Church attendance was still a regular ritual for about three-fourths of the 23 million Americans in 1850.
Alexis de Tocqueville declared that there was "no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America."
Yet the religion of these years was not the old-time religion of colonial days.
The austere Calvinist rigor had long been seeping out of the American churches.
The rationalist ideas of the French Revolutionary era had done much to soften the older orthodoxy.
Thomas Paine's widely circulated book The Age of Reason (1794) had shockingly declared that all churches were "set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit."
American anticlericalism was seldom that virulent, but many of the Founding Fathers, including Jefferson and Franklin, embraced the liberal doctrines of Deism that Paine promoted.
Deists relied on reason rather than revelation, on science rather than the Bible.
They rejected the concept of original sin and denied Christ's divinity.
Yet Deists believed in a Supreme Being who had created a knowable universe and endowed human beings with a capacity for moral behavior.
Deism helped to inspire an important spin-off from the severe Puritanism of the past--the Unitarian faith, which began to gather momentum in New England at the end of the eighteenth century.
Unitarians held that God existed in only one person (hence unitarian), and not in the orthodox Trinity.
Although denying the divinity of Jesus, Unitarians stressed the essential goodness of human nature rather than its vileness; they proclaimed their belief in free will and the possibility of salvation through good works; they pictured God not as a stern Creator but as a loving Father.
Embraced by many leading thinkers (including Ralph Waldo Emerson), the Unitarian movement appealed mostly to intellectuals whose rationalism and optimism contrasted sharply with the hellfire doctrines of Calvinism, especially predestination and human depravity.
A boiling reaction against the growing liberalism in religion set in about 1800.
A fresh wave of roaring revivals, beginning on the southern frontier but soon rolling even into the cities of the Northeast, sent a Second Great Awakening surging across the land.
Sweeping up even more people than the First Great Awakening almost a century earlier, the Second Awakening was one of the most momentous episodes in the history of American religion.
This tidal wave of spiritual fervor left in its wake countless converted souls, many shattered and reorganized churches, and numerous new sects.
It also encouraged an effervescent evangelicism that bubbled up into innumerable areas of American life--including prison reform, the temperance cause, the women's movement, and the crusade to abolish slavery.
The Second Great Awakening was spread to the masses on the frontier by huge "camp meetings."
As many as twenty-five thousand people would gather for an encampment of several days to drink the hellfire gospel as served up by an itinerant preacher.
Thousands of spiritually starved souls "got religion" at these gatherings and in their ecstasy engaged in frenzies of rolling, dancing, barking, and jerking.
Many of the "saved" soon backslid into their former sinful ways, but the revivals massively stimulated church membership and a variety of humanitarian reforms.
Easterners were moved to do missionary work in the Indian backwoods, in Hawaii, and in Asia.
Methodists and Baptists reaped the biggest harvest of souls from the fields fertilized by revivalism.
Both sects stressed personal conversion (contrary to predestination), a relatively democratic control of church affairs, and a rousing emotionalism.
As a frontier jingle ran,
Because they sing and shout the best.
The devil hates the Methodist
Because they sing and shout the best.
Powerful Peter Cartwright (1785-1872) was the best known of the Methodist "circuit riders," or traveling frontier preachers.
This ill-educated but sinewy servant of the Lord ranged for a half-century from Tennessee to Illinois, calling upon sinners to repent.
With bellowing voice and flailing arms, he converted thousands of souls to the Lord.
Not only did he lash the Devil with his tongue, but with his fists he knocked out rowdies who tried to break up his meetings.
His Christianity was definitely muscular.
Bell-voiced Charles Grandison Finney was the greatest of the revival preachers.
Trained as a lawyer, Finney abandoned the bar to become an evangelist after a deeply moving conversion experience as a young man.
Tall and athletically built, Finney held huge crowds spellbound with the power of his oratory and the pungency of his message.
He led massive revivals in Rochester and New York City in 1830 and 1831.
Finney preached a version of the old-time religion, but he was also an innovator.
He devised the "anxious bench," where repentant sinners could sit in full view of the congregation, and he encouraged women to pray aloud in public.
