Thursday, May 03, 2007

America in 1819

In his book Liberty and Slavery: Southern Politics to 1860, William J. Cooper, Jr. makes a some extremely interesting observations about the first sixty years of the Nineteenth Century. The argument that has grabbed me so far (not finished yet!) has to do with a turning point. Although he doesn't quite put it this way, Cooper argues, in effect, that the most momentous year of the first half of the Nineteenth Century in America was 1819. The argument goes as follows. For convenience (and my own sanity) I will avoid using phrases such as "he argues," "Cooper suggests," and the like.

During the first two decades of the Nineteenth Century the Jeffersonian Republicans moved steadily away from their original political and constitutional vision of an extremely limited federal government, exemplified by the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions. Benchmarks in this voyage include Jefferson's decision to swallow his constitutional doubts in connection with the Louisiana Purchase and Madison's decision to sign the bill in 1816 authorizing the creation of the second Bank of the United States -- an utterly shocking about-face given the battles of the 1790s. Slowly but surely, the Republicans embraced the idea of an activist federal government with expanded powers.

The year 1819 delivered two thunderbolts that changed everything. First, Representative James Tallmadge of New York introduced an amendment proposing that Missouri be admitted as a state only if slavery were restricted, and ultimately eliminated there. Supporters of the Tallmadge Amendment argued, among other things, that clauses such as the Republican Form of Government Clause supported their position.

Southerners "recoiled in horror," because such arguments could be used to threaten slavery in existing as well as prospective states. The south reacted by embracing the original Republican conception of limited federal government. Moreover, that constitutional conception, for the first time, became truly fused with the defense of slavery:
Carried to its logical extreme, that doctrine [underlying the Tallmadge Amendment] could impose conditions, not just on new states like Missouri, but on old ones like Virginia. In the southern interpretation of the northern argument, slavery could be endangered everywhere. Thus, southerners ardently embraced strict construction and insisted that state governments be entrusted to manage their own institutions. In attacking the Tallmadge Amendment southerners for the first time made an extended connection between states rights and slavery. Previously they had often used states rights to guard their agrarian society or a broad definition of their their interests, but in 1819 and 1820 southerners fused states rights and slavery. Constitutionally speaking the Missouri crisis propelled the emphatic southern reaction against postwar nationalism into a headlong rush back to the 1790s, to the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions.

The second thunderbolt that year was the Panic of 1819, an unexpected economic depression that devastated the economy. The prices of cotton and slaves and agricultural real estate collapsed. Politically, attention and blame focused on banks as overextended financial institutions called loans. Although state banks drew much criticism, particularly in the south the chief villain was the Bank of the United States -- the poster boy for broad and loose constitutional construction:
With the bank indicted as the chief villain, it took but a step to include in the indictment as accessories the nationalism and broad construction of the Constitution that had spawned the bank. Because energetic government sanctioned by an elastic view of the Constitution had permitted the creation of the bank, then they became the real menaces, with the bank only one manifestation. Southerners found such an interpretation especially fetching because it enabled them to speak in the congenial, almost natural, language that they had spoken so powerfully during the Revolution and in both the 1780s and the 1790s. Fear of an oppressive central authority and the necessity for local control to protect liberty -- once again this twin message became the cry of the South.

In short, the year 1819 gave rise to two dramatic events that caused the south to reverse course and propel it back to a model of limited central government and strict constitutional interpretation. One, ominously, fused that model with the defense of slavery. It would take some years for the implications to manifest themselves out, but 1819 was the great turning point.

Kenneth Stampp wrote a fine book called America in 1857, in which he focused on a particular year filled with dramatic events to help explain where America had been and where it was going. I would propose that an enterprising historian write that book's analogue: America in 1819.

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