In the eyes of most Americans, the first new nation had a mission to stand as an example to the world.  The concept of the Americas as having a special mission carried spiritual overtones. The religious dedication increased in the Great Awakening, which reinforced the idea of national purpose.

 

The combination of religious belief and social idealism brought major reforms and advances in human rights. It also brought disappointments that sometimes festered into cynicism and alienation.

 

 The currents of the Enlightenment and the Great Awakening flowed into the nineteenth Century and in different ways eroded the remnants of the Calvinist orthodoxy.

 

Enlightenment rationalism increasingly stressed human’s inherent goodness rather than depravity and it encourage a belief in social progress and the promise of individual perfectibility.

 

Enlightenment rationalism soon began to make deep inroads into the American Protestantism. The old puritan churches around Boston proved to be the most vulnerable to the logic of the Enlightenment. After a strain of rationalism ran through the puritan belief many on them went back to the traditional rites of the Episcopal Church.

 

By the end of the eighteenth century, many people drifted into Unitarianism, a belief that focused on the oneness and benevolence of God, the inherent goodness of humans and the dominance of reason and conscience over established creeds and confessions.

 

A parallel movement, Universalism, attracted a different social group: working class people of a more humble status. In 1779 John Murray founded the first Universalist Church at Gloucester, Massachusetts.

 

Universalism stressed the salvation of all men and women, not just a predestined few.  They taught that God was merciful, and the unregenerate would suffer in proportion to their sins.

 

By the end of the eighteenth century, Enlightenment secularism made deep inroads into American thought. Since then Americans have remained profoundly religious people.

 

In its frontier phase, the Second Awakening like the first generated great excitement and strange manifestations. It gave birth to a new institution where missionaries found ready audiences among lonely frontier folk hungry for spiritual intensity and a sense of community.

 

Among the established religious sections:

v     The Presbyterians were entrenched among the Scotch-Irish from Pennsylvania to Georgia. They gained further from the plan of Union worked out in 1801 with the Congregationalists of Connecticut and later with other States.

v     The Baptists embraced simplicity of doctrine and organization that appealed especially to the common people of the frontier. Their theology was grounded in the infallibility of the Bible and the recognition of people’s innate depravity and they stressed the equality of all men and women regardless of one’s wealth.

 

v     The Methodists, who shared the Baptists emphasis on salvation by free will, established a much more centralized church structure, which ironically may have been the most effective way evangelical method of all: the circuit rider who sought out people in the most remote areas with the message of salvation as a gift free for the taking.

 

Peter Cartwright emerged as the most successful Methodist “circuit rider”, and he grew justly famous for his sermons.  By the 1840s the Methodists had grown into the largest Protestant Church in the country.

 

The Great revival spread quickly through the west and into more settled regions back east.  Camp meeting usually took place in the summer or fall. People came from far and wide camping in wagons, tents, or crude shacks.

 

The largest camp meetings tended to be ecumenical affairs, with Baptist, Methodists, and Presbyterian ministers working as a team. Crowds numbered in the thousands

 

Camp meetings also brought a more settled community life through the churches they spawned, and they helped spread a more democratic faith among the frontier people.

 

Regions swept by such revival fevers power might be compared to forests devastated by fire. In 1830-18331 alone, the number of Churches in New England grew by one third.

 

Lyman Beecher called the Awakening of 1831 “the greatest work of God, and the greatest revival of religion, that the world has ever seen”.

 

In 1839 a Charles Grandison Finney preached for six-months in Rochester and helped generate 100,000 conversions, Raised in the back woods of New York he never heard the word of God except for in profanity.

 

He left home to study Law   and then began his legal practice in Adams New York. After visiting a Presbyterian church his conscience began to gnaw at him.  In 1821 he fled to the edge of town and a “mighty baptism of the Holy Ghost overwhelmed him”.

 

The next day he announced his new profession. In 1823 Finney was ordained and for the next decade he subjected the “Burned over district” to yet another scorching.

 

The “Burned over district” gave rise to several new religious departures, of which the most important was the Church of Latter-day Saints, or the Mormons.