Holding out the promise of a perfect Christian kingdom on earth, Finney denounced both alcohol and slavery.
He eventually served as president of Oberlin College in Ohio, which he helped to make a hotbed of revivalist activity and abolitionism."
Tax-supported primary schools were scarce in the early years of the Republic.
They had the odor of pauperism about them, since they existed chiefly to educate the children of the poor--the so-called ragged schools.
Advocates of "free" public education met stiff opposition. A midwestern legislator cried that he wanted only this simple epitaph when he died: "Here lies an enemy of public education."
Well-to-do, conservative Americans gradually saw the light.
If they did not pay to educate "other folkses brats," the "brats" might grow up into a dangerous, ignorant rabble--armed with the vote.
Taxation for education was an insurance premium that the wealthy paid for stability and democracy.
Tax-supported public education, though miserably lagging in the slavery-cursed South, triumphed between 1825 and 1850.
Grimy-handed laborers wielded increased influence and demanded instruction for their children.
Most important was the gaining of manhood suffrage for whites in Jackson's day. A free vote cried aloud for free education.
A civilized nation that was both ignorant and free, declared Thomas Jefferson, "never was and never will be."
The famed little red schoolhouse--with one room, one stove, one teacher, and often eight grades--became the shrine of American democracy.
Regrettably, it was an imperfect shrine. Early free schools stayed open only a few months of the year.
Schoolteachers, most of them men in this era, were too often ill trained, ill tempered, and ill paid.
They frequently put more stress on "lickin' " (with a hickory stick) than on "larnin'."
These knights of the blackboard often "boarded around" in the community, and some knew scarcely more than their older pupils.
They usually taught only the "three Rs"--"readin', 'ritin', and 'rithmetic."
To many rugged Americans, suspicious of "book larnin'," this was enough.
Reform was urgently needed. Into the breach stepped Horace Mann (1796-1859), a brilliant and idealistic graduate of Brown University.
As secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education, he campaigned effectively for more and better schoolhouses, longer school terms, higher pay for teachers, and an expanded curriculum.
His influence radiated out to other states, and impressive improvements were chalked up.
Yet education remained an expensive luxury for many communities.
As late as 1860, the nation counted only about a hundred public secondary schools--and nearly a million white adult illiterates.
Black slaves in the South were legally forbidden to receive instruction in reading or writing, and even free blacks, in the North as well as the South, were usually excluded from the schools
Educational advances were aided by improved textbooks, notably those of Noah Webster (1758-1843), a Yale-educated Connecticut Yankee who was known as the "Schoolmaster of the Republic."
His "reading lessons," used by millions of children in the nineteenth century, were partly designed to promote patriotism.
He devoted twenty years to his famous dictionary, published in 1828, which helped to standardize the American language.
Equally influential was Ohioan William H. McGuffey (1800-1873), a teacher-preacher of rare power.
His grade-school readers, first published in the 1830s, sold 122 million copies in the following decades.
McGuffey's Readers hammered home lasting lessons in morality, patriotism, and idealism. One copy-exercise ran,
Beautiful hands are they that do
Deeds that are noble good and true;
Beautiful feet are they that go
Swiftly to lighten another's woe."
When the nineteenth century opened, it was still a man's world, both in America and Europe.
A wife was supposed to immerse herself in her home and subordinate herself to her lord and master (her husband).
Like black slaves, she could not vote; like black slaves, she could be legally beaten by her overlord "with a reasonable instrument."
When she married, she could not retain title to her property; it passed to her husband.
Yet American women, though legally regarded as perpetual minors, fared better than their European cousins, partly because of their scarcity in frontier communities.
A western woman could warn her spouse to be respectful, for "if you don't there's plenty will."
Few American husbands were brutes; and women always had quiet ways of protecting themselves, regardless of law.
Despite these relative advantages, women were still "the submerged sex" in America in the early part of the century.
But as the decades unfolded, women increasingly emerged to breathe the air of freedom and self-determination.
In contrast to colonial times, many women avoided marriage altogether--about 10 percent of adult women remained "spinsters" at the time of the Civil War.
