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The Reform Impulse
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The Events of 1831 Key Events Maps Transcript Webography

Page 1234

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Growing Pains

[Picture of Professor Masur]

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.

[Picture of a canal under construction]

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 conflict.

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.

[Picture of Henry Clay]

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, [Picture of 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.

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