A word of introduction to this essay. First, its purpose is to suggest a logic for this site as well as a set of themes. This means that it looks to a very diverse array of issues and examples. It also means that it is quite long. Hence the decision to break it into "chapters." Next is its title. Why a "frame" for understanding the 1850s? Why not an overview? an interpretation? even a theory? This takes us to the heart of the methodological and pedagogical notions that have shaped our choice of topics and materials and have guided our decisions about site design and navigation. [For more detail on this, see "Why a Frame?"]

Next, a few words about how to read it. There are, as yet, few conventions about hypertext. Historians know what a monograph or an article is supposed to look like. We are still learning about hypertext. It is different precisely in the way it gives the reader new choices. You can read this piece straight through. But there are links which, if you click on them, will take you more deeply into whatever topic is under discussion. In some cases they lead to the complete texts of sources referred to or quoted. In others they lead to extended discussions, complete with further links. So, for example, clicking upon the link above leads to a brief but dense discussion of "well" versus "ill-structured" fields of inquiry and some consequences for historians seeking to build web-based archives. Clicking on the link below leads to a rich array of materials, graphic as well as text, on the ongoing American conversation prompted by Crevecour's famous question.

What this means is that the reader has an unprecedented degree of freedom in choosing what to read. You might simply print this page or scroll down it. You might use it as a guide to online primary materials dealing with one or more of the topics raised. You might read it in conjunction with one or more of the extended discussions of topics ranging from the origins of the organized woman's rights movement in the 1850s to the rise of spiritualism to the popularity of hoop skirts. As author I have striven to maximize your choices, surely a dangerous strategy. Still, the only way to learn how to exploit the possibilities of hypertext is to invite the reader to play as active a role as possible.

Despite the range of topics and materials included, in building this site we have a single overarching preoccupation, the problematic nature of American nationality. Who is an American? Who can become an American? American politics and public life have pivoted on this issue.

In the 1850s the pivot was reform. This is not an orthodox view. Historians and other scholars have seen antebellum reform as an epiphenomenon. The reality was sectional conflict. Arguments over woman's rights or the Maine Law, which prohibited the sale of alcohol, gave way to those over state's rights and slavery. Such is the consensus view. Yet, how do we account for the sectional character of reform? Antebellum reform, including its overtly religious forms, was a northern experience. the Maine Law swept the North. Woman's rights not only arose in the North but achieved no success whatever in the South. Abolition was, after the Nat Turner Insurrection ended discussion of emancipation in the South, entirely a northern movement. To be a reformer was to be a northerner. Was it also true that to be a northerner was to be a reformer? No. Many in the North, most of them loyal Democrats, were resolutely opposed to reform no matter what form it took. But those who gained control of the North politically during the 1850s, the Know-Nothings and the Republicans, were reformers. We cannot separate reform from sectional conflict. What is more, as I will argue here, reform exacerbated sectional tensions. This is not simply to observe that abolitionism was inherently divisive. Reform provided a vision of an ideal society that fascinated many Northerners who saw the South and the institution of slavery as the enemies of progress. White Southerners, even as they called upon each other to practice scientific agriculture and build railroads, abjured progress in the name of supposed timeless truths. The first of these, John C. Calhoun observed, was that every great civilization rested upon slavery.

Even if you come away from this discussion persuaded that reform mattered, even if you concede that it turned upon the question of American nationality, there are other tests this essay (and site) must meet. How well does the "frame" proposed here "fit" the extraordinarily diverse and rapidly changing culture that was America in the 1850s? Does it fit the origins of the organized woman's movement? The 1850s are virtually a black hole in women's history, itself a partial consequence of downplaying the centrality of reform in the decade. Does the frame fit the wealth of religious activity? What of spiritualism, for example, another largely ignored development? What of abolition? Irish immigration? Temperance? What of the American fascination with oratory? with mechanical inventions? What, finally, of westward expansion, especially as a source of sectional competition?

This essay begins with an observation of Alexis deTocqueville about the bonds that hold society together. It then pursues four basic sets of concerns:

I. Differential Patterns and Rates of Growth and Sectional Tensions
II. The Attempt to Create a Nondenominational Religious Establishment: Religion as a Source of Order and Disorder
III. Modernization and Reform: Why the Know-Nothings Emerged When and Where They Did
IV.
Perfectionism: "They have squared the circle of society, and resolved the arcana of its perpetual motion."


What keeps a great number of citizens under the same government is much less a reasoned desire to remain united than the instinctive and, in a sense, involuntary accord which springs from like feelings and similar opinions.

I would never admit that men form a society simply by recognizing the same leader and obeying the same laws; only when certain men consider a great many questions from the same point of view and have the same opinions on a great many subjects and when the same events give rise to like thoughts and impressions is there a society.
-- Alexis deTocqueville, Democracy in America
[this and the quotations from Tocqueville in the first section below come from the last chapter of volume 1, available online at the U. of Virginia's Democracy in America site.]

Locke, Tocqueville held, had been wrong. To form a nation people had to share customs, habits, prejudices, traditions, a sense of commonality. In the United States the founders had followed Locke. They had made nationality a matter of obeying laws. The accord among Americans was to be voluntary. Further, they explicitly barred the new national government from actively engaging in the process of building a sense of nationality. Instead they devised what they themselves described as a governmental apparatus for specific and limited purposes. The appropriate attitude to take towards this new state, the founders advised, was vigilance.

Government was necessary because, as Madison pointed out, men were not angels. Government existed to restrain human behavior. But the unsanctified men who composed the government were just as likely as others to think their own interests to be the interests of all. Who or what would restrain government? One answer was the system of checks and balances. Another was a set of stringent limitations to federal power. State governments retained broader powers, including that of establishing an official religion. The influence of the federal constitution, however, was great and, by the early 1830s, even Massachusetts had committed itself to the separation of church and state.

Barring the federal government from directly attempting to shape American nationality was every bit as radical an experiment as the republic itself. There had been other republics. The United States was the first state to proclaim that any European who wanted could be a fully participating citizen merely by agreeing to obey the law. Further, allegiance was not only volitional, it was limited. It required none of the matters Tocqueville insisted were essential.

This view of American national identity runs against much current opinion among historians about republicanism. They emphasize the extent to which commitment to republican ideals itself became a unifying force within American society at large and among working-class radicals in particular. There is no doubt that notions of majority rule, free speech and association, equality under the law, and the like did help Americans define themselves in their own eyes. One can go further. Republicanism provided a basic set of categories through which Americans viewed themselves and the world about them. Democracy in America is, to a considerable degree, a catalogue of how republicanism defined Americans.

Yet Tocqueville's other point remains. Republicanism emphasized individual liberty, insisted upon the limited and secular character of the demands government could place upon its citizens, tolerated diversity in religion, and gave to states and localities carte blanche to preserve or develop distinctive customs and ways of doing things. The riotous variety of electoral procedures provides a continuing example. As a result, even as Americans cherished their republican institutions and beliefs, and even as they used the categories (individual responsibility, equality under the law) republicanism afforded to understand and order their experiences, republicanism, as Rowland Berthoff persuasively showed and Robert Wiebe more recently demonstrated anew, consistently encouraged the maximum degree of individual liberty.

An important case in point is the public school. This was, as Horace Mann and other advocates maintained, the republican institution par excellence. Self-government depended upon an intelligent and well-informed electorate. So did ambition. How was the earnest young man to make something of himself? How were advantages of birth to be set aside so that all might compete? The free public school was the answer. In other countries, France for example, the state used the school system as a means of systematically indoctrinating the young. From the time of Napoleon I a national ministry regulated the minutest details of curriculum and pedagogy. In the United States states and localities controlled education. This meant that each state adopted whatever school attendance measures it wished or, in the case of southern states, created no public schools at all. Cities and towns decided for themselves whether to build a high school. Local school boards decided on teacher qualifications and textbooks. The popularity of the McGuffey Readers should not obscure the dizzying diversity of American education. And the public school was only one portion of the whole. In addition to a raft of private academies espousing a host of educational goals and philosophies, there were countless other educational enterprises. Mechanics formed associations and sponsored courses of lectures for themselves. Others formed lyceums; in addition to lectures these often provided libraries. In a given week in a mid-sized city like Worcester, Massachusetts residents had their choice of up to a dozen lectures given by the notable (Emerson, Thoreau, Garrison) and by the obscure. In the libraries they could find novels, magazines, technical manuals, and that emerging American genre, the self-help book. Republicanism fostered a strong sense of nationality, in short, but it also weakened some of the ties Tocqueville described as indispensable.

What disguised the radical nature of the American experiment in creating a nation while barring the government from directly participating in developing a sense of nationhood, aside from the long struggle against the British which led Americans to focus intently on the misuse of power, was the high degree of homogeneity of colonial society within the ruling white race. White Americans were overwhelming Protestant. Use of English was virtually universal. The market-based economy was well established so that white Americans shared basic ideas about worth, fair exchange, and the value of labor. Political participation, including officeholding, was widespread. White Americans then shared the Revolutionary experience and later the naval war with France and the War of 1812 against Great Britain. In sum, they could take for granted the features of nationality Tocqueville insisted were crucial. There was no need to empower the government to create what already existed.