Gender differences were strongly emphasized in nineteenth-century America--largely because the burgeoning market economy was increasingly separating women and men into sharply distinct economic roles.
Women were thought to be physically and emotionally weak, but also artistic and refined.
Endowed with finely tuned moral sensibilities, they were the keepers of society's conscience, with special responsibility to teach the young how to be good and productive citizens of the Republic.
Men were considered strong but crude, always in danger of slipping into some savage or beastly way of life if not guided by the gentle hands of their loving ladies.
But if gender roles were sharply separated, men and women could still be regarded as equals.
As a sign of the prestigious position of American women, French visitor Alexis de Tocqueville noted that in his native France rape was punished only lightly, whereas in America it was one of the few crimes punishable by death.
The home was a woman's special sphere. Even reformers like Catharine Beecher, who urged her sisters to seek employment as teachers, endlessly celebrated the role of the good homemaker.
But some women increasingly felt that the glorified sanctuary of the home was in fact a gilded cage.
They yearned to tear down the bars that separated the private world of women from the public world of men.
Clamorous female reformers began to gather strength as the century neared its halfway point.
Most were broad-gauge battlers; while demanding rights for women, they joined in the general reform movement of the age, fighting for temperance and the abolition of slavery.
Like men, they had been touched by the evangelical spirit that offered the promise of earthly reward for human endeavor.
Neither foul eggs nor foul words, when hurled by disapproving men, could halt women heartened by these doctrines.
The women's rights movement was mothered by some arresting characters.
Prominent among them was Lucretia Mott, a sprightly Quaker whose ire had been aroused when she and her fellow female delegates to the London antislavery convention of 1840 were not recognized.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a mother of seven who had insisted on leaving "obey" out of her marriage ceremony, shocked fellow feminists by going so far as to advocate suffrage for women.
Quaker-reared Susan B. Anthony, a militant lecturer for women's rights, fearlessly exposed herself to rotten garbage and vulgar epithets.
She became such a conspicuous advocate of female rights that progressive women everywhere were called "Suzy Bs."
Other feminists challenged the man's world. Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, a pioneer in a previously forbidden profession for women, was the first female graduate of a medical college.
Precocious Margaret Fuller edited a transcendentalist journal, The Dial, and took part in the struggle to bring unity and republican government to Italy.
She died in a shipwreck off New York's Fire Island while returning to the United States in 1850.
The talented Grimk sisters, Sarah and Angelina, championed antislavery.
Lucy Stone retained her maiden name after marriage--hence the latter-day "Lucy Stoners," who follow her example.
Amelia Bloomer revolted against the current "street sweeping" female attire by donning a semimasculine short skirt with Turkish trousers--"bloomers," they were called--amid much bawdy ridicule about "Bloomerism" and "loose habits."
A jeering male rhyme of the times jabbed,
Gibbey, gibbey gab
The women had a confab
And demanded the rights
To wear the tights
Gibbey, gibbey gab.
Fighting feminists met at Seneca Falls, New York, in a memorable Woman's Rights Convention (1848).
The defiant Stanton read a "Declaration of Sentiments," which in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence declared that "all men and women are created equal.
One resolution formally demanded the ballot for females.
Amidst scorn and denunciation from press and pulpit, the Seneca Falls meeting launched the modern women's rights movement.
The crusade for women's rights was eclipsed by that against slavery in the decade before the Civil War.
Any white male, even an idiot, over the age of twenty-one could vote; no woman could.
Yet women were gradually being admitted to colleges, and some states, beginning with Mississippi in 1839, were even permitting wives to own property after marriage."
Who reads an American book?" sneered a British critic of 1820. The painful truth was that the nation's rough-hewn, pioneering civilization gave little encouragement to "polite" literature.
Much of the reading matter was imported or plagiarized from England.
Busy conquering a continent, the Americans poured most of their creative efforts into practical outlets.
Praiseworthy were political essays, like The Federalist of Hamilton, Jay, and Madison; pamphlets, like Tom Paine's Common Sense; and political orations, like the masterpieces of Daniel Webster.
In the category of nonreligious books published before 1820, Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography (1818) is one of the few that achieved genuine distinction.
