Young America: The Flowering of Democracy in New York City / Edition 1 available in Paperback
This fascinating study examines the meteoric career of a vigorous intellectual movement rising out of the Age of Jackson. As Americans argued over their destiny in the decades preceding the Civil War, an outspoken new generation of "ultra-democratic" writers entered the fray, staking out positions on politics, literature, art, and any other territory they could annex. They called themselves Young Americaand they proclaimed a "Manifest Destiny" to push back frontiers in every category of achievement. Their swagger found a natural home in New York City, already bursting at the seams and ready to take on the world.
Young America's mouthpiece was the Democratic Review, a highly influential magazine funded by the Democratic Party and edited by the brash and charismatic John O'Sullivan. The Review offered a fresh voice in political journalism, and sponsored young writers like Hawthorne and Whitman early in their careers. Melville, too, was influenced by Young America, and provided a running commentary on its many excesses. Despite brilliant promise, the movement fell apart in the 1850s, leaving its original leaders troubled over the darker destiny they had ushered in. Their ambitious generation had failed to rewrite history as promised. Instead, their perpetual agitation helped set the stage for the Civil War.
Young America: The Flowering of Democracy in New York City is without question the most complete examination of this captivating and original movement. It also provides the first published biography of its leader, John O'Sullivan, one of America's great rhetoricians. Edward L. Widmer enriches his unique volume by offering a new theory of Manifest Destiny as part of a broader movement of intellectual expansion in nineteenth-century America.
|Publisher:||Oxford University Press, USA|
|Edition description:||New Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.80(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Edward L. Widmer has taught at Harvard University and the Rhode Island School of Design, and received fellowships from the Mellon Foundation, the John Carter Brown Library, and the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research. He is currently a White House speechwriter and lives in Washington with his wife and son.
Read an Excerpt
The Politics of Culture
O'Sullivan and the Democratic Review
Measures are now in active progress to furnish the democratic party throughout the United States with what they have never yet had--a magazine, literary as well as political, of their own. The importance of such an assistant to the great cause of the people cannot be too highly estimated, especially as their adversaries have assumed the credit of an entire monopoly of learning, talent, wit, argument, and LITERATURE, par excellence. The democratic party has not merely to fight its battle by the ballot-box and the vote. It must attack the enemy with his own weapons.
--Washington Globe, March 4, 1837
In May 1823 U.S. authorities at Buenos Aires seized the brig Dick "on suspicion of her being engaged in piratical pursuits." The Dick's captain was an American merchant of noble Irish extraction, John Thomas O'Sullivan. A year later he drowned in a shipwreck off South America, still trying to recover his confiscated fortune. An ancient family title, the count of Bearhaven, ultimately descended to his second son after an elder brother also perished at sea. Unfortunately, the papers proving the title were also lost in the shipwreck.
Is this the plot of a Cooper novel, deservedly undiscovered until now? No, the story is real enough. Even better, these incidents, reeking of high-seas romance and international intrigue, gave birth to a magazine that cut a piratical swath across antebellum America: the Democratic Review. Appropriately, its founder, John Louis O'Sullivan, became one of the most swashbuckling journalists of the period, every bit as quixotic as his unfortunate father. Completing the circle of unlikelihoods, the last count of Bearhaven was possibly the most energetic spokesman for democracy America has ever seen.
In 1836, during the final summer of Andrew Jackson's presidency, the U.S. government agreed to compensate Captain O'Sullivan's widow for its seizure of the Dick's cargo thirteen years earlier. But this was no ordinary squaring of accounts. A great deal of money was involved, and Jackson was not known for his kindly disposition in these matters (especially since O'Sullivan may well have been guilty). An invisible hand was almost certainly guiding the progress of the overdue payment. It could only belong to Martin Van Buren, looking ahead to his interests as well as those of the fatherless family. In a twist of fate Cooper would not have dared inflict on his readers, the aristocratic O'Sullivans were enriched in return for their promise of fealty to the mighty Democratic party and its rising new leader.
The wily Van Buren was no stranger to the O'Sullivans. He had known them at least since 1829, when he identified the fifteen-year-old John Louis O'Sullivan as a promising youth who merited his protection. Two letters to C. C. Cambreleng that year indicate Van Buren felt a "real solicitude" for the teenager and arranged a job for him with the governor of New York. This intervention must have impressed young O'Sullivan, for as late as 1845, he was still writing filial letters to Van Buren and traveling to his home at Kinderhook for career advice.
The inheritor of Jackson's mantle in 1836, Van Buren was powerfully positioned to steer spoils to his supporters. The O'Sullivan claim was shepherded through the Senate he presided over as vice president, and it would have been uncharacteristic of Jackson to approve a large payment if there were not strong political incentives. In the summer of 1836, these incentives were everywhere. Van Buren, waging a difficult presidential campaign, needed all the allies he could find, especially if they offered unique advantages. Young O'Sullivan was not only precocious, but showed promise as a political journalist, and probably confided to Van Buren his dream of starting a national magazine with Democratic leanings. A year later, with the O'Sullivan claim realized, the Democratic Review became a reality.
As I argued in the prologue, everything felt different in 1837. The watershed year marked the end of Jackson's reign, Van Buren's accession, and the panic attending the transfer of power. Oliver Wendell Holmes later dubbed it the year of our literary Declaration of Independence, referring to Emerson's American Scholar address, but his words applied just as well to young O'Sullivan, newly enriched by the settlement. At almost precisely the moment of Emerson's talk (August 31), he and his brother-in-law, Samuel Langtree, were in Washington, frantically preparing the first issue of the new magazine, which they were sure would reshape the journalistic landscape. There is no evidence they were especially moved by Emerson's address, but in effect they were soldiers in the same nationalistic campaign. Indeed, they went beyond Emerson in many respects.
O'Sullivan and Langtree intended to combine the newsiness of a monthly magazine with the intellectual snuff of a quarterly review. Hence the portentous name with which they baptized their creation: The United States Magazine and Democratic Review. This wording instantly signaled ambitions of nationwide circulation and an unmistakable partisan affiliation. They wanted their magazine to be definitively "American" and "Democratic," and soon it was known across the land simply as the Democratic Review. The editors solemnly announced their goals in a prospectus released during the last week of Jackson's administration: "As the United States Magazine is founded on the broadest basis which the means and influence of the Democratic Party in the United States can present, it is intended to render it in every respect a thoroughly NATIONAL WORK, not merely designated for ephemeral interest and attraction, but to continue of permanent historical value."
Unlike most pronouncements of this sort, their braggadocio was more or less fulfilled. The first issue was released in October 1837 and arrived at an opportune moment. In the short term, the beleaguered new administration of Martin Van Buten, reeling from the financial panic of the spring, needed all the popular support it could get. And from a wider historical perspective, O'Sullivan picked a timely occasion to remedy an imbalance in American cultural politics.
Specifically, he noted that almost all of America's influential literary periodicals issued from the camps of the enemy: Whiggery. Van Buren could count on daily newspapers like Bryant's New York Evening Post or Francis Blair's Washington Globe to serve as party organs, but there was nothing in the way of a respectable national magazine with Jacksonian leanings. Unlike the newspaper, the magazine was still the domain of well-educated minds with a conservative bent and little interest in disrupting the status quo. The Democratic Review did not displace these magazines over its long tenure, but it brought a fresh voice and a measure of equilibrium to the publishing world of antebellum America.
Hence the exuberance shown by O'Sullivan and Langtree as they commenced their undertaking. As O'Sullivan reflected in 1842, they were "very young, very sanguine, and very democratic." Their goal was nothing less than "to strike the hitherto silent string of the democratic genius of the age and country as the proper principle of the literature of both." Democracy was the engine that drove both O'Sullivan and his magazine. It was an ill-defined concept, to be sure, but one that could be depended upon to excite American readers, whether embracing the specific doctrines of the partisan Democracy, or the larger set of meanings yoked to the lower case "d." Either way, the editor saw the American political experiment as the beginning of a worldwide revolution that would soon spread to other domains of the mind. With proper tending, an entire intellectual system of great art, literature, and philosophy ought to spring from the same impulse that had declared all men created equal. For O'Sullivan, politics and culture were indissolubly linked, and his advocacy of Democratic authors went hand-in-hand with his support of the Van Buren administration.
Well before his arrival on the literary scene, the founder of the Democratic Review had been groomed to the task. Yet it is remarkable how little is known today of John Louis O'Sullivan. He was unusually intimate with eminent writers and politicians, yet there exist almost no likenesses of him, nor any substantial manuscript collections. Impressions of him varied wildly, from the close friendship of fellow travelers to the sharp hostility he provoked among political rivals.
Nathaniel Hawthorne's son Julian judged him "one of the most charming companions in the world," a character whose absurd optimism was straight out of Martin Chuzzlewit. Hawthorne found O'Sullivan "impossible to resist": "the most courteous and affectionate of men, with the most yielding and self-effacing manners, he had the spirit of a paladin, and was afraid of nothing." Furthermore, he was gifted with "a low, melodious, exquisitely modulated voice," a "sparkle in his soft eyes," and a "lock of hair that fell gracefully over his forehead only a trifle disordered." Walt Whitman recalled, "I knew him well--a handsome, generous fellow. He treated me well." Catharine Maria Sedgwick called the O'Sullivan family "these most picturesque of all the moderns." Half a century after the Democratic Review folded, Julia Ward Howe wrote the following upon meeting William Butler Yeats: "He is a man of fiery temperament, with a slight, boyish figure: has deep-set blue eyes and dark hair, reminds me of John O'Sullivan in his temperament."
