July 4 In 1826

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The United States in 1826 actually stretched from sea to sea. It had been as wide as the ‘continent since Secretary of State J. Q. Adams’ Convention with Great Britain in 1818 established joint occupation of the Oregon country for ten years. Contemporary maps of this tremendous domain trail off into fantasy in their western reaches, but the psychology of “manifest destiny” would soon provide better ones.

Of the 24 states in the Union two were now established beyond the Mississippi. Senator Benton of Missouri, which was one of them, this year predicted that the lure of the (present) Middle West would largely depopulate tidewater America. Though his enthusiasm had much to justify it, Benton’s prophecy of depopulation was wrong. Virtually all sections of the country shared in the steady increase of population, which, approaching the 12,000,000 mark in 1826, had quadrupled in the fifty years since the first Fourth of July. More than ninety per cent of the American people were still living on farms, but the spectacular development of industry following the War of 1812 was attracting more and more laborers to the northeastern cities.

Niles’ Weekly Register , the earliest national news magazine, is an inexhaustible repository of information on road and canal building throughout the country and the achievements of steamboats in America’s effort at this period to conquer its appalling distances. The Erie Canal had been completed, and dedicated with great pomp, in the fall of 1825, and in the following July Niles joyfully reported that three or four hundred boats now passed through the booming city of Utica every week. No fewer than 102 other canal projects, he added, were under way in various parts of the Union.

The effect of these developments on national politics was profound. The old division between Federalists and Republicans had been largely wiped out, but as early as 1808, when Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin submitted his great Report on internal improvements, the Republicans had divided among themselves on this issue. Gallatin had presented the best of all arguments for the federal government’s undertaking “public works” of national importance. “No other single operation, within the power of Government,” he pointed out, “can more effectually tend to strengthen and perpetuate that Union which secures external independence, domestic peace, and internal liberty.” But to “Old Republicans” like John Randolph of Roanoke, this was heretical doctrine. Randolph “waved his wand-like fingers,” as Van Wyck Brooks remarks, “and forbade the nation to advance in its course.” Yet his spell lasted only temporarily. President Monroe, last of the Virginia dynasty, felt obliged to sign the Survey Bill, which prepared the way for a federal program of internal improvements; and John Quincy Adams’ first Annual Message to Congress (December, 1825) called not only for federal roads and canals but for a national university and observatory, an expedition to explore the northwest coast, and the creation of a Department of the Interior.

 

The Message offered all the political leaders who disliked Adams—and they were numerous and powerful when acting in concert—a target as broad as a barn door. Disregarding the idealism and the love of country that animated Adams’ whole public career, his enemies denounced him as a tool of the northern financial and manufacturing interests and as a “monarchist” (just like his father, they insisted) intent on stamping out the last vestige of state autonomy. The most absurd evidence was accepted as proof of his avarice, his ambition, and his extravagance with public funds. When it was reported in the spring of 1826 that he had spent $61 of public money for a billiard table for his own household, there were speeches in Congress protesting “gambling at the President’s palace.” Though the report was false, the charge stuck in the public mind, as such charges do.

Clearly the “era of good feelings” had been succeeded by that of embittered feelings in this Jubilee year.

Americans were somewhat better agreed on foreign than on domestic policy. This was perhaps because there had been no grave crises in our foreign relations since the happy outcome of the War of 1812 at New Orleans and at Ghent. The British, with whom we had had to deal most frequently, instead of showing resentment after the war, had actually courted our favor. The Continental powers were too well occupied in detecting and suppressing revolutionary impulses among their own restless peoples to concern themselves greatly with our affairs.