His narrative is a classic in its simplicity, clarity, and inspirational quality. Even so, it records only a fragment of "Old Ben's" long, fruitful, and amorous life.
A genuinely American literature received a strong boost from the wave of nationalism that followed the War of Independence and especially the War of 1812.
By 1820 the older seaboard areas were sufficiently removed from tree-chopping so that literature could be supported as a profession.
The Knickerbocker Group in New York blazed brilliantly across the literary heavens, thus enabling America for the first time to boast of a literature to match its magnificent landscapes.
Washington Irving (1783-1859), born in New York City, was the first American to win international recognition as a literary figure.
Steeped in the traditions of New Netherland, he published in 1809 his Knickerbocker's History of New York, with its amusing caricatures of the Dutch.
When the family business failed, Irving was forced to turn to the goose-feather pen.
In 1819-1820 he published The Sketch Book, which brought him immediate fame at home and abroad.
Combining a pleasing style with delicate charm and quiet humor, he used English as well as American themes and included such immortal Dutch-American tales as "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."
Europe was amazed to find at last an American with a feather in his hand, not in his hair.
Later turning to Spanish locales and biography, Irving did much to interpret America to Europe and Europe to America.
He was, said the Englishman William Thackeray, "the first ambassador whom the New World of letters sent to the Old."
James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) was the first American novelist, as Washington Irving was the first general writer, to gain world fame and to make New World themes respectable.
Marrying into a wealthy family, he settled down on the frontier of New York.
Reading one day to his wife from an insipid English novel, Cooper remarked in disgust that he could write a better book himself. His wife challenged him to do so--and he did.
After an initial failure, Cooper launched out upon an illustrious career in 1821 with his second novel, The Spy--an absorbing tale of the American Revolution.
His stories of the sea were meritorious and popular, but his fame rests most enduringly on the Leatherstocking Tales.
A deadeye rifleman named Natty Bumppo, one of nature's noblemen, meets with Indians in stirring adventures like The Last of the Mohicans. James Fenimore Cooper's novels had a wide sale among Europeans, some of whom came to think of all American people as born with tomahawk in hand.
Actually Cooper was exploring the viability and destiny of America's republican experiment, by contrasting the values of "natural men," children of the wooded wilderness, with the artificiality of modern civilization.
A third member of the Knickerbocker group in New York was the belated Puritan William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878), transplanted from Massachusetts.
At age sixteen he wrote the meditative and melancholy "Thanatopsis" (published in 1817), which was one of the first high-quality poems produced in the United States.
Critics could hardly believe that it had been written on "this side of the water."
Although Bryant continued with poetry, he was forced to make his living by editing the influential New York Evening Post.
For over fifty years he set a model for journalism that was dignified, liberal, and high-minded."
Early Americans, confronted with pioneering problems, were more interested in practical gad gets than in pure science.
Thomas Jefferson, for example, was a gifted amateur inventor who won a gold medal for a new type of plow.
Noteworthy also were the writings of the mathematician Nathaniel Bowditch (1733-1838) on practical navigation and of the oceanographer Matthew F. Maury (1806-1873) on ocean winds and currents.
These writers promoted safety, speed, and economy.
But as far as basic science was concerned, Americans were best known for borrowing and adapting the findings of Europeans.
Yet the Republic was not without scientific talent.
The most influential American scientist of the first half of the nineteenth century was Professor Benjamin Silliman (1779-1864), a pioneer chemist and geologist who taught and wrote brilliantly at Yale College for more than fifty years.
Professor Louis Agassiz (1807-1873), a distinguished French-Swiss immigrant, served for a quarter of a century at Harvard College.
A path-breaking student of biology who sometimes carried snakes in his pockets, he insisted on original research and deplored the overemphasis on memory work.
Professor Asa Gray (1810-1888) of Harvard College, the Columbus of American botany, published over 350 books, monographs, and papers.
His textbooks set new standards for clarity and interest.
Lovers of American bird lore owed much to the French-descended naturalist John J. Audubon (1785-1851), who painted wild fowl in their natural habitat.
His magnificently illustrated Birds of America attained considerable popularity.
