Masur: In the spring of 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustav Beaumont
arrived in New York after a passage of 38 days. The French bureaucrats had
come to inspect the penitentiary system of America. The voyage, Tocqueville
said, left him sick and depressed, but his companion felt well and cheerful.
The two were part of a stream of foreign visitors coming to America to check on
the pulse of this new nation, to examine this experiment in a novel form of
government which no one thought would endure.
They arrived at a time of momentous social, economic, and cultural changes in
America, and they discovered that all was not well. The country was suffering
from growth pains. The population of the major cities along the eastern
seaboard had tripled and quadrupled within decades. New York alone went from
60,000 in 1800 to over a million by the 1850s.
Immigration helped fuel much of this growth. Tocqueville and Beaumont arrived
at the moment immigration began to soar. The proportion of immigrants in the
population rose nearly six-fold by 1860. These new immigrants came mainly from
Ireland and the German states where the potato blight had destroyed the food
supply and economic changes created a surplus population.
These immigrants were poor and the vast majority of them were Catholic. They
triggered the anxieties of Americans who competed for jobs and who imagined a
secret Catholic conspiracy to overthrow the Protestant republic. As a result,
the cities often erupted in ethnic and racial violence.
The society also seemed to be in motion. The push west into unsettled lands
began from almost the moment Europeans touched American shores. And the pace
accelerated in the early 19th century. Between 1800 and 1820, more than a
quarter of the population moved west of the Appalachian Mountains.
By the 1840s, the explosion in turnpike, canal, and railroad construction
reduced travel times and made millions of acres of land available to migrants.
"Americans," one commentator thought, "had managed nothing less than to
obliterate time and space." To be sure, Americans were on the move, but not
everyone agreed on the direction of the nation and the role that the government
should play in its development.
Democrats and Whigs
Two main political parties emerged and they came into conflict with one
another, adding to the general sense of chaos in American society. The
Democrats were led by Andrew Jackson of Tennessee. He was the first President
outside of Massachusetts or Virginia, the first outside of the original 13
states. Described by his opponents as a roaring, rollicking, gamecocking,
horse racing, card playing, mischievous fellow, he ushered in a democratic age
of politics, an age that was characterized by mass meetings, by conventions to
nominate candidates, systematic organized campaigns and huge voter turnout
nearing something like 70% of the electorate in the 1840s.
The politicians of this period were not the disinterested statesmen of the
Revolutionary era, but they were men with interests in pursuit of power. The
Democrats held an agricultural vision of a land-holding republic of independent
farmers. The need was for territorial expansion to sustain such a vision. It
should come as no surprise that Jefferson, a Democrat, engineered the Louisiana
Purchase, or that another Democrat, John L. O'Sullivan, gave the name "Manifest
Destiny" to the westward movement. Here was a vision of preordained mission
that would lead thousands west and create the conditions for sectional
The hunger for land became so ravenous that state governments compelled the
removal of the southeastern Indian tribes--the Creek, the Chickasaw, the
Choctaw, and the Cherokee--from their long-established homelands in Georgia and
Alabama. On the Trail of Tears west, thousands of Indians would die of cold,
hunger, and disease. Even the Supreme Court, which ruled in their favor,
couldn't save them. With Manifest Destiny as a guiding philosophy, those new
lands in the West would not be theirs for long.
The Democrats generally adhered to the dictum, "That government is best which
governs least," and some urged the preeminence of local state government over
national federal authority in all cases whatsoever. It was Jackson's very own
Vice President, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, who advanced the doctrine of
nullification, that the states possess the power to nullify any Act of Congress
it believed to be unconstitutional. As Tocqueville and Beaumont traveled around
America in 1831 and 1832, they heard that southern states would nullify the
Tariff of 1828, refuse to pay taxes on imports, and if forced to comply, would
leave the Union.
The crisis abated only when Jackson refused to back down and threatened to hang
the South Carolina nullifiers. "This union," he said, "was treason." But he
also quietly negotiated a reduction in fees on imports so as to appease the
South Carolinians. This issue, this issue of national versus state power,
would remain a volatile one throughout the era.
Well, if Democrats favored western expansion and states' rights, the Whigs,
their opponents, promoted industrial development and believed in using federal
authority to advance national growth. Henry Clay, a Kentucky slaveholder, and
Daniel Webster, a Massachusetts lawyer, were among the Whigs who led the
opposition to Jackson. And Webster was the preeminent orator of the age. In
his debate with Robert Hain of South Carolina in 1830, he glorified "liberty
and union, now and forever, one and inseparable." Here were the roots of a
belief in a perpetual, indivisible union that Abraham Lincoln--who began as a
Whig--would burnish into the national soul.