Fanfare for the Common Man (1814-1836). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

Fanfare for the Common Man (1814-1836). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

 (50,000 B.C.-A.D. 1500S) * (1451-1507) * (1400-1600s) * (1497-1608) * (1608-1733) *

 (1608-1680s) * (1636-1748) * (1749-1763) * (1763-1775) * (1776-1783) * (1787-1797) *

(1798-1812) * (1812-1814) * (1814-1836) * (1817-1842) * (1724-1857) (1834-1846) *

(1846-1860) * (1859-1862) * (1863-1876) * (1862-1878) * (1862-1891) * (1869-1908) *

(1877-1906) * (1898-1918) * (1918-1929) * (1930-1941) * (1941-1945) * (1944-1954) *

(1947-1968) * (1946-1975) * (1968-1974) * (1963-1980) * (1980-1991) * (1992—).


In This Chapter

President Monroe’s misnamed “Era of Good Feelings”.

The Monroe Doctrine.

Economic crisis: the Panic of 1819.

The Missouri Compromise.

Jacksonian Democracy.

 Casualties of the War of 1812 included many soldiers, settlers, and Indians. Casualties also included the U.S. economy, which declined sharply during the war, bottoming out in the Panic of 1819. Also slain in battle was the British desire to fight any more wars with its erstwhile colonies. No, Great Britain certainly didn’t lose the War of 1812, but it didn’t win it, either. Britain came away convinced that fighting the United States just wasn’t worth doing. A final casualty was the Federalist party. Federalists, all of whom bitterly questioned the wisdom of the war and some of whom even advocated dissolution of the union because of it, were seen as unpatriotic and lacking in resolve. In 1816, Democratic-Republican James Monroe, presented to the electorate as the heir apparent of James Madison, handily won election to the presidency.

Good Feelings. The history of the American democracy is filled with contradictions, and one of the great misnomers that describes this nation in the years following the War of 1812 is the “Era of Good Feelings.” The famous phrase was coined sarcastically by a Federalist newspaper following the reelection of Monroe in 1820, when he stood unopposed and was ushered into office by an electoral vote of 231 to 1. Monroe himself was popular, revered by the people as the last of the “cocked hats”—an affectionate name for the Founding Fathers. However, Monroe presided over a country that, although proud of its nationhood after the war, was seriously torn by bitter sectional rivalries and disputes over the interpretation of the Constitution.

Monroe tried to salve sectionalism by appointing a stellar cabinet that included the best political minds of the day, among them John Quincy Adams (Secretary of State), John C. Calhoun (Secretary of War), and William H. Crawford (Secretary of the Treasury). But these leading lights soon disputed with one another, not only over philosophical and sectional issues, but over who would succeed Monroe as president.

A Democratic-Republican, Monroe nevertheless broke with Thomas Jefferson and supported the rechartering of the Bank of the United States, which had been the brainchild of Federalist Alexander Hamilton. The bank was popular with the East Coast “establishment,” because it effectively gave them control of the nation’s purse strings. The bank was bitterly opposed by Westerners, however, who needed easy credit to expand and establish themselves.

Those Westerners also argued for a loose interpretation of the Constitution, particularly the phrase in the Preamble, “to promote the general welfare.” These words, Calhoun and Henry Clay (powerful Congressman from Kentucky) argued, mandated the federal government to build the roads the West badly needed to develop its commerce and economy. Monroe consistently vetoed road-building bills, but did support a high tariff on imports, which aided the industrialized Northeast. This tariff heightened sectional strife.

Erie Canal. Monroe’s opposition to federally built roads for the West did not stop-and may even have spurred—development of the nation’s first great commercial link between the East Coast and the vast inland realm. Gouverneur Morris, U.S. Senator from New York, proposed in 1800 the construction of a great canal from New York City to Buffalo on Lake Erie. The project was approved by the New York legislature in 1817, and it was completed in 1825. Running 363 miles, the Erie Canal was a spectacular engineering achievement and a testament to American labor. The project was also a stunning commercial triumph, which quickly repaid the $7 million it had cost to build and soon returned an average of $3 million in annual profits—all without the assistance of the federal government.