 

The founder, Joseph Smith Jr he began forming his own Church in 1830 and within a few years he had gathered converts by the thousands, most of them New Englanders.  They found in Mormonism the promise of a pure kingdom of Christ in America and an alternative to the social turmoil and the degrading materialism of the era.

 

Most of the first Mormons were poor farm folk who were in search for better lands and lives; they were believer of popular magic and conjuring. Smith himself was from a long line of village magicians.

 

After the murder of Smith, Brigham Young chose a new land near the Great Salt Lake in Utah, despite its isolation it was close enough to the Oregon Trail for the saints to prosper by trade with passing gentiles.

 

Early in 1846 a small group began their journey to the new land and in the fall of 1846 15,000 had reached the winter quarters along the Missouri river.  In 1847 they arrived at Salt Lake only to find “a broad and barren land surrounded by mountains.

 

By 1869 some 80,000 Mormons had settled in Utah. Today there are nearly 9 million Mormons, and it is the fastest growing religion in the world.

 

Romanticism in America

The revival of emotional piety during the early 1800s represented a widespread tendency throughout the Western World to accentuate the stirrings of the spirit over the dry logic of reason and the allure of material gain.

 

By the 1780s, a revolt was brewing in Europe against the well-ordered world of the enlightened thinkers.

 

Americans also took readily to the romantics’ emphasis on individualism, idealizing now the virtues of common people, now the idea of original or creative genius in the artist, the author, or the great personality.

 

The most intense expression of romantic ideals was the transcendentalist movement of New England, which drew its name from its emphasis on those things that rose above the limits of reason.

 

More than any other person Ralph Waldo Emerson spread the transcendentalist gospel. From a line of New England ministers, he set out to be a Unitarian parson. He settled in Concord to take up a life of an essayist, poet, and popular speaker on the lecture circuit, preaching the good news of optimism, self-reliance, and the individual’s unlimited potential.

 

Emerson’s notable lecture “The American Scholar” delivered at Harvard in 1837, urged young Americans to put aside their awe of European culture and explore their own new world.

 

Emerson’s young friend and Concord neighbor, Henry David Thoreau, practiced the reflective self-reliance that Emerson preached. 

 

Thoreau himself marched to a different drum all his life.  After Harvard where he exhausted the resources of the library in vast bouts of reading, and after a brief stint as a teacher in which he got in trouble for refusing to cane students, he settled down to eke out a living through his families cottage industry of pencil making.

 

On July 4, 1845 he took to the woods to live in a cabin he had built on Emerson’s land beside Walden Pond.  He wanted to see how far he could free himself from the complexities of and hypocrisies of modern commercial life, and devoted his time to observation, reflection, and writing.

 

While Thoreau was at Walden Pond, the Mexican War erupted.  Believing it an unjust War to advance the cause of slavery, he refused to pay his state poll tax as a gesture of opposition, for which he was put in jail (for one night; an aunt paid his taxes).

 

The incident as so trivial as to be almost comic, but out of it grew the classic essay “Civil Disobedience”(1849), which was later to influence the passive-resistance movements of Mahatma Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King Jr in the American South.

 

“ If a law is of such a nature that it requires you to be an agent of injustice to                                                                   another,” Thoreau wrote, “then I say break the law”.

 

The broadening ripples of influence more than a century after Thoreau’s death show the impact a contemplative person can have on the world of action.

 

Thoreau and the transcendentalists largely supplied the force of an animating idea:  people must follow their consciences. Though these thinkers fascinated only a small following among the public at large in their own time, they inspired reform movements and were the quickening force for generations of writers that produced the first great classic of American Literature.

 

The Flowering of American Literature

Between 1850-1855 American saw the publication of Representative Men by Emerson, Walden by Thoreau, The Scarlet Letter and The House of Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Moby- Dick by Herman Melville, and Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman.

 

As the critic F.O. Mathiessen wrote in his book American Renaissance:  “you might search all the rest of the American Literature without being able to collect a group of books equal to these in imaginative quality”.

 

Nathaniel Hawthorn, the supreme writer of the New England group, never shared the sunny optimism of his neighbors or their perfectionist belief in reform.

 

He lived in both Concord and Salem, and was frequently haunted by the knowledge of evil bequeathed to him from his Puritan forebears, one of whom had been a judge at the Salem witchcraft trial.