His political credentials were no less impressive. Writing Van Buren in 1839, Benjamin F. Butler claimed, "As a political writer, no man in the country, of his age, surpasses O'Sullivan" and called the Review "a beacon of light in the darkest hours." Van Buren himself wrote George Bancroft, "Your feelings, warm and generous towards O'Sullivan as I know them to be, are scarcely equal to my own." In 1857 an American diplomat stationed in London recorded a favorable impression in his diary: "A plain, unprepossessing slight made man of light complexion, about 5 ft. 8, thin face, light moustache, about 43 years of age, quick spoken and altogether decidedly a man of mark such as one would notice in a crowd."
Longfellow, on the other hand, whose feathers he ruffled on several occasions, described him to a friend as "a young man, with weak eyes, and green spectacles, who looks like you, and is a Humbug nevertheless and notwithstanding." In a fit of pique (which he later recanted), Poe called him "that ass O'Sullivan." Thoreau dismissed him as "rather puny-looking" though grudgingly admitted him to be one of the "not-bad." Hawthorne knew him as well as anyone, and was always frustrated by his friend's erratic behavior, particularly "his defects in everything that concerns pecuniary matters." He pitied him as "a wanderer, a man of vicissitudes, as if his native waves were all the time tossing beneath him." Yet he liked him immensely, claiming "the Devil has a smaller share in O'Sullivan than in other bipeds who wear breeches." As he cryptically put it, "He is miraculously pure and true, considering what his outward life has been."
Like most editors, he was a chameleon of sorts, responsible not only for editorials, but also "the windings of fictitious narrative, the distinctions of a critique, statistical calculations, political argument and enlightened legislation." Despite his personal vagaries, the fact of his influence remains indisputable. In his heyday, O'Sullivan enjoyed great power as a shaper of public opinion, and consequently of both political policy and literary taste. Respected by players in both spheres, he was especially intimate with the unlikely triumvirate of Martin Van Buren, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the young Samuel Tilden. He was also very close to the Rhode Island radical Thomas Wilson Dorr and the Cuban revolutionary Narciso Lopez. Clearly, he was drawn to other fiery temperaments.
But despite this prominence, his career is difficult to read. As these comments show, O'Sullivan was a strange bundle of paradoxes. One of the most nationalistic of Americans in an already nationalistic era, he sided with the Confederacy in the Civil War, although he never lived in the South and had prominently supported the Free Soil campaign of 1848. Closely connected with power brokers and financiers, he spent much of his life with little or no money, though he always lived in high style. Inspired by a messianic vision of democracy with palpably religious undertones, he was critical of organized religion (the "rubbish" of a "theocracy of priests") and became embroiled in a vituperative debate with clergymen over the death penalty in the early 1840s. Passionately devoted to popular sovereignty, and descended from recent immigrant stock, he was equally proud of his quasi-aristocratic heritage and devoted inordinate time to bizarre personal plots to overthrow foreign governments. Yet he was not simply a sloganeering Yankee imperialist, but a cosmopolitan scholar who respected foreign traditions and differences.
The contradictions continue. Like most Democrats, O'Sullivan supported the doctrine of states' rights and limited government, but his rampant nationalism allowed him to encourage federal construction of a canal across the Isthmus of Darien and the underwriting of his own magazine. He was a reformer of sorts; friendly with kindred spirits like Julia Ward Howe, Orestes Brownson, and Catharine Maria Sedgwick, and devoted to the abolition of capital punishment, the improvement of prisons, the creation of a "Congress of Nations," and the cause of worldwide peace. Hawthorne wrote in "The Hall of Fantasy," "no philanthropist need blush to stand on the same footing with O'Sullivan." Yet this pacifist was also cool toward abolitionism, urged American military intervention in any country where the spark of liberty was in danger of being snuffed out, and screamed for the forceful acquisition of additional territory. The act for which he is remembered, if at all, is his coining of the term "Manifest Destiny," and of this he seems to have been oblivious. Almost every history of the Jacksonian period contains a one-sentence summation of O'Sullivan as the author of the phrase, but he never claimed his territorial rights to it, despite his self-aggrandizing personality.
He has also been oversimplified by historians. Though intrigued, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., dismissed him as "a clever and charming Irishman" whose magazine "dealt in the immediacies of action and enjoyment, caring little for the swirling depths of theory." Frederick Merk, along with many others, saw his promotion of Manifest Destiny as an attempt to extend Anglo-Saxon hegemony across the continent, when in fact he preferred a panethnic extension of American democracy and was more or less indifferent to the march of Protestantism (most of his family was Catholic). In fact, he spent surprising time in the company of Latin Americans, seeing their liberation from Spain as yet another part of Manifest Destiny.
No doubt he added to this confusion by his own contradictory actions, often difficult to interpret. In 1845, while composing some of the most bellicose editorials in American history, he wrote George Bancroft, then secretary of the navy, that his "peace principles" led him to regret "our present warlike attitude" toward Mexico. A more blatant and disturbing paradox is that he never showed much interest in slavery, even while ranting of liberty in every other context. These vicissitudes characterized his entire life and occlude our vision of him, but they do not diminish his relevance to antebellum culture. Nor did his life begin and end in 1845, as most histories assume. Almost no one has considered the interesting later phase of O'Sullivan's career, as if his personal destiny ceased to exist after giving expression to the nation's with an unusually memorable turn of phrase.
Thankfully, historians no longer investigate the genealogy of their subjects, but in O'Sullivan's case, there were interesting correlations between his pedigree and his sense of fate. The O'Sullivan family motto was Modestia Victrix, which translates as "Victory through Moderation." This is amusing in retrospect, for few families ever saw so little of either ("Defeat through Excess" would have been more appropriate). A glance at O'Sullivan's bizarre lineage establishes several traits the different Young Americans held in common and identifies important sources of their shared radicalism. Descended from a long line of Irish patriots fighting against English imperialism, O'Sullivan inherited a strong dislike of hegemonic Anglo-Saxon culture. This ideology was oddly intensified in his mind as his family's status slipped during the early nineteenth century. Like Evert Duyckinck, David Dudley Field, and a host of other Young Americans (including, broadly speaking, Melville and Hawthorne), a combination of inherited elitism and precarious class standing resulted in a fiercely democratic cosmogony.
From their first appearance on the page of history, the O'Sullivan family had been devoted to political intrigue and complicated foreign liaisons. A distant ancestor, Donal O'Sullivan, a Cork County chieftain during the Elizabethan age, tenaciously resisted English incursions into Ireland and entertained close relations with shadowy Spaniards. After the accession of James I, he fled to Spain in 1604 where he was harbored by Philip III and honored as a Grandee of Spain and Earl of Bearhaven. The latter place, in Ireland, was outside Philip's realm, but no one seems to have objected. His descendant later took great pride in these specious titles, and Hawthorne humorously addressed him as "the Count," or in his preface to "Rappacini's Daughter," as "le comte de Bearhaven." Strange as it may sound; O'Sullivan, who spent most of his life denouncing antique privileges, was recognized by some of Europe's titled aristocracy as one of their own.
Almost all of the family's achievements had been spectacular disasters. O'Sullivan's great-grandfather, also named John O'Sullivan, was an officer in the French army who joined Bonnie Prince Charlie's campaign and conceived the plan for the catastrophic battle of Culloden in 1745. His son, equally ill-starred, was forced to leave the French army after a violent altercation with John Paul Jones, then allied with France as the American naval commander. In the aftermath of this incident, he prudently removed to New York, where he became an officer with the occupying British (O'Sullivans always chose the wrong sides), married a local girl, and brought her back to Ireland.
Their son John Thomas O'Sullivan ran off to sea, and like his father resurfaced in New York, where he met the Venezuelan patriot Francisco Miranda around 1806, planning an expedition to free his country from Spain. O'Sullivan fell in with the plotters, commanding the schooner Bacchus in their tiny armada, but needless to say, it proved unsuccessful. He spent a year in prison at Cartagena, then escaped and returned to New York, resuming his career as a mariner-merchant and marrying Mary Rowly, a genteel Englishwoman. Years later Julian Hawthorne would recall her as "a type of the fine-grained, gently-bred aristocrat."
Somehow the young couple wended their way to the Barbary Coast where, according to tradition, John Louis O'Sullivan was born aboard a British warship off Gibraltar on November 15, 1813. This is singular, since a state of war existed between the United States and England, but the subject of nationality was always slippery with the ultranationalistic O'Sullivan. Nathaniel Hawthorne elaborated,
O'Sullivan was born on shipboard, on the coast of Spain, and claims three nationalities--those of Spain, England, and the United States--his father being a native of Great Britain, a naturalized citizen of the United States, and having registered his birth and baptism in a Catholic church of Gibraltar, which gives him Spanish privileges. He has hereditary claims to a Spanish countship. His infancy was spent in Barbary, and his lips first lisped in Arabic. There has been an unsettled and wandering character in his whole life.
Despite his dubious citizenship, the elder O'Sullivan was appointed the U.S. consul to Mogador (February 1817) and Tenerife (July 1818). He wasted little time stirring up controversy, causing a rift with a British official and losing his appointment in the process. He returned to private commerce by purchasing the brig Dick and sending her to South America, where, as already recounted, a U.S. agent impounded the boat on suspicion of piracy and sold its cargo of hides at a loss.--The charges were never proven, but the affair was disastrous for O'Sullivan. A year later, in 1824, trying vainly to repossess his treasure, he perished in a shipwreck on a return voyage to South America.
