Reading, Writing, And History

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Setting the Pattern

The first half of the nineteenth century in America sometimes appears to have been little more than an eventful and confusing prelude to the great trial by fire which was to be the American Civil War. It began with the first bright triumph of Jeffersonian democracy, and it ended with the development of sectional feelings so intense that the country narrowly escaped being fragmented; here perhaps was simply a time of preparation, in which nothing had been finally settled, a time that could do no more than germinate a conflict whose outcome could not be foretold. America was still in a process of becoming, not yet sure that it was a nation or that it could develop a genuinely national significance.

Yet some sort of pattern was being set. The familiar statement that the country would ultimately be shaped by its “continental destiny” may be nothing more than a half-mystical catch phrase born out of later knowledge, but something was working. By the time of the Mexican War the weight of the future was exerting its effect; the storied lost cause was possibly lost more than a decade before it was born.

This, in any case, is the judgment of Charles M. Wiltse, a man well qualified to have an opinion on the matter. As the distinguished biographer of John C. Calhoun, Mr. Wiltse has studied this period in much detail and with a discerning eye; and in his most recent book, The New Nation , he argues that between 1800 and 1845 America did in fact attain nationhood. The Civil War, at frightful cost, merely ratified a decision that had already been made.

When the century began nothing had been settled. The ordinary American in 1800, as Mr. Wiltse says, was “proud of his country but not quite sure whether his country was the United States or only that one of them in which he happened to live.” The end of the strange and apparently pointless War of 1812 did indeed leave most Americans feeling that at last they were on their way, but nobody was quite sure where they might actually be going. Aaron Burr, General James Wilkinson, and the Essex Junto had shown that the paths might be various and divergent. The exuberant nationalism of the immediate postwar years gave way, in less than a decade, to intense contention.

The debate over the Missouri Compromise in 1820 brought this contention to a head. It was the permanence of the Union itself that was at stake here; the cultural and economic division between slave-state South and free-state North had already become of critical importance. Even this early, as Mr. Wiltse sees it, the South had developed “a social and political unity that could not tolerate change”; at the same time the free states, caught up by industrial growth, were becoming more and more diversified and hence more and more committed to change. The South bore the burden of slavery, which Mr. Wiltse aptly calls “the costliest and least efficient labor system ever devised by the wit of man for his own degradation”; yet any attack on this system had to appear, to southerners, as a threat to southern prosperity and freedom; and in a truly unified nation slavery must cease to be merely a local institution and must instead be everyone’s responsibility.

The New Nation: 1800–1845, by Charles M. Wiltse; edited, with a foreword, by David Donald. Hill and Wang. 237 pp. $4.50.

Sectional strife and sectional compromise, accordingly, marked the coming decades. By one expedient and another, the breaking point was staved off, and an uneasy balance was maintained. Yet the balance was forever tilting against the southern section. Wedded to the belief that the slave system was permanent, the South became more and more static; but elsewhere there was an intense and increasing dynamism, born of the rush to occupy western lands, of the accelerating pace of industrial development, and of the spirit of the age itself. The dynamism was bound to win. Mr. Wiltse writes:

The truth was that the United States of the nineteenth century was in many respects a forerunner of the great powers of the modern era—a nation occupying a vast territory, with a heterogeneous economy in which measures helpful to one interest might well be hurtful to another. France and Britain still relied on the exploitation of alien peoples in colonial empires; Spain and Russia were still sunk in feudalism; Germany and Italy had not yet been born. Only in America was the typical economy of the twentieth century being worked out, with all the false starts, mistakes, and growing pains that are the normal lot of the pioneer. Had it not been for the moral issue raised by the existence of slavery, American sectionalism would undoubtedly have worked itself out earlier than it did.

By 1846 this struggle could go only one way. Slavery was going down the drain, no matter what anybody might do about it. The irrepressible conflict might by this time have become genuinely irrepressible, but its end was foredestined. The balance of power lay with those who believed that the United States was one nation, and nothing the southern section could do would restore the old equilibrium. In 1846 the South was about to make its great strike—the war with Mexico, to result in the acquisition of Texas, the empty plains to the west, and the California empire on the edge of the sunset. Texas would become a slave state, but it would be balanced by Oregon, overbalanced by California, and eventually doomed by the broadened horizon which could be reached only by a whole country.

Mr. Wiltse sums it up very well: