I recently finished Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. This 850 page tome describes Antebellum religious thought, the communication and transportation revolution, political transition, sectionalism, international policy, and more. It also includes brief descriptions of dozens of interesting Americans through this time period. This macroscopic and microscopic approach painted a vivid picture of life at that time. Good books take time to digest. I still imagine myself in that era; I still extract bits of our current era that evolved from then or remind me of then.
Let me highlight some macroscopic and microscopic points that resonated with me.
Big Picture: The Second Great Awakening
Spurred by advances in communication and transportation, the US experienced a transformation in religion. I drowned in terminology; there’s the congregationalists, the unitarians and the trinitarians, the post- and pre-millennials, the high and low Episcopalians, and the anti-mission Methodists. There were the Utopian societies such as the Owenites, the Associationists, the Amanans (a refrigerator brand!), and the Perfectionists (creators of Oneida silverware!). (My favorite podcast BackStory has a great episode about the history of utopias that covers several of these.)
I’d heard of the Second Great Awakening but wasn’t very interested. We have our evangelical movement today; I assumed it was similar, but they are so different. The Second Great Awakening spurred Abolitionism, literacy and education movements, and the first glimmers of the suffrage movement. Its ideal was self-improvement. Great Awakening thought led to the invention of the penitentiary, where criminals would improve themselves through penitence. Likewise, asylums were a creation of thoughts from the Second Great Awakening; although they seem brutal and cruel now, sending troubled people to (hopefully) peaceful shelters, asylums, was far kinder than locking them away. These ideas were so revolutionary that visiting them once was a form of tourism (see the first segment of this BackStory episode on vacations).
Big Picture: Slavery and White Supremacy
The more history I read, the more I see the centrality of white supremacy in our country. Slavery warped everything about the south, and consequently, many aspects of the country. It led to censorship of the mail. It led to the Congressional gag rule, which forbade discussion of petitions about slavery. (See the detail below of how John Quincy Adams got rid of the gag rule.) It led the south to oppose infrastructure investments for fear that such programs would give the federal government too much power. The resultant lack of economic diversification made it impossible for the south to ever consider compromise.
Slavery held an iron-lock on the Democratic party, the party that won every election from 1828 through 1856 but two (the two elected Whig presidents both died in office and are the shortest and third shortest presidencies). To win the party nomination, a candidate needed 2/3 approval, which gave southern states a veto.
I found the passage pictured below most resonant of all. The passage suggests that, had Henry Clay won the election of 1844, the Civil War might have been avoided. Clay was the famous architect of 1820’s Missouri Compromise and 1850’s Kansas-Nebraska Act. After White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (in 2017) suggested that the Civil War occurred due to a lack of compromise, the passage struck me even more. Howe suggests that the war could have been averted–if the south had compromised. In this case, compromise would have been to accept federal support for infrastructure and gradual compensated emancipation. The book is riddled with the various compromises that the north acceded to. Eventually it was the north’s growth in population (due to the industrial revolution that they embraced and the south didn’t) that led them to be able to override the southern lock. Because the south had never compromised in the 35 years of the cotton market boom, they couldn’t accept the change in national power.
Yes, this is vastly simplified. Such “what ifs” fascinate me; how can I not see science fiction?
Detail: John Quincy Adams single-handedly destroyed the Gag Rule through sheer force of personality
In January 1842, former president and now Whig congressman John Quincy Adams was censured for presenting a petition opposing slavery. For a weeks, he grandstanded in his own defense, embarrassing his prosecutors. (And “ruining” the career of chief prosecutor Thomas Marshall.) Rather than risk another week, the motion to censure was dropped. Adams then laid forth an additional 200 anti-slavery petitions. Shortly thereafter, the Gag Rule was officially rescinded. The Gag Rule forbade discussion of petitions against slavery from 1836-1844.
Detail: Margaret Fuller–feminist, editor, bad-ass
The little town of Concord, Massachusetts produced a lot of famous names in the 1830s– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thorough, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Louisa May Alcott, to name a few. But the Transcendentalist that captured my imagination was Margaret Fuller. She wrote that women should live for themselves rather than for the sake of men (a new idea at the time, and one that we sometimes still seem to have trouble embracing). She wrote that women needed more avenues of opportunity to develop their talents, writing “let them be sea-captains, if they will.” She became an editor and writer at Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune. During the revolutions of 1848 in Europe, she went to Italy and became one of the first foreign correspondents. In Italy she secretly married an Italian nobleman (her family disapproved) and had a child. Tragically, the three drowned just off Long Island in a storm on the voyage back to New York in 1850.
Detail: Dorothea Dix–the asylum’s advocate
In 1841, schoolteacher Dorothea Dix taught a Sunday school class at a prison in Massachusetts. She was disturbed to see “lunatics” locked up in unheated cells. She petitioned the state legislature for improvement. As she became dedicated to the cause, she learned that conditions in other states were often even worse. Dix travelled all over Canada and the US championing the cause of an asylum, where the indigent insane would receive treatment and care rather than incarceration. Although we have since seen the evils that can arise in asylums, their creation was motivated by compassion. Many of the social reforms of the Antebellum period were driven by women, as this was an acceptable form of social participation at the time.
Detail: Denmark Vesey–Leader of a doomed slave insurrection
Denmark Vesey was born a slave on St. Thomas. Living in Charleston in 1799, he was able to buy his freedom after winning the lottery. (What Hath God Wrought describes how slavery as an institution varied in urban and rural environments, and in the old south and new south.) He was successful as a carpenter, but nursed a grudge against white society. He planned an insurrection for the summer of 1822, planning to attack the city arsenal, take the masters’ horses, and kill all the whites in Charleston. The plan was detected, and the conspirators were arrests before any rebellion took place. 135 persons were arrested and 35 executed, including Vesey. Much of the conspiracy took place at the Charleston African Methodist Episcopalian (AME) Church. If that name sounds familiar, it’s where Dylan Roof murdered 9 people in the summer of 2015. 200 years later, the congregation still reveres Denmark Vesey as a hero.