The North, the South, and the Politics:

America, 1815-1840


The North, 1815-1840

            After the war of 1812, it seemed to men like Henry Clay and John Calhoun that the United States needed to find a way to become stronger and more independent.  They and people who shared their beliefs came to be called National Republicans.  By 1819, when a great economic depression struck the nation, it was extremely apparent that the current economic system was not working at all.  Also in 1819, when Missouri petitioned to join the Union as a slave state, officials realized that in order to maintain the union, slavery could not figure into politics.  Building on these ideas, the National Republicans created a system that concentrated on strengthening industry and infrastructure while ignoring issues like slavery.

          The system that Henry Clay spearheaded was called the American System.  It included a restrictive tariff on trade goods such as glassware, china, shoes, and tailored items.  The purpose of the tariff was to boost United States industry and crafting, which it succeeded in when placed in conjunction with advances in transportation.  In 1816, Congress passed bills to promote internal improvements.  As a result of this, many roads, canals, and railroads were built, including the National Road and the Eire Canal.  These revolutions in transportation made working in more rural areas more plausible as those same rural areas became accessible by road, rail, or canal.  Also because of these advances came large changes in manufacturing and land use.

          Originally, American crafting was much like European crafting:  it worked within the system of a Master, Journeyman, and Apprentice skill levels.  An apprentice would work for a master, learning the skill and eventually becoming a journeyman, crafters who worked for masters in order to earn enough money to open their own shop and thus become masters themselves.  With the revolution in transportation and the demand for large quantities of low-quality goods, the nature of crafting changed dramatically.  Instead of a few people knowing all of a craft and doing excellent work on it, masters began to hire people to do one small part of the job and pay by the piece.  In the end, they would have a lower quality finished product, but more of it.  These they could sell at a higher profit margin and in larger quantities, thus making far more money.  Land use likewise changed as farming began to fall out of favor and support moved toward industry.  Instrumental in supporting this change in the way land was used was the judiciary.

          During this period, the United States Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Marshall set several precedents and generally supported industrial use of the land, which was a far cry from the former common law idea of how land should be used.  Under common law, the general belief was that land should be used for farming, not industry.  Through several cases, one of which being the Dartmouth College Case in 1819, the court ruled in favor of Dartmouth College, which was selling land to local entrepreneurs.  This case redefined the definition of a corporation and strengthened the idea that the Supreme Court could overturn the rulings of lower courts, a precedent set in 1816 with Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee.  These rulings and others showed that the Supreme Court supported the American System and the industrial development of the North.

          Industrial development, however, did not prove to be such a good thing for many farmers who found themselves unable to take advantage of the opportunities the American System offered them.  They found themselves falling into debt or in some other way unable to keep farming their plots of land.  Some could not even buy land because it was being used for industry and manufacturing.  From these men and women came the new working class, the men and women who entered the factories and were paid pennies a day in the textile mills and the gist mills.  An example of this type of people is Mayo Greenleaf Patch and his wife, Abigail.  Mayo was a farmer’s son, but was unable to get land of his own to farm.  He ended up falling into debt and moving to Rhode Island to work in the textile mills there.  His wife and daughters worked in the mills.  Mayo ended up in jail and fell into obscurity.  Their story is not an uncommon one; many rural families came to the cities searching for a livelihood and found their entire families forced to work in the factories and mills in order to survive.  They were the working class, the men and women who lived in city slums and were the people the middle class blamed for the corruption that plagued society.

          It was in this period that the middle class truly evolved in American civilization.  The middle class was made up mostly of entrepreneurs and their families, craftsmen, stockholders, and the like.  Middle class culture and values differed greatly from those of the working class.  From the middle class came the belief that women should remain in the home and therefore the private sphere to be the moral compasses of the republic.  A wife and mother who remained in the private realm was instrumental to creating a proper republican household.  If one had a proper republican household, that household could benefit from the American System.  From the middle class also came the idea that children should be allowed to be children, as well as universal schooling and the advent of the Christmas holiday.  One of the biggest concerns of the middle class, however, was moral reform.