[Repetitve insistence upon the phrase "white Americans" is needed. The new United States was one of the most diverse societies in human history. White Americans were of English, Scotch, Scotch-Irish, German, Swedish, Dutch, French and other stocks. Native American peoples formed a wide array of cultural groups. So too with African Americans. Homogeneity in such a society was an artifact of racial control.]

World and national politics prolonged this white homogeneity for two additional generations. Few immigrants ventured to the United States during the revolutionary turmoil. Then, as national stability started to emerge, the French Revolution set off a quarter of a century of warfare. Immigration did not begin until the 1820s. For half a century, from the end of the Revolution until the Nat Turner Insurrection brought an end to the open discussion of slavery in the South, white Americans could take the matter of nationality for granted. Or, if one prefers a different symbolic date, from the end of the Revolution to the opening of the Erie Canal.

With the 1830s nationality suddenly became problematic. One reason was the emerging sectionalism upon which Tocqueville focused. As he pointed out, both North and South were growing rapidly but along very different lines and at very different rates. These differences were, in turn, producing differing and distinctive habits of mind, traditions, customs, the basic "stuff" of nationality. A second source of difference in ways of looking at the world was religion. As Daniel Walker Howe and others have shown, northern white Protestants actively sought to create a nondenominational but Protestant "state church." Their efforts, like those of revivalists and other religious leaders, in fact contributed to the weakening of American nationality as much as to its strengthening. So did the efforts of reformers generally. Often linked to the benevolent societies created by various churches and/or revival converts, reformers also sought to foster a coherent set of values and ideals. The most important was temperance. Yet their campaigns produced as much acrimony and distrust as reform. This was particularly so among the rapidly increasing ranks of immigrants from Ireland and Germany. Their increasingly visible role in American life frightened many and seemed to threaten directly the possibility of an American nationality. We will look at these questions in turn.

I. Differential Patterns and Rates of Growth and Sectional Tensions

The plantation economy, dominated by the production of cotton, was a post-revolutionary development made possible by Eli Whitney's cotton gin and by the industrialization of textile manufacturing in Great Britain and, later, in the New England states. The northern states had a far more diversified economy, one being rapidly transformed by rail and steam. In one of the most celebrated passages in Democracy in America Tocqueville contrasted the two sections:

The stream that the Indians had distinguished by the name of Ohio, or the Beautiful River, waters one of the most magnificent valleys which have ever been made the abode of man. Undulating lands extend upon both shores of the Ohio, whose soil affords inexhaustible treasures to the laborer; on either bank the air is equally wholesome and the climate mild, and each of them forms the extreme frontier of a vast state: that which follows the numerous windings of the Ohio upon the left is called Kentucky; that upon the right bears the name of the river. These two states differ only in a single respect: Kentucky has admitted slavery, but the state of Ohio has prohibited the existence of slaves within its borders. Thus the traveler who floats down the current of the Ohio to the spot where that river falls into the Mississippi may be said to sail between liberty and servitude; and a transient inspection of surrounding objects will convince him which of the two is more favorable to humanity.

Upon the left bank of the stream the population is sparse; from time to time one descries a troop of slaves loitering in the half-deserted fields; the primeval forest reappears at every turn; society seems to be asleep, man to be idle, and nature alone offers a scene of activity and life.

From the right bank, on the contrary, a confused hum is heard, which proclaims afar the presence of industry; the fields are covered with abundant harvests; the elegance of the dwellings announces the taste and activity of the laborers; and man appears to be in the enjoyment of that wealth and contentment which is the reward of labor.

However overstated the contrast, however mistaken in detail, Tocqueville's discussion offers several crucial insights. One is that the effect of slavery upon the master was as profound as upon the slave. Another is that the market more profoundly shaped the white Northerner than his southern counterpart:

The influence of slavery . . . affects the character of the master and imparts a peculiar tendency to his ideas and tastes. Upon both banks of the Ohio the character of the inhabitants is enterprising and energetic, but this vigor is very differently exercised in the two states. The white inhabitant of Ohio, obliged to subsist by his own exertions, regards temporal prosperity as the chief aim of his existence; and as the country which he occupies presents inexhaustible resources to his industry, and ever varying lures to his activity, his acquisitive ardor surpasses the ordinary limits of human cupidity: he is tormented by the desire of wealth, and he boldly enters upon every path that fortune opens to him; he becomes a sailor, a pioneer, an artisan, or a cultivator with the same indifference, and supports with equal constancy the fatigues and the dangers incidental to these various professions; the resources of his intelligence are astonishing, and his avidity in the pursuit of gain amounts to a species of heroism.

But the Kentuckian scorns not only labor but all the undertakings that labor promotes; as he lives in an idle independence, his tastes are those of an idle man; money has lost a portion of its value in his eyes; he covets wealth much less than pleasure and excitement; and the energy which his neighbor devotes to gain turns with him to a passionate love of field sports and military exercises; he delights in violent bodily exertion, he is familiar with the use of arms, and is accustomed from a very early age to expose his life in single combat. Thus slavery prevents the whites not only from becoming opulent, but even from desiring to become so.

One needs to make allowances for overstatement. Many Southerners coveted wealth with a zeal equal to that of the most avarious Northerner. Many Northerners coveted pleasure and excitement. Still, Tocqueville's main point holds. Slavery shaped white southern culture while the market shaped that of both but especially that of the North.


[The U. of Virginia's Democracy in America site contains Tocqueville and Beaumont's journal entries which enable the reader to determine exactly what they saw of slavery. There is not a comparable section on the market in the North but the visitor can browse through the people Tocqueville consulted and learn what they told him. Historians agree that Tocqueville did not supply an accurate picture of plantation slavery. There is a good brief discussion by Charles Joyner. Steven Mintz has put together a very useful collection of excerpts from Slave Narratives. The University of North Carolina's North American Slave Narratives project is an extraordinarily rich resource. Also at the U. of Virginia is an online transcription of the 1845 edition of Frederick Douglass' Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, a classic account -- among much else -- of the impact of slavery upon the slaveholder.]


Since the free labor market of the North produced wealth for a broad cross-section of its white population far more effectively than the slave system of the South did, there was a "constant gravitation of the Federal power and influence towards the northwest" which is "shown every ten years, when a general census of the population is made and the number of delegates that each state sends to Congress is settled anew."

In 1790 Virginia had nineteen representatives in Congress. This number continued to increase until 1813, when it reached twenty-three; from that time it began to decrease, and in 1833 Virginia elected only twenty-one. During the same period the state of New York followed the contrary direction: in 1790 it had ten representatives in Congress; in 1813, twenty-seven; in 1823, thirty-four; and in 1833, forty. The state of Ohio had only one representative in 1803; and in 1833 it already had nineteen.

Here was a source of potential disaster for the Union. Tocqueville was impressed not only by the battles over the tariff but by the efforts of South Carolina, led by Vice President and then Senator John C. Calhoun, to deny to the federal government a power clearly ennumerated in the Constitution, that of regulating and taxing international trade. What had led Calhoun, once an ardent nationalist, to champion "states' rights"? Tocqueville believed it was the differential rate of population growth of the North and South. One should note here that the "poverty" of the South, on which Tocqueville insisted, was, as he also noted emphatically, a relative matter. The Southern states were, historians agree, producing wealth at a tremendous rate. The majority of the nation's richest individuals were planters. Northern states were growing more rapidly still, and the distribution of wealth was less uneven.

It is difficult to imagine a durable union of a nation that is rich and strong with one that is poor and weak, even if it were proved that the strength and wealth of the one are not the causes of the weakness and poverty of the other. But union is still more difficult to maintain at a time when one party is losing strength and the other is gaining it. This rapid and disproportionate increase of certain states threatens the independence of the others.

A state like New York might succeed in dominating the others, but "even if the more powerful states make no attempt to oppress the smaller ones, the danger still exists; for there is almost as much in the possibility of the act as in the act itself." He offered as a truism that "the weak generally mistrust the justice and the reason of the strong." As a result, states like South Carolina "look upon those that are more favored by fortune with envy and suspicion." This was the source of "the deep-seated uneasiness and ill-defined agitation which are observable in the South and which form so striking a contrast to the confidence and prosperity which are common to other parts of the Union." Such suspiciousness and hostility were counterproductive. It was "the inhabitants of the Southern states . . . who are most interested in the maintenance of the Union; they would assuredly suffer most from being left to themselves; and yet they are the only ones who threaten to break the tie of confederation." The reason for this dangerous stance was not far to seek.

It is easy to perceive that the South, which has given four Presidents to the Union, which perceives that it is losing its federal influence and that the number of its representatives in Congress is diminishing from year to year, while those of the Northern and Western states are increasing, the South, which is peopled with ardent and irascible men, is becoming more and more irritated and alarmed. Its inhabitants reflect upon their present position and remember their past influence, with the melancholy uneasiness of men who suspect oppression. If they discover a law of the Union that is not unequivocally favorable to their interests, they protest against it as an abuse of force; and if their ardent remonstrances are not listened to, they threaten to quit an association that loads them with burdens while it deprives them of the profits. "The Tariff," said the inhabitants of Carolina in 1832, "enriches the North and ruins the South; for, if this were not the case, to what can we attribute the continually increasing power and wealth of the North, with its inclement skies and arid soil; while the South, which may be styled the garden of America, is rapidly declining."

