Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era, 1829 – 1877

Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era, 1829 – 1877

Pennsylvania’s President James Buchanan rode to the White House on the strength of an unprecedented economic boom. Since 1846, U.S. markets had been boosted by Britain’s embrace of free trade, the Mexican War, the California Gold Rush, railroad and real estate mania, voracious European markets for cotton and then for commodities during the Crimean War. Wall Street displayed an irrational exuberance until, by June 1857, the New York Herald worried, “What can be the end of all this but another general collapse like that of 1837, only on a much grander scale? … Worst of all is the moral pestilence of luxurious exemption from honest labor infecting all classes of society.”

But bearish contrarians sniffed the main chance, sold short, and then cashed in when a hurricane capsized the steamer Central America 130 miles east of Cape Hatteras. She went down on September 12 with 426 souls and a half million ounces of California gold. In the resulting liquidity crisis, markets tumbled and banks collapsed. The Panic of 1857 was on.

A ruined broker named Jeremiah Calvin Lanphier believed that Wall Street, which had been reduced to cinders in a terrible fire in 1835, needed to burn again, only this time with the Holy Spirit. On Wednesday, September 23, he summoned businessmen to a noon prayer service at the old Dutch Church on Fulton Street. Six stragglers peeked in. But increasing numbers showed up over the next months. During what Walt Whitman called those “melancholy days,” prayer groups sprang up all over New York, then Chicago and Philadelphia. The revival spread all over America, but it hit northern cities the hardest because the “Plundering Generation” of textile manufacturers, merchants, shippers, insurers, and investment bankers repented of their profitable complicity in the slave-based cotton trade. Bestsellers called this revival a harbinger of the Apocalypse and Millennium.

No historian is so bold as to say that the Revival of 1857-58 caused our Civil War. But several, including myself, find it plausible that the spiritual message reinforced the political message of the new Republican Party; bred revulsion to the corruption and vice in American society; and made northern elites more receptive to antislavery agitation.

Jacksonian America

In Freedom Just Around the Corner, I described the triumphant founding of the United States down to the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828. I explored how American politics quickly succumbed to the factionalism, party spirit, and demagogy the Founding Fathers deplored. By 1828, when Jackson ran for president with no platform at all, on the strength of his party machinery and rabble-rousing, Americans had learned that their politics were not about new orders for the ages, republican virtues, or Jeffersonian empires of liberty. American politics were about winning elections, and the Jacksonian Democrats knew the way to do that was to best your opponent in spending, scaring, promising, bribing, backroom dealing, mudslinging, demagoging, manipulating the media, rigging the rules, and if necessary and possible, controlling the ballot box.

For the second volume, Throes of Democracy, I sought to explain why America risked its identity, future potential, and very survival in a civil war that killed 600,000 of its citizens. I began by reading European travelers’ accounts of democracy in Jackson’s America. The most celebrated of these was the most flawed. Aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, who spent less than a year in America, was ill-equipped to understand egalitarian, British Protestants shaped by history rather than precept, and moreover leapt to conclusions. Still, he posed timeless questions about democracy that haunt us today in Iraq and made an apercu that became one of my major themes.

Tocqueville suspected that our democracy rested on a delicate balance of falsehoods. A Cincinnati lawyer, future Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase, had explained to him that the universal vote resulted in some bad elections: “Candidates win by mingling, flattering, and drinking with the people, so that distinguished men cannot struggle against the flood of public opinion.” How was it democracy thrived? Because, Tocqueville surmised, the nation was so large, secure, and abundant that even bad politicians could not wreck it, while the hand of government was so light that citizens could pursue most of their goals without it. Above all, Americans sustained democracy by pretending to uphold diversity while in fact imposing a breathtaking conformity shaped by Protestant public opinion.

A Baltimore doctor gave Tocqueville that clue, noting that notwithstanding the separation of church and state, Americans were quick to ostracize unbelief—“Public opinion accomplishes with us what the [Spanish] Inquisition was never able to do.” Americans might make a pretense of tolerance in matters of doctrine, but displayed rigid intolerance in matters of public behavior. “Despotism may govern without faith,” Toqueville wrote, “but liberty cannot.” Hence, religion and liberty were “intimately united” in America, and civil society a sort of church.

Other foreigners all noticed a certain pretense in Jacksonian America. In her Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832), Fanny Trollope scorned abolitionists who wept for the slave but wanted no part of free Negroes in the North. She was enamored of American enterprise until a crooked contractor in cahoots with the sheriff swindled her. Trollope was disillusioned, but Harriet Martineau was not because she arrived in 1834 “unprejudiced, with a strong disposition to admire democracy.” A sociologist, Martineau interviewed merchants, mechanics, farmers, fishermen, politicians, professors, and preachers, and traveled 10,000 miles by steamboat, stagecoach, and railroad. She discovered that in America politics were passionate and politics were everyone’s duty. However, she concluded that elections were decided not on the issues, but on which side was better at mudslinging, mobbing, bribing, and dispensing the booze. As for the newspapers, “It is hard to tell which is worse: the wide diffusion of things that are not true, or the suppression of things that are true.” Yet “the worship of Opinion is … the established religion of the United States.”