 

He went to college in Bowdoin and worked in obscurity in Salem, he slowly began to sell a few stories and finally earned a degree of fame for his collection of Twice Told Tales (1837) and the Scarlet letter (1850).

 

In these, and most of his later works he presented powerful moral allegories.  His themes often examined sin and its consequences: pride and selfishness, secret guilt, selfish egotism, the impossibility of rooting sin out of the human soul.

 

The flowering of New England also featured a four-some (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Homes Sr, and James Russell Lowell) of poets who shaped the American imagination in a day when poetry was still accessible to a wide public.

 

A fifth poet Emily Dickinson was probably the most original and powerful of the bunch. As she once poetically wrote “success is counted sweetest by those who ne’er succeed”.

 

Born in Amherst in 1830, the child of a prominent stern father and gentle mother, she received a first rate secondary education and then attended the New Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, she never married and lived out her life in her parents home She died in 1886 and at that time only two of her poems had been published (anonymously).

 

Her themes were elemental:  life, death, fear, loneliness, nature, and above all God, a  “Force illegible,” a “distant stately lover”.

 

Washington Irving’s The Sketch Book (1820) and James Fenimore Cooper’s The Spy (1821) drew wide notice in both Britain and in America.

 

Irving showed that the American could after all make a career of literature.  He was the first to show that authentic American themes could draw a wide audience. However even the most “American” of his stories, Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow drew heavily on German folk tales.

 

Cooper, a country gentleman, got his start as a writer on a bet with his wife that he could write a better novel than one they had just read. He wrote The Pioneers (1823) and The Leather- Stocking Tales.

 

By the 1830’s and 1840’s new major talents had come to the scene.  Edgar Allen Poe, born in Boston but raised in Virginia, was a literary genius and probably the most important American writer of the times.

 

The tormented, heavy-drinking Poe was the master of Gothic horror in the short story and the inventor of the detective story and its major conventions.

 

He judged prose by its ability to provoke emotional tension, and since he considered fear to be the most powerful emotion, he focused his efforts on making the grotesque and supernatural seem disturbingly real to his readers. Anyone who has read The Tell-Tale Heart or The Pit and the Pendulum can testify to his success.

 

Herman Melville was a New Yorker whose reputation went into decline after his initial success, and was dramatically revived in the twentieth century.

 

Many of his readers took his work as fictional and he was mostly inspired to write novels of nautical adventures, producing one of the world’s greatest novels Moby Dick (1851).  Neither the public nor the critics accepted the novel at the time, which led to the decline in Melville’s career.

 

The most provocative American writer during the antebellum period was Walt Whitman.  The city fascinated him and he drew much of his editorial opinions and poetic inspirations from such things as shipyards, crowds, factories, and shop windows.

 

The renaissance in literature coincided with a massive expansion in the popular press.  The steam driven Napier press introduced from England in 1825, could print 4,000 sheets of newsprint in an hour.

 

Richard Hoe of New York improved upon it, inventing in 1847 the Hoe rotary press, which printed 20,000 sheets in an hour.  The chief beneficiary of a rising revulsion against the gutter press was the New York Tribune, founded as a Whig organ in 1841.

 

Horace Greeley became the most important journalist of the era; he announced that the New York Tribune would be a cheap but decent paper.  The paper would amuse its readers with its wholesome human-interest stories.

 

By 1840, according to census data, some 78% of the population and 91% of whites could read and write. It appears that since colonial times Americans had had the highest literacy rate in the western world.

 

By the 1830’s the demand for public schools was rising fast. Workers wanted free schools to be able to give their children a chance at the American dream. For all the effort to establish state schools, the conditions were often very poor. There were insufficient funds for buildings, books, equipment, and teachers were poorly paid.

 

The most widespread and effective means of popular education was the lyceum movement, which aimed to diffuse knowledge through public lectures.  Professional agencies provided speakers and performers of all kinds, in literature, science, music, humor, travel, and other fields.

 

In 1803 Salisbury, Connecticut opened a free library for children and in 1833 Peterborough, New Hampshire, established a tax-supported library open to all.  The opening of the Boston Public Library in 1851 was a turning point and by 1860 there were approximately 10,000 public libraries (not all completely free) housing some eight million volumes.