These reflections led Tocqueville to make a prediction. Even though the South benefitted from the Union more than the North, even though it would be far less able to function independently, it would be the South which would threaten secession. A key reason was the breakneck pace of American development.

If the changes which I have described were gradual, so that each generation at least might have time to disappear with the order of things under which it had lived, the danger would be less; but the progress of society in America is precipitate and almost revolutionary. The same citizen may have lived to see his state take the lead in the Union and afterwards become powerless in the Federal assemblies; and an Anglo-American republic [i.e., state] has been known to grow as rapidly as a man, passing from birth and infancy to maturity in the course of thirty years. It must not be imagined, however, that the states that lose their preponderance also lose their population or their riches; no stop is put to their prosperity, and they even go on to increase more rapidly than any kingdom in Europe. But they believe themselves to be impoverished because their wealth does not augment as rapidly as that of their neighbors; and they think that their power is lost because they suddenly come in contact with a power greater than their own.

Tocqueville again returned to his dissent from Locke. White Southerners "are more hurt in their feelings and their passions than in their interests. But this is amply sufficient to endanger the maintenance of the Union." Feelings and passions are often the stuff of human behavior. "If kings and peoples had only had their true interests in view ever since the beginning of the world, war would scarcely be known among mankind."

Working in the opposite direction, but also based in feelings and passions, was racial prejudice. White Northerners struck Tocqueville as even more biased against African Americans than were white Southerners. Most had no desire to abolish slavery in the South, only in expanding the area of free labor which they hoped to monopolize for themselves. They had abolished slavery in their own states in their own interest, not to benefit the slave. In a justly famous passage, Tocqueville wrote:

. . . slavery recedes, but the prejudice to which it has given birth is immovable. Whoever has inhabited the United States must have perceived that in those parts of the Union in which the Negroes are no longer slaves they have in no wise drawn nearer to the whites. On the contrary, the prejudice of race appears to be stronger in the states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists; and nowhere is it so intolerant as in those states where servitude has never been known.

It is true that in the North of the Union marriages may be legally contracted between Negroes and whites; but public opinion would stigmatize as infamous a man who should connect himself with a Negress, and it would be difficult to cite a single instance of such a union. . . . In the theaters gold cannot procure a seat for the servile race beside their former masters; in the hospitals they lie apart; and although they are allowed to invoke the same God as the whites, it must be at a different altar and in their own churches, with their own clergy. The gates of heaven are not closed against them, but their inferiority is continued to the very confines of the other world. When the Negro dies, his bones are cast aside, and the distinction of condition prevails even in the equality of death. Thus the Negro is free, but he can share neither the rights, nor the pleasures, nor the labor, nor the afflictions, nor the tomb of him whose equal he has been declared to be; and he cannot meet him upon fair terms in life or in death.

Racial prejudice was a powerful source of national identity. It also gave the white Southerner a purchase upon the imagination of the white Northerner. Would he free the slave? Would he then allow that free person of color any of the rights of an American?

David Potter has persuasively shown how white Southerners inexorably chipped away at this bond by demanding, as their perception of their power in the Union gradually diminished, symbolic gestures from Northerners which would formalize northern support of slavery. The first of these was the Gag Rule against anti-slavery petitions. White Southerners insisted upon a rule in the House of Representatives banning these petitions. They thus pitted two provisions of the Constitution against each other. One was the article empowering the House to make its own rules. The other was the amendment guaranteeing the right to petition. Former President John Quincy Adams led the campaign against the Rule, becoming known as "Old Man Eloquence" in the process and demonstrating to many in the North that Southerners intended to restrict their liberties in the name of protecting slavery. The House exchanges of January and February 1837 capture this battle.

What white Southerners failed to appreciate, wrote Potter, is that white Northerners were willing to leave slavery be, so long as it was the South's "peculiar institution." As late as 1858 this was Stephen Douglas' argument against Lincoln. [click on homepage, founders' library, nineteenth century] If the people of Maine chose to outlaw the sale of liquor or the people of Georgia chose to maintain slavery, that was their right under the Constitution. The people of Illinois were free to make their own choices. Lincoln contended that Southerners were intent upon making slavery a national institution, indeed were engaged in a conspiracy with that very object. There was an organized "slave power." In the 1830s this had been a charge made by abolitionists and largely dismissed by the large majority of Northern whites. It was the demand for "symbolic victories," such as the Gag Rule, the Fugitive Slave Law, the Kansas-Nebraska Act with its "repeal" of the Missouri Compromise Line, that made the charge of extremists like William Lloyd Garrison in the 1830s into Lincoln's argument of 1858 and a cornerstone of Republican rhetoric in 1860.

The irony that it was the demand to make slavery national that undermined the utility of racial prejudice as a source of nationality is palpable. Lockean republicanism demands a willingness to tolerate difference. In the case of slavery, it demanded a callous indifference of the sort Douglas expressed to the fate of the slave. White Southerners, however, were not satisfied with indifference. They demanded more, that white Northerners prove their support for slavery.

II. The Attempt to Create a Nondenominational Religious Establishment: Religion as a Source of Order (and Disorder)

Religion traditionally provided much of the stuff of nationality. A genuinely unified state, Louis XIV famously proclaimed, could have only one king and one faith. One of the chief functions of the state church was to shore up the social order. Yet in the United States religion was another protean engine of change. As such it both reinforced and jeopardized American nationality.

By 1815, when the British finally honored their 1783 treaty commitment and abandoned their forts in the Ohio Valley, thereby opening the trans-Appalachian west, an enormous resurgence of Protestant activism was underway both North and South. In 1800 only a minority of white Americans belonged to churches, although a large majority considered themselves Christians. Many communities had no churches. In the South slaves had had almost no exposure to Christianity. That would come only in the decades after 1815. Leading this Protestant resurgence were the Baptists and the Methodists.

It was led as much by laymen as by clergy. Starting with the American Bible Society, affluent merchants and professionals created a "benevolent empire" of Sunday Schools, tract societies, home missions, foreign missions, and a host of other organizations. They distributed the Bible and tracts addressed to various subjects and audiences, founded Sunday Schools and recruited teachers, paid the salaries of ministers (irrespective of denomination) to bring the Gospel to communities, especially in the West. They sought, as Daniel Walker Howe persuasively argues, to create an ecumenical but Protestant "established church." Since the Constitution explicitly ruled out Congressional enactments along these lines and even Connecticut and Massachusetts had disestablished their state churches, they turned to voluntarism. By the early 1830s, when Tocqueville visited, there were voluntary associations for virtually every purpose imaginable.

Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society. Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association. [volume 2, chapter 5]

Further, as he noted, these societies collectively exerted a great deal of influence over non-members. They threatened what he called a "tyranny of the majority." And, despite the large number of organizations, they cooperated effectively. This was due to their ecumenism, their insistence on tolerating most Protestant doctrinal positions, their habit of naming to the boards of new associations officials of those already in place, and their common outlook. Headquarters of the "empire" was New York City. Their influence in the South was much weaker. The Panic of 1837 disrupted this "empire," as some of its leaders were among the bankrupted. Denominations thereafter continued the work. Ecumenism dimished, but there remained a good deal of agreement over means and ends. In this fashion, as Daniel Walker Howe argues, Protestant activists sought to create an unofficial state religion.

In the North the putative new "established church" directly confronted the problem of Catholicism, especially in the unlovely form of Irish immigration to the cities. Would the Irish read the tracts? attend the Sunday Schools? use the King James version of the Bible? Benevolents did not take "no" for an answer easily, but voluntarism encountered an intractable obstacle. Irish (or German) recalcitrance aside, efforts at creating an "established" non-demoninational Protestantism faced another sort of barrier, as Rowland Berthoff pointed out in An Unsettled People, in the founders' relentless emphasis upon protecting individual liberty. They were seeking to impose order, rules of behavior, restraints and proprieties, in a society which glorified liberty. Reformers had little success, Berthoff observed, unless they could somehow argue that the restraint they advocated increased the effective liberty of people. If intemperance was a kind of slavery, for example, then advocates of the "Maine Law," the 1850 measure prohibiting the sale of alcohol, could claim they promoted freedom. But the campaign against the delivery of mail on Sunday ran up against the First Amendment and failed.

Resurgent Protestantism produced something more potent than benevolence; this was revivalism in the form of the Second Great Awakening and in the person of Charles Granison Finney. [For a brief introduction, see "Charles Granison Finney and the Revival" at the U. of Virginia.] Benevolence was very fine in its way, Finney grudgingly conceded, but it did not seek to transform the Christian. It was fundamentally conservative. The revival was intrinsically radical. More precisely, it shared many goals with the benevolent empire but insisted upon the complete eradication of sin, not upon its mere containment. One can see the difference in the Autobiography of the Reverend Lyman Beecher, one of the founders of the "benevolent empire" as well as the father of Catherine Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry Ward Beecher, and several other eminent figures of the mid-century. In his autobiography Beecher recounted a "Toleration Dream" he had when Connecticut disestablished the Congregational Church in 1817. In it he confronted an opponent of the established church who complained that, heretofore, he had been forced to go to Hell along a path not much wider than the straight and narrow trod by the just. Beecher thrilled with pride. For him and for those who founded the "empire," the issue was order. Many would inevitably reject salvation. How could one restrain public drunkenness? gaming? licentious behavior? especially in the rapidly growing cities? The colonial answer had been the church backed by the authority of the state. Disestablishment meant turning to voluntarism and to seeking, via the growth of societies, to establish codes of proper behavior.

