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Causes of the American Civil War – 2: Antebellum America

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The ConstitutionIn the last post, I kicked off a series looking at the causes of the American Civil War. Study of 19th century Antebellum America reveals a young country experiencing incredible change. Its rate of growth in almost all measures was unrivaled in the world. Its population was exploding through both immigration and birth rate. The push for land drove expansion of its boundaries to the south and west. Technological development enabled modernization and industrialization. The “American System of Manufactures” created the factory system.[i] People became “consumers” rather than “producers” of goods and this changed many social aspects of society.

Image of escaping slaves

Geneva Bible

Geneva Bible

The majority of Americans held a Calvinist belief structure. Puritan influence was strongest in New England. Immigration of large numbers of Catholic Irish created new cultural and ethnic tension. Irish Catholics tended to oppose reform and clustered in the lower classes of the North while native Yankee Protestants predominated in the upper and middle-classes.[ii] The century was marked by enthusiastic evangelical reformation movements. [Note: Jonathan D. Sassi has a concise description of the antebellum evangelical reformation movement in America here.]

A two-party political system had emerged by 1830. “Issues associated with modernizing developments in the first half of the century helped to define the ideological position of the two parties and the constituencies to which they appealed.”[iii] Democrats inherited the Jeffersonian commitment to states’ rights, limited government, traditional economic arrangements, and religious pluralism; Whigs inherited the Federalist belief in nationalism, a strong government, economic innovation, and cultural homogeneity under the auspices of established Protestant denominations.[iv]

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

The fight for democracy and the fight for morality became one and the same.[v] “The kingdom of heaven on earth was a part of the American political purpose. The Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Scriptures were all in accord.”[vi]

Distinct Northern and Southern cultures began to emerge early in the country’s history. These differences became more marked as the pressures that accompanied the nation’s incredible growth, territorial expansion and social change manifested themselves. Sectional identities and allegiances became increasingly important.

Next post – the Antebellum South.

American Scripture: Making of the Declaration of IndependenceFor further reading:

[i] Historian James. M. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2001), 10, [ii] Ibid., 23, [iii] Ibid., 25, [iv] Ibid., [v] Ibid., 13, [vi] Ibid.

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On Know Nothings and Secret Societies – 4

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Historian David H. Bennett contends, “Only in extraordinary times could nativism shape the policies of and give its name to a major party. Such was the situation from I852 to 1854” as regards the Know Nothing Party.

Men of political prominence began to join. In several New England states, the Know Nothings became a formidable force by appealing to the john-bellantislavery wing of the former Whig party. But throughout much of the South, displaced Whigs looked to nativism to protect their proslavery institutions. Passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act accelerated the movement’s growth; with talk of “bleeding Kansas” on every lip, converts flocked in at the rate of five thousand per week in 1854. Men with promising futures began to seek entry. In the South there were John Bell (right), to be presidential candidate of the Constitutional Union party in 1860, and John J. Crittenden, senior senator from Kentucky, author of the compromise plan to solve the sectional struggle in the months before the outbreak of war. Henry Winter Davis, powerful Whig from Baltimore, and Andrew Jackson Donelson became Know Nothings. In the North, Nathaniel P. Banks and Jerome C. Smith, who would ride the antialien tide to prominence, one as Speaker of the House of Representatives and the other as mayor of Boston, were initiated. Henry Wilson, vice-president of the United States two decades later, Edward Everett, a future secretary of state, and Edward Bates, Lincoln’s attorney general, came to the new party. After considering the triumphant run of victories for the Know Nothings in the fall elections, even Millard Fillmore joined, taking the secret rites of the Star Spangled Banner in his own home in late winter.

David H. Bennett, The Party of Fear: From Nativist Movements to the New Right in American History, 114.