At the time young O'Sullivan was continuing the family tradition of Catholic education in France. Following news of her husband's demise, Mary O'Sullivan united her children in London, and in the fall of 1827 they moved en masse to New York. The eldest son, William, joined the Navy, and like his father disappeared in a shipwreck. John, gifted in languages, was sent to Columbia College at the tender age of fourteen, despite deteriorating finances. Leaping to the top of his class by the end of the year, he received two prestigious scholarships and taught younger students in the Columbia Grammar School (including, probably, the Duyckinck and Melville brothers). Excused from the formality of taking classes, he easily took his degree in 1831 and received a Master of Arts in 1834, after teaching freshmen mathematics and classics (again, including Evert Duyckinck). He appears also to have passed the bar around 1835, but never showed more than a perfunctory interest in his legal career.
Even at this early date, his real ambitions probably lay elsewhere, in the exciting world of print journalism transforming New York. Writer-reformers like Bryant and Leggett were effecting social change through their control of the Evening Post, and the latter thrilled aspiring journalists with his scabrous editorials against entrenched power. In May 1831, a local intellectual named John Francis gave a speech at Columbia calling attention to the new technologies of printing and the increased power of written culture to sway the masses. He also singled out the "beardless" youth of Paris for their role in the recent revolution of 1830. The two messages, implicitly related, must have affected the promising graduate, who had been schooled in France and cherished the strange revolutionary lineage bequeathed to him by his ancestors.
Despite these academic successes, the O'Sullivan family had little income and many expenses. It may well have been that the combination of family pride and poverty in these lean years provoked O'Sullivan's reverse class consciousness, an acute antisnobbery proceeding from his own confused sense of status. If so, he would hardly have been the only Young American to suffer this disruption. In these same years, Hawthorne and Melville were living off the charity of family relations as their mothers' fortunes plummeted.
Ultimately, Mary O'Sullivan decided to press a claim against the U.S. government over the 1823 incident in which her husband's cargo had been seized. Accordingly she entered a petition to the House of Representatives for over $100,000 in retribution. Ludicrous as this sum may seem, she slowly made progress toward compensation. In 1835 she moved the family to Georgetown to facilitate her lobbying efforts. Young O'Sullivan was deeply involved in the process. In July 1836 an abridged claim was finally approved by Congress and signed by President Jackson, following which Mary O'Sullivan was awarded $20,210. With this windfall, O'Sullivan and his brother-in-law suddenly possessed the wherewithal to consummate their journalistic ambitions. It is fitting the outgoing president signed the document that did so much to perpetuate his ideological legacy.
Launching the Democratic Review
The success of the claim brought financial stability to the family, and O'Sullivan quickly took steps to begin his new career. O'Sullivan's sister Mary had recently married Langtree, a young doctor who immigrated from Ireland in 1832. Despite his medical training, Langtree plunged headlong into magazine work almost immediately on arrival. O'Sullivan later recalled, his tastes "were decidedly literary, and adverse from his profession." After a brief stint at the New York Commercial Advertiser, he edited the fledgling Knickerbocker magazine from March 1833 to April 1834. In that month he surrendered the reins to Lewis Gaylord Clark, who would direct it for three decades.
In retrospect, it is ironic that the Knickerbocker, which was to evolve into the pride of New York Whiggery, owed its origin in part to Dr. Langtree, who was not only an Irish immigrant, but a staunch Jacksonian. In its early days, under Langtree's stewardship, the magazine was devoted to the literary nationalism Clark would later belittle in the same pages. The July 1833 number fulminated, "When the Knickerbacker [sic] shall be purely American, ... then, and not till then, will its destiny be complete; and our object and our wishes be fulfilled, in giving to America a native Magazine." With a prophetic voice, Langtree called forth "the genius of this young America." Appropriately, he also published one of William Leggett's few magazine pieces, a story about his early life at sea. Summarizing the year in December 1833, he wrote what might have been a blueprint for his and O'Sullivan's progress: "The horizon of society has been enlarged. Where we might a few years back have looked for a civic patronage with local objects and illustrations--we must now look for a National--where the sphere was narrow before it has become vast,--from a circumscribed we have arisen to a grander destiny."
Probably through Langtree, O'Sullivan was seduced by the hurly-burly world of magazine work. In the summer of 1835 the brothers-in-law joined forces to buy the Georgetown Metropolitan, a struggling semiweekly they hoped to inject with new life. With improved writing and ardent support for the cause of liberty in Europe (an O'Sullivan trademark), they succeeded in boosting the size and frequency of circulation. On other issues they were characteristically Democratic, supporting striking shoe workers in New York, Texan independence, and the general reluctance to discuss slavery. They also showed an eye for literary talent, publishing reprints of Poe along with regular book reviews and "Literary Intelligence." According to a self-puffing editorial of March 3, 1837, "The literary character of the Metropolitan is much higher than aimed at, or professed by the usual newspaper press." This was probably true, although it was not much of a claim at the time.
Despite early success, the paper stalled in 1836, doubtless because the editors were distracted by higher ambition. Their prospects had dramatically improved with the O'Sullivan claim and Van Buren's election. Feeling flush, O'Sullivan and Langtree decided to broaden their compass beyond the District of Columbia and launch a national magazine. Why not take on the entire country? The first mention of the Review ran in the Metropolitan of February 27, 1837, clearly displaying the new administration's interest:
It is the contemplation of the proprietors of this journal to commence, with Mr. Van Buren's administration, the publication of a political and literary Magazine of the first class in the city of Washington, which in the former department will be devoted to the advocacy of democratic principles, and in the latter will be rendered, as far as a liberal use of means and the co-operation of some of the best writers in the country can effect it, creditable to the United States.... It is believed that the proposed Magazine can be made to a great extent a means of concentrating, and if we might use the word, of popularizing this description of talent.
The word popularizing was a relative neologism (the Review boasted five years later, "Why should we be afraid of introducing new words into the language which it is our mission to spread over a new world?"). More important, it was a new idea, promising to open American cultural politics as the new state constitutions of the 1820s had enlarged suffrage. The article was reprinted in the Washington Globe, along with a promise that the magazine would be "thoroughly democratic in its price" (five dollars a year). The Globe expounded on its historic significance, crowing that the Democrats could finally "attack the enemy with his own weapons."
What did this belligerent taunt mean? Quite simply that the Democrats were tired of Whig claims to superiority in literature and fine art, which if not exactly "weapons," were useful tools of persuasion in a volatile period of political and cultural contest. What O'Sullivan called the enemy's "monopoly," recalling Leggett's rhetoric, consisted of the well-heeled magazines reflecting cultured opinion in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, exemplified by the crusty North American Review. Regional magazines like the Southern Literary Messenger and the Western Monthly Review tried to make inroads, but made slow progress against "the North American Quarterly Hum Drum" (Poe's term). The Democratic Review would fare better, combining politics and literature in a concerted attack.
Since the Review was closely connected with the incoming president, and could not have been launched without his protection and tacit support, it possessed a crucial advantage from the outset. The illusion of aloofness was maintained, but Washington insiders knew the magazine was a pet interest of Van Buren's, and that he had been shrewdly nurturing O'Sullivan's ambitions for such a purpose. A rival magazine complained the Review was "born at Washington, in the very vestibule of the palace--suckled and papped in the grand official nursery of government patronage." In 1840 Hugh Garland, the clerk of the House of Representatives, wrote Van Buren, "On the first establishment of the Democratic Review, I understood it was under the auspices of the Administration, and that its Editors were your personal friends." Francis Blair's Washington Globe, Jackson's official organ, irritated Van Buren with its inconsistency and lack of polish, and many northern Democrats agreed a new Democratic mouthpiece was necessary. Apparently, O'Sullivan and Langtree were given an informal "compact" from the administration promising them the Globe's lucrative government printing business, although this did not turn out to be the case. A disappointed O'Sullivan later wrote Benjamin F. Butler that the Review emanated from "a design calculated more for the promotion of your and the President's general personal interests than for our own."
Butler, the attorney general under Jackson, and Van Buren's law partner since 1817, was especially supportive of the plan and acted as its chief sponsor within the Van Buren circle. As O'Sullivan wrote, "More than any other individual, Mr. B. F. Butler, an intimate personal as well as political friend, sympathized with the views which animated us, and united with us in the counsels which resulted in our determination." Beyond acting as a mentor and liaison with the White House, Butler subsidized the undertaking with a thousand-dollar investment.
Butler had almost certainly met O'Sullivan earlier. His son William Allen Butler introduced his father to a number of promising young New York intellectuals, including Evert Duyckinck, the nucleus of the Young American literati. Butler himself nurtured a pet interest in literature. He and Henry D. Gilpin, Van Buren's attorney general, both dilettante writers, contributed small pieces once the Review was underway. The two attorneys general frequently met to advise the young staff, and Butler attempted to raise twenty-five thousand dollars for the Review by selling bonds to Democratic well-wishers. A letter he wrote to George Bancroft promoted the politico-literary connection, arguing the Review furnished Democrats with "a literature unalloyed with adverse political views."
Butler also asked Andrew Jackson to lend his magical name to the enterprise, as revealed by a manuscript fragment left by the general, complete with Jacksonian syntax:
My name to the original work of OSulivan [sic] and Langly [sic], was asked by my friend B. F. Butler, to head the subscription, for the work, not as a subscriber for the Book, but to recommend it to the public, he [sic] was told by me that I had subscribed to no work, to give it my pecuniary aid.
Despite the rejoinder, political principles triumphed, for a euphoric (and grammatical) letter, allegedly penned by Old Hickory to the editors, was unveiled in the Washington Globe of March 13, 1837: "I have just received your note of the 4th instant, enclosing the prospectus of the [sic] 'The United States Magazine and Democratic Review.' I have received the prospectus with much interest, as I have long thought such a work in the great city of the Union was much wanted; and as an evidence of approbation of the work, you will find me one of your subscribers."