 

The post-Revolutionary proliferation of colleges continued after 1800 with the spread of small church schools and state universities.  Of the 78 colleges and universities in 1840, 35 of them had been founded after 1830, almost all as church schools.

 

Technical education grew slowly. The US Military Academy at West Point, founded in 1802 and the Naval Academy at Annapolis opened in 1845, training a limited number of engineers

 

Elementary education for girls met with general acceptance but anything beyond that did not. Many men and women thought that a higher education unsuited a woman’s destiny in life.

 

In 1850 although higher education for women initially met with some resistance, female seminaries such as The George Barrell Emerson School, in Boston, which started in the 1820’s and 1830’s, taught women mathematics, physics, and history as well as music, art, and the social amenities.

 

The Old South

To comprehend the distinctiveness of the old south requires first identifying the forces and factors that gave it a sense of unity.  Efforts to do so usually turn on two forms of thought:

v     The casual effects of environment (geography and climate)

v     The casual effects of human decisions and actions.

 

The hot humid weather fostered the growing of staple crops, and thus encouraged the plantation system and black slavery.  While geography was and is the key determinant of southern folkways, explanations that involve human agency are more persuasive.

 

In the 1830s many observers found the origins of southern distinctiveness in the institution of slavery.  The determination of slaveholders to retain control of their socioeconomic order created a sense of racial unity that subdued class conflict among whites.

 

Yet, the biracial character of the population influenced far more.  In shaping patterns of speech and folklore, of music, religion, literature, and recreation, black southerners immeasurably influenced and enriched the regions development.

 

Despite a great diversity of origins in the colonial population, the South drew few immigrants after the Revolution.  One reason was that the main shipping lines went to northern ports; another, that the prospect of competing with slave labor deterred immigrants.

 

After the Missouri Controversy of 1819-1821, the South became more and more a conscious minority, its population growth lagging behind that of other sections, its peculiar institution of slavery more and more an isolated and odious thing in Western civilization.

 

The religious culture of the white south retreated from the liberalism of the Revolutionary War era into orthodoxy, which provided one line of defense against new doctrines of any kind, while black southerners found in a similar religious culture a refuge from the hardships of their lot, a promise of release on some future day of Jubilee.

 

The preponderance of farming remained a distinctive regional characteristic, whether pictured as the Jeffersonian small farmer living by the sweat of his brow or the lordly planter dispatching his slave gangs.

 

In the end what made the south distinctive was its people’s belief, and other people’s belief, that they were distinctive.

 

Although cotton was the most important of the staple, or, market crops, it was a latecomer. Tobacco, the first staple crop, had earlier been the mainstay of Virginia and Maryland, and common in North Carolina.

 

Rice growing continued in a coastal strip that lapped over into North Carolina and Georgia.  Rice growing was limited to the tidewater because it required frequent flooding and draining of the fields, along that sector of the coast the tides rose and fell six or seven feet.

 

Since rice growing required substantial capital for floodgates, ditches, and machinery, the plantations that grew rice were large and relatively few in number.

 

Sugar, like rice called for a heavy capital investment in machinery to grind the cane, and was limited in extent because the cane was extremely susceptible to frost.  Some sugar grew in a smaller belt of eastern Texas, but it was always something of an exotic growth, better suited for a tropical climate.

 

Both Flax and Hemp were important to back country farmers at the end of the colonial era. Homespun clothing was most apt to be linsey-woolsey, a combination of linen and wool.

 

Flax never developed more than a limited commercial market, and that was mostly for linseed oil.  Hemp on the other hand, developed commercial possibilities in rope and cotton baling cloth, and for canvas sails.

 

Cotton the last of the major staples, eventually outpaced all the others put together.  At the end of the War of 1812, annual cotton production was estimated at less than 150,000 bales and in 1860 it was reported at 4 million.

 

Two things accounted for the growth:

ü      The voracious market for American cotton in British and French textiles

ü      The cultivation of new lands in the southwest.

