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,
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
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
chapter of volume 1, available online at the U. of Virginia's
in America site.
Questions or suggestions
regarding the E Pluribus Unum project should be directed to:
John McClymer, Assumption College.