O'Sullivan was perfectly happy to believe this fiction, and years later he nostalgically reminisced, "Old General Jackson took a great deal of interest in it, and was its first subscriber." Beside Jackson's laying-on of hands, the Globe printed the magazine's prospectus:
In the mighty struggle of antagonist principles which is now going on in society, the Democratic Party of the United States stands committed to the world as the depository and exemplar of those cardinal doctrines of political faith with which the cause of the People in every age and country is identified. Chiefly from the want of a convenient means of concentrating the intellectual energy of its disciples, this party has hitherto been almost wholly unrepresented in the republic of letters, while the views and policy of its opposing creeds are daily advocated, by the ablest and most commanding efforts of genius and learning.
The secretary of the treasury, Levi Woodbury, mailed the prospectus out to postmasters around the country, asking Democrats to subscribe, and thereby lending the official imprint of government support to what was ostensibly a private undertaking. O'Sullivan and Langtree immediately set about recruiting as many of the country's top intellects as they could. To maintain the appearance of bipartisan objectivity, the young editors approached the venerable John Quincy Adams, urging him to contribute. He recorded the event in his journal: "Long evening visit from Mr. Langtree--a fulsome flatterer. He urged me to write for his Democratic Review and Magazine; but I told him literature was, and its nature must always be, aristocratic; that democracy of numbers and literature were self-contradictory."
The account of this meeting, brief as it must have been, contained in a nutshell what was important about the new magazine. Like most well-educated Americans, Adams felt an abstract devotion to democratic idealism, but doubted the yeomanry could actually give voice to their ideas in literature. His conception of American belles lettres fit his understanding of the political world: Those who were best suited to participate had proper schooling, taste, and a reverence for tradition. For all their correctness of demeanor, young Irish Locofocos did not fall into this category.
In the months before the magazine was ready, O'Sullivan busied himself writing would-be contributors, outlining his plan for the enterprise and how its glory would redound to all associated with the project. Hawthorne was one of many summoned to join "the finest writers of the country"' with the promise that compensation "will be on so liberal a scale as to command the best and most polished exertions of their minds." Langtree wrote George Bancroft, imploring him to lend his talents with the grand injunction, "The republic hath need of your services." Langtree also hinted at Van Buren's background role: "It is of vital importance to the success of this hazardous plan, and the mighty interests involved in it, that such a pen as yours, should be perpetually involved." Distracted by his own mighty interests, Bancroft did not become a steady contributor, though he did write occasional historical pieces.
O'Sullivan often described the aborning magazine in terms that would appeal to the would-be contributor. In a letter to Orestes Brownson, he wrote the Review would "be democratic, in the broad and historical signification of the word," adding, however, that "to every measure of a political and extended political party, it would be impossible to pledge such a work." This legalistic phrasing, well suited to Brownson, meant that O'Sullivan would toe the Democratic party line, but not in a lapdog fashion.
At the same time, O'Sullivan tried to allay Longfellow's Whiggish suspicions by admitting "its politics to be democratic, and of course supporting (the) present dominant party," but adding "its literary department will be however quite independent of the political." Therefore, O'Sullivan concluded, "the bias of your political or party opinions I neither know nor consider at all material. Our anxiety is to make a magazine of a higher order than those that the country now possesses." These words told the truth somewhat slant, as did many of O'Sullivan's communiques, for almost anyone might have perceived the importance of politics to the larger plan of the Review, including its literature. Longfellow himself must have seen this plainly, for he wrote caustically two years later: "The Loco-focos are organizing a new politico-literary system. They shout Hosannas to every loco-foco authorling, and speak coolly of, if they do not abuse, every other. They puff Bryant loud and long; likewise my good friend Hawthorne of "Twice-Told Tales'"; also a Mr. O'Sullivan, once editor of the "Democratic Review."
In other words, the Review favored authors with Democratic leanings. Transcending Van Buren's short-term political goals, the magazine offered an aggressive new vision of American culture, a vision that shared little with the genteel guardians of the American literary establishment. Imitating Jackson and the generation of '76, O'Sullivan challenged the stuffy Anglophiles of the literary world as if they were the latest form of Tory. For O'Sullivan, the cause of worldwide democracy simply demanded that the United States, its most enlightened practitioner, sponsor a fresh body of writing to render the old European classics as vestigial as their aristocracies.
O'Sullivan's zeal for American letters burned with a whiter heat than the more tempered optimism of the established magazines. From the distance of a century and a half, it is difficult to discern differences between various American voices demanding essentially the same thing. Certainly there were many Whigs who advocated new and vigorous works of imagination. But by and large, these appeals were intended to uphold tradition, and to ensure that previous definitions of good taste would prevail. Rufus Griswold, one of Young America's rivals, defined poetry as "moral purity," and insisted that ordinary people had no business judging literature for themselves: "There is no more pernicious error than that the whole people should be instructed alike."
O'Sullivan never would have written that, nor Evert Duyckinck (at least, not in his early phase). They wanted American literature in the present tense, not the past, written by the people and for the people. A close reading indicates a different tenor, a politicized urgency, on the part of the critics located in the Democratic part of the spectrum, particularly the New Yorkers. Although Timothy Flint, editor of the Western Monthly Review, was zealously in favor of American literature, he felt "the phrenzy of political excitement" was distracting Americans from more elevated pursuits. This "phrenzy" constituted the very thrust of O'Sullivan's appeal.
Emerson and his followers were put off by the Democratic Review's nearness to vulgar politicians. But O'Sullivan cared not a whit, sensing an intangible link between real democracy, with its sweaty speeches and squalid promises, and the literature of the new generation. Possessed by a crude, proto-Marxist certainty, he believed the system by which a people ruled themselves would inevitably manifest itself in their cultural creations, with the rest of the world slowly following the best example set for them. In politics, this meant enlarged suffrage, with minimal government interference in private life; in literature, original works treating commonplace themes with forcefulness, directness, and dignity. In O'Sullivan's conceit, great works would spring naturally from an unencumbered people, describing things with no precedent in the tired world of courtly romances and Waverleyesque imbroglios, but rather new things, American things, incomparable things said incomparably well.
Washington (1837-1840): Blustery Beginnings
The Review's first issue, assembled frantically after several writers failed to turn in anything, was released October 15, 1837. O'Sullivan and Langtree worked day and night for a fortnight, and O'Sullivan finally produced the leading articles "under much bad health, and literally by inches." Like everything he did, this inaugural effort emanated a pleasantly manic quality. The politico-literary calculus received immediate articulation in the opening essay. One of O'Sullivan's better efforts, this absurdly ambitious manifesto revealed all of the new generation's expansiveness. It began with a call "for the advocacy of that high and holy DEMOCRATIC PRINCIPLE which was designed to be the fundamental element of the new social and political system created by the 'American experiment.'" O'Sullivan's religious language was appropriate for the crusade he was undertaking, and he calmly described his creation as the "ark of democratic truth."
With breathless excitement, O'Sullivan spelled out his political and literary principles from the outset. The Review claimed "abiding confidence in the virtue, intelligence and full capacity for self-government, of the great mass of our people--our industrious, honest, manly, intelligent millions of freemen." Accordingly, it opposed "all self-styled 'wholesome restraints'" on public opinion and believed, in theory at least, "all government is evil." Hence the Jeffersonian slogan of the magazine, which was inscribed under a portrait of Washington on the title page: "The best government is that which governs least." Paying homage to Southerners, O'Sullivan suggested that majorities ought to be sympathetic to minority rights to avoid "a house divided against itself" (like Lincoln, he knew his Bible). And he opposed "all precipitate radical changes in social institutions," a reference to abolitionism requiring no translation.
Despite this unsavory opinion, shared by most Democrats in 1837, O'Sullivan's social philosophy generally embraced the reforms of the day, particularly those that reduced government intrusiveness. In some respects, his libertarian outlook meshes with the antigovernmental conservatism of the late twentieth century. But in 1837, the fight against government meddling signaled a dislike of the economic elite promoting tariffs and monopolies, and a desire to return power to "the people" in the Leggett tradition. It was not a conservatism the modern Republican party would have understood. In many ways O'Sullivan's rhetoric was downright radical, attacking the entrenched lords of commerce, and arguing for better treatment of the poor and disenfranchised.
Of course, it was also a selective radicalism, offering little comfort to African-Americans or Native Americans. But it excited thousands of young readers who saw no reason to glare at its internal contradictions. The antebellum Democratic party is often dismissed as reactionary or simplistic--true enough in many parts of the country, especially where it defended the peculiar institution. But we should not overlook the aggressive, reformist zeal felt by many northern Democrats who entertained millennial notions about the future of the country and their destiny within it. Citing the "gigantic boldness" of the American Revolution, and insisting "the eye of man looks naturally forward," O'Sullivan displayed this energetic, futuristic philosophy of democracy better than anyone, save perhaps Whitman. More than most Whigs, or southern Democrats for that matter, he could barely wait for the next chapter in America's evolving experiment.
The enthusiastic tone adopted by O'Sullivan in this manifesto revealed more than a little of the perplexing secular religiosity of the early French Revolution. Despite their skepticism toward religion, these young Democrats felt their creed to be spiritually and intellectually valid, in a deeper sense than mere politics gave expression to, and occasionally O'Sullivan, for all his bombast, was able to grope toward its articulation. Lauding the "democratic principle," which he also called "the voluntary principle," he wrote:
It is borrowed from the example of the perfect self-government of the physical universe, being written in letters of light on every page of the great bible of Nature. It contains the idea of full and fearless faith in the providence of the Creator. It is essentially involved in Christianity, of which it has been well said that its pervading spirit of democratic equality among men is its highest fact, and one of its most radiant internal evidences of the divinity of its origin.
