A Nation of Law in a Time of Change:

America in the 1850's



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



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 the 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 anyone 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. What disguised the radical nature of this experiment, 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. White Americans were overwhelming Protestant. Use of English was virtually universal. The market-based economy was so well established that Americans shared basic ideas about worth, fair exchange, and the value of labor. Political participation, including officeholding, was widespread. Americans had shared the Revolutionary experience and later the naval war with France and the War of 1812 against Great Britain. Americans, in sum, could take for granted the features of nationality Tocqueville insisted were so crucial. There was no need to empower the government to create what already existed.

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, Americans had taken the matter of nationality for granted.

With the 1830s this suddenly began to change, and those changes created fissures in the once seamless seeming fabric of American life. Among the most serious tensions were those caused by:

  • the differences over slavery and the plantation economy of the south and the industrial economy of the north,
  • the rise of religious movements, revials and the "benevolent empire,"
  • the activism of reform movements,
  • the consequences of "modernization" and technological progress,
  • and the attempts of utopians to "square the circle of society."

As Tocqueville explained after describing what he had witnessed during his travels in America:

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 had been possible for the founders to imagine a nation built on law because they lived in a society united by "like thoughts and impressions." But changing times had already once caused those living in America to see themselves as a people set apart, and that led to the revolution that established America as a nation seperate from Britain. How could America survive the "almost revolutionary" progress of the mid-nineteenth century as a unified nation?

During the 1850's, Americans would live an experiment testing whether a country could live by law without the support of a common culture, or whether there were ways of creating a national identity that could transcend the differences caused by change. The problem was an urgent one, and this web-site is dedicated to reporting on the "progress" of that experiment.

We approach the design of this site within the terms of this "frame." Although we make no claim to offering a comprehensive treatment of the period, we have tried to cast our net broadly both in terms of topics and materials. Our ultimate challenge is to understand how the resources offered here can be used as specimens to help us better understand not only the 1850's but also the we offer as specimens of American life of the 1850's can help us better understand not onlyall of the people, events, issues, and literature of that moment came together to they come together to shape the 1850s and much of the rest of American history and culture.

The quotations in this essay come from the last chapter of volume 1, available online at the U. of Virginia's Democracy in America site.

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Questions or suggestions regarding the E Pluribus Unum project should be directed to: Dr. John McClymer, Assumption College.