participate in the electoral process.) In a procedure established by the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1804, the American president was not voted for directly; instead, local elections determined state electors who, in turn, voted for the nation's chief executive.
"The two great parties are so nicely balanced that a straw may decide the fight," a political observer astutely remarked in late 1844. The straw was the unpredictable entrance into the race of a third party, still a relatively new phenomenon in the 1840s, bringing with it the potential to siphon off a sufficient number of votes in order to shift the electoral balance in favor of one or another candidate. Although they tended to be single-platform movements with an underdeveloped national organization, it was soon discovered that third parties exercised political clout beyond that suggested by their relatively small size.
Excerpted from Junius and Joseph by Robert S. Wicks Fred R. Foister Copyright © 2005 by Utah State University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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