O'Sullivan's conception of democracy as a "creed" not only lent it a spiritual hue, but more specifically, invested it with a collective sense of philanthropy, a disinterested benevolence toward all humankind, in contrast to the Whig philosophy of individual self-betterment. O'Sullivan often wrote in the first person plural, imploring his fellow Democrats as a preacher might his flock, although his millennium was all sweetness and light, with none of the usual fire and brimstone: "For Democracy is the cause of humanity. It has faith in human nature. It believes in its essential equality and fundamental goodness.... It is, moreover, a cheerful creed, a creed of high hope and universal love, noble and ennobling; while all others, which imply a distrust of mankind ... are ... gloomy and selfish."
Later issues of the Review maintained this secular religiosity, arguing "the source of the democratic principle is essential love and essential truth." More tellingly, "it is not, therefore, man in which the democracy puts their trust, for this does aristocracy, but in God, whom it, aristocracy, virtually renounces." In 1839 Parke Godwin came right out and said what O'Sullivan was hinting, "Christianity and Democracy are one." For a bunch of freethinkers, the Review writers were oddly dependent on the vocabulary of evangelical piety. Though wary of New England, O'Sullivan even suggested "the reminiscence of Puritanism was the most powerful element of that spirit which produced the Revolution."
Following his epiphany of spiritualized democracy, O'Sullivan spoke out no less vehemently for democracy applied to literature. He was troubled by the nagging suspicion that cultured Americans were "educated" into conservative political thinking simply because higher learning and the press were controlled by the urban "mercantile classes." To his mind, this was anathema. If America was "to carry forward the noble mission entrusted to her, of going before the nations of the world as the representative of the democratic principle and the constant living exemplar of its results," then it ought to be with a spirit of exuberance instilled into every American from his earliest schooling. Not only should the democratic cause "engage the whole mind of the American nation," but it "ought peculiarly to commend itself to the generosity of youth."
With his usual bluntness, O'Sullivan insisted, "the spirit of Literature and the spirit of Democracy are one." This would be meaningless if third-rate politicos had written for his magazine, but throughout his tenure as editor, the Democratic Review consistently attracted the finest writing of any American periodical of its day. Literature and fine arts had always seemed imbued with unspoken conservative qualities by virtue of the elitism of European culture. Langtree had expressed a few of these thoughts during his tenure as editor of the Knickerbocker, but without the shrillness O'Sullivan now brought to the task. In all his pronouncements, he violently rejected the elitist assumptions Adams had betrayed in his refusal to write for the Review, and praised all those allied with him. He described George Bancroft not merely as a successful historian, but "the most democratic historian of modern times," for they were laboring toward a common goal: the intellectual vindication of the American political experiment.
Like the early-twentieth-century critics who rebelled against the genteel tradition, O'Sullivan and his sympathizers celebrated a ruder, more participatory vision of American letters. The rubric of "America" was loosely constructed, and they encouraged literary exploration of pre-Columbian America, the Revolution, the unexplored West, Canada, and even South America (a literary expansionism prefiguring Manifest Destiny). Of kindred importance was the portrayal of the realistic elements of daily life, especially the new realism of urban America. Many French authors such as Balzac, Pierre Jean de Beranger, Eugene Sue, and Victor Cousin, generally ahead of their English peers on this score, found unusual acceptance among Review readers for their candid treatment of menial and modern character types in their fiction. The prevalence of French authors and articles on the French Revolution also betrayed nostalgia for the egalitarian intellectual traditions earlier American democrats such as Jefferson and Joel Barlow had admired. German thinkers, too, were featured prominently, although more for their theories of nationalism and folk culture than for the misty philosophical tenets cherished by New England transcendentalists.
When treated at all in histories of the Jacksonian period, the Democratic Review has usually been described as a magazine of above-average quality that advanced the political interests of its party through persuasive articles on policy. This is accurate enough, but it neglects the depth of the magazine's commitment to American literature. The Review saw no disjuncture between the struggles to advance partisan interests and foster a new style of writing. The two causes, part and parcel of the umbrella concept of the "democratic principle," were seen to be in perfect harmony. The phrase was applied indiscriminately to both, describing a Hawthorne tale in one use and, say, the insurrection of Thomas Dorr in the next. Following Bancroft, O'Sullivan regarded all history as "the progress of the democratic principle," from Pericles through Cicero, William Tell, Cromwell, Mirabeau, and Simon Bolivar to the present.
Like many nationalists before and since, O'Sullivan expected the democratic principle to culminate soon around the world. Benighted foreign lands needed to learn democracy, which might be taught through a great American literature. Likewise, American literature, in order to become great, needed to express the innate essence of American society, which of course was democracy. This circular thinking, albeit syllogistic, formed the core of O'Sullivan's manifesto, including the extraordinary paragraph cited at the outset:
The vital principle of an American national literature must be democracy. Our mind is enslaved to the past and present literature of England.... We have a principle--an informing soul--our own, our democracy, though we allow it to languish uncultivated; this must be the animating spirit of our literature, if indeed, we would have a national American literature. There is an immense field open to us, if we would but enter it boldly and cultivate it as our own. All history has to be re-written; political science and the whole scope of all moral truth have to be considered and illustrated in the light of the democratic principle. All old subjects of thought and all new questions arising, connected more or less directly with human existence, have to be taken up again and re-examined in this point of view.
In the first number, following O'Sullivan's garrulous introduction, the magazine established the basic format it would follow for the next decade. Poems by Bryant and Whittier were offered, alongside a political portrait of Thomas Hart Benton, and a short piece by Nathaniel Hawthorne entitled "The Toll-Gatherer's Day." Cogent articles were also offered on topics ranging from Mexico to Toequeville and democracy's potential in Europe. The presence of Bryant and Hawthorne, both Democrats, indicated a political agenda within the literature department as well as without. Whittier was acceptable for his labor sympathy and other quirky reforms.
All in all, the first number of the Review was an impressive success. O'Sullivan understood the arts of publicity, and some sources rated circulation as high as five thousand. This was an obvious exaggeration (later estimates by O'Sullivan placed the circulation around two or three thousand), but the magazine certainly earned a wide fame early. From the outset, the Review upholstered the party's tarnished image in the wake of the 1837 crisis, with lengthy articles blaming the residual ill effects caused by the Bank of the United States. According to O'Sullivan's characteristically self-flattering assessment, "The testimony of friends and foes was pretty general that these labors were very influential on public opinion."
Orestes Brownson, reviewing the first issue in his Boston Quarterly Review, instantly noticed its twofold purpose, both political and literary:
It is to be devoted to the interests of the Democratic party, and will explain and defend its doctrines and measures. But it also proposes to itself a higher, and, in our judgement, a far more praiseworthy aim. It avows its design to give, as far as it may be able, a democratic tone and character to American literature.... A literature cannot be a national one, unless it be the exponent of the national life, informed with the national soul.... The national soul of America is democracy, the equal rights and worth of every man, as man. This is the American Idea.
Successive issues repeated the politico-literary formula of the first (which had gone through three editions). Hawthorne frequently contributed, and even Butler wrote sonnets, an impressive burst of intellectual energy for an entrenched politician. O'Sullivan was already hinting at America's soon-to-be-manifest destiny with leading articles on South America and Canada, and betrayed a persistent obsession with novelty and youth. Like a sans-culotte, he felt the entire calendar should be redefined to reflect "that Past which was terminated when the American experiment first dawned upon the world as the commencement of a new era." He added, "We can see no reason why, at some future day, our 'experiment' should not be in successful operation over the whole North American continent, from the isthmus to the pole."
The O'Sullivan creed received what was perhaps its most succinct articulation in a short article entitled "The Great Nation of Futurity" in November 1839. In the course of four and a half pages the editor again trumpeted his program, but in more measured cadences than usual. By virtue of its political program, America was unique, occupying "a disconnected position as regards any other nation." Again he insisted, "Our national birth was the beginning of a new history." The blessings of the Godhead were invoked to shore up this position as O'Sullivan waxed metaphysical about time and space, defining an "America" that transcended any normal definition of nationhood, an idea more than a place:
The expansive future is our arena, and for our history. We are entering on its untrodden space, with the truths of God in our minds, beneficent objects in our hearts, and with a clear conscience unsullied by the past. We are the nation of human progress, and who will, what can, set limits to our onward march? ... The far-reaching, the boundless future will be the era of American greatness. In its magnificent domain of space and time, the nation of many nations is destined to manifest to mankind the excellence of divine principles; to establish on earth the noblest temple ever dedicated to the worship of the Most High--the Sacred and the True. Its floor shall be a hemisphere--its roof the firmament of the star-studded heavens, and its congregation an Union of many Republics.
Naturally, the vehemence with which the Review expressed its opinions created problems for it on occasion. Literary journals were aghast at the vulgar idea of combining "the cause of polite literature with the cause of loco-focoism," and the American Monthly magazine denounced party leaders who tried to order the faithful to admire certain writers and disregard others. Not only were Whigs suspicious, but many dissenting Democrats as well. Under Van Buren, the Review was perceived as an administration organ, which, though desirable from many points of view, also alienated some readers. An 1839 article attacking William Marcy and his clique of old-guard Democrats produced a small crisis in party circles, and Marcy blamed Van Buren. O'Sullivan was admonished from all sides.
