The Pre-Civil War Era (1815–1850)
Summary of Events
The Era of Good Feelings
Americans came out of the War of 1812 with a new sense of national pride. Though the war was largely a stalemate, the astonishing American victory at the Battle of New Orleans made the nation feel as though it had won a second war for independence.
The election of James Monroe to the presidency in 1816 marked the beginning of a period of one-party rule, often termed the Era of Good Feelings. The new sense of pride broke down old political barriers and united Americans behind the common goal of improving the nation. In fact, the nation was so unified that Monroe ran uncontested for a second term in 1820.
The American System
Politicians rallied behind Speaker of the House Henry Clay and his American System to improve the national infrastructure. Clay wanted to make internal improvements to national transportation to link the agricultural West with the industrial North. Dozens of new canals and roads were built at the government’s expense, such as the Erie Canal and the Cumberland Road. Clay also pushed the Tariff of 1816 through Congress to protect new manufacturers by raising the tax on goods produced abroad. Finally, Clay hoped to bolster the national economy by establishing a new Bank of the United States.
Landmark Decisions and Doctrines
The Supreme Court, under Chief Justice John Marshall, made several landmark decisions during this period, including McCulloch v. Maryland , Dartmouth College v. Woodward , Cohens v. Virginia , Gibbons v. Ogden , and Fletcher v. Peck . An ardent Federalist, Marshall issued decisions that strengthened the Court and the federal government relative to the states.
Meanwhile, President Monroe and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams issued the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, warning European powers to stay out of affairs in the western hemisphere. Like the early Supreme Court decisions, the Monroe Doctrine has had a large and lasting influence on American policy.
The Missouri Compromise
The Era of Good Feelings was short-lived. First, the Panic of 1819 shook the U.S. economy and caused a brief depression toward the end of Monroe’s first term. Then, the Missouri crisis of 1819–1820 arose when Missouri applied for admission to the Union as a slave state. Northerners in the House rejected Missouri’s application because they wanted to maintain a balance between free and slave states in the Senate. They also passed the Tallmadge Amendment in 1819, stopping any more slaves from entering Missouri and gradually emancipating those already living there. Southerners were outraged by these developments.
Under Henry Clay’s Missouri Compromise, northerners and southerners agreed to admit Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state. The compromise also stipulated that slavery could not expand north of the 36° 30' parallel.
The Corrupt Bargain
By the election of 1824, the good feelings had vanished completely. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams ran against War of 1812 hero Andrew Jackson, but neither candidate won enough electoral votes to become president, so the vote went to the House of Representatives. Henry Clay, who hated Jackson, threw his support behind Adams. Adams won and promptly made Clay his new secretary of state, enraging many Americans, who cried out against this “corrupt bargain.” Adams’s reputation was so damaged that his hands were pretty much tied during his entire term in office.
Jackson bounced back and was elected president in 1828. He immediately exploited the spoils system by surrounding himself with political supporters and yes-men. “Old Hickory,” as his troops had called him, was a new kind of president in a new American age. As more and more white males received the right to vote during the 1830s and 1840s, aristocracy and privilege came to be seen as undemocratic and anti-American. Although Jackson himself was fairly well-to-do by the time he took office, he had come from a poor family. Westerners and southerners loved him for his seemingly rugged individuality and strength. Northerners, on the other hand, feared him and his democratic “rabble.”
The Nullification Crisis
Jackson’s two terms were full of political crises, the first of which was the Nullification Crisis over the Tariff of 1828 . The tariff, which had been passed near the end of Adams’s presidency, heavily taxed all foreign goods. Northern manufacturers loved this protection, but southerners hated it because they traded heavily with Britain.
Vice President John C. Calhoun secretly wrote a pamphlet called the “South Carolina Exposition and Protest” that urged southern state legislatures to nullify what he called the “Tariff of Abominations.” The South Carolina legislature followed his advice in 1832, making Jackson so angry that he threatened to send troops to the state to collect the taxes forcibly. Civil war was barely averted, thanks to Henry Clay, who proposed the Compromise Tariff of 1833 as a middle road.
A renowned Indian fighter during his military years, Jackson continued to persecute Native Americans during his presidency. In 1830, the Indian Removal Act authorized the army to relocate, by force, any Native Americans living east of the Mississippi River. The act violated an earlier Supreme Court decision that recognized Indian lands, but Jackson didn’t care. More than 100,000 Native Americans were moved to present-day Oklahoma and Nebraska, and thousands died on the difficult journey that became known as the Trail of Tears.