American writers hoped such foreign caricatures would be put to rest when the beloved Charles Dickens arrived in 1842. Dickens did find Boston beautiful and refined, and he liked the easy equality among American men, albeit they talked of little besides politics and the price of cotton. Then he arrived in New York and concluded that America was best described by swine, spit, and squalor. He compared the proud ladies and gentlemen on Broadway to the hogs that rooted the city’s sewage. New York’s amusements, noted Dickens, were confined to the counting-house, brawling pubs, and newspapers “pimping and pandering.” In the immigrant slum of Five Points Dickens was repelled by the disease and debauchery, albeit every gin mill and brothel was graced by a portrait of George Washington.

Dickens dubbed Washington City the “headquarters of tobacco-tinctured saliva.” Outside the Capitol he heard slave drivers praise Liberty “to the music of clanking chains and bloody stripes.” Inside Congress he watched the Political Machinery turn on the wheels of electoral tricks, bribes, and artful lies. Dickens charged that Americans “will swallow a whole caravan of camels, if they be laden with unworthy doubts and suspicions…. [They] simply cannot bear truth in any form.” Americans got their revenge. Within months of the English publication of Dickens’ American Notes, 100,000 pirated copies flew off bookstalls in the United States.

Pretense was the provocative theme that imposed itself on me. Americans boasted of their equality and prosperity. Priests of the civil religion like Democratic Review editor John O’Sullivan called America “the great nation of futurity” with a “manifest destiny” against which “the gates of hell cannot prevail.” But even as he wrote those words in 1839, wildcat banks failed, credit collapsed, half-built railroads lay idle, state governments defaulted, farmers went bust, urban jobs disappeared, Jackson’s Indian Removals killed thousands of Native Americans on the Trail of Tears, Southerners defended slavery by imposing a “gag rule” in Congress, Protestant mobs beat up on Irish, and Irish mobs torched Free Negro neighborhoods. In sum, Jacksonian Democracy hallowed the Union, but divided Americans poor against rich, white against black, Protestant against Catholic, native against immigrant, tippler against teetotaler, Whig against Democrat, abolitionist against nearly everyone, and North against South against West.

By 1830, America was a society up for grabs. Democratic male suffrage made government a free market in power; the Constitution and Supreme Court decisions made the economy a free market in goods; the First Amendment made culture a free market in ideas; the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms, made the streets a virtually free market in violence; and free immigration made all those markets theoretically open to the whole human race.

What then could imbue the nation with purpose? Did the freedom of citizens to pursue their own happiness mean the nation at large could have no common purpose? That was one source of anxiety in antebellum America; another was that some faction might corner the market in power and impose its purpose on the nation. This anxiety erupted into panics over threats posed by Freemasons, Wall Street, the Second U.S. Bank, a “Christian Party in Politics,” Slavocrats, Abolitionists, immigrants, Papists, and Mormons. But pretense provided the glue for a huge democracy constantly buffeted by demographic, social, and technological change. To remain united the American people dared not be too honest or uncompromising about their convictions, or challenge their myths about liberty, equality, and the Providential national destiny.

Pretense swept under the rug a multitude of sins while serving two very positive values, indeed two of the holiest tenets in the civil religion. The first was Union itself. Americans invariably called their Union sacred because God’s whole plan for America’s destiny depended on its preservation. That made secession the unforgivable “sin against the Holy Spirit.” The second was the obligation of citizens to respect others’ rights to pursue their happiness. To interfere with another person’s American Dream by pricking their conscience or self-esteem was antisocial. But to damn whole categories of one’s fellow citizens on account of their business, faith, or politics was virtual treason because that, too, threatened the Union itself.

So antebellum Americans compromised their convictions as deftly as they compromised interests. Democracy needed compromise; compromise needed pretense; so pretense prevailed. Whenever crises erupted over slavery, states’ rights, tariffs, western expansion, or internal improvements, the brokers in Congress cut deals such as the Missouri Compromise, Compromise of 1833, Indian Removal Act, and Compromise of 1850. No one believed justice was done or truth served by any of these. Yet after each one Americans pretended their sectional divide had been bridged once and for all.

War Approaches

By the 1850s, the pretenses holding the country together grew so outrageous that Americans began to choke on the lies they told themselves and each other. As Northerners and Southerners alike started telling the truth as they saw it, the Union became a “house divided.” The key factions that had made compromise possible—Southern Whigs and Northern Democrats—quickly dissolved. By 1860 Northerners flocked to the new Republican Party’s program for industry, tariffs, and free soil in the West, while Southerners formed a sectional party devoted to states’ rights, free trade, and slavery.