The success of the Erie Canal, which truly inaugurated the commercial opening of the West, touched off a canal-building boom, linking the Northeast with the western system of natural waterways. By 1840, the United States boasted 3,326 miles of canals. The result was a trend toward commercial strength that helped pull the nation out of its postwar economic funk. The canals also tied the Northeast more securely to the West, thereby making deeper the growing division between the North and South, which had few east-west connections.

Among then Family of Nations. The completion and success of the Erie Canal justifiably puffed the nation’s pride, even if its economy was still shaky and the jarring demands of sectionalism increasingly strident. The United States under Monroe could at least point to growing prestige among the family of the world’s nations. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams negotiated the Rush-Bagot Agreement and the Convention of 1818 with Britain. The first document established the U.S. border with Quebec, hitherto a bone of contention, and established the precedent of a nonfortified, open border between the United States and Canada.

The second document, the Convention of 1818, addressed the issue of the disputed Oregon Territory (that is, the land west of the Rocky Mountains, north of the 42nd parallel to the 54 Degrees 42’line). The convention specified joint U.S. and British occupation of the area—a temporary solution to a hot dispute, but also a demonstration that England now took American sovereignty seriously.

On February 12, 1819, Adams concluded a treaty with Luis de Onis, Spain’s minister to Washington, that secured both western and eastern Florida for the United States. With the acquisition of Florida, a prime objective of the War of 1812 was realized—albeit belatedly. A thornier problem was the establishment of the border between the United States and Mexico, at the time a colonial possession of Spain. Adams wanted a border that would pull Texas into American territory. However, to get Florida, he ultimately sacrificed Texas and agreed on a boundary at the Sabine River, the western boundary of the present-day state of Louisiana. The United States renounced all claims to Texas. That renunciation was destined to endure during the handful of years before the revolutions by which Mexico won its independence from Spain. After the Texan War for Independence in 1836, U.S. rights to the territory would become a cause of war.

Yet one more treaty was concluded, this one with the czar of Russia, who had asserted a claim to the California coast as far south as San Francisco Bay. Adams managed to talk Czar Alexander I into a position north of the 54 Degrees 42’ line, so that Russia would no longer be a contender for the Oregon Territory. The czar did retain his claim to Alaska, which at the time, nobody in the United States wanted anyway.

Monroe Doctrine. Although these foreign agreements were of great importance to establishing American sovereignty, the cornerstone of Monroe’s foreign policy came in 1823 and has been stamped with the president’s name. The origin of the Monroe Doctrine is found in the turbulent years of the Napoleonic Wars. These wars touched South America, sparking widespread revolution. After peace was re-established in Europe in 1815, Spain began making noises about reclaiming its colonies. President Monroe responded in his 1823 message to Congress with the four principles now known as the Monroe Doctrine:

1. The Americas were no longer available for colonization by any power.

2. The political system of the Americas was essentially different from that of Europe.

3. The United States would consider any interference by European powers in the Americas a direct threat to U.S. security.

4. The United States would not interfere with existing colonies or with the internal affairs of European nations, nor would the U.S. participate in European wars.

Bad Feelings. The so-called Era of Good Feelings was filled with plenty of distinctly bad feelings, a mixture of present financial hardships and an anxiety-filled foreboding of political and civil calamity just over the horizon.

American System. Monroe and Calhoun were driven by a vision of what came to be called the “American System,” a way of harnessing the full power of the federal government to nurture struggling American industry through a protective tariff to ward off competition from imports; the creation of the Bank of the United States to provide a reliable source of credit to industry; and federal financing of road, canal, and harbor construction. Unfortunately, Monroe and Calhoun were never able to agree on all three of these components. While both supported the bank, Monroe repeatedly vetoed bills to fund “internal improvements”—roads and the like—while he endorsed heavy tariffs. Without adequate transport, Calhoun noted with bitterness, the West could not compete commercially with the East. He also said that the tariff, instead of protecting all American industry, fostered eastern development while operating to keep the isolated West financially strapped. A three-legged stool can stand; a two-legged one cannot. The American economy tottered.

