By the second decade of the nineteenth century, the United States of America had survived the War of 1812, its first international crisis, and set its sights on claiming more territory . Journalist John O’Sullivan claimed in his 1839 article “The Great Nation of Futurity” that it was “the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty.” However, it was more money and military power that fueled Manifest Destiny than Providence. In terms of territory, the United States more than tripled its total area between the beginning of the nineteenth century and the Civil War. The first great increase came from the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The United States government’s agreement to buy more than 500,000,000 acres of French territory stretching from New Orleans to the Rocky Mountains effectively doubled the United States’ landmass in one fell swoop. Americans of European heritage did not take long to discover the valuable agricultural land east of the Mississippi River within this new territory, then occupied by Native Americans, and used force and coercion to move the tribes to less-desirable land. This mass relocation of Native Americans culminated in the “Trail of Tears,” a series of forced relocations of tribes from southeastern states to an area that would eventually become Oklahoma spanning the 1830s and 1840s. The borders of the country were further expanded when American emigrants to the Mexican territory of Texas declared the region’s independence from Mexico in 1835 and the United States annexed it in 1845, touching off the MexicanAmerican War. When the war ended with the American capture of Mexico City and the Treaty of Guadalupe in 1848, America claimed Texas as well as parts of Colorado, Nevada, and Utah. The actions in Texas inspired American emigrants in the Mexican territory of California to establish a similar independent republic in 1846, and California ultimately came under United States rule and joined the union in 1850. Finally, the Gadsden Purchase in 1853 stretched American borders even further in that area, adding territory that ultimately became Arizona and New Mexico. However much O’Sullivan’s prophecy may have cited Providence, the United States achieved its continental borders through financial and military dominance.
America’s economic and technological growth also continued apace as America became the center of the second Industrial Revolution. While the first Industrial Revolution had occurred in England around the 1760s to 1780s, America was the stage for the second one in the early to mid—nineteenth century. At its root was increased agricultural productivity as a result of acquiring land in the Midwest and South; the former was ideal for grain and meat production and the latter for cotton, all of which needed processing and contributed to the growth of those industries. At the same time, improvements in agricultural technology—such as the mechanical reaper, spinning machines, the cotton gin, and the automated flour mill—made it possible for a smaller percentage of the population to produce the necessary amount of food, freeing up manpower for other industries. This productivity was complemented by increased ability to deliver products faster and further. Shipping along waterways became faster after the invention of the first steamboat in 1807. By the 1840s, however, this primary mode of shipping was rivaled by the exponential growth of the railroad and its ability to reach places without navigable waterways. In 1840, less than ten years after a functional steam locomotive had been built in America, there was more than 3000 miles of railroad track; twenty years later, there was ten times that number.
The increase in raw materials, the ability to process them, and the ability to move them led to expanding markets that required a new form of labor. Previously, fabrication of goods was done according to the outwork system: piecework was done by individuals in their own homes and then sent to a central location for final assembly. The outwork system had low pay and uncertain workloads. With the increased need for workers and the development of machinery beyond what could be used in a home, the factory system replaced the outwork system. Under this system, the workers came together at one central location to work and often to live as well, as with the famous textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts. The improved pay and the variety and independence offered by this new work system attracted the daughters of New England farmers. This change also contributed to what would become an ongoing shift of the American population from rural to urban communities and of the American economy from an agricultural to an industrial emphasis.
The population of America was also expanding during the nineteenth century. As J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur’s titular farmer James observes, Americans had been a “promiscuous breed” even before America was an independent nation. Famines and warfare in Europe sent even more people to the United States looking for a more congenial place to grow. From 1820 to 1870, over seven and a half million immigrants came to America. The largest group within that period were the Irish, and many contributed to the building of the railroad and canal systems on the eastern seaboard. Germans made another large immigrant group, many settling in Texas or in the Midwest and working in the meatpacking industry. The Chinese, an immigrant group unknown to farmer James, also came to America, particularly to California. Many were lured by news of the 1849 gold rush and driven by roadblocks to prosperity at home. They ultimately became the primary work force that extended the railroad system in the West Coast.
The extension of American territory and the division of the American population between agricultural producers and those in trade had political repercussions as well. The Federalist party of the previous century had dwindled away, leaving Democratic-Republicans as the only major political party left during the socalled Era of Good Feelings. However, there were developing divisions within the party, particularly over banking and currency issues and Southern slavery. With the banking issues, the tensions were between those in trade and farmers over debt terms; paper money versus hard currency; and the banks’ role in the Panic of 1819 and its following depression. With slavery, the conflict was over whether slave-owning states had too much or not enough political power. The contentious election of 1824 blew the party apart. The Tennessee senator and former war hero Andrew Jackson was a kind of Presidential candidate who would have never made it that far before that time. Suffrage privileges in the original colonies were confined to white men of enough financial wherewithal to own a certain amount of land. Under that system, men of the elite class from populous states had the advantage, leading to what was called “the Virginia dynasty” of American presidents. But as new states with less stringent requirements for suffrage entered the union, the older states accordingly changed theirs and by 1824, most white men over 21 could vote. It was under these new circumstances that Jackson, a man from what was considered a “western state” who presented himself as a representative for “the humble members of society—the farmers, mechanics and laborers,” won the popular and electoral votes. However, since he had not won with a majority, given the large field of candidates, the decision among the top three candidates went to the House of Representatives and the election was given to John Quincy Adams. Decrying this as a “corrupt bargain,” Jackson proponents formed the Democratic Party, got their candidate into the Presidency in 1828, and ushered in the political philosophy known as Jacksonian democracy.