Reducing public drunkenness or gaming was not enough for Finney. The goal of the revival was to convert sinners, all of them. The change in external behavior would follow of itself. Conversion, and conversion alone, was the minister's task. Finney was openly distainful of the efforts of the "benevolent empire."

Look at the reports of the Home Missionary Society. If I recollect right, in 1830, the number of conversions in connection with the labors of the missionaries of that society did not exceed five to each missionary. I believe the number has increased since, but is still exceedingly small to what it would have been had they been fitted by a right course of training for their work. I do not say this to reproach them, for from my heart I pity them, and I pity the church for being under the necessity of supporting ministers so trained, or none at all. They are the best men the Missionary Society can obtain. I suppose, of course, that I shall be reproached for saying this. But it is too true and too painful to be concealed. Finney, Lectures on the Revival of Relgion, Lecture XI, "A Wise Minister Will Be Successful."]

Home Missionary agents launched Sunday Schools, created branches of other benevolent societies, distributed tracts. None of this counted for Finney. All that mattered was conversion.

The revival contributed more than fervor. [A more extended account is here. For two quite hostile accounts, both by British observers, visit U. of Virginia's Women and Religion page and click on Frances Trollope and Harriet Martineau.] According to Finney, the converted would conquer sin. The drunkard would become sober, the profligate chaste. Moral perfection was attainable, he proclaimed. Since it was, nothing less would do. It was not enough to control public behavior. It was necessary to eradicate sin. This doctrine is known as Perfectionism. It contributed to a highly distinctive style of reform. Social problems, from slavery to prostitution to drunkenness, were sins. All could and should be eliminated. The answer to slavery was immediate emancipation. The answer to drunkenness was prohibition.

By the 1830s revival converts were seeking to galvanize the "benevolent empire." They sometimes blended into established institutions, volunteering to lead Sunday School classes, for example. At other times they proved highly disruptive. Finney converts Arthur and Lewis Tappan, prominent New York merchants, financed an Anti-Slavery Society which funded abolitionist agents along the model of the Home Missionary Society. Many of the early abolition activists, such as Theodore Dwight Weld, were also Finney converts. The doctrine of "immediate emancipation" was highly controversial, even divisive. Weld had turned to anti-slavery activism while a student at Lane Seminary in Cincinnati. Lane's president was Lyman Beecher, who had opposed Finney's revival campaign in Boston and who sought to persuade Weld and some other students to delay their plans to work with the free Black community in Cincinnati. Lane's trustees would not support anything so controversial, he told them. But, if Weld and the others would only be patient, he would bring the trustees around in a year or so. Weld and his colleagues summarily refused to accommodate prevailing prejudices and marched off to found Oberlin where Finney would take up residence as professor of theology. [Weld's own account, part of his Appeal for Oberlin Institute, is available at Oberlin.] The episode nicely illustrates the differences between moderate reformers like Beecher, who sought to strengthen the social order, and zealots like Weld, who sought to extirpate sin. Advocates of benevolence shared with revival converts the language of sin. This put them at a rhetorical disadvantage when arguing with radicals. It is difficult to make the case for practical considerations and constraints when one's opponent stands upon the principle of no compromise with evil. [A more extended account is here.]

Beyond benevolence and the revival were other important developments within American Protestantism, especially the emergence of transcendentalism, Universalism, and the "free church," out of Unitarianism, which also complicated the effort to create an "established" Protestant church. Alexis deTocqueville caught the essence of the process of differentiation within Unitarianism in a interview he and Gustave Beaumont had with William Ellery Channing, the most influential Unitarian theologian. [A brief introduction is William Ellery Channing and American Unitarianism at the U. of Virgina.]

'But are you not afraid,' I said to him frankly, 'that by virtue of purifying Christianism you will end by making the substance disappear? I am frightened, I confess, at the distance that the human spirit has travelled since Catholicism; I am afraid that it will finally arrive at natural religion.'

'I think that such a result,' returned Mr. Channing, 'is little to be feared. The human spirit has need of a positive religion, and why should it ever abandon the Christian religion? Its proofs fear nothing from the most serious examination of reason.'

This exchange took place in the early 1830s. Twenty years later, a young Thomas Wentworth Higginson preached his inaugural sermon as pastor of Worcester's Free Church. [An extended sketch of Higginson's activities is here. He was, in a number of ways, the single most "representative man" of the decade.] Higginson was, like Emerson and Theodore Parker, a self-acknowledged disciple of Channing. Yet, like them, he had abandoned all belief in the "proofs" of Christianity. "Here lies the great difficulty," he told his new congregation. "Let the simple truth be told. The time has come when an earnest and fearless inquirer can no more study the Bible and believe in its verbal inspiration, than he can study astronomy and believe that the sun moves around the earth." What had happened? Part of the answer lay in the new Biblical scholarship, particularly the work of Augustus Neander, author of History of the Christian Religion and Church during the first three centuries (Phil., 1843) and The Life of Jesus Christ (New York, 1848). As Higginson put it:

It is not possible that any collection of various books by various writers at various times can be assumed as a whole and so consulted, without introducing the utmost confusion into all moral questions. It has almost come to be a proverb, "You can prove anything out of Scripture." There are, all told, not less than fifty different sects in this country, each claiming to sustain itself by the Bible, to the exclusion of all others. And in all great moral questions, as War, Slavery, Temperance, Capital Punishment, it is unquestionably far easier to decide what is or is not right, than to ascertain what is or is not Scriptural. [Inaugural sermon]

Quaker Lucretia Mott, the noted abolitionist and woman's rights advocate, put the matter even more bluntly. Commenting at the first national woman's rights convention on the Rev. Antoinette Brown's efforts to reconcile woman's rights with Paul's language in the New Testament about wives being "subject" to their husbands, she said that "it would not be profitable to consume too much time with the Bible argument." Saint Paul and the other Apostles, she suggested, might "have imbibed some of the spirit and ignorance of their age on the subject."* Tocqueville's concern, in short, had proved correct, and not only as far as "advanced" thinkers were concerned. Here is Joseph Smith's account, circa 1832, of his first vision:

At about the age of twelve years my mind become seriously imprest with regard to the all importent concerns for the wellfare of my immortal Soul which led me to searching the scriptures believeing[,] as I was taught, that they contained the word of God[;] thus applying myself to them and my intimate acquaintance with those different denominations led me to marvel exce[e]dingly for I discovered that [none] of [them] adorn their profession by a holy walk and Godly conversation agreeable to what I found contained in that sacred depository[.] this was a grief to my Soul[.] thus from the age of twelve years to fifteen I pondered many things in my heart concerning the sittuation of the world of mankind[.] the contentions and divi[si]ons[,] the wicke[d]ness and abominations and the darkness which pervaded the minds of mankind[.] my mind become exce[e]dingly distressed for I become convicted of my sins and[,] by searching the scriptures[,] I found that [the denominations] did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatised from the true and liveing faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the new testament . . . and[,] when I considered all these things and that being seeketh such to worship him as worship him in spirit and in truth[,] therefore I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was none else to whom I could go and obtain mercy[,] and the Lord heard my cry in the wilderness and[,] while in attitude of calling upon the Lord[,] a piller of light above the brightness of the sun at noon day come down from above and rested upon me and I was filled with the spirit of god[,] and he opened the heavens upon me[,] and I saw the Lord[,] and he spake unto me saying Joseph thy sins are forgiven thee. . . . behold I am the Lord of glory[.] I was crucifyed for the world that all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life[.] the world lieth in sin at this time and none doeth good[,] no not one[.] they have turned asside from the gospel and keep not commandments[.] they draw near to me with their lips while their hearts are far from me[,] and mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth to visit them ac[c]ording to th[e]ir ungodliness and to bring to pass that which been spoken by the mouth of the prophets and Ap[o]stles[.] behold and lo I come quickly as it [is] written of me in the cloud in the glory of my Father[;] and my soul was filled with love and for many days I could rejoice with great Joy and the Lord was with me but [I] could find none that would believe the he[a]v[e]nly vision[;] nevertheless I pondered these things in my heart.

Unlike Mormonism which would employ a "latter-day" revelation to restore certainty in the interpretation of Scripture, Unitarianism and its offshoot Universalism became merely "natural." What remained was not the "substance" of Christianity but the sentiment of religion. Emerson, in his "Divinity School Address," his own valedictory to the ministry in 1838, gave early voice to this. He claimed that the ground of religion was "the intuition of the moral sentiment," an "insight of the perfection of the laws of the soul." As an "intuition," it "cannot be received at second hand. . . . It is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul."