Panic of 1819. Economic conditions in the wake of the War of 1812 read like a recipe for disaster:

Start with a grinding war debt.

Add high tariffs to create commodity inflation.

Stir in wild speculation on western lands opened by the war.

Overextend manufacturing investments.

Pour the whole thing down the drain.

 From 1811, when constitutional challenges prevented the rechartering of the Bank of the United States, until 1816, when it was revived under Monroe, a host of shabby state banks rushed to provide credit to practically all comers. Then, when the war broke out, all the state banks (except for those in New England) suspended the practice of converting paper bank notes to gold or silver (“specie”) on demand. The value of all that paper money so recklessly loaned now plummeted. Banks failed, investors collapsed, businesses went belly up.

Monroe’s Second Bank of the United States stepped in with a plan to stabilize the economy by sharply curtailing credit and insisting on the repayment of existing debts in specie. This plan preserved the Bank of the United States, but it hit the nation hard. “The Bank was saved,” one pundit of the day observed, “but the people were ruined.” In the West and South, individuals were particularly hard hit, and these states passed laws to provide debt relief, but not before 1819, when the panic peaked.

The nation ultimately weathered the Panic of 1819, but it created lasting resentment against the Bank of the United States (called “The Monster” by Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton). The panic deepened sectional rivalries, chipping away at the solidarity of the Union. The West and the South mightily resented the economic stranglehold of the Northeast.

Compromise. The deepening gulf between the northern and southern states gaped its widest in 1818-19. At that point, the United States Senate consisted of 22 Senators from northern states and 22 from southern states. Since the era of the Revolution, the balance between the nonslaveholding North and the slaveholding South had been carefully and precariously preserved with the addition of each state. Now, the territory of Missouri petitioned Congress for admission to the Union as a slaveholding state. The balance threatened suddenly to shift, like a heavy burden on the back of a weary laborer.

Representative James Tallmadge of New York responded to Missouri’s petition by introducing an amendment to the statehood bill calling for a ban on the further introduction of slavery into the state (but persons who were slaves in the present territory would remain slaves after the transition to statehood). The amendment also called for the emancipation of all slaves born in the state when they reached 25 years of age. Thus, gradually, slavery would be eliminated from Missouri. The House passed the Tallmadge amendment, but the Senate rejected it—and then adjourned without reaching a decision on Missouri statehood.

When the Senate reconvened, a long and tortured debate began. Northern Senators held that Congress bad the right to ban slavery in new states, whereas the Southerners asserted that new states had the same right as the original 13, to determine whether they would allow slavery or not. Not until March 1820 was a complex compromise reached on this issue, which, in reality, could admit of no satisfactory compromise. Missouri, it was agreed, would be allowed to join the Union as a slave state, but simultaneously, Maine (hitherto a part of Massachusetts) would be admitted as a free state. By this means, the slave state/free state balance was maintained.

Then, looking toward the future, the Missouri Compromise provided that a line would be drawn across the Louisiana Territory at a latitude of 36 Degrees 30’. North of this line, slavery would be forever banned, except in the case of Missouri. Nobody was really pleased with the Missouri Compromise, but it did manage to hold together the increasingly fragile Union for another three decades.

Age of Jackson. The single strongest candidate in the presidential election of 1824 was Andrew Jackson (1767-1845), “Old Hickory,” “The Hero of New Orleans,” the candidate of the people. However, Jackson did not win the election. As the facade of the Era of Good Feelings crumbled away, no party had replaced the Federalists to oppose the Democratic-Republicans. Within the Democratic-Republican camp, however, a host of candidates emerged, each reflecting deep regional divisions. The Tennessee and Pennsylvania state legislatures nominated Jackson, Kentucky nominated Henry Clay, Massachusetts nominated John Quincy Adams, and Congress presented William H. Crawford.