A similar incident ruffled Boston literary society, confirming how closed and Whiggish it truly was. In September 1840, Charles Sumner's brother George, the consul at Rome, wrote an article entitled "The Present Condition of Greece" for the Review. To his chagrin, he learned from his brother that his fellow Bostonians considered the article and its author politically suspect simply because the Review had published it. As O'Sullivan wrote, many Americans, "in quarters where better might have been expected, have not hesitated to denounce us in advance," expecting the Review inevitably to promote "the deeds of Marat, Robespierre, and Danton."
Sumner wrote an indignant response from Europe, outraged at Boston's narrow-mindedness:
Will you believe, that because that article on Greece appeared in the Democratic Review, the only review we have which goes to foreign capitals, the review which champions in a moderate way those principles upon which our Government is founded, the only review published at Washington, therefore the most fitting to receive an article written abroad, and discussing the movements in a foreign nation, the review which Advaros (Min. of Pub. Ins. in Russ.) hailed as a publication which gave a tone to America abroad, and enabled her to appear with a review not a poor repetition of the poor matter of English reviews--because that article appeared in the Democratic Review, it is trodden under foot, and I am denounced as "an Administration man." ... God damn them all!!
Sumner was especially incensed that the article aroused opprobrium not only among Boston's politicians, but even worse, its intellectuals, who exemplified the cultural-political hegemony O'Sullivan bewailed in his manifesto. Charles Sumner had written his brother of the censure the article received from Boston's professors and journalists, who liked the "striking article" but were "sorry to see it in such company" and refused to reprint it. Even Charles urged his brother, "think of abandoning your leaky craft."
At the same time, the leaky craft was barely avoiding the shoals of financial ruin. In the heady early days of the Review, O'Sullivan had been led to believe the Van Buren administration would supply the Review with lucrative government printing contracts. Like most political promises, this "compact" was never fully realized. Van Buren refused to remove the printing from Francis Blair's influential Washington Globe, a long-term Democratic mouthpiece, and the Review editors had to make do with occasional small printing jobs and the printing of the James Madison papers, a plum given them in 1839. In other words, O'Sullivan was politically crucified, as hinted by Attorney General Gilpin, who wrote of his "manly and honorable spirit equal in every respect to what you would expect of Jesus preparing himself for the result." The editor was less Christlike in his anguished letters to Butler, complaining of ruin and likening himself to a martyr, while the president sat idle on his "throne." Butler in turn passed on these sentiments to Van Buren, but to no avail. In a letter to his wife, Butler complained the affairs of O'Sullivan and Langtree were "weighing me down like a millstone."
O'Sullivan withdrew in the spring of 1839 as coeditor, ostensibly because of bad health, and spent the summer in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, doubtless still angry with Van Buren. Langtree continued the enterprise, with occasional help from his sulking kinsman. O'Sullivan had spent previous time in this strangely heterodox community, where he formed lifelong friendships with Thomas Wilson Dorr and several Stockbridge natives, including the lawyer David Dudley Field and members of the Sedgwick clan (see chapter 5).
To make money, O'Sullivan started a law practice on Wall Street, but like Bartleby, found the work uncongenial to his temperament, especially taking money from indigent clients. He referred to his fellow lawyers as "useless, if not pernicious leeches upon the body social." Another financial setback for the Review occurred on April 11, 1840, when a fire consumed its Washington offices and bindery, leaving fifteen to eighteen thousand dollars of damage with only six thousand dollars of insurance. O'Sullivan's exchequer was reduced to such a low ebb that even the perennially underpaid Hawthorne, who had loaned him money, told him to postpone his payments. This was the nadir of the Democratic Review's early existence.
New York (1840-1847): Destiny Manifested
The election of 1840 forced a rapprochement between O'Sullivan and Van Buren, who realized a closing of the ranks was crucial in the campaign against William Henry Harrison. O'Sullivan not only promoted the national platform, but ran as a local candidate for the New York legislature. Unlike Van Buren, O'Sullivan was elected, and immediately undertook a personal crusade of reform, entering the lists against every relic of Whiggery and feudalism he could find, from Governor Seward's title "His Excellency" to the state's outdated legal system, which he and his friend David Dudley Field were beginning to scrutinize. He also promoted the peace movement (yet another "unfolding of the democratic principle") and confessed to Van Buren a "monomania" for an interoceanic canal across Central America.
Most important, O'Sullivan attacked the death penalty. This issue historically appealed to Democratic lawmakers, for Edward Livingston had broached it in Louisiana as early as 1822, and Robert Rantou] proposed abolition for Massachusetts in 1837. O'Sullivan wrote Bancroft from Albany that this was the "sole motive which has brought me up here." Although ultimately unsuccessful, he enlarged his sphere of influence considerably, supported by an unlikely coalition of old guard Jacksonians and New England moralists. Auguste Davezac, Livingston's brother-in-law and Jackson's personal aide at the Battle of New Orleans, rendered much assistance. O'Sullivan also wrote Van Buren to enlist his support, but the Old Fox of Kinderhook was typically Van Burenish (to use the prevailing adjective) and refused to commit himself. Yet William Lloyd Garrison, whom one would hardly link to Young America, applauded his efforts, and Lydia Maria Child privately paid to circulate one of O'Sullivan's speeches. O'Sullivan was also assisted by the Review writers, including Whittier, Lowell, and Whitman, all of whom introduced elements of the issue into their creative work.
O'Sullivan was again elected in 1841, but only narrowly, as nativist opponents mounted an anti-Catholic campaign against him (he was in fact Episcopalian, although he later converted to his ancestral Catholicism). Actually, O'Sullivan disliked all organized religion, as he revealed in a long report on the death penalty he released through the Review's printer in 1841. O'Sullivan not only questioned the legal authority of Moses, he offered a classic locofoco formulation of Christ, whose "radically democratic spirit" was suffused with an "inevitable tendency to level in the dust every political or social institution at variance with that spirit." His campaign against the death penalty and the Protestant establishment culminated in early 1843, when he publicly debated the issue against George Cheever, a Presbyterian minister with a literary bent. Their debates attracted much interest among the public, and O'Sullivan continued the campaign in the Review, offending a number of clergymen in the process with the antireligious tone of his rejection of the Mosaic Code.
By this time O'Sullivan had decided to move the Review permanently to Manhattan to accommodate his rising sphere of influence there. In late 1840 he purchased his brother-in-law's interest and assumed total control of the enterprise. Instead of depending on sporadic printing income, O'Sullivan dropped his sideline entirely and arranged for the Democratic publishers J. and H. G. Langley to issue the Review, leaving him free to concentrate on editorial duties. Liberated from the encumbrances of Washington, the editor and his creation were free to embark on the happiest period of their history. Suddenly, the Review was an independent magazine, still Democratic to be sure, but free to pursue a multiplicity of interests in a cosmopolitan setting.
New York in the 1840s was the most exciting place in America for an aggressive young thinker like O'Sullivan. The completion of the Erie Canal and rapid immigration had swelled its wealth and numbers beyond comprehension. From a population of 152,056 in 1820, the city quadrupled in three decades, reaching 391,114 in 1840 and 696,115 at midcentury. The Review was inevitably drawn there, especially after the accession of a hostile administration in Washington. Not only was the thriving publishing business centered in New York, but the Democratic party considered it a vital stronghold, despite internecine tensions lingering from the Locofoco period. Indeed, Locofocoism was on O'Sullivan's mind as he explained the move. The city appealed to him for its class tensions and because it harbored some of the most aggressive Democratic thinkers in the country, worthy heirs to Leggett, with fresh memories of the ravages causes by the 1837 Panic. The difficult social conditions New York experienced during this growth almost demanded that its intellectuals reflect on the larger issues of social justice, particularly as the state clamored for a new constitution (which it received in 1846). As O'Sullivan wrote,
All was open, bold, and genuinely, radically democratic. The city had been gradually prepared, by a long process of deep agitation on fundamental principles during four or five years past, for the reception of this strong regimen of 'radical' opinions. It was there that had commenced the movement which has now swept over the whole land, north, east, south, and west. It was there that first appeared the incipient fermentation of that purifying leaven of 'Locofocoism' which is now fast leavening the whole lump.
New York appealed to literary nationalists because it exerted a powerful attraction on writers from all over the country, including Westerners, Southerners, and New Englanders. It was far more representative of the pan-American literary identity O'Sullivan was eager to mine than Boston, Concord, or Philadelphia. In the boom years of the early 1840s, as the publishing business leapt forward, new books were everywhere in Manhattan. The rejuvenated Review rejoiced: "The prevailing activity and spirit which has begun to pervade almost all departments of commercial industry has not failed to extend itself to the book business: printers, binders, stationers, and all parties concerned with the purveyors of literary productions, being as fully occupied as they can be."
The Review resumed publishing in July 1841 and expanded its literary format with new features on recent books and "Monthly Literary Intelligence." Despite the distraction of another term in the state legislature in 1842, O'Sullivan's editorial skills were improving. With an eclectic mix of articles, the magazine displayed increasingly intellectual ambitions, reflective of New York's distance from Washington. Its panoramic scope included drama, music, art, and all the other amenities softening the great city's rapid transformation, along with the usual dose of Locofoco politics. Notes from the New-York Historical Society began appearing in the November 1843 number, adding to the magazine's metropolitan feel.
In this period Hawthorne wrote some of his most famous stories for the Review, and a young Brooklynite named Walter Whitman published his earliest works. Rival periodicals were effusive in their praise. The Standard called it "the best periodical in the country," and the Boston Post opined, "No review in the country is conducted with more ability." Likewise, Brother Jonathan declared no American magazine "has ever presented a prouder array of talent." Even Horace Greeley's Whiggish New York Tribune admitted "it is quite equal to any thing in the Magazine line extant." Judging from circulation lists occasionally published, its subscribers ranged across the entire nation. From Maine to Texas, Americans wished to sample Manhattan's cultural vivacity.
