American Nationalism


*The War of 1812 is sometimes described as the Second War of American Independence, and it certainly created a sense of national pride and (outside New England, perhaps) a sense of national unity, as Oliver Hazard Perry, Thomas Macdonough, the defenders of Fort McHenry, and Old Hickory himself gave Americans their first national heroes since the Revolutionary War.  For a new generation of American politicians, building a strong nation seemed a natural development of this new nationalism.


*The most prominent of these new nationalists was the War Hawk from Kentucky, 'Harry of the West,' Henry Clay.  Over time, he would propose what he would eventually come to call the American System, and although he was a Jeffersonian Republican when he began his career, his plan would have made Alexander Hamilton proud.


*To strengthen the American economy, he would promote American industry, which could not compete with the cheap British good being dumped on the American market now that peace had come.  He was among the many nationalist Congressmen who voted in a much higher tariff in 1816:  the Tariff of 1816 was the first truly protective tariff in American history (it had rates on many goods as high as 20 or 25%).


*To stabilise the economy, Clay and other nationalists chartered a Second Bank of the United States in 1816, based in Philadelphia but eventually with twenty-five branches across the country.  Not only would it allow the United States Treasury to invest its money at a profit, but it would issue reliable paper money implicitly backed by the deposits of the US Treasury.


*Clay and some other nationalists also hoped that the wealth that would be generated by growing industry and a high tariff would be used to bind the nation together through a system of internal improvements, particularly roads and canals to link the distant frontier with the East.  This would unite the nation and facilitate commerce.  In case of an emergency, it would also make it easier for the Army to march to the frontier, which it had often had trouble doing during the War of 1812.


*Internal improvements of this type were too much, though, even in the atmosphere of nationalism that prevailed in the aftermath of the War of 1812.  Some people felt it was unfair that national funds would be spent to benefit the particular regions where the new roads ran.  New Englanders in particular felt that these internal improvements would not benefit them, and that they would even drain away their population and create more Western states that would diminish New England's political and economic influence.  Furthermore, many Jeffersonian Republicans felt that using national funds on local improvements was a violation of the Constitution, and for the most part, Federal funds were not expended on such projects. 


*One of the few major internal improvements that was built was the National Road (or Cumberland Road), begun on the roadbed laid by General Braddock in the French and Indian War.  It was actually begun in 1811, but continued in stages until reaching Illinois in the late 1830s.


*Instead of waiting for Federal funds, states had to build their own improvements, which some did successfully, most notably New York's Erie Canal linking Lake Erie with Albany on the Hudson River and thus with New York harbour on the Atlantic Ocean.  Others borrowed money to build turnpikes and canals that were never finished or that did not pay for themselves, creating further distrust of government spending on large public projects in some parts of the country, especially the South.


*Although the Second American Revolution produced a new crop of national heroes, the years immediately afterwards were supervised by the last of the heroes of the first American Revolution.  In 1816, James Madison retired to Montpelier, Virginia, and the Jeffersonian Republicans nominated another Virginia planter, the last of the 'Virginia Dynasty.' James Monroe was a veteran of the American Revolution who had crossed the Delaware with Washington and been wounded by the Hessians at Trenton.  He had also helped negotiate the Louisiana Purchase and had served as Madison's Secretary of State.  To remind Americans of his status as the last of the Revolutionary generation, he still wore a cocked hat and knee breeches, a decade or two after they had gone out of fashion elsewhere. 


*Although the Federalists did oppose him in 1816, Monroe defeated Rufus King of New York by 183 to 34 electoral votes, and the Federalists never ran a national candidate again, although they did hold some state and local offices until the end of the 1820s.  With the Federalists fading fast, and Monroe making an effort to reconcile the different regions of the country with a nation-wide goodwill tour in 1817 that included New England, the country entered what was called an Era of Good Feelings, in which two-party politics almost seemed like a thing of the past, and the First Two-Party System came to an end.  In 1820, Monroe was re-elected with every electoral vote but one (from a New Hampshire elector who thought Secretary of State John Quincy Adams would be a better leader). 