In the subsequent election, Jackson received 99 electoral votes, Adams 84, Crawford 41, and Clay 37. Because none of the candidates had a majority, the election was sent to the House of Representatives to choose from among the top three. Illness forced Crawford out of the running, and the choice was between Adams and Jackson. Because Adams had supported the American System, Henry Clay threw his support in Congress behind him. The House voted Adams into office over Jackson, who had received the greater number of electoral votes. Charging that a corrupt bargain had been made, Jackson’s supporters split from the Democratic-Republican party and became Democrats. Supporters who remained loyal to Clay were known as National Republicans.

Adams bad a tough time as a “minority president,” but he nevertheless boldly submitted a nationally based program to a Congress and a public that had become increasingly splintered into regional and other special interests. Adams’s support of canals and other internal improvements, his call for the establishment of a national university, and his advocacy of scientific explorations—all for the common, national good—were largely rejected by Congress. Instead, Congress focused on laissez-faire expansionism and frontier individualism. This attitude, which prevailed through the nation, swept Jackson into office in 1828.

Common Man or King Andrew? Jackson, seventh president of the United States, was the first who had not been born in patrician Virginia or New England. Although he was, in fact, a wealthy man who lived in a magnificent mansion, the Hermitage, outside of Nashville, Tennessee, Jackson was also a self-made son of the Carolina back country. By the political geography of the day, he was a “westerner.”

There can be no doubt that Andrew Jackson’s two terms as president-from 1829 to 1837-brought a greater degree of democracy to American government. Jackson’s contemporaries, as well as subsequent generations of historians, have debated whether the kind of democracy his administration fostered was always a good thing. During the Jackson years, most states abandoned property ownership as a prerequisite for the right to vote. This move broadened the electorate and made elected officials act in a way that was more fully representative of the people who had put them in office. While this transformation nurtured democracy, it also encouraged demagoguery.

Although Jackson introduced a policy of equitable rotation in federal jobs—the forerunner of the modern civil service system—he also brought with him the so-called “spoils system,” boldly rewarding his supporters with lucrative and secure government jobs (known today as political patronage). Jackson also engineered the defeat of a program of internal improvements that was sponsored by Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams. Jackson argued that the plan favored the wealthy; yet, in defeating it, he retarded the development of commerce in the West—the very territory of his constituency. A believer in the paramount importance of preserving the Union, Jackson worked vigorously to silence the growing abolitionist movement, fearing that those who wanted to end slavery would tear the nation apart.

The Monster. Jackson reserved his strongest venom for the Second Bank of the United States. Never persuaded of the bank’s constitutionality, Jackson was also acutely aware that his supporters hated the institution. When the bank’s charter came up for renewal, Jackson opposed it, vetoing a recharter bill. After winning reelection in 1832, he issued an executive order withdrawing all federal deposits from the bank. That was a fatal blow, and the bank fizzled, finally closing its doors when its charter expired in 1836. With the demise of the Second. Bank of the United States, credit became more plentiful, and westward settlement proceeded more rapidly. But for the rest of the 19th century, the American economy—especially in the rough-and-tumble West-was doomed to a punishing roller-coaster ride, repeatedly rising to “boom” only to plummet to “bust.”

The Least You Need to Know

Monroe was a popular leader, who nevertheless presided over a period of great economic hardship and bitter sectional rivalries.

 The “Age of Jackson” brought with it a vast expansion of the concept of democracy. However, this period also sacrificed some of the reason and restraint that had characterized the nation under the “Founding Fathers.”

Word for the Day. A tariff, as the word was used during the era of Monroe, is a tax on imported goods. Tariffs produce significant revenues for the government, and they “protect” certain domestic industries by giving their goods an artificial price advantage over imports. However, tariffs also result in higher prices to domestic purchasers because the higher costs are ultimately passed on to them.

Word for the Day. Specie payments are payments in gold and silver rather than paper money.

Voice from the Past. John Quincy Adams, recoiling from the bitter debate, called the Missouri Compromise the “title page to a great tragic volume,” and the aged Thomas Jefferson said that the clamor over Missouri, “like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror.”


Word for the Day. Laissez-faire, French for “let it happen,” describes both a general political attitude of not interfering or intervening in the actions of others and, more specifically, an economic doctrine opposed to government regulation of commerce beyond the bare minimum.


Please, login to leave comments