          The reason for the insistence of the middle class for moral reform was partially their own fault.  With the changes in crafting and such, entertainment for the working class suddenly left the private realm and entered the public.  Taverns, brothels, and gambling establishments soon rose in working class neighborhoods such as the Bowry.  Middle class men and women seemed to look down on the middle class, especially because their actions were very different from their own.  The working class, however, did not have a very good opinion of the middle class, either, blaming them for their inability to rise in society because of poor pay and low-skill employment.  Working man’s political parties began to spring up in cities, promoting ideals that were different from those of the middle class, who supported moral reform and the American System.  Many in the working class wanted to see the American System modified in order to protect the working class and their interests and concentrate less on the middle class.

          Tensions between the classes only rose throughout the years between 1815 and 1840.  Each group blamed the other for their problems while thinking of themselves as working toward their own perfect republic.  The socio-political atmosphere of the Northern states was in turmoil during this period, turmoil which would last well into the twentieth century.

The South, 1815-1840

            The South in the years between 1815 and 1840 was a society tremendously different than the society in the North during the same period.  In the South, there was no rise in manufacturing because of infrastructure.  There was still slavery in the South during this period, and everything Southerners believed was based around the system of slavery.

          Southern society was based on the belief that white equals independence and black equals dependence.  In the eyes of the people of the South, slave owners were doing slaves a favor by taking them in and providing for them because they would be unable to do it themselves.  By upholding slavery, people believed, they were preserving the republic.

          There were three groups of people who believed in this.  The first was the planters themselves, the ones who owned most of the slaves.  In defense of slavery, they offered that blacks could never be republican citizens because they were dependent.  By keeping slaves, they upheld republican society, planters said.  Beyond that, personally, some planters believed that every society had a class of so-called “slaves,” the mud-sill class, who would never become republican citizens because they would never be able to become independent.  They believed that black slaves in their society were the best way of handling the situation of the mud-sill class because they were not holding any potential republican citizen back from becoming a good and decent citizen of the republic.  Some of them believed that slaves were perpetual children, and that was why they could never become republican citizens.  Some even went so far to believe that blacks were an entirely different species from whites, a theory that was later disproven.

          The second segment of society that believed in the legitimacy of slavery and the theories about white and black independence and dependence were the black belt yeomen.  Black belt yeomen were small, non-slaveholding farmers who lived in the deep, rich areas of the black belt, where mostly large planters held land.  These small farmers “supported” the plantations by selling them surplus food.  In reality, planters would buy food from these small farmers to prevent the yeomen from becoming dependent and destabilizing the delicate ecology of their rationale about their society.  These yeomen were in the minority compared to the second group of yeomen, the upcountry yeomen.

          Upcountry yeomen are the third group of people.  These men are also non-slaveholding small farmers, but these yeomen live more in Appalachia and away from the plantation South.  These farmers are isolated and live much in the way farmers did in the eighteenth century.  They found themselves able to live the same sorts of lives that Northern farmers could no longer live.  These men supported slavery because they had no desire to see the same sorts of “decay” happening in the South as was seen in the North.  They wanted to continue to live their lives in the way they had lived them for so many years.

          The yeomen protected slavery as it upheld the system that allowed them to live in the way they wanted to live.  They did this by helping return escaped slaves, electing the officials they elected, and trying to keep the issue of slavery out of politics.  They believed that they were better off with a system of slavery rather than a system of wage slavery as they saw happening in the North.

          The slaves themselves, however, were not convinced by this rationale.  They believed, much to the contrary of the planters, that they were fully human and that slavery was wrong.  Over the years, these people held in bondage created their own culture and society within the larger society of the South.  This is something unique among all the slaveholding nations:  only in the American South did the slaves develop a culture all their own.  This was because the system was based on natural increase and the mortality rate was generally very low.  Family ties also helped to create a culture among slaves in the South.  Another factor was the introduction of Christianity to the slaves.  Most all of them converted and became Christians.  Slaves identified very much with the Israelites and their escape from servitude in the book of Exodus.  Their conversion also strengthened their belief that slavery was morally wrong.