Boosted by growing subscriptions, the Review enjoyed renewed vigor in the early 1840s. Its talented writers defined a robust Americanism in cultural categories ranging from Edwin Forrest's proletarian theater to genre painting to the urban novels esteemed by Evert Duyckinck's circle. Needless to say, it continued to address political issues, supporting the rising tide of liberalism in Europe, American resistance to English foreign policy, and Thomas Dorr's militant attempt to extend suffrage in Rhode Island in 1842. O'Sullivan led a cacophonous campaign to support his old friend Dorr, and even tried to drum up military support among New York Democrats, foreshadowing the militarism that would later bedevil this self-described pacifist. Another future problem surfaced in O'Sullivan's reluctance to let black Rhode Islanders share the suffrage he wanted to give the working class Horace Greeley lambasted O'Sullivan's two-faced stance, rightly criticizing the racial hypocrisy of the "Progressive Democracy." But in 1842, racial hypocrisy was acceptable to most Americans; indeed, it was indispensable to a successful political career.
As the Review's prestige mounted, O'Sullivan was able to delegate authority and spend more time hobnobbing with Democratic heavyweights. Soon he found himself accepted in the party's inner sanctum, both because of the Review's efficiency at marshaling public opinion, and the rising awareness that New York was a crucial swing state for the election of 1844. The summer of 1844 was extremely volatile in the political realm, with the first temblors presaging the earthquake to follow in the next decade. A strong portent was the discord within the Democratic party at the Baltimore convention to nominate a presidential candidate. Van Buren, smarting from his defeat in 1840, but still a political force, wished to be renominated for another chance to win the presidency from the weakened Whigs. But there were signs that divisions within the Democratic party would prevent his accession. The most formidable of the anti-Van Buren factions was clustered around John Calhoun. As early as 1843, O'Sullivan had foreseen the impending North-South split in the party, writing Van Buren, "I shall, I cannot but confess, tremble for the consequences."
The fierce struggle came to a head at the Baltimore nominating convention in May 1844. O'Sullivan attended the convention with his press credentials, but he was secretly reporting on the proceedings in a series of letters to Van Buren in Kinderhook. A bitter sarcasm pervaded them, as if O'Sullivan knew the outcome of the schism before it happened. He observed, "The very atmosphere is burthened with the putrid odor of the corruption so rotten and rife in men's hearts." As he predicted, the Calhoun circle ("the world of traitordom"), abetted by Michigan's Lewis Cass, effectively blocked Van Buren's plan.
In the end, James Polk was nominated as a compromise candidate, but the New York delegation was left unsatisfied. Even thirty-five years later, O'Sullivan could not reminisce about this campaign without bitterness, calling Polk "the comparatively second-rate man." A friend recorded O'Sullivan's private account of his faction's crushing defeat at Baltimore, with Benjamin Butler so overwrought that "he lay upon the bed and cried like a child." But despite their disappointment, northern Democrats resolved to hold their noses and work for the party despite the stench attached to it (although as late as October 28, O'Sullivan was writing Van Buren with farfetched ideas how he might be elected). O'Sullivan praised the appropriate Democrats in the Review, while privately writing Van Buren that publishing a profile of the two-faced Cass was akin to taking poison.
This digression into political history helps account for the sudden emergence of the Young America cultural alliance around 1845. In my opinion, the tension felt by New Yorkers following the disappointment at Baltimore in 1844 set the stage for the explosion of nationalist culture that followed immediately afterward. Not only were the young nationalists disheartened by the older generation's failed politics, but they were likely terrified as well. Having glimpsed the specter of a schism between the North and South (and few saw it more closely than O'Sullivan in 1844), the Young Democracy poured all of its energy into allaying tensions with appeals to Americanism. Despite his ambivalence, O'Sullivan exerted himself heroically, and may have singlehandedly won the election for Polk.
All eyes were focused on New York as a crucial swing state, and O'Sullivan was encouraged to start a daily newspaper in the metropolis with Samuel Tilden. On June 20, John Bigelow, then a young Review writer, noted in his diary: "O'Sullivan told me yesterday of a design of his to start a new daily paper." The first issue of the New York Morning News was released upon the city August 21, 1844, displaying all the hallmarks of the O'Sullivan style, and representing the "Young Hickory" school of New York Democrats. Ebullient editorials reminded readers of the high cause of democracy, and American literature was loudly trumpeted throughout. The front page not only advertised "Young Hickory Tobacco" in blatant promotion of James Polk's nickname (guaranteed to "act like a charm on the Whigs"), but also featured Nathaniel Hawthorne's tale, "A Select Party."
This story, which also ran in the July 1844 Review, is not one of his most famous, but its mock-sardonic call for the "Master Genius" of American literature worked well alongside O'Sullivan's literary nationalism. This was quality fare for a political newspaper, again showing the politico-literary conflation (in one editorial O'Sullivan even called John Milton a "barnburner"). From its inception, O'Sullivan announced, "It is intended in the Morning News to give a special attention to the department of literary criticism and the noticing of all the new publications of the day." Toward that end he enlisted the able support of Evert Duyckinck, whom he announced as "one of the most accomplished scholars and elegant writers of the country," along with his circle of literary nationalists.
Duyckinck was well known to O'Sullivan through several channels. They had attended Columbia together, Duyckinck graduating four years after O'Sullivan in 1835, and O'Sullivan probably acted as a tutor to him while studying toward his master's degree, if not even earlier, when Duyckinck was in high school. They served together on a committee to secure an observatory for their alma mater in 1845 and were fellow members of the New-York Historical Society. More important, Duyckinck had already distinguished himself in the campaign for a democratic literature.
He and his associates (see chapter 3) were less overtly political than O'Sullivan, but still loyal Democrats. Besides offering loud support for his crusade against capital punishment, they echoed his intellectual patriotism in their writings for various periodicals. Returning the favor, O'Sullivan warmly praised "that excellent magazine, Arcturus," edited by Duyckinck, and solicited articles from Duyckinck's friends for the Review, especially following the demise of Arcturus in 1842. In his diary, John Bigelow recorded with great excitement being seated at the same table as O'Sullivan and Duyckinck at a New-York Historical Society banquet in 1844. He knew that these two men were central to the project of rejuvenating American culture.
The short-term goal of the paper was realized with Polk's narrow triumph in New York and consequent election. The Richmond Enquirer considered "there was no single individual to whom the Union was more indebted" than O'Sullivan. The paper continued for two years, hotly tracing the same issues on the Review's agenda, from Young Ireland to Texas to the war against Whiggish literature. Giving in to the new format, O'Sullivan composed many incendiary editorials for the News that he withheld from the more dignified Review, including some of his most fervent calls for Manifest Destiny in 1845.
A word should be inserted about this phrase, O'Sullivan's most tangible legacy, and possibly his most confusing one. I agree he authored the phrase, as Julius Pratt argued long ago. But I think several misrepresentations need to be cleared up about his role. To begin, he never conceived Manifest Destiny in a vacuum. O'Sullivan was one of dozens of journalists calling for something similar (it was a popular position in New York in 1845). At the same time, James Gordon Bennett was feverishly promoting America's "ultimate destiny" in the New York Herald. Unluckily, his term was less catchy.
More interestingly, no historian has ever probed the paradox that Manifest Destiny, a term synonymous with Yankee imperialism, was coined by a man with a profound personal attachment to Latin America. Few journalists knew more about the geography and politics of the region than O'Sullivan. In its early years, the Democratic Review lavished attentions on the Latin American republics, praising them for their rebellion against Spain (whose aristocracy he was nominally attached to). These articles disappeared with the Mexican tensions of the mid-1840s.
O'Sullivan also had extensive personal connections south of the border. His father fought for Venezuelan independence before his South American shipwreck, and other family members lived in Central America and the Caribbean. The very year of Manifest Destiny, O'Sullivan's sister married a Cuban planter, and a year later O'Sullivan himself honeymooned there. Clearly, Latin America occupied a vital place in his worldview, and there were complex psychological reasons for his obsession. When he later became a Cuban filibuster, he expressed a bizarre combination of democratic longing and megalomania, expecting a Cuban Revolution to free the people and enrich him simultaneously. Doubtless O'Sullivan believed in Manifest Destiny, but beneath his assertive voice there were problems that few historians have recognized.
This background may help to explain the singular fact that O'Sullivan expressed reserve about his increasingly frenzied tone in 1845. Most historians have assumed his jingoism knew no limits, but he expressed doubts about his own actions. In January, he wrote Silas Wright that his editorials were only to satisfy "mass feeling," but this was perhaps to appease Wright's own ambivalence on the issue. Even more strangely, he urged George Bancroft, the secretary of the navy, to avoid war in August 1845, the very month Manifest Destiny was coined in a Review editorial. He elaborated, "My peace principles make me greatly regret our present warlike attitude. I devoutly pray that you may not be placed in a position of necessity to let fly the thunderbolts placed officially in your hands." O'Sullivan was beginning to betray the quirkiness that would mar his later career.
The problem lay in O'Sullivan's temporary adherence to the movement for international peace in the early 1840s, and his lingering hope that Manifest Destiny unfold naturally, without anyone's feelings getting hurt. He never lost his desire for expansion, penning countless editorials on the same theme before and after the one authoring the famous catchwords. But sometime in the mid-1840s, a significant change took place in his attitude toward war. As the pacifistic Review grew obsessed with new territory for the expansion of democracy, it dropped its objection to hostilities. The excitement of the 1844 campaign and the stirring of his familial interest in Latin America awakened an ugly new belligerent tone in 1845-46. He briefly disapproved of the war when it erupted, but reversed himself shortly afterward. Despite the contradiction of demanding Oregon and California while championing the right to self-determination elsewhere, O'Sullivan forged ahead with characteristic energy.