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On Know Nothings and Secret Societies – 2

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In the 1830s and 1840s, Americans had rediscovered a fascination with fraternalism discarded earlier in the century “when anti-Masonry led to public suspicion of secret societies.” (1)  This was the era of the Odd Fellows, the Foresters, the Good Fellows and the Druids, the Red Men and the Heptasops. (2)

James McPherson marks the beginning of the movement that would lead to the “Know Nothing” American Party in the 1840s, when nativist parties flared and then cooled after the elections of 1844. (3)  Relief from depression calmed tensions between native and foreign-born workers just in time for the massive influx of Europeans that resulted from that continent’s potato blight. (4)  But American nativist sentiments continue to simmer and “on a late December evening in 1844, thirteen men gathered in the home of printer Russell C. Root in New York City” to form a group calling itself the American Brotherhood.  The name was eventually changed to “Order of United Americans (OUA).” Its goals, outlined in a “code of principles,” were “to release our country from the thralldom of foreign domination.” This marked the birth of a nativist fraternity…and formed the nucleus of a far larger nativist effort than ever before. (5)

Membership in the Order of United Americans was limited to white men, twenty-one years of age or older, native born and Protestant. Its leaders were reasonably affluent and good organizers albeit from the “margins of the establishment.” This was a secret society replete with mysterious rituals and procedures that gave it an “illusion of antiquity.” (6)

Central to its structure was the magical triad. There were three levels of authority (local chapter, state chancery, and national archchancery), three chancellors sent from chapter to chancery, three archchancellors sent on to national. But there was only one leader of the OUA (limited to a single year term) and in the language of the lodge vogue he was called the arch grand sachem. By 1850, he ruled over a truly national domain with groups in New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Connecticut, Missouri, and Ohio. (6)

Gradually the organization began to become politicized and attracted “many conservative Whigs whose nativist ideology conveniently intersected with political needs in a time of party disarray.” (7)

1.  David H. Bennett, The Party Of Fear: The American Far Right from Nativism to the Militia Movement (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 106.
2.  Ibid.
3. James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, (New York: Oxford Press, 1988), 130.
4. Ibid.
5.  David H. Bennett, The Party of Fear: From Nativist Movements to the New Right in American History, 105.
6. Ibid, 107.
7. Ibid., 110.

Exploring Causes of the Civil War – Part II – Antebellum America

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In the last post, I kicked off a series looking at the causes of the American Civil War. Study of 19th century Antebellum America reveals a young country experiencing incredible change. Its rate of growth in almost all measures was unrivaled in the world. Its population was exploding through both immigration and birth rate. The push for land drove expansion of its boundaries to the south and west. Technological development enabled modernization and industrialization. The “American System of Manufactures” created the factory system.[i] People became “consumers” rather than “producers” of goods and this changed many social aspects of society.Geneva Bible

The majority of Americans held a Calvinist belief structure. Puritan influence was strongest in New England. Immigration of large numbers of Catholic Irish created new cultural and ethnic tension. Irish Catholics tended to oppose reform and clustered in the lower classes of the North while native Yankee Protestants predominated in the upper and middle-classes.[ii] The century was marked by enthusiastic evangelical reformation movements. [Note: Jonathan D. Sassi has a concise description of the antebellum evangelical reformation movement in America here.]

A two-party political system had emerged by 1830. “Issues associated with modernizing developments in the first half of the century helped to define the ideological position of the two parties and the constituencies to which they appealed.”[iii] Thomas JeffersonDemocrats inherited the Jeffersonian commitment to states’ rights, limited government, traditional economic arrangements, and religious pluralism; Whigs inherited the Federalist belief in nationalism, a strong government, economic innovation, and cultural homogeneity under the auspices of established Protestant denominations.[iv]

The fight for democracy and the fight for morality became one and the same.[v] “The kingdom of heaven on earth was a part of the American political purpose. The Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Scriptures were all in accord.”[vi]

Distinct Northern and Southern cultures began to emerge early in the country’s history. These differences became more marked as the pressures that accompanied the nation’s incredible growth, territorial expansion and social change manifested themselves. Sectional identities and allegiances became increasingly important.

Next post – the Antebellum South.

Photo Above: Th. Jefferson, photomechanical print, created/published [between 1890 and 1940(?)]. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Presidential File. Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-2474. This print is a reproduction of the 1805 Rembrandt Peale painting of Thomas Jefferson held by the New-York Historical Society.

For further reading:

© 2007 L. Rene Tyree

[i] Historian James. M. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2001), 10, [ii] Ibid., 23, [iii] Ibid., 25, [iv] Ibid., [v] Ibid., 13, [vi] Ibid.

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