The Audubon Society for the protection of birds was named after him, although as a young man he shot much feathered game for sport.
Medicine in America, despite a steady growth of medical schools, was still primitive by modern standards.
Bleeding remained a common remedy. Plagues of smallpox were still dreaded, and the terrible yellow fever epidemic of 1793 in Philadelphia took several thousand lives.
"Bring out your dead!" was the daily cry of the drivers of the death wagons.
People everywhere complained of ill health--malaria, the "rheumatics," the "miseries," and the chills.
Illness often resulted from improper diet, hurried eating, perspiring and cooling off too rapidly, and ignorance of germs and sanitation.
"We was sick every fall, regular," wrote the mother of the future President Garfield.
Life expectancy was still dismayingly short--about forty years for a white person born in 1850, and less for blacks.
The suffering from decayed or ulcerated teeth was enormous; tooth extraction was often practiced by the muscular village blacksmith.
Self-prescribed patent medicines were common (one dose for people, two for horses) and included Robertson's Infallible Worm Destroying Lozenges.
Among home remedies was the rubbing of tumors with dead toads.
The use of medicine by the regular doctors was often harmful, and Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes declared in 1860 that if the medicines, as then employed, were thrown into the sea, humans would be better off and the fish worse off.
Victims of surgical operations were ordinarily tied down, often after a stiff drink of whiskey.
The surgeon then sawed or cut with breakneck speed, undeterred by the piercing shrieks of the patient.
A priceless boon for medical progress came in the early 1840s, when several American doctors and dentists, working independently, successfully employed laughing gas and ether as anesthetics."
During the uncertain eight years since 1836, Texas had led a precarious existence.
Mexico, refusing to recognize its independence, regarded the Lone Star Republic as a province in revolt, to be reconquered in the future.
Mexican officials loudly threatened war if the American eagle should gather the fledgling republic under its protective wings.
The Texans were forced to maintain a costly military establishment.
Vastly outnumbered by their Mexican foe, they could not tell when he would strike again.
Mexico actually did make two halfhearted raids that, though ineffectual, foreshadowed more fearsome efforts.
Confronted with such perils, Texas was driven to open negotiations with England and France, in the hope of securing the defensive shield of a protectorate.
In 1839 and 1840, the Texans concluded treaties with France, Holland, and Belgium.
Britain was intensely interested in an independent Texas.
Such a republic would check the southward surge of the American colossus, whose bulging biceps posed a constant threat to nearby British possessions in the New World.
A puppet Texas, dancing to strings pulled by Britain, could be turned upon the Yankees.
Subsequent clashes would create a smoke-screen diversion, behind which foreign powers could move into the Americas and challenge the insolent Monroe Doctrine.
French schemers were likewise attracted by the hoary game of divide and conquer.
These actions would result, they hoped, in the fragmentation and militarization of America.
Dangers threatened from other foreign quarters.
British abolitionists were busily intriguing for a foothold in Texas.
If successful in freeing the few blacks there, they presumably would inflame the nearby slaves of the South.
In addition, British merchants regarded Texas as a potentially important free-trade area--an offset to the tariff-walled United States.
British manufacturers likewise perceived that those vast Texan plains constituted one of the great cotton-producing areas of the future.
An independent Texas would relieve British looms of their fatal dependence on American fiber--a supply that might be cut off in time of crisis by embargo or war."
Faraway California was another worry of Polk's.
He and other disciples of Manifest Destiny had long coveted its verdant valleys, and especially the spacious bay of San Francisco.
This splendid harbor was widely regarded as America's future gateway to the Pacific Ocean.
The population of California in 1845 was curiously mixed.
It consisted of some seven thousand sun-blessed Spanish-Mexicans, plus more than ten times as many dispirited Indians.
There were fewer than a thousand foreigners, mostly Americans, some of whom had "left their consciences" behind them as they rounded Cape Horn.
Given time, these transplanted Yankees might yet bring California into the Union by "playing the Texas game."
Polk was eager to buy California from Mexico, but relations with Mexico City were dangerously embittered.
Among other friction points, the United States had claims against the Mexicans for some $3 million in damages to American citizens and their property.