Transcendentalists formed an influential intellectual elite, led by Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Theodore Parker, and others, who combined an intense moral urgency with a radical doctrinal agnosticism. Emerson anticipated Nietzsche's "Superman" in his call for the self-reliant individual to fashion his own morality. Thoreau took this even farther. Did he owe any allegiance to social norms? He had, he wrote in "Civil Disobedience," no such obligation. His duty was to follow the beat of his own drummer. Margaret Fuller had a stronger commitment to creating new social (as opposed to individual) norms since she believed that the emancipation of women required changes in social arrangements and could not be accomplished only by each woman creating her own truth. Theodore Parker was more conventional still. His sermons endorsed traditional Judeo-Christian values, except where these seemed in conflict with equality or liberty. In his "Discourse of the Permanent and the Transient in Christianity," he said:

Looking at the Word of Jesus, at real Christianity, the pure religion he taught, nothing appears more fixed and certain. Its influence widens as light extends; it deepens as the nations grow more wise. But, looking at the history of what men call Christianity, nothing seems more uncertain and perishable. While true religion is always the same thing, in each century and every land, in each man that feels it, the Christianity of the Pulpit, which is the religion taught; the Christianity of the People, which is the religion that is accepted and lived out; has never been the same thing in any two centuries or lands, except only in name. The difference between what is called Christianity by the Unitarians in our times, and that of some ages past, is greater than the difference between Mahomet and the messiah. . . .Is there that difference between the nineteenth century, and some seventeen that have gone before it, since Jesus, to warrant the belief that our notion of Christianity shall last forever? The stream of time has already beat down Philosophies and Theologies, Temple and Church, though never so old and revered. How do we know there is not a perishing element in what we call Christianity? Jesus tells us, HIS Word is the word of God, and so shall never pass away. But who tells us, that OUR word shall never pass away? that OUR NOTION of his Word shall stand forever?

Emerson, Parker, Higginson, all had large audiences in the 1850s. Emerson's lectures packed halls all throughout the North. Parker's sermons were so famous that he became a tourist attraction. No visit to Boston was complete without going to the Free Church. Higginson's Worcester church did not have the same appeal, but it was the largest Protestant congregation in the city. Further, his articles in various magazines on woman's rights, temperance, spiritualism, and other subjects reached a broad section of the educated northern middle class. Margaret Fuller's reach did not extend so far, in part because of her early death. But her Woman in the Nineteenth Century did find a readership. Had she lived, the organizers of the first national woman's rights convention had intended for her to preside.

In general, the attempt to create a non-denominational established religion made notable advances through the 1830s and 1840s. The "benevolent empire" grew rapidly prior to the Panic of 1837, enrolling hundreds of thousands. So did the various Protestant churches, especially the Methodists and Baptists, whose own Sunday School and Tract societies absorbed many of the activities of the nondemoninational associations. The revival continued, forming the central spiritual experience of millions. As noted, revival converts like Theodore Dwight Weld could upset benevolent plans; but there was a notable convergence of goals. "Reform" movements throughout the period, as a result, tended to have a "moderate" and an "ultra" wing. In anti-slavery, moderates at first flocked into the Colonization Society which sought to resettle freed slaves in Liberia. Later they turned to schemes for "gradual" emancipation, such as characterized the abolition of slavery in northern states. "Ultras" demanded immediate emancipation. In temperance, moderates relied upon "moral suasion" while "ultras" rallied around Neal Dow and the Maine Law which prohibited the sale of alcohol. Moderates, called "Nothingarians" by their opponents, and "ultras" quarreled over means more often than over goals.

Transcendentalists, Unitarians, and free church advocates also shared many of the reformers' goals and often joined in the "ultra" camp. Thomas Wentworth Higginson headed a Vigilance Committee in Worcester to make sure that no officials came into the city seeking to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law. He also led the local Carson League which sought to pressure the city government to enforce Massachusetts' "Maine Law" against the sale of alcohol. Some transcendentalists, notably Thoreau, criticized the Maine Law on principle. If, as Jefferson said, "that government governs best that governs least," then it followed, according to Thoreau, that the best government of all governed not at all. Nonetheless, much as they quarreled amongst themselves, American Protestants did, particularly in the North, hammer out a census about moral behavior and agree upon a reform agenda. Roman Catholicism, however, was growing rapidly. So were an array of sects and movements, notably Mormonism and Spiritualism.

Mormonism posed the most immediate and direct threat to the efforts to create a non-denominational established religion. Latter Day Saints not only abandoned Christianity, at least as American Protestants understood it, in the name of a new revelation, they also developed highly distinctive customs and values. The most notorious was polygamy. Unlike Mormons, spiritualists did not seek to separate themselves physically from the country. But they did propound a new relevation and experimented with creating a new moral order. The fact that both grew so rapidly in the 1850s boded ill for the sort of national moral consensus Protestants sought.


[For a close look at the sources of Spiritualism in the 1850s, see "Making Sense of Cora Hatch: Some Initial Approaches." Mormon scholarship is still somewhat entangled in denominational battles. Joseph Smith's 1838 History has been challenged in many details, a fact less important for the purposes of this essay than the appeal his account of his own religious transformation had for his followers. A key element of that appeal, the subject of his first vision, was his disquiet with the multiplicity of Christian churches all claiming to be based upon Scripture.]

Worse yet, sin survived and even flourished despite the advances of reform. Alcohol consumption probably declined. [The statistics compiled by the Maine Law Statistical Society, the only ones available, are suspect because they used indirect measures such as the number of persons imprisoned for drunkenness.] Temperance became the nearly official creed of respectable opinion. Yet Demon Rum continued to enslave many. One disappointed reformer voiced the common dissatisfaction with voluntarism. "Moral suasion," she exclaimed, "is moral balderdash!"

Here was a dilemma those seeking a Protestant established church had to confront. Temperance lecturer John Gough had reached thousands with his eloquent account of his own battles with "Demon Rum." Yet there were still others he had not reached. Were reformers to accept this partial defeat? Some, such as Abraham Lincoln, answered yes. In an address to the Springfield, Illinois Washingtonian Society, a temperance organization, in the 1840s, he argued:

. . . it is not much in the nature of man to be driven to anything; still less to be driven about that which is exclusively his own business; and least of all where such driving is to be submitted to at the expense of pecuniary interest or burning appetite. When the dram-seller and drinker were incessantly told - not in accents of entreaty and persuasion, diffidently addressed by erring man to an erring brother, but in the thundering tones of anathema and denunciation with which the lordly judge often groups together all the crimes of the felon's life, and thrusts them in his face just ere he passes sentence of death upon him - that they were the authors of all the vice and misery and crime in the land; that they were the manufacturers and material of all the thieves and robbers and murderers that infest the earth; that their houses were the workshops of the devil; and that their persons should be shunned by all the good and virtuous, as moral pestilences - I say, when they were told all this, and in this way, it is not wonderful that they were slow, very slow, to acknowledge the truth of such denunciations, and to join the ranks of their denouncers in a hue and cry against themselves. 

To have expected them to do otherwise than they did - to have expected them not to meet denunciation with denunciation, crimination with crimination, and anathema with anathema - was to expect a reversal of human nature, which is God's decree and can never be reversed. When the conduct of men is designed to be influenced, persuasion, kind, unassuming persuasion, should ever be adopted.

Temperance advocates had already won the major battle, Lincoln believed.

. . . it is said by some that men will think and act for themselves; that none will disuse spirits or anything else because his neighbors do; and that moral influence is not that powerful engine contended for. Let us examine this. Let me ask the man who could maintain this position most stiffly, what compensation he will accept to go to church some Sunday and sit during the sermon with his wife's bonnet upon his head? Not a trifle, I'll venture. And why not? There would be nothing irreligious in it, nothing immoral, nothing uncomfortable - then why not? Is it not because there would be something egregiously unfashionable in it? Then it is the influence of fashion; and what is the influence of fashion but the influence that other people's actions have on our actions - the strong inclination each of us feels to do as we see all our neighbors do? Nor is the influence of fashion confined to any particular thing or class of things; it is just as strong on one subject as another. Let us make it as unfashionable to withhold our names from the temperance cause as for husbands to wear their wives' bonnets to church, and instances will be just as rare in the one case as the other.

Lincoln's was the majority view throughout the 1840s as the numbers of those taking the "pledge" swelled. But, by 1850 it was clear that he was mistaken in his prediction that opponents to temperance would be as rare as husbands who wore their wives' bonnets. Voluntarism rested upon consent, not simply upon fashion. And some refused, especially the rapidly increasing numbers of Irish and German immigrants. If reformers were not to admit defeat, they would have to use the power of the state.

The Maine Law, widely copied throughout the North and West, exemplified this turn to legislation to enjoin morality. Its popularity reached its apogee in 1854-55 with the rise of the Native American Party, the Know-Nothings. As Tyler Anbinder has shown, this was preeminently a party of reform in the sense we have been using the term -- at least in the North. In the border states so-called, those on the Mason-Dixon Line, including Pennsylvania, it also appealed to those who sought to find national rather than sectional issues around which to rally. In both areas its endorsement of temperance and its condemnation of the influence of immigrants and Catholics gained it a broad base of support. It spoke, that is, to the need to fashion an American nationality based upon Protestant values. This appeal is nicely captured in an editorial in Worcester's Daily Evening Journal on the eve of that city's mayoraly contest in 1854. Worcester was, in the reformers' eyes, indistinguishable from Sodom:

. . . rum shops sprung up at every corner of the street, drunkards staggered in every alley, while prostitution reared its brothels at every thoroughfare leading to us, and held carnival in the very heart of the city itself. Virtue was confronted on the streets by known harlots, young men decoyed to houses of infamy in open day, and beneath the very shadow of the Mayor's office, the courtesan bargained for the price of her embraces, and led her victims to a place of assignation.


