Americans in the early 19th century saw their nation as a land of opportunity, blessed by God, and evolving as a democratic society unique to the world.
Following the end of the War of 1812, the United States embarked on a transition taking it from a post-colonial identity to a society with nationalistic perspectives. Within the emerging market economy, individualism was the order of the day. The War of 1812, often called America’s second war for independence, ended the tensions with Great Britain that were still evident after the 1783 Treaty of Paris. As America began to grow economically and develop a mature self-identity based on a unique providential mission, nationalism instilled pride and challenged individuals to succeed in what would later be called the “American Dream.”
Innovation and the Work Ethic Created an Industrial America
New England poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published “The Village Blacksmith” in 1841. Nearly four years after the onset of the economic downturn known as the Panic of 1837, Longfellow’s “village smithy” reminded readers that work produced “with honest sweat” was rewarded. The poem also emphasized the bonds of family and the role of religion in American life.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great transcendentalist thinker, said that “America is another name for opportunity.” These opportunities were in the Northeastern urban areas where industrialization was beginning to transform the nation. They were beyond the Mississippi River, where a Westward Movement brought opportunity-seekers to the fertile territories, expanding America’s agricultural output.
Innovation and invention improved transportation and communication, such as the development of steamboats and railroads. Congressional leaders like Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun – at least in his early years, pushed the American System which included, in part, a National Bank, tariffs, and internal projects designed to improve infrastructure financed by federal dollars. The hallmark of this effort was the Erie Canal, completed in 1825.
Nationalism and the Mission of America
More Americans served in the military during the War of 1812 than had in the Revolutionary War. No generals of the stature of George Washington or Nathaniel Greene emerged out of the conflict. Yet the 1812 war resulted in a surge of nationalism. Americans came to define patriotism in terms of their uniquely egalitarian society, ideally a community without rigid social classes – the three estates of European history. It was a nation founded as a “city on a hill,” a beacon of hope and land of opportunity blessed by God.
American children learned to uphold the heroes of America’s birth, memorizing famous quotes such as, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” (Nathan Hale, September 22, 1776) Biographies were published on the lives of early patriots like Patrick Henry and George Washington. Many of those works mythologized the past, like the story of Washington chopping down a cherry tree.
Longfellow’s “Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” was memorized by school children for over one hundred years. In the 1950s and 1960s it was still included in the popular Childcraft series sold to American parents. Such poems and stories emphasized, in part, America’s mission as a freedom-loving constitutional republic.
Nationalism and the Growth of Federalism in Pre-Civil War America
Although federalism was tied to Henry Clay’s American System, it was also evidenced through Judicial Nationalism. The Marshall Court, led by Federalist John Marshall until his death in 1835, strengthened the role of the federal government in such decisions as McCulloch v Maryland (1819), Cohens v Virginia (1821), and Gibbons v Ogden (1824).
Nationalism was also evident in foreign policy. The 1823 Monroe Doctrine audaciously prohibited European nations from attempts to re-colonize the western hemisphere. The United States purchased Florida from Spain in 1819, formally established the U.S. – Canadian border with Britain, favorably settled the Oregon territory boundary dispute, and went to war with Mexico over millions of acres that resulted in a continental America, from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
Characteristics of American Self-Identity
If Americans were imbued with a spirit of Nationalism, they were also fiercely individualistic. Emerson wrote that, “Death comes to all, but great achievements build a monument which shall endure until the sun grows cold.” Much later, Andrew Carnegie, the Industrial Era’s great apologist of wealth, told others to “Aim for the highest.” This was the chief characteristic of American self-identity as the nation moved from post-colonial status to prosperity and ultimately global competition. A combination of work ethic, providential mission, and economic opportunity defined Americanism within an evolving democracy that saw itself as a unique experiment in human history.
- Paul Johnson, The Birth of the Modern (NY: HarperCollins, 1991)
- Alfred H. Kelly and Winfred A. Harbison, The American Constitution: Its Origins & Development, fifth edition, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1976)
- John Clark Ridpath, A Popular History of the United States of America from the Aboriginal Times to the Present Day (New York: Phillips & Hunt, 1880)