The revolution-riddled regime in Mexico had formally agreed to assume most of this debt but had been forced to default on its payments.
A more serious bone of contention was Texas.
The Mexican government, after threatening war if the United States should acquire the Lone Star Republic, had recalled its minister from Washington following annexation.
Diplomatic relations were completely severed.
Deadlock with Mexico over Texas was further tightened by a question of boundaries.
During the long era of Spanish-Mexican occupation, the southwestern boundary of Texas had been the Nueces River.
But the expansive Texans, on rather farfetched grounds, were claiming the more southerly Rio Grande instead. Polk, for his part, felt a strong moral obligation to defend Texas in its claim, once it was annexed.
The Mexicans were far less concerned about this boundary quibble than the United States.
In their eyes all of Texas was still theirs, although temporarily in revolt, and a dispute over the two rivers seemed pointless.
Yet Polk was careful to keep American troops out of virtually all of the explosive no-man's-land between the Nueces and the Rio Grande, as long as there was any real prospect of peaceful adjustment.
The golden prize of California continued to cause Polk much anxiety.
Disquieting rumors (now known to have been ill-founded) were circulating that Britain was about to buy or seize California--a grab that Americans could not tolerate under the Monroe Doctrine.
In a last desperate throw of the dice, Polk dispatched John Slidell to Mexico City as minister late in 1845.
The new envoy, among other alternatives, was instructed to offer a maximum of $25 million for California and territory to the east.
But the proud Mexican people would not even permit Slidell to present his "insulting" proposition."
Polk wanted California--not war.
But when war came, he hoped to fight it on a limited scale and then pull out when he had won the prize.
The dethroned Mexican dictator Santa Anna, then exiled with his teenage bride in Cuba, let it be known that if the American blockading squadron would permit him to slip into Mexico, he would sell out his country.
Incredibly, Polk agreed to this discreditable intrigue.
But the double-crossing Santa Anna, once he returned to Mexico, proceeded to rally his countrymen to a desperate defense of their soil.
American operations in the Southwest and in California were completely successful.
In 1846 General Stephen W. Kearny led a detachment of seventeen hundred troops over the famous Santa Fe trail from Fort Leavenworth to Santa Fe.
This sunbaked outpost, with its drowsy plazas, was easily captured.
But before Kearny could reach California, the fertile province was won.
When war broke out, Captain John C. Frmont, the dashing explorer, just "happened" to be there with several dozen well-armed men.
In helping to overthrow Mexican rule in 1846, he collaborated with American naval officers and with the local Americans, who had hoisted the banner of the short-lived California Bear Flag Republic.
General Zachary Taylor meanwhile had been spearheading the main thrust.
Known as "Old Rough and Ready" because of his iron constitution and incredibly unsoldierly appearance--he sometimes wore a Mexican straw hat--he fought his way across the Rio Grande into Mexico.
After several gratifying victories, he reached Buena Vista. There, on February 22-23, 1847, his weakened force of five thousand men was attacked by some twenty thousand march-weary troops under Santa Anna.
The Mexicans were finally repulsed with extreme difficulty, and overnight Zachary Taylor became the "Hero of Buena Vista."
One Kentuckian was heard to say that "Old Zack" would be elected president in 1848 by "spontaneous combustion."
Sound American strategy now called for a crushing blow at the enemy's vitals--Mexico City.
General Taylor, though a good leader of modest-sized forces, could not win decisively in the semideserts of northern Mexico.
The command of the main expedition, which pushed inland from the coastal city of Vera Cruz early in 1847, was entrusted to General Winfield Scott.
A handsome giant of a man, Scott had emerged as a hero from the War of 1812 and had later earned the nickname of "Old Fuss and Feathers" because of his resplendent uniforms and strict discipline.
He was severely handicapped in the Mexican campaign by inadequate numbers of troops, by expiring enlistments, by a more numerous enemy, by mountainous terrain, by disease, and by political backbiting at home.
Yet he succeeded in battling his way up to Mexico City by September 1847 in one of the most brilliant campaigns in American military annals.
He proved to be the most distinguished general produced by his country between 1783 and 1861."
The Mastering of Mexico