*The Era of Good Feelings did not, in fact, feel good to everyone, and several of the efforts to link the country together seemed to be backfiring.  As Americans moved west, they sought to buy up cheap western lands, often speculating that they could re-sell it to later settlers at a profit.  The Bank of the United States facilitated this through its western branches, as did smaller and less stable banks, by lending money to speculators to buy large tracts of land on credit and by printing large sums of paper money that was not properly backed by specie.  Even the US Government itself encouraged a degree of speculation, by selling 160 acres of land at $2 an acre, but allowing buyers to pay only one fourth of the value up front, and the rest over four years.  Many farmers and speculators bought land on credit, and built up a great stock of debt.


*In 1817, crop prices collapsed around the world, as two years of bad weather in Europe ended and American farmers could no longer sell their crops at the high prices they had been enjoying.  Britain also began buying Indian cotton rather than the more expensive American cotton.  By 1819, a major financial crisis, the Panic of 1819, had set in. 


*Unable to pay their debts, farmers began to default on their loans.  The Bank of the United States, in turn, began refusing paper money from small banks and demanded payment in specie, which was rare.  Southern and Western banks began calling in their mortgages, which  many landowners could not afford, and many farms were foreclosed upon by state banks and the Bank of the United States, which made many Southerners and Westerners distrust banks, especially the Bank of the United States, and for some people to feel that paper money itself had caused the Panic, so that restricting paper money and requiring land be paid for in hard money and for banks to keep a supply of specie on hand came to be seen as sound financial policy (but many Westerners who wanted to buy land would still demand cheap money, even if that meant paper money).


*To partly satisfy the West, the Land Act of 1820 made it possible to buy 80 acres of land at $1.25 an acre in cash.


*Expansion into the west also precipitated the first great national crisis in peacetime.  This came in 1819 when Missouri requested admission as a state, and one that would allow slavery (unlike those carved from the Northwest Territory). 


*By this point, the anti-slavery movement, although still not large, was growing.  Furthermore, while the North (including the Northwest) was growing in population much more quickly than the South and was becoming the dominant force in the House of Representatives, there had always been an equal number of slave-owning states and free states (eleven of each), so that the two regions were balanced in the Senate.  Some northerners, particularly New Englanders, resented this (and the fact that it had kept the Virginia Dynasty in power since the foundation of the Republic, aside from the Adams administration).


*When Missouri requested admission as a slave state, anti-slavery New York Congressman James Tallmadge, proposed an amendment to the bill that would have granted Missouri statehood.  The Tallmadge Amendment would have prohibited bringing more slaves into the State of Missouri, and guaranteeing that all children born to slaves in that state would be born free, a method of gradual emancipation already used by several Northern states. 


*This infuriated Southerners, who felt that it was an attack on their economic and social system, and it threatened the compromises between North and South that had lasted since the Three-Fifths Compromise during the Constitutional Convention.


*The anger expressed by both the North and the South frightened many Americans, who feared it endangered the Republic, which was still young and fragile, despite the new sense of nationalism fostered by the War of 1812.  Thomas Jefferson said that it was 'like a firebell in the night' that filled him with terror.


*However, just as was the case in 1787, a compromise was reached, in large part due to the work of Henry Clay, who would come to be known as the Great Compromiser.  The Missouri Compromise of 1820 admitted Missouri as a slave state, but admitted Maine as a free state, keeping the balance at twelve free and twelve slave states for years to come (and when new states were added, they would come in two at a time, one in the North and one in the South).  To avoid ever arguing about it again, the southern border of Missouri--36 30' North Latitude--would become the northern border of slavery:  new states created south of it would allow slavery and those created north of it would not.  This compromise would keep the balance between North and South intact for thirty years.


*Beyond the general admiration for President Monroe and the nationalism created by the War of 1812 and the compromise crafted by Henry Clay, there was one force for national unity and power that stood above all others:  the Supreme Court, under the leadership of the last Federalist, John Marshall.


*John Marshall stood for a strong central government throughout his long career on the bench.  Of course, his ruling in Marbury v. Madison had created the precedent for judicial review, and with that power, the Supreme Court established many other legal precedents that secured the authority of the national government. 


*In Maryland, the state legislature created a tax in 1818 that could be levied on all banks in Maryland that had their headquarters in another state.  This was meant to target the new Baltimore branch of the Bank of the United States, but James McCullough, the director of the Baltimore branch of the Bank refused to pay the tax, beginning a case that reached the Supreme Court in 1819.  In McCulloch v. Maryland, the Court ruled that the United States Constitution's Necessary and Proper Clause gave Congress the power to create a National Bank (which Jeffersonian Republicans had sometimes argued against) and that the states had no power to tax a federal institution, thus confirming the supremacy of the national government and the power of the Elastic Clause.


*In 1821, in Cohens v. Virginia, the Court decided against the Cohen brothers, who had been convicted of illegally selling lottery tickets by the Virginia courts but had appealed to the Supreme Court.  Although Virginia won the case since their decision was upheld, the fact that the case could be appealed to the Supreme Court showed its supremacy over state courts.


*In the newly important industry of steamboat transportation, Robert Livingston and Robert Fulton had a state-backed monopoly on steamboat transportation in New York, although they sometimes licensed the right to certain routes to others, including Aaron Ogden, who operated a route between New Jersey and New York.  When a former business partner, Thomas Gibbons (along with a new partner, Cornelius Vanderbilt) began to operate on the same route without a license, Ogden sued him and won, but Gibbons challenged him.  In 1824, in Gibbons v. Ogden, the Supreme Court ruled that New York could not grant a monopoly on that route because it crossed state lines, and only Congress can regulate interstate commerce, thus demonstrating the power of the Commerce Clause.


*In 1795, Georgia had sold a large tract of western land covering most of modern Alabama and Mississippi for 1.4 an acre in the Yazoo Land Act.  However, legislators had passed this generous law in exchange for bribes from the speculators who bought the land up cheap, infuriating average Georgians who did not get to benefit.  It was also legally questionable, since most of that land was in an area reserved for American Indians under the protection of Congress and some was claimed by Spain.  In the next election, new legislators were elected to overturn the law, which they did, but some of the speculators who had bought the land said they were being cheated out of land they bought under the letter of the law.  Robert Fletcher and John Peck were two of these speculators, and Fletcher sued Peck for selling him land claimed by Indians (while hoping he would lose in order to show that the Indians had no claim to the land, so he would not have to give up his land to Indians).  In Fletcher v. Peck in 1810, the Marshall Court upheld the original law (and the land purchases) because they said that the purchases had been a contract and that state governments could not violate contracts.


*In New Hampshire, Dartmouth College had a charter as a private school that had been granted to it forever by King George III in 1769, but the State of New Hampshire tried to take over the right to appoint the college president, board of trustees, and other officials, essentially making it a state school, in 1816.  The college sued, and had their most distinguished alumnus, Daniel Webster represent them.  He was eloquent in court, telling the justices that 'it is... a small college.  And yet there are those who love it.'  In Dartmouth College v. Woodward he successfully argued that the charter was a legal contract that could not be violated by the state, and the Court agreed (based in part on Fletcher v. Peck).  Furthermore, it set the precedent that a corporation itself could, in some cases (such as a lawsuit) act as a person in its own right.  (It also set a precedent that in no future contract could extend 'forever.')


*Daniel Webster would later become a Senator from Massachusetts and an outspoken supporter of the power of the national government, which he defended so often and so eloquently that he was known as the 'Godlike Daniel Webster.'  He and Marshall would be two of the most important forces in building a strong, national, Hamiltonian government long after the death of both Hamilton and his opponents.


This page last updated 30 September, 2015.
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