 

By 1860 the center of the cotton belt stretched from eastern North Carolina through the fertile Alabama-Mississippi black belts (so called for their soil), on to Texas and up the Mississippi Valley as far as southern Illinois.

 

Cotton prices fell sharply after the Panic of 1837, and remained below 10 cents a pound through most of the 1840s, but they advanced above 10 cents late in 1855 and stayed there until 1860, reaching 15 cents in 1857.

 

The focus on cotton and the other cash crops has obscured the degree to which the South fed itself from its own fields.

 

With 30% of the country’s area in 1860, and 39% of its population, the slave states produced 52% of the nations corn, 29% of the wheat, 19% of the oats, 19% of the rye, 10% of the white potatoes, and 94% of the sweet potatoes.

 

Livestock added to the diversity of the farm economy. In 1860 the South had half of the nations cattle, over60% of the swine, 45% of the horses, 52% of the oxen, 90% of the mules and nearly 33% of the sheep, the last mostly in the upper south.

 

Cattle herding prevailed on the southern frontier at one time, and persisted in areas less suited to farming, such as the piney woods of the coastal plains, the Appalachians, and the Ozarks and their foothills.  Plantations and farms commonly raised livestock for home consumption.

By 1840 many thoughtful southerners concluded that by staking everything on agriculture the region had wasted chances in manufacturing and trade.  Then War of 1812 provided the south some stimulus for manufacturing, but the momentum declined in the post war flood of British imports.

 

During the antebellum years, there were two major explanations generally put forward for the lag in southern industrial development.

 

While to profitability of slavery has been a long-standing subject of controversy, in recent years economic historians have concluded that slaves on the average supplied about a 10% return on their cost.

 

White Society in the South

The heyday of expansion in British textiles was over by 1860, but by then the Deep South was locked into cotton production for generations to come.

 

Although great plantations were relatively few in number, they set the tone of economic and social life in the South.  What distinguished the plantation from the farm, in addition to its size, was the use of a large labor force, under separate control and supervision, to grow primarily staple crops (cotton, rice, tobacco, and sugarcane) for profit.

 

To be called a planter one had to own 20 slaves, only 1 out of every 30 whites in the South in 1860 was a planter.  Fewer than 11,000 owned 50 or more slaves, and the owners of over 100 numbered 2,292.

 

The planter group, making up under 4% of the adult white males in the South, owned more than half the slaves, produced most of the cotton, tobacco, and hemp, and all of the sugar and rice.

 

Often the planter commonly had less leisure than legend would suggest, for he in fact managed a large enterprise. At the same time he often served as the patron to whom workers appealed the actions of their foreman.

 

The quality of life for the slaves was governed far more by the attitude of the master than by the formal slave codes, which were seldom strictly enforced except in times of trouble.

 

The mistress of the plantation, like the master, seldom led a life of idle leisure.  She supervised the domestic household in the same way the planter took care of the business, overseeing the food. Linens, housecleaning, and care for the sick, and a hundred other details.

 

The wives of all but the wealthiest planters were expected to supervise all the domestic activities of the household and manage the slaves as well.

 

White women living within slave-owning cultures also confronted a double standard in terms of moral and sexual behavior.  While they were expected to behave as chaste examples of Christianity piety and sexual discretion, their husbands, brothers, and sons followed an unwritten rule of self-indulgent hedonism.

 

Overseers on the largest plantations generally came from the middle class of small farmers or skilled workers, or were younger sons of planters. Most aspired to become slaveholders themselves, and sometimes rose to that status, but others were constantly on the move in search of better positions.

 

The most numerous white southerners were small farmers (yeomen), those who lived with their families in a modest two-room cabin rather than columned mansions. They raised a few hogs and chickens, grew some corn and cotton, and traded with the neighbors more than stores.

 

The men in the family focused their energies on outdoor labors.  Women also worked in the fields during harvest time, but most of their days were spent attending to domestic chores.

 

Professional people, including lawyers, doctors, and editors, stood in close relationship to the planter and merchant classes that they served and to which they sometimes belonged.

 

Manufacturers held their own with the planters, as did merchants, often called brokers or factors, who handled the planters’ crops and acted as purchasing agents for their needs, supplying credit along the way.

