Public Life: 1800-1850
Public Life is fragmented in the first half of the 19th century
- There were a rich variety of avenues for public life in America during this
period. The great task of building a national public life that had
begun with the revolution and been advanced by the Constitution continued
as an unfinished project. We want to study and to understand this arena. But
a national public life would not be enough. Americans continued to build local
public life in many places. When Alexis
De Tocqueville visited and described Democracy in America he noted
the thousands of little local associations in which Americans joined with
others to create their public life. We will, therefore, have to consider several
of these local communities as well.
Some issues were greater than the local could encompass
- Frontier versus the established civilization of the East. The
frontier continued to move west, driven by the advance of "civilization."
The errand into the wilderness gave us always a frontier during the period,
but the errand itself was to turn the frontier into a civilized land stamped
with the culture of the East. The needs of the frontier -- agrarian, developmental,
land-related -- clashed with the needs of the civilized East -- commercial,
stability, labor-related. Communities tended to move from frontier communities
to urban communities and as they did so, their needs changed. As a merchant,
your local community would be unable to meet your needs; and when it began
to, your farmer-neighbor would find it unable to satisfy his need.
- Slavery versus the promise of the Declaration of Independence.
The embarrassment of slavery hung over all national public life. The Declaration
had declared that "all men are created equal" and slavery stood
as a denial of the asserted, founding, basic truth. The country was split
slave and free and a local public sphere could only turn that difference
into division in the nation. Only a national public sphere could address
the problem. But could it?
- Manufacturing and Commercial Economy versus Agriculture. Clashes
frequently occurred because of the varying needs of manufacturing and agriculture.
For example, periods of inflation benefited agriculture because farmers
had an easier time paying back loans with which they had bought their land
since there income rose faster than their debt. But inflation devastated
commerce because those loaning the money were always receiving less value
back. Or consider how a manufacturing plant made a small area of land very
valuable, and thus increased the value of land in its area, making it impossible
for agriculture that required lots of land to flourish. Manufacturing and
commercial interests sought to spread their power throughout the nation.
- National Government versus States Rights. Henry and Madison
had defined the issue in the Constitutional Convention of Virginia. What
was the place of the states? Were you a Virginian or a New Yorker first,
or an American first?
Plan for next several meetings
- First, we will study the national political space during the period
- Then a variety of local spaces for public life
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