There were foreshadowings of O'Sullivan's celebrated coining of Manifest Destiny prior to its large-scale adoption in the mid-1840s. Both "manifest" and "destiny" were cherished words in his vocabulary, and it was inevitable they would be coupled to advance a concept neither manifest nor destined until, by dint of constant repetition, the phrase became enacted as reality. Surprisingly, he wrote in 1839 that it was the "manifest common interest" of Canada and the United States to stay separate.
In November 1838, O'Sullivan wrote, "It is manifest that the reaction now apparent over the whole length and breadth of the land is a great national movement that must go on" (this article used the word manifest no fewer than four times). A year later, in "The Great Nation of Futurity," he announced America would "manifest" its "glorious destiny" in "the far-reaching, the boundless future," in a place with no boundaries. Beginning in 1845, he stepped up the campaign with increasingly aggressive editorials. On February 7 the News fairly screamed, "Yes, more, more, more! ... till our national destiny is fulfilled ... and the whole boundless continent is ours." On February 28, the News said the feeling of expansion was "manifest." The Review finally coined the phrase in its July-August number, but it went unnoticed until December 27, when the News claimed "the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent." It entered the national lexicon a week later following a speech in the House of Representatives by Robert C. Winthrop. Fourteen years later, Lincoln would identify "Young America" as "the unquestioned inventor of Manifest Destiny."
It is chiefly through this coining, and the subsequent researches of Julius Pratt, Frederick Merk, and Albert K. Weinberg, that anyone has heard of O'Sullivan at all. But a misconception has arisen over O'Sullivan's expansionism. Some scholars assert that his theory was always rooted in a race-based attitude that vaunted Anglo-Saxon supremacy as the origin of the legal right to occupy the West. This overstates the case somewhat, judging from a News editorial of August 13, 1845, in which the editor assailed this prevalent mode of thinking. For O'Sullivan, the key to the American right of expansion lay mainly in the superiority of its political system. It was democracy, not Anglo-Saxonism, that he wished to spread across the continent and around the world. Earlier Review editorials had taken pains to criticize the militarism of "the Anglo-Saxon race" while promoting O'Sullivan's pet interest in pacifism. In fact, some of his most strident editorials were directed against England's aggression, arguing for more territory as a way to check the gluttonous monarchs of Europe (an early version of containment). When one considers his Irish heritage and his latent Catholicism, for which he had been unjustly persecuted in his campaign for the state legislature, his complicated (and not always consistent) position becomes clearer.
But if this correction makes O'Sullivan seem more appealing to a modern readership, there is no way to overlook his blindness on the race issue. As generous as "Manifest Destiny" was in almost every category of national life, it held no place for African-Americans. O'Sullivan never approved of slavery, but he never thought very hard about how to end it, other than to postulate its "natural" and "inevitable" disappearance as Americans expanded westward. True, he hoped the new territory would hasten slavery's demise, draining it toward the southwest "by the same unvarying law that bids water descend the slope that invites it." This hardly turned out to be the case. It was precisely the question of slavery's expansion into the west that led to the implosion of the two-party system, and the proponents of Manifest Destiny as a providential solution to America's problems could not have been more naive about the future. For all his brilliance, O'Sullivan, like most Americans, refused to confront the slavery issue, and it ultimately proved his undoing.
But 1861 was still a world away in 1845. The Manifest Destiny editorials for which O'Sullivan is remembered form only a tiny fragment of the opinions he rendered on an immense constellation of contemporary issues. From 1844 to 1846 O'Sullivan was in charge of both an important daily newspaper in the nation's metropolis and one of the country's foremost magazines. Throughout this period he was in constant communication not only with Van Buren and his faction, but also with Polk in the White House, often acting as an intermediary between the two. A fellow writer bemusedly wondered how the overtaxed O'Sullivan could come up with opinions on "politics, news, city gossip, theatrical criticism, notices of new books ... museums, music, merchandize, mechanic's institutes" and other "motley topics."
Beside Texas and Oregon, O'Sullivan continued to report frequently on the activities of Young Europe, and he began to display the proprietary interest in Cuba that would emerge in the scandal of the ill-fated Lopez expedition in 1851 (see chapter 6). The literary side of the Review was capably directed by Duyckinck and his nationalistic friends, and the magazine also took a strong position in favor of the actor Edwin Forrest during his travails with English audiences, foreshadowing the Astor Place riots of 1849. George Bancroft once told him he was "wasting [his] mind in a New York newspaper," but O'Sullivan countered this suggestion credibly, writing back, "The times seem to me only too pregnant with reason for satisfaction in the possession of an instrument of influence on the public mind, at once so powerful and so honorable." Even more nakedly, he wrote, "Give me the making of the newspapers of a nation, and I will make its minds."
Indeed, there was much justification for this statement. At the age of thirty-one, O'Sullivan had the entire nation's ear. The New York Mirror praised him as "a scholar, an ambitious politician, and something of a revolutionist," and predicted he was "very likely destined to fill some higher mission than bearer of despatches from Washington to St. James." But in retrospect, this period would prove to be the apogee of O'Sullivan's career, although he always felt bigger and better things were on his way.
Financial trouble had plagued him since the windfall from his mother's settlement, and as he moved more and more freely in the company of nabobs, he paid less attention to the daily operations of his periodicals. In September 1844, a Review writer had noted, "The Editor, in most cases, has too much work put upon him." In July 1845 he attempted without success to persuade the trusted Duyckinck to purchase a half-interest in the Review. Duyckinck declined, writing a friend, "Its pecuniary affairs have been so loosely conducted that it has become the means of unpleasantness to any one closely connected with it, by its spurious non-paying relations with authors." Two months later O'Sullivan hired John Bigelow to take over the political section of the magazine, and one of its publishers pleaded with him to replace O'Sullivan as editor. Bigelow had complained in his diary of O'Sullivan's rascality toward authors, adding, "If he were not a good fellow, I would see him toasted."
Among other distractions, the editor was tempted with diplomatic prospects, including a job in the State Department under James Buchanan and a nomination to become charge to Austria. He also thought about starting a new newspaper to represent the northern Democracy at Washington, writing Samuel Tilden that "Polk's knees would knock together" at the thought. At the end of 1845 he went to England to pursue a business scheme investing in dry docks with other Democratic leaders. A few months later he was appointed a regent of the University of the State of New York, apparently as a political favor, a post he retained until 1854. He was also distracted by the wedding of his sister, Langtree's widow, to a wealthy Cuban and his own impending nuptials to the daughter of a New York doctor, Susan Kearny Rodgers. Thomas Dorr teased him mercilessly when he discovered her politics: "Are you the captive of a Whig lady?"
Thus ensnared by the opposition, he allowed the News to die a relatively painless death in 1846, lust as Manifest Destiny was reaching fruition in hostilities toward Mexico. Its business manager wrote Tilden, "The long agony is over--the Morning News is dead." The Democratic Review, though apparently successful, was reduced in price and length in late 1845 in a gambit to win more subscribers. The following spring, he sold his pride and joy to Henry Wikoff, a maverick like O'Sullivan, for a price between five and six thousand dollars. O'Sullivan maintained a nominal association with the Review, but it was never the same under anyone else's stewardship. Its fortunes declined along with the cause of nationalism it served, and despite an intense burst of popularity in 1852 (see chapter 6), it folded in 1859, with its founder far away in Europe, and the Democracy in a shambles.
Table of Contents
1. The Politics of Culture: O'Sullivan and the Democratic Review
2. Democracy and Literature
3. Young America in Literature: Duyckink, Melville, and the Mutual Admiration Society
4. Representation Without Taxation: Art for the People
5. The Young American Lexicon: Field and Codification
6. Young America Redux
7. Epilogue: Forever Young
What People are Saying About This
Young America: The Flowering of Democracy in New York City is an indispensable, masterful new contribution to 19th-century U.S. historiography. By detailing the controversial role the manic rhetorician John O'Sullivan played in both launching the incomparable Democratic Review and promulgating the gospel of Manifest Destiny, Edward L. Widmer has recaptured the halcyon days of the Jackson era with vivid precision (Douglas Brinkley is Director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies and Professor of History, University of New Orleans).
Young America brings to life an unwritten chapter in post-Jacksonian America. Edward L. Widmer explores the fascinating area where politics, literature, and ideology conspire and collide, and he restores to their proper place a striking cast of writers, polemicists, and rogues. This is a book for all aficionados of American history.
Young America is an important, wide-ranging, and fascinating book. With wit, good sense, and lively prose, Edward L. Widmer recovers the social energy and cultural excitement of New York in the 1840s, when a generation of politico-literary intellectuals, as Emerson disdainfully called them, associated themselves with real politics and serious art. Held together by John O'Sullivan, the bigger-than-life editor of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review, Young America sustained a robust discussion of political and cultural democracy, at once nationalist and metropolitan, that gave intellectual significance to the Democratic Party even as it provided a sustaining and lively literary community for both canonical and forgotten writers. What Widmer describes is the first instance of a modern social type, the literary intellectual committed to democratic politics (Thomas Bender is Dean for the Humanities and Professor of History, New York University).
Widmer's book offers the finest account to date of the culture and politics of New York in the explosive 1830s and 1840s. With literary grace and analytical gusto, he guides us through the writings and relationships of the most important intellectuals of the day. Along the way we are compelled to rethink the meanings of democracy, both in that time and our own (Lou Masur is Professor of History, City College of New York).