 

Many professionals bought their way into the slaveholding class, and eventually acquired farms of their own.

 

There was a degree of fluidity and social mobility in the class structure of the white South.  Few indeed were the “cotton snobs” who lorded over the lower orders.  Planters were acknowledged as the social models and natural leaders.

 

Yet those who aspired to public office, especially could not afford to take a lordly attitude, for every southern state by 1860 allowed universal white male suffrage.

 

The voters, while perhaps showing respect to their “betters”, could nevertheless pick and chose among them at election time.

 

From colonial times, most southern white males prided themselves on adhering to a moral code centered on a sense of honor.

 

The dominant ethical code for the southern white elite derived from Protestant religion, classical philosophy, and medieval chivalry, and it depended upon a rigidly hierarchical social system, where ones status was defined by those above and below.

 

Southern white women played an important role in the culture of honor.  Indeed, they were the object of masculine chivalry and the subjects of male rule.

 

While men cultivated and defended their honor, women paraded and protected their virtue.  The southern lady presided over the morals and manners of the household while submitting to patriarchal authority.

 

She willingly subordinated her own individuality in order to serve her husband and her children.  According to the prevailing ideology of womanhood, southern ladies reinforced exaggerated gallantry and martial honor in their men.

 

When young Sam Houston joined the army to fight the War of 1812, his mother handed him a musket, saying: “Never disgrace it; for remember, I had rather all my sons should fill one honorable grave, than that one of them should turn his back to save his life”.

 

Black Society in the South

In the Old South, “free persons of color” occupied an uncertain status, balanced somewhere between slavery and freedom, subject to legal restrictions not imposed on whites.

 

State laws prohibited them from serving on juries or testifying against whites.  In the seventeenth century, a few blacks had been freed on the same basis as indentured servants.

 

Over the years, some slaves were able to purchase their freedom, while some gained freedom as a reward for service in American Wars.  Others were simply freed by conscientious masters, either in their wills or during their lifetimes.

 

William Ellison, a freed slave of partial white ancestry who lived in Stateburg, South Carolina, prospered as a cotton-gin maker.  In 1816, at the age of twenty-six, he purchased his own freedom from his white master (who may have been his father).

 

By the start of the Civil War, he had become the wealthiest free black in South Carolina, owner of a thriving business, an 800-acre plantation, and some sixty slaves.

 

Most often, black slaveholders were free blacks who bought their own family members with the express purpose of later freeing them. But many blacks engaged in slavery for purely selfish rather than humanitarian reasons.

 

Like their white counterparts, they participated in slave auctions and advertised for the return of runaways. In 1860 there were 262,000 free blacks in the slave states, a little over half the national total of 488,000.

 

Most slaves labored on plantations.  The preferred jobs were those of household servants and skilled workers, including blacksmiths and carpenters.  Others might get special assignments as boatmen or cooks.

 

Field hands were usually housed in one or two room wooden shacks with dirt floors, some without windows.

 

To generalize about slavery is to miss elements of diversity from place to place and from time to time.  The experience could be as varied as people are. Slaves were victims; there was no question about that.

 

But to impede with so obvious a perception would be to miss an important story of endurance and achievement

 

If ever there was a melting pot in American history, the most effective may have been that in which Africans from a variety of ethnic, linguistic, and tribal origins fused into a new community and a new culture as African Americans.

 

Among the most important manifestations of slave culture was its religion, a mixture of African and Christian elements. In this slaves could find both balm for the soul and release for their emotions

 

Alongside the church they maintained beliefs in spirits, magic, and conjuring.  Belief in magic is in fact common human response too conditions of danger or helplessness.

 

African cultural forms influenced music of great rhythmic complexity, forms of dance and body language, spirituals and secular songs, and folk tales.  African-American folklore tended to be realistic in its images of wish fulfillment.

 

There was substantial social and cultural diversity within the South during the 3 decades before the Civil War. Until the 1820s the Old Southwest bridged the South and the West, exhibiting characteristics of both areas.

 

Raw and dynamic filled with dangers uncertainties and opportunities, it served as a powerful magnet, luring thousands of settlers from Virginia and the Carolinas when the seaboard economy faltered during the 1820s and 1830s.