          Slave owners did attempt to make life livable for their slaves.  They did this through a system of negotiation and accommodation.  They attempted to keep families together as well as hoping for predictability, which made everything run smoother.  They also tended to police their own kind, trying to fix the problems on unruly plantations nearby, as that unruliness could possibly spread to their own plantations.

          Southern society had neither the desire nor the capabilities to undergo an industrial revolution such as the one in the North.  Their economy was based on the system of slavery, which was not conducive to industrialization because of the great debts it would produce.  Furthermore, no white man was willing to give up his republican citizenship to become a wage slave in a factory.  If that were to happen, it would completely undermine the ingrained belief in the South that white means independent and black means dependent.  Whites in the South did not want their society to be destabilized, so they carried on as they had before the American system and slavery lived on.

Politics: The Second Party System

          In response to the unhappiness with the American System, many small workingman’s political parties arose.  Also arising because of the American System was the Democratic Party and with it the Second Party System.  The system was conceived by Martin Van Buren, who believed that not enough people were benefiting from the American System to warrant its continued existence.  Van Buren believed that economic issues were the most important in government; slavery should be kept out of it.  The focus on economic issues and not slavery came from the conflicts in 1819.  During that year, the United States fell into a terrible economic depression, as well as facing a conflict over slavery.  The nation was almost torn apart over the admission of Missouri as a slave state, but a compromise was reached.  Afterwards, there was an unspoken concentration on the economy rather than society.

          The Democratic Party arose to oppose the American System, unify people, keep slavery out of politics, and bring power back to the state level.  This was different from the National Republican’s ideology, which supported the American system and hoped to keep some power at the national level.  However, the Democratic Party was out in the cold until the election of 1828, when their candidate, Andrew Jackson, won the election and was now able to further the beliefs of the party.

          States rights’ was the biggest focus of the Democratic Party.  They wanted to give more control locally and retain less at higher levels of power.  An example of this was Jackson’s refusal to enforce a Supreme Court ruling that overturned a decision in the state of Georgia regarding the Cherokee Indians, leading to the infamous Trail of Tears.  He believed that the issue of the Cherokee was one that needed to be dealt with on the state level and that the Supreme Court had no right to make a ruling.  Many of the National Republicans did not agree with the actions of Jackson.  When he was reelected for a second term, they began to call him “King Andrew” because it seemed like he was turning into a despotic leader who was centralizing power with no intentions to leave office.

          Many of the Democratic Party’s legislation was controversial.  When a protective tariff was passed that was seen as a threat to slavery, the issue of nullification arose.  South Carolina did not want to enforce the tariff, and so they said that they could choose to nullify the legislation.  The other states would have to vote on whether or not they believed the tariff was good and should be enforced, and if they decided it should be enforced, South Carolina would have to enforce the tariff or leave the Union.  Only a compromise conceived by Henry Clay stopped this from becoming more of a crisis—Clay proposed that the tariff be lowered gradually to non-protective levels.  It was in response to this crisis that the Force Bill was passed, granting the executive office the ability to use federal troops to enforce laws.

          During his second term in office, Jackson abolished the Bank of the United States and passed the Specie Circular.  Federal funds went to banks who had notes of denominations higher than $20.  The Specie Circular was meant to stop prospecting in the west and allow small farmers to get the land they needed.  It stated that if you were buying over 80 acres of land, you needed to pay in specie—gold or silver—you could not pay in bank notes unless you were buying less than 80 acres of land.

          It was these things and more that drove the National Republicans – later called the Whigs – to unite groups within the populace against Jackson and the Democrats.  They gained major ground when the Panic of 1837 hit while Martin Van Buren, Jackson’s vice president, was President of the United States.  In 1840, the Whigs won the presidency, using many of the techniques pioneered by the Democrats.  William Henry Harrison took office for six months before he died.

          The Second Party system was designed to create two parties where people could agree with one or the other.  The opposing beliefs of the parties united people across the nation, both in the North and the South under a banner of either Whig or Democrat.  Through the years, economics was the hub of politics and slavery was shoved further and further away from politics.  The system would come apart later under the stress of changing and conflicting beliefs, but during this period, it grew and held, becoming the system Van Buren dreamed about.