Jackson’s Bank War
Jackson also caused a stir with his Bank War against the Bank of the United States. Because the Bank was a private institution funded by a small group of wealthy speculators, Jackson believed it was undemocratic. He vetoed the bill to renew the Bank’s charter and then effectively killed the Bank by refusing to put any more federal money in it, depositing the money in smaller banks instead. This action sent the national economy into a depression after the Panic of 1837 . It also united Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and other Jackson-haters, which in turn led to the creation of the Whig Party.
Van Buren and Depression
Jackson’s Democratic successor, Martin Van Buren, had an even rockier time. Although Jackson had tried to nip the depression in the bud with the Specie Circular law, it only made matters worse. Without a strong central bank to provide stability, hundreds of smaller “wildcat banks” went out of business.
Blamed for a depression that was not his fault, Van Buren lost the election of 1840 to Whig war hero William Henry Harrison. However, the relatively unknown Vice President John Tyler became president after Harrison died only a month into his term.
John Tyler and the Whigs
Whig leaders Henry Clay and Daniel Webster initially rejoiced when Harrison was elected, for he shared their support of higher tariffs, internal improvements, and a revived Bank of the United States. To their surprise, though, Tyler ruined all their plans.
Tyler, a former Democrat, had become a Whig because he personally disliked Jackson, not because he believed in the Whig platform. Tyler did pass the slightly higher Tariff of 1842 but refused to fund internal improvements or bring back the Bank of the United States. Whigs, outraged by his betrayal, expelled him from the party.
Nonetheless, Tyler had a productive term. The Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842 established a permanent eastern border with Canada and cooled tensions with Britain. During his final days as president, Tyler also pushed through congressional measures to annex Texas.
Texas caused controversy from the day it declared independence from Mexico in 1836. Southerners badly wanted Texas to become a new slave state in the Union, for they believed that westward expansion of slavery was vital to their socioeconomic system. Northern Whigs, however, didn’t want slavery to spread any further than it already had, so they blocked the annexation of Texas in 1836.
The Abolitionist Movement
This debate over slavery was the most divisive issue of the era. While southerners spoke loudly in support of slavery, the abolitionist movement grew from a small faction in the 1820s to a powerful social and political movement by the 1840s and 1850s. Though the abolitionists opposed slavery, they by no means advocated racial equality—most of them wanted only gradual emancipation or even resettlement of blacks in Africa. At the time, only radical abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison demanded immediate emancipation of all slaves.
Social Reform and Religious Revivalism
At the same time, some progressive northerners—many of them women—started social reform movements against prostitution, alcohol, and mistreatment of prisoners and the mentally disabled. Others tried to expand women’s rights and improve education. Many of these movements were successful in convincing state legislatures to enact new legislation.
Linked to these reform movements was a new wave of religious revivalism that spread across America at the time. Many new religious denominations flourished, including the Methodists, Baptists, Shakers, Mormons, and Millerites, among others. In general, women were especially involved in these new denominations.
The Market Revolution
At the same time that these social transformations were taking place, the U.S. economy was evolving into a market economy. New inventions and infrastructure made it much easier to transport goods around the country.
Eli Whitney’s cotton gin and system of interchangeable parts revitalized the South, West, and North. Cotton production became a more efficient and lucrative business, so southern planters brought in more slaves to work their fields. Cyrus McCormick’s mechanical mower-reaper revolutionized wheat production in the West, enabling farmers to send surplus crops to northern industrial cities.
Immigration and wage labor, meanwhile, completely transformed the North. The potato famine in Ireland and failed democratic revolutions in Germany sent several million Irish and German immigrants to the North in the 1840s and 1850s. Many found work as wage laborers in the new factories.
Manifest Destiny and the Mexican War
Within the United States, people were itching to move further west. Land-hungry westerners and southerners in particular wanted more land on which to farm and plant cotton. Inspired by revivalism, many Americans began to believe that it was their “manifest destiny” from God to push westward across the continent. Politicians were encouraged to acquire more and more land.
Westward expansion was particularly important to James K. Polk, who was elected president in 1844. During his four years in office, Polk acquired all of the Oregon Territory south of the 49th parallel. With his eye on California (then a Mexican territory), he provoked the Mexican War, which the United States won handily. Under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the war in 1848, Mexico gave up Texas, California, and everything in between.