The Native Americans self-destructed, as did the movement for prohibition. Their northern advocates moved, for the most part, into the new Republican Party which embraced the ideals of a non-denominational Protestant civic religion but not the tactics of the "ultras." In the border states Know Nothings either became Constitutional Unionists or returned to the Democratic fold. How this happened is one of the key questions around which this site is organized.

III. Modernization and Reform: Why the Know-Nothings Emerged When and Where They Did

Know-Nothingism was a full-fledged attempt to create the sort of national identity Tocqueville had described. It expressed what Michael Holt called in an article of that title "the politics of impatience." For Holt this impatience, especially with the existing major parties, arose out of a heightened anti-Catholicism, the Maine Law and the turmoil it aroused across the North, and a series of economic and social dislocations. All of this is persuasive but incomplete. According to Holt, Know-Nothingism was a kind of pathology, not the expression of reformist zeal Tyler Anbinder has argued it to be. This view led Holt to look at economic changes in terms of their negative effects upon people's lives and to argue, sometimes circularly, that white Northerners turned to the American party out of fear of economic loss or, at least, uncertainty. [The circle occurs when he uses evidence of support for Know Nothing candidates as evidence of economic dislocation.]


Economic and social change there was, more than at any time in human history. Undoubtedly many individuals suffered, at least initially. But it is at least as likely that Know Nothings attracted those in favor of the changes as those frightened by them. Such is the argument presented here.
Just as religion did as much to undermine as to reinforce order, so did the operation of the market. Property was, as John Locke had argued, and Americans believed, the basis of civil society. Government existed to protect it. Possession was nine-tenths of the law. Americans, as Tocqueville noted, particularly the men, could think and talk of little else, save for politics. What is more, politics was, for the most part, about property. There is a massive irony here. In a society so firmly rooted in ideas of private property, the great majority of wealth was held in common. The government owned most of the land.

This had been true of a number of colonies, such as Massachusetts, in which the colonial legislature had distributed town lots to groups of petitioners who, in turn, redistributed them to settlers. The Northwest Ordinance and then the Louisiana Purchase put the federal government in a comparable position. The purchase of Florida, the annexation of Texas, the conquest of California and the Southwest in the War with Mexico, all added to the federal domain. How it would transfer this land to private hands was the underlying question of American politics.

The federal government also regulated both interstate and international trade. It could levy tariffs, taxes on imports, which could favor one economic interest at the expense of another. It could regulate banks and currency. Or it could, as Jackson's veto of the Second Bank of the United States (the BUS) showed, leave such matters to the states. States were extraordinarily active in promoting business and businesses. New York's Erie Canal is the most notable example. When Jackson vetoed the national road bill, state turnpike projects became all the more important.

The triumph of Jackson in the battle over the Bank and the national road meant that the American economy would be especially tumultuous. There was no national currency. Instead banks, chartered by states, issued money which other banks then "discounted" on the basis of very imperfect knowledge of the first bank's assets. There was no national coordination of the feverish rush to build roads, canals, and railways. Instead each state, and each group of investors, sought to gain an advantage over the others. There were no national regulations over the issuing of bonds or other publically traded securities. States issued their own bonds and chartered corporations as they saw fit. It was, as Robert Wiebe has persuasively argued, an "open society."

Despite the absense of the sort of coordination Henry Clay's "American System" was intended to supply, the pace of change was nonetheless astonishing. Americans, like their English cousins and western European contemporaries, were caught up in the process of modernization, a complex of reinforcing developments which transformed their society. With the beginnings of industrialization in the 1820s came a series of "revolutions" -- a transportation revolution, a communications revolution, an agricultural revolution. Steam power, the canals, the railroads, the telegraph combined to create a national economy.

These changes, conventionally lumped together and labeled "modernization," were momentous. One way to grasp this is through the unpublished memoirs of the Rev. Charles R. Harding, an itinerant preacher and temperance advocate. He vividly contrasted the America of his youth in the 1810s and 1820s with that of the 1860s. When he began his ministry, sometime in the early 1830s, "there was not a rod of railroad in all the land. All travel, was either on foot, by private teams, or by the ploding stage coach. All transportation, excepting what was done on the streams by rafts, flat bottom boats, and other craft, was by teams." Towns had a merchant or two who replenished their stores twice a year, offering for sale only those items they could transport themselves. Farmers might go to a city like Boston once a year.

They usually went in the winter, drove two horses, and went in companies, of from two to a half dozen. They took their pork, butter and cheese, and perhaps some [of the produce] of their neighbors, they took their food for the journey, in the shape of baked beans, roast or boiled meat, brown bread, cheese, etc. etc. usually enough to supply them till nearly, if not quite home again. They also took grain for their horses. They would be gone from five to fifteen days, as the distance, and traveling (sic) were.

They would stop at night, with hotel keepers, who provided for this kind of travel. After their teams were cared for they would carry in their pails, call for a mug of cider, and take their supper. Then they would sit around the fire, spin their yarns, and drink hot sling and then retire. In the morning [they would] take their bitters [a tonic, usually alcoholic, made from roots and herbs], call for cider, and eat their breakfast, as they did their supper. Then settle their bills, get ready, and go on their way. One day is an illustration of every day. At market they would sell thier (sic) load and purchase thier (sic) years stock of groceries, molasses, sugar, tea, coffee, spices, salt, cod fish, etc. etc., always taking good care to fill their keg with new rum, and then turn toward home in the same manner they came. They were usually a jolly set of fellows, and their Boston trip was the only pasttime they had for the year.

Farmers who stayed behind bartered their produce for supplies with the local merchants. To transport these goods to market, the merchants employed teamsters:

These teamsters were usually a very philosophical class of men. They took things easy, rain or shine, snow, or mud, were all alike to them. If they broke down, they righted up again and went on. They were very friendly, often doubling thier [sic] teams to help over bad places. Lumber was also an article of trade, this was drawn to rivers, and rafted down to market, by a class called raft-men. The rivers were also navigated, by flat boats, which were urged up the current, hundreds of miles by oarsmen, keeping near the shore, with long poles. There were certain places of rapid water, some of them several miles long, at these places a class lived called swift water men, whose only business was to help by these places. Slow and tedious, was the journey and hard the work, but no body thought of being discouraged, or of complaining.

Drovers would purchase cattle, and then "drive" the herd to cities like New York. Farmers would see a little cash from these transactions, but "barter was the curency (sic) of the times." Such was life for the great majority of white Northerners, and Southerners as well.

. . . the history of one year was the history of many. Another feature of the times, the habits of the people were very domestick. I can recollect when there was not a factory in all the country. Women spun and wove their own cloth, and a class called cloth dressers fitted it for use. There was no cotton, linen made from flax, by women's hands, was the shirting, and sheeting of the day. The wants of the people were few, and usually well supplied, luxuries they did not need, and of course did not pine for them. Take one thing more, the manner of communication, between businessmen and friends. A mail twice a week was a luxury, most towns had but one, and the cost of postage, [for] a letter [sent] under thirty miles, six cents, over thirty, and under one hundred, ten cents, and so on up to twenty five, and as communication was slow, and expensive, and money hard to be obtained, there was but little correspondence between friends. A friend only fifty miles away might die, and be buried some days before we would get the news. This would look cruel now, but no one thought of complaining then. Intelligence was slow in getting along, no daily papers, and but few weeklies, the results of an election in a state, would not be ascertained for weeks, and the transactions of Congress, would not reach the people until they were almost an old affair.

All of this changed within a single generation. The engine, literally, of the transformation was the locomotive. In the 1830s a rail boom began. ". . . the enterprise went forward, they were extended farther, and farther, no mountain too high, no valley too deep, no river too broad. They pushed back into the interior, they came nearer and nearer our doors. They connected states, and friends long separated were almost in handshaking distance." "Handshaking distance" is a phrase worth pondering. A few years earlier, a friend fifty miles away might die and be buried "some days before we would get the news." Postage was so expensive, cash so hard to come by, that friends could hardly stay in touch except episodically. The economic impact of the railroad was profound, but it is a merit of Harding's that he placed just as much emphasis upon the social and familial:

Everything went to the rail, and reached market before it decayed, all was fresh and ready for sale. The merchant could go to market as often as he pleased, and he away from his business, but a short time, and his goods reach their destination before they were antiquated by delay, or soiled by age. Thus has the railroad completely revolutionised the Agricultural, and the Commercial world. It has brought friends into almost the same neighborhood, and by the rapidity with which the mails are carried we are kept familiar with each other and as the rate of postage, has been reduced to next to nothing, we are enabled to live in the sympathy, and embrace of each other.

At left is a Currier and Ives' lithograph entitled "Progress." It could have been drawn to illustrate Harding's account. The theme of his memoir speaks to the underlying experience of the generations coming of age in the decades between 1830 and 1860. This was the conquest of age-old constraints on human enterprise. Fifty miles had been a formidable distance, communication slow, markets local, goods few. Tradition held sway, even in a new country. People accepted these constraints as givens. Then, suddenly, they evaporated. Thomas Jefferson, contemplating the vast expanse of the Louisiana Purchase, calculated it would take a thousand years to settle. It had, after all, taken several centuries to push as far west as the Alleghenies. The difference between how long it actually took to settle the Louisiana Purchase and Jefferson's prediction is a convenient measure of how radical the changes introduced by steam power were.

