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The Pre-Civil War Era (1815–1850)

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Study Questions & Essay Topics

The Spirit of Reform: 1820–1850

Quiz

Always use specific historical examples to support your arguments.

Study Questions

1.

How did the Market Revolution affect the United States socially, politically, and economically? What major developments contributed to the Market Revolution?

The Market Revolution brought enormous changes to the United States, economically, socially, and politically, and in so doing pushed the North and the South further apart. The most important drivers of the Market Revolution were Eli Whitney’s cotton gin and interchangeable parts, Silas McCormick’s mower-reaper, and textile factories. Internal improvements such as canals and railroads were also crucial to the Revolution.

Whitney’s cotton gin completely transformed agriculture and thus had drastic effects on the American economy and society, both North and South. The invention, which made it much easier to harvest cotton, turned cotton into a highly profitable crop, which prompted southern plantation owners to abandon almost all other crops and switch to cotton production. To expand their cotton production capacity, planters purchased thousands of additional slaves from Africa and the West Indies before the slave trade was banned in 1808. In addition, the size of plantations increased from relatively small plots to huge farms with as many as several hundred slaves each.

In response to this increasing cotton production, textile factories were built in the Mid-Atlantic states and New England. These factories helped give rise to the wage labor system and urbanization. The development of factories also produced a larger, wealthier merchant class—a group that helped lead the formation of the nationalistic Whig party, which was an important force in U.S. politics of the period.

McCormick’s mower-reaper, meanwhile, revolutionized the West just as the cotton gin had revolutionized the South. McCormick’s machine increased wheat production so much that farmers began to ship their surplus to the North. The North, in turn, shipped manufactured goods that helped develop the West.

Over time, these economic, social, and political changes began to separate North and South. While the North became an industrialized, highly interconnected region that traded vigorously with the West, the South was left out and became more and more reliant on cotton and slaves. Southern politicians therefore sought to protect the slavery that was so important to their economy, contributing to the growing sectional divide that led to the Civil War.

2.

Many of Andrew Jackson’s enemies called him an autocrat because of his leadership style. What effect did Jackson have on the office of the presidency? Did he ever act unconstitutionally? Was this accusation deserved?

During his two terms, Jackson significantly increased the power of the presidency and of the federal government as a whole. He did so primarily by using the presidential veto, repeatedly ignoring the Supreme Court, and asserting federal authority over the states. As a result, Jackson’s enemies were somewhat justified in calling him an autocrat.

Jackson not only used the veto more than any previous president ever had, he also wielded veto power in an entirely different way from previous presidents. Jackson’s actions regarding the Bank of the United States provide one example. Even though the Supreme Court had declared the Bank constitutional in McCulloch v. Maryland, Jackson vetoed the act to renew the Bank’s charter. Regardless of the Supreme Court’s decision, Jackson believed that the Bank was harmful to the nation. No previous president had exercised veto power based merely on personal belief.

The Bank of the United States example also illustrates Jackson’s disregard for Supreme Court decisions. Jackson believed that the executive should be the strongest of the three branches, stronger than either the Supreme Court or Congress. He acted on this belief again when he signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Even though the Supreme Court had upheld Native American land rights in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, Jackson ordered the forcible removal of several Native American tribes on the Trail of Tears.

Finally, Jackson believed firmly that the federal government had supremacy over the individual states. When South Carolina nullified the 1828 Tariff of Abomination, Jackson was horrified at such outright disregard for federal authority. In retaliation, he organized troops loyal to the federal government to enforce tax collection in South Carolina. Many historians believe that had Henry Clay not proposed the Compromise Tariff of 1833, the Civil War might have started thirty years earlier, during this Nullification Crisis.

With his assertion of federal authority and liberal use of power, Jackson permanently changed the office of the presidency. As a result, his successors were able to wield much more power over the Supreme Court, Congress, and the states. Jackson did act autocratically at times, but without him, the presidency would not be what it is today.

3.

Do you believe that Polk was justified in asking Congress to declare war on Mexico?

Although Mexico and the United States were already on a collision course over Texas by the time of the Mexican War, evidence suggests that President Polk engineered the war by provoking Mexican troops in disputed territory in Texas. He essentially started a war with Mexico in order to seize California, end the debate for Texas, and win all the western land in between.

Mexico and the United States certainly both had reasons to go to war even before the incident in Texas. First, Mexico had defaulted on U.S. loans valued at several million dollars. Second, both countries had claims on Texas. Despite the fact that white Texans had won their independence and had petitioned the Congress for annexation as early as 1836, Mexico still considered the Lone Star Republic a territory in revolt. Although Mexico twice failed to retake Texas, it believed it would succeed one day.

By the time the United States did annex Texas in 1845, Mexico’s claims—at least in the eyes of Americans—had expired. The United States therefore took all of Texas down to the Río Grande. This action sparked another controversy, for Mexico claimed that the southern border of Texas was farther north, at the Nueces River. Polk therefore stationed General Zachary Taylor and a small force at the Nueces. When news arrived in Washington, D.C., that Taylor’s troops had been attacked, Polk acted swiftly and asked Congress to declare war.

Just days after the declaration, Polk’s agents and a U.S. Navy ship seized San Francisco and Sacramento—timing that Polk’s critics found suspicious. Abraham Lincoln, a U.S. representative from Illinois at the time, questioned Polk’s motives in the “Spot Resolutions” when he badgered administration officials about exactly where Taylor’s troops had been “attacked.”

Historians have surmised that this chain of events was probably not a coincidence, especially considering that Polk had been elected on a platform of manifest destiny and westward expansion. In fact, it was Polk’s success in the election of 1844 that led lame duck president John Tyler to begin the annexation process in the first place. A war offered Polk an opportunity not only to seize the coveted San Francisco Bay but also to end the Texas debate and seize all of the territory in between, all at once.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. Compare and contrast the North and the South during the antebellum period. Were their social, political, and economic differences reconcilable or was civil war inevitable?

2. How did Christian revivalism in the mid-1800s affect American politics and society?

3. How was the abolitionist movement different from other reform movements during the mid-1800s?

4. Who should be given credit for the Monroe Doctrine? Was it ultimately a success or a failure?

5. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner once argued that westward expansion was one of the fundamental experiences in American history. Do you agree or disagree?

6. Compare and contrast the Missouri Crisis and the Nullification Crisis. Which was more divisive at the time, and which had a greater effect in the long run?

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