On-going moral arguments about slavery were complemented by considerable political tensions at this period. Every time a new territory was proposed or a territory petitioned for statehood, battles between the legislators of free states and legislators of slave states would erupt. Both feared that the other would gain more political power and then force its system on all states. Much of American politics at this period could be described as a series of secession crises and compromises made to maintain the tenuous balance between slave and free states, occasionally punctuated with dire warnings that balance was impossible. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 was the first attempt of the century to solve the stand-off between pro—and anti-slavery legislators by bringing in a slave state (Missouri) and a free state (Maine) together and setting up a system to make sure that the slave and free territories and states would be balanced. However, a crisis was touched off again thirty years later by California’s petition for statehood and the Compromise of 1850 was made to resolve it. From this compromise came the Fugitive Slave Acts. They were part of a bigger piece of legislation meant to pacify the southern states which were threatening secession, but one of the provisions made it a criminal offense to aid an escaping slave or to fail to turn in an escaped slave, causing considerable foment in free states; they felt that they were being compelled to support slavery. Then, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 negated the Missouri Compromise and allowed the citizens of the Kansas and Nebraska territories to decide for themselves whether they wanted to allow or prohibit slavery. The act was then followed by the incidents known as Bloody Kansas, where proponents of both sides flooded those territories and fought with each other. The Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision in 1857 defined slaves as property and ruled that the United States government could not prohibit slavery in its territories. U.S. Senate candidate Abraham Lincoln connected the dots in his 1858 “House Divided” speech, where he laid out how the Dred Scott decision created the legal precedent for extending slavery to every state. He warned that the “House Divided”—in this case, between free and slave states—would not remain so; it must end up going one way or the other.
Numerous social reform movements paralleled the democratic reforms of the Jacksonian era, fueled by the middle class’ increase in leisure time and income as well as by the evangelical energies of the second Great Awakening. Like the first one, the second Great Awakening was another surge in evangelical Protestant piety starting around the 1820s. As evangelicalism emphasized public testimony of spiritual experience as a way of spreading that experience, there was a natural synergy between the reformation of souls and the reformation of society which directed itself into numerous reform movements for a variety of social problems. Two of the more significant reform movements in terms of American literature were the movements to abolish slavery and for women’s rights. Motivated by a mix of the desire to make the Revolutionary ideal of freedom for all a reality and the belief, originating in evangelical theology, that people must be free to choose between right and wrong in order to achieve salvation, Northern churches took up the cause of immediate emancipation of slaves and asserted that message in numerous pulpits, lecture halls, and newspapers. The abolitionist movement also overlapped the movement for reforming women’s rights. The Grimkeé sisters, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott were major forces in both. The latter two were the organizers of the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, which produced a female bill of rights modeled along the lines of the Constitutional one. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Stowe, the blockbuster novel of the nineteenth century, can be seen as the literary nexus of religious reform, abolition, and women’s rights. Arguing that women had a special role in reforming the spirituality of her family and her society, Stowe urged her readers to reject slavery, as it was an impediment to the spiritual salvation of the slaves, the slaveholders, and the nation that tolerated it.
America, from its official beginning, has had a chip on its shoulder about comparisons of its cultural achievements to those of Europe. Thomas Jefferson in Query VI of his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785) directly addresses the claim that America had not produced any great literature:
When we shall have existed as a people as long as the Greeks did before they
produced a Homer, the Romans a Virgil, the French a Racine and Voltaire, the
English a Shakespeare and Milton, should this reproach be still true, we will
enquire from what unfriendly causes it has proceeded, that the other countries
of Europe and quarters of the earth shall not have inscribed any name in the
roll of poets.
However, by the time Sydney Smith, founder of the Edinburgh Review and well-known literary critic, wrote his 1820 review of Statistical Annals of the United States by Adam Seybert, it was clear that some Britons felt it was time for America to put up or shut up. Asserting that “[d]uring the thirty or forty years of their independence, they have done absolutely nothing for the Sciences, for the Arts, for Literature, or even for the statesman-like studies of Politics or Political Economy,” Smith famously asked, “In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book? or goes to an American play?” and counseled Americans to temper their self-adulation until they had produced something. A movement to make distinctly American art, called literary nationalism, was American writers’ response to such sneering. Works produced in the first few decades of the nineteenth century made a point of incorporating distinctly American elements such as untamed nature, the frontier, America’s colonial and federal past, and interactions with its aboriginal inhabitants. As Charles Brockden Brown asserts in his preface to Edgar Huntly (1799), an American novel intent on “calling forth the passions and engaging the sympathy of the reader” cannot use the “puerile superstition and exploded manners, Gothic castles and chimeras” of Europe when “[t]he incidents of Indian hostility, and the perils of the Western wilderness, are far more suitable . . . for a native of America to overlook these would admit of no apology.”