Americans, especially white Northerners, lived in an age in which anything seemed possible and old certainties were routinely overthrown. Factories to manufacture cotton cloth, then shoes, then a constantly expanding array of other goods, sprang up. First they lined the river banks and streams because mill races provided the power. Then, with the railroad, it became feasible to ship coal long distances and inland cites without access to navigable waterways started to boom. Worcester, Massachusetts was the first. It was the center of the emerging rail grid of New England and New York. Trains from Albany, eastern terminus of the Erie Canal, went to Worcester where their shipments were transported to Boston, Providence, Hartford, and other places. Trains from Boston, carrying freight for the Ohio Valley, pulled into Worcester on their way to Albany. The city grew rapidly. It did not produce textiles. It made machines, including looms. It made plows for the western frontier. It had the largest wire mill in the country. Coal and raw materials poured into the city, and finished goods poured out. Merchants saw the opportunity in the new machines. Inventors looking for venture capital could turn to Stephen Salisbury II and William T. Merrifield. Each had constructed large factory buildings. They provided space, power, money. In return, they took a share of the profits.

The great figure in Worcester's industrial development was the founder of the wire mill, Ichabod Washburn. He was a self-made man, beginning as an apprentice to a blacksmith and moving on to study the forging of machinery. He manufactured lead pipe, plows, and other articles before turning to wire. He writes in his Autobiography:

In the year 1831. . . we [he and a partner] commenced the manufacture of iron wire, at a time when but little of this important article had been manufactured in this country. The first coarse wire machine I ever saw, was one of self-acting pinchers, drawing out about a foot, then passing back, and drawing another foot; so crude and ill adapted for the work was this machine that no man could draw more than fifty pounds a day. We improved on this machine, so as to draw out about fifteen feet at each pass, increasing the product at least ten fold.

We soon, however, substituted the Drawing Block, which has never since been improved. With this, a man can conveniently get off twenty-five hundred pounds in a day. Other important improvements have since been made, aside from the drawing block, which I do not claim, both in coarse and fine wire-drawing, as also in the annealing process.

In the autumn of 1834, I continued the business of manufacturing wire on my own account, at what is called the Grove Mill, built by Stephen Salisbury, Esq., under my direction.

In the enlargement of the business from time to time, the machinery has been mostly drafted by myself, and constructed under my direction.

Washburn loved machines. He loved the challenge of finding a better way to make something. Here is his description of the most satisfying experience he had as a mechanic:

About . . . the year 1850, I was urged by Mr. Chickering of Boston, the piano-forte maker, to try my hand at making steel wire for the strings to his instruments. Until then, that business had been entirely in the hands of Webster, of England, for eighty years.

This undertaking, through all its attendant difficulties, to its final accomplishment, after years of personal application, many experiments, and much expense, I may say, without egotism, was the greatest success of my mechanical life. Since that time, the introduction of the Sewing machine, and of crinoline, has greatly increased the demand both for needle and crinoline steel.

An experience of ten years in working steel before the introduction of crinoline wire gave us a great advantage, which very soon secured for us a decided preference over other manufacturers, our weekly production for this article alone, crinoline wire for skirts, averaging sixty thousand pounds, and being about one-half (judging from reliable sources) of the entire production in the country.

This estimate shows that the annual consumption of three thousand tons of steel is required to expand and give prominence to the ladies' dresses in this country.

In addition to giving "prominence to the ladies' dresses," Washburn's experience in drawing steel wire enabled him to enter the rapidly expanding market for telegraph wire. He acquired an English patent for galvanizing wire without the prolonged use of acid. Washburn's Patent Galvanized Wire was, he estimated, 12.5% stronger than that of his competitors. His business thrived. In 1835, once the Grove Mill facility was completed,

I was employing about twenty-five workmen, occupying seven thousand feet in area for manufacturing. At this time, 1866, we are employing at both our mills, from six hundred and fifty to seven hundred men, occupying one hundred thousand feet in area . . . .

Worcester grew at a comparable pace. In 1820, the year after Washburn came to the town as a journeyman blacksmith, there were fewer than 3,000 inhabitants. In 1865, the state census put the population at over 33,000. Many of the new inhabitants were, like Washburn, mechanics, men looking to make the new machines. Over the course of the nineteenth century, there were more patents issued to residents of Worcester Country than to those of any other. These ranged from looms and plows to adjustable wrenches to envelopes with glue. A Worcester resident then invented the Valentine Day card.

It is no coincidence that Worcester was a hotbed of reform, and of Know-Nothingism, in the 1850s. Washburn, among his many other benefactions, was a supporter of the woman's rights, temperance, and anti-slavery campaigns. Washburn University in Kansas is named after him, and its athletic teams are the "Ichabods." Another Worcester reformer, Eli Thayer, founder of the Oread Academy which gave young women a comparable education to that provided young men, organized the Emigrant Aid Society which sought to spur free soilers to settle in Kansas. The site of the University of Kansas, in the free soil capital of Lawrence, is Mount Oread. The first two national woman's rights conventions, in 1850 and 1851, were held in Worcester. In 1852 Thomas Wentworth Higginson accepted a call to launch a "free church" in the city because he knew he would find there kindred spirits such as abolitionist and woman's rights agitator Abby Kelley Foster and her husband. In Worcester Higginson organized a Vigilance Committee to resist enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law and a branch of the Carson League to enforce the prohibition of alcohol.

Also no coincidence is Worcester's strong support for the Know-Nothings.


Some of the most impressive recent historical scholarship deals with the collapse of the so-called second party system and the rise of the third. After Andrew Jackson's victory in 1828, his supporters, led by future vice president and then president Martin Van Buren, set about organizing what became the Democratic Party. Jackson's rivals formed the Whigs. Until the Compromise of 1850 the two had battled on nearly even terms with the Whigs winning the presidency in 1840 and 1848. Most historians follow Michael Holt's argument in The Political Crisis of the 1850s that the Compromise of 1850, by seemingly removing slavery as an issue in national politics, weakened party allegiances, especially among Whigs. Other issues, such as the Bank of the United States and the tariff, which had previously divided Whigs and Democrats, also lost saliency. This further weakened party ties, again especially among the Whigs. In 1854, with the passage of the Nebraska Act, slavery suddenly re-emerged as the most important issue. Support for the Nebraska bill was virtually unanimous across the South. Northern Democrats also supported it. The inability of the southern Whigs to claim any credit for its passage, and of the northern Whigs to prevent its passage, spelled their doom in both sections. For an extended account of the sectional conflict over Kansas triggered by this Act, click here. In 1854 remnants of the Whigs battled the new Republican and Know-Nothing parties across the North. The white South turned solidly Democratic. Massachusetts was the scene of the Know Nothings' greatest victory; Worcester was their center of greatest strength in the state.


In December 1854, a month after the Native American Party swept the state elections, carrying almost every seat in both houses of the Massachusetts legislature and the governorship, it secured similar control of Worcester's city government. Know-Nothings won every office on the ballot with a platform pledging strict enforcement of prohibition, resistance to the extension of slavery, and an end to Irish "influence" in the schools and elsewhere. How are we to explain this? Why did a booming city, one which so clearly allied its future with mechanical invention and reform, turn to the Know Nothings? Clearly Holt's hypothesis about the effect of economic distress offers little guidance.

Modernization was, above all else, about new possibilities. To seize them Northerners invented a raft of institutions of which the public school was the most important. Next in line were the "mechanics' associations" and the lyceums, both self-improvement agencies with broad appeal.

With the freedom to realize individual ambition came the danger of license, particularly because the ease of geographic movement and the anonymity of the city made older forms of social control less effective. In colonial towns one worried what the neighbors might think, what the minister might say. In Springfield, Illinois in the 1840s this still seemed true to Lincoln. In Boston or Philadelphia or Worcester, it clearly was not.

Worcester epitomized the choices northern white Protestants saw before them. It lay within their power to build a prosperous, orderly community with good schools, modern factories, lyceums, mechanics associations. They could grow with the country, providing it with its tools, helping to invent its future. But, on the city's east side, in a section called Pine Meadow, was a large and growing Irish shanty town. It was squalid, crime-ridden, and impoverished. There was no law in "the Huddles," as the Irish referred to it. The Carson League attempted to enforce prohibition. Nonetheless there was open drunkenness. There was no order, no decency. The Daily Evening Journal, the city's Know-Nothing newpaper, carried daily stories, culled from the proceedings of the courts, about life among the Irish. The threat and the promise served to intensify each other.

Were the Irish a threat? Yes, especially if you believed you held the future within your grasp. In June of 1854, some six months prior to the election, a fire broke out in the factory buildings of William T. Merrifield. The buildings, which occupied three-fourths of a square city block, were totally destroyed. Dozens of businesses were affected. 1,000 mechanics and artisans lost their jobs -- in a city with a workforce of less than 10,000. No one was killed, probably because the fire erupted during the lunch hour, although several were injured in putting it out. Most, according to the city's oldest newspaper, the reform-minded Massachusetts Spy, believed the conflagration was the work of an incendiary. No evidence of this ever materialized, but the word on the Yankee west side of the city was that the Irish started the blaze. Spy editor John Milton Earle did what he could to squash the rumor by highlighting the efforts of individual Irish to combat the fire. But the charge persisted. Why would the Irish do such a thing? Many shops in Merrifield's buildings refused to hire Irish workers. The Irish could find work on the railroads, laying track, and in the construction trades at unskilled jobs, and in the city's warehouses. But the world of the mechanic was closed to them. In December William T. Merrifield was among the Know-Nothings swept into office. The following year he would narrowly lose the mayoralty as the party's candidate.

Merrifield rebuilt. According to the Spy one Worcester investor wrote him a personal check for $30,000 even as the fire blazed. Another supporter lent Merrifield $20,000. While his new buildings were under construction, some of the displaced shops took temporary occupancy of the new train terminal. Others shared space with erstwhile competitors who lent them the use of tools and power. The entire Yankee community came together. At an open meeting, held the day after the fire, former governor Levi Lincoln, talked of the city's losses:

Mr. Lincoln . . . said . . . all the calamities we have had to deplore, in all his long experience, were not so great as that, to consider which, we had met to-day. In addition to private calamities, the loss of property, and the personal injuries of many of our citizens, sustained, while heroically exerting themselves to stay the progress of the conflagration, there were other considerations not to be lost sight of, and he feared that the consequent suffering would not terminate in any short period of time. Such a calamity as this strikes a blow at the enterprises which were building us up, and undermines the foundations of our prosperity. For it is to these enterprises, and the zeal, intelligence, and industry of those who conduct them that the city owes its progress and prosperity more than to all else besides. It will require the wisdom of all, the charity and benevolence of all, to repair the losses that have been sustained, but none could doubt for a moment, that knew the character of our people, we should rise above it.

By December the city had entirely recovered. But the Yankee community had not forgotten.

Would Worcester's Yankee community have supported the American Party if there had no been a fire? Almost certainly. The rest of the state went overwhelmingly Know-Nothing just a month before. The fire thematized the Irish menace but that is probably all it did. At the heart of Know-Nothing success in the North lay the party's ability to fuse several very powerful impulses among white Protestants. One was their commitment to creating a non-denominational Protestant religious establishment. Another was their determination to shape an American nationality in their own image, a goal which largely overlapped the religious ambitions. Still another was their commitment to progress which they defined in terms of the "mechanic's ideal." Progress arose from ingenuity, education, self-improvement, and self-discipline. Its institutions were the shop, of course, but also the mechanics associations with their libraries, the lyceums with their programs of lectures, and the public school system. The Irish either opposed or added nothing to these quests. They were uninvited guests who, given the laxity of naturalization laws, were likely to play an increasing but altogether unwarranted role in American public life.

Know Nothings bemoaned the collapse of social order even as they espoused the cause of modernization. This was not a contradiction, not even an inconsistency, to their way of thinking. It is instead evidence they shared the general fascination with perfection. Yet, as with efforts to create a non-denominational national religion, the Know Nothing attempt to create an "American" national culture failed.

IV. Perfectionism: "They have squared the circle of society, and resolved the arcana of its perpetual motion."

Reform seeks to shore up the social order by fixing problems. It is an alternative to despair, and also to revolution. So Thomas Babington Macauley informed the House of Commons, when he called upon them to pass the Reform Bill of 1832. You must "reform that you may preserve." So too argued Otto von Bismarck in defense of his plan to extend pensions to the working classes. Pensions were far less expensive, he told critics, than revolutions. Yet antebellum reform carried the promise of revolutionary change. It promised to transform the social order by totally reinventing the relations between the sexes and the races and abolishing the use of alcohol. In large measure this arose from Perfectionism.

There was more to the perfectionist impulse than Finney's theology, more than democratic excess (which was Tocqueville's explanation and Alice Felt Tyler's). Americans, especially white Northerners, saw themselves as living at the dawn of a new era in human history. Old constraints were melting before their eyes. New sources of energy, new machines, new products abounded. They shared what Arthur Bestor called the "Patent Office Model of Society." They believed, that is, that the United States was still plastic, its culture and mores still to be shaped. Further, the new technologies reinforced the conviction that theirs was truly to be a New World. Not only would they throw off the superstitions and antiquated ways of the Old, they would escape the scarcity that had hitherto hobbled humanity. A utopian streak ran through the North. Listen to the highly disgruntled voice of James Gordon Bennett, editor of the New York Herald and archfoe of reform, railing against the first national woman's rights convention in Worcester in 1850:

Here the daylight of discovery breaks in upon us as the first glimpse of the great Salt Lake broke upon the Mormons. Here we unbuckle our traps, and go straight to work in shovelling up the gold dust. The old Syracuse engineer [Archimedes] jumped up in his nether garment, and shouted "Eureka," and Grubby Greeley [Horace Greeley, editor of the rival New-York Daily Tribune] answers Abby Kelly at Worcester, with "Eureka." We have got it. Got what? The philosopher's stone--the key to the millenium--the one thing needful--the schedule of the final reformation. The Lord be praised.

It is the philosopher's omnibus bill--it is the putting all in a lump the several experiments of reform of the Tribune reformers, with a good deal of new matter, new principles, and fundamental ideas, as put forth on the platform of the Woman's Rights Convention, recently held in Worcester. Let the world rejoice. Lucretia Mott, Abby Kelly, [William Lloyd] Garrison, [Wendell] Phillips, Mrs. [Ernestine] Rose, Fred. Douglas, Sojourner Truth, and the Widow Mercy, sitting in council day and night, backed up, heart and soul, by our glorious Greeley, have solved the problem of the age. They have squared the circle of society, and resolved the arcana of its perpetual motion. From our published reports of the proceedings, the speeches, the declarations, and the resolutions of the Worcester Convention, it will be seen that their platform is made up of all the timbers of all the philosophers and spiritual advisers of the Tribune, founded upon the strong pillars of abolition, socialism, amalgamation and infidelity, compassing all the discoveries in heaven and earth.

Why did a woman's rights movement begin at mid-century in the northern United States? [For an extended discussion of the origins of the organized woman's rights movement in the 1850s, click here.] One reason is that a generation of women grew up seeing the traditional give way to the modern. Once, every woman had made clothes for her family. Every woman had made bread. And soap. Within a generation machines performed all these tasks. There was a new world opening before Americans. The fact that women had never voted or owned property no longer signified.

Any number of Americans believed they could "square the circle of society." The dozens of experimental communities, Owenite, Fourierist, and other, were, Bestor pointed out, only the tip of the iceberg. For every person who actually joined a Brook Farm or a village of Modern Times, scores had contemplated it. Further, if we follow Bennett's and the Herald's lead and include the Mormons among those seeking to reinvent society, the number increases dramatically. Abolition and woman's rights, like Mormonism, were both grounded in the conviction that the most basic institutions of society were malleable. There could be a new kind of family, a new kind of South. The future lay within their grasp. But they must hurry.

This sense of the radical possibilities of the present was increased by the rapid movement of westward expansion. Their generation would create the basic institutions fo the new America. If they missed the opportunity, it would be gone forever.

Renewed religious fervor, rapid modernization, urbanization, immigration, repeated efforts at the creation of an interdenominational Protestant establishment, sectional tensions -- all accelerated by different patterns and paces of sectional growth -- came to a head in the 1850s. The possibilities and hazards took the form of Tocqueville's question about nationality. If reason and interest were not sufficient to create a society, could America adhere?

Henry Clay's "American System" did not win out over Jackson's appeal to decentralization. The American Party's appeal to ethnic and religious homogeneity did not win out over sectional loyalty. The revival converted millions, but more remained outside the fold. The "benevolent empire" drew in millions, but too many refused to embrace its goals. Attempts to use state authority to impose uniformity and morality had much success but proved more divisive than unifying in the long run. Even the market, impersonal and seemingly impartial, created deep sectional and class divisions. Worse, it enabled Northerners both to condemn slavery as a sin and to despise the slaveholders as backward.

In the mean time, the clock was ticking. As Tocqueville noted, speed was an American obsession. Clipper ships competed to set the fastest times. Steamboats, sometimes at the hazard of passengers' lives and possessions, raced on the Mississippi. Trains carried names like the "Lightning Express." Currier and Ives lovingly illustrated this fascination.

   

Yet, national ties of the sort Tocqueville described as essential were the product of time. He observed:

The Americans of the United States must inevitably become one of the greatest nations in the world; their offspring will cover almost the whole of North America; the continent that they inhabit is their dominion, and it cannot escape them. What urges them to take possession of it so soon? Riches, power, and renown cannot fail to be theirs at some future time, but they rush upon this immense fortune as if but a moment remained for them to make it their own.

Here is a crucial insight. White Americans were impatient, but not just with politics as Michael Holt has it. They were impatient about everything, including forging a national identity, and about taking possession of the continent most of all. This is the significance of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. It set up a race. Whoever got there first would win. But, in the first territorial election, thousands of Missourians crossed into Kansas to vote. The territorial governor decided that he would invalidate only those ballots formally challenged. The election results stood. Free Soilers refused to accept the outcome, and "Bleeding Kansas" became the focal point of sectional rivalry. The Lockean bonds of union broke. Tocqueville had been right. They had not proven to be enough.