The literary period of American Romanticism is often dated as starting around 1820 with the publication of Washington Irving’s The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon and terminating with the American Civil War. Like earlier periods, this period’s assumptions are rooted in its views of human nature and truth. For the Romantics, human nature was neither born bad nor blank; it was born good, though it could be swayed from its essential nature by the pernicious effects of excessive rationalism or hidebound social mores. A period’s stance on human nature also affects its beliefs about the best ways to access truth. If human nature is initially corrupt, the sources of truth must be outside of it; if human nature is neither good nor bad but is accompanied by the ability to discern the workings of the world around it, then truth comes from the interaction of human ability and outside sources. For the Romantics, the essential goodness of human nature meant that the sources of truth could be discerned from within, particularly through imagination, feelings, and intuition.
As the reputation of human nature rose, so did the belief in the primacy of the individual over the community. While seventeenth century American literature most frequently warned readers to suppress self-interest in favor of the common good and eighteenth century literature presented the two as working in tandem, American Romantic literature valorized the drama of an individual striving against a repressive society. In addition, Romanticism emphasized idealism over realism. For them, literature’s purpose was not to represent the common and probable experiences of life or to teach improving lessons. Instead, literature’s role was to flesh out otherwise abstract concepts and accurately represent human emotions, what Nathaniel Hawthorne in his preface to The House of the Seven Gables (1851) calls “the truth of the human heart.” Finally, the Romantics felt that the essential goodness of human nature had a strong link to nature itself. Unlike earlier texts that portrayed nature as, at worst, aligned with malevolent forces and, at best, raw material existing to be used by man, Romantic texts often represented nature as beneficial and congenial to the human soul. It was a place of resort when man was in need of comfort or clarity and an antidote to the negative effects of science, reason, and tradition.
The philosophies and literature of the Transcendental movement differ from Romantic qualities more in degree than in kind. American Transcendentalism was a concise moment, both in geography and time. Arising from a faction of the Unitarian denomination that felt its theology did not place enough emphasis on the role of intuition in religion, this movement is typically dated as starting in 1836 with the publication of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s manifesto Nature and gradually faded as an active movement at the approach of the American Civil War, with the exception of Walt Whitman. Nearly all of its proponents lived in Boston or Concord, Massachusetts. Nonetheless, Transcendentalism had an outsized impact of the American intellectual conversation and on the literature produced during the latter half of the Romantic period. Like prior Romantics, Transcendental writers also emphasized the supremacy of the individual, some to the degree that the individual was better off distancing himself physically or mentally from all other people, even family, to preserve the sanctity of self-reliance. Transcendentalists extended the Romantic kinship between human nature and the natural world, arguing that humanity and nature were all expressions of God (referenced under several different names like the Absolute Spirit or the Oversoul) and that nature served to guide humanity toward realization of that essential truth. Furthermore, Transcendentalists also agreed that the conduit to truth was within and located it particularly in intuition, a kind of knowledge prior to and superior to any Lockian sensory experience or reflections upon it.
Transcendentalism had an impact on American literary culture both directly and indirectly. Several of the best known American Romantics sneered at its beliefs. Poe roundly insulted several major Transcendental figures in his criticism and Melville included satiric versions of Emerson and Thoreau in his final novel The Confidence Man (1857). Nonetheless, even authors critical of Transcendentalism could not help but address some of its key concerns, either positively or negatively and sometimes both within the same work. In short, Transcendentalism introduced a series of pronouncements to which other writers of the period felt compelled to respond. Writers of the latter part of the Romantic period pondered questions of whether nature existed to teach us, whether we were capable of seeing past our biases to the truth, and whether it was possible or even desirable to live a life completely independent of others.
As a final note in these descriptions of Romantic and Transcendental emphases, it should be acknowledged that literary periods are constructions—lenses that help us organize an otherwise chaotic spectrum of years of literary production. Some works written during the Romantic and Transcendental periods challenge those lenses and are worthy of consideration nonetheless. Romanticism’s insistence that art should not be required to teach a lesson—Hawthorne compared making it do so to sticking a pin through a butterfly—is a luxury of which not all writers could partake. Slave narratives, such as those of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, depicted common experiences of slaves, aimed to teach a lesson about the evils of slavery, and hoped to have real world results. Similarly, woman’s fiction—sometimes called sentimental or domestic fiction—often revealed the vulnerability of women to unscrupulous relatives and suitors and sought to question the domestic sphere to which women were confined or to compel greater respect for the work women did within it. Though these works are less familiar to modern readers, these were some of the most popular genres for nineteenth century readers and represent the vast majority of what Americans actually read during this period.