The familiar evidence can be read as a gradual triumph of candor. It started in 1845 with President Tyler’s dubious annexation of slaveholding Texas, which John Quincy Adams called “the apoplexy of the Constitution.” It accelerated when the Mexican Cession of 1848 opened the prospect of new slave states in the West, and again when the Fugitive Slave Act moved Harriet Beecher Stowe to trumpet dangerous truths in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and indict Northern complicity in the slave trade. Then Stephen Douglas’ 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act repealed the Missouri Compromise line on the pretense that pioneers might decide for themselves about slavery in the territories. All that did was to provoke civil war in Bleeding Kansas and goad Abraham Lincoln to challenge Douglas in debates full of explosive candor. Finally, that religious revival triggered by the Panic of 1857 moved American leaders both north and south to confess truths so dangerous as to inspire secession and Civil War.

It is tempting to interpret the Civil War as a triumph of truth, but alas, the evidence is just as compelling that truth neither caused nor resulted from our Civil War. The partisans on both sides expressed at most half-truths. What really triumphed was pride, and what really happened, it seems, is that anger, fear, and self-righteousness moved Americans to damn the evils on the other side of the Mason-Dixon Line while ignoring their own. Southern planters claimed chattel slavery was more humane than northern “wage slavery” and involved financial sacrifice. But economic historians have shown slavery was increasingly profitable. Southerners insisted most masters were gentle, but all left discipline of field hands to harsh overseers. Planters argued from common sense that slaves imagined no other life, but freedom meant a great deal to slaves, who learned  about abolitionist agitation via the Underground Railroad and Underground Telegraph. Nothing proves their discontent more than African Americans’ brand of religion. They identified with the Hebrews in Egyptian bondage and prayed for an Exodus.

Nor was the North of the 1850s a haven of free labor and land, honest government, and virtuous citizens. By the 1850s New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and San Francisco were all run by machines that monopolized the immigrant vote, stole elections when necessary, and plundered the public purse. On the state level, Northern legislators gobbled up millions in stocks, bonds, and land grants from railroad promoters. On Capitol Hill a host of “borers” (lobbyists) wrung favors from Congressmen with wine, women, and kickbacks. Southerners noticed, and feared that Union with the more populous, dynamic North must surely end in their own pollution.

Secession and War

By Winter 1861 Kansas was a free state and the rest of the frontier organized into territories with no mention of slavery. Abolitionists condemned slavery in the South itself, but that did not cause secession—Lincoln repeatedly said he had no intention of disturbing slavery where it existed and no power to do so anyway. What did cause secession was honor and pride. Ever since the 1819 debate over Missouri, Southerners had weathered storms of moral abuse, being called evil, barbaric, violent, licentious, and un-Christian. Still, Southern leaders had searched for ways to remain in the Union with their honor intact. They lost hope with John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, when Emerson, Thoreau, and preachers across the North eulogized Brown as a Christ-like martyr and likened patriotic Southerners to Pontius Pilate and the Pharisees.

In secessionist editorials, only sporadically did editors complain about slavery in the territories, non-enforcement of fugitive slave codes, or economics. Rather, they almost unanimously expressed moral outrage over the hateful slanders made by corrupt, heretical, hypocritical Yankees. The editor of the New Orleans Bee called Lincoln’s election the “manifestation of the popular dogma in the free States that slavery is a crime in the sight of God, to be reprobated by all honest citizens, and to be warred against by the combined moral influence and political power of the Government. The South, in the eyes of the North, is degraded and unworthy.”


Unlike Jefferson Davis, Lincoln was never sure his cause was holy. That is why he admonished Americans to act “with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.” Lincoln’s assassination got reconciliation and reconstruction off to the worst possible start. But even if Lincoln had lived, it is unlikely that many Americans would have purged malice with charity after four years of unspeakable slaughter. Pretense won out after all and Reconstruction became Americans’ first of many failed experiments in nation-building. Reconstruction was half-hearted, pitifully underfunded, resisted by white southerners and resented by white northerners eager to get back to hustling in pursuit of their happiness. Accordingly, Reconstruction failed and African Americans remained third-class citizens for a century.

But Yankees pretended otherwise. In the decades after Appomattox their orators, veterans, women, children, and brass bands gathered each year on village greens to celebrate the sacred war that crushed the Rebellion and wave the bloody shirt that purged America of its original sin and sanctified the nation to fulfill its millenarian mission as the last, best hope for mankind. Nor is that the least bit ironic. Democracy thrives on pretense, and the post-Civil War pretenses about democracy, a classless society, the melting pot, the frontier as safety valve, and opportunity for all to rise from rags to riches helped the nation immeasurably during the turbulent decades when the nation completed industrialization, assimilated new waves of immigrants, built a world-class navy, and embraced a Progressive Social Gospel mission to redeem all mankind. When the Spanish American War began in 1898, just 22 years after the collapse of Reconstruction, Americans were already prepared to launch foreign crusades in the belief they could do for the world what they were manifestly unable to do for their own conquered South.


Indeed, only a year after the war, Prof. John L. Campbell of Wabash College and Gen. Charles B. Norton each proposed staging a world’s fair in America to celebrate the nation’s centennial ten years hence. At first, everyone shot them down. Who would pay for it? Who would profit? But in 1870 the city fathers of Philadelphia volunteered it as the obvious site. A voluntary, nonprofit Centennial Commission was formed, chaired by former Connecticut governor Joseph Hawley, that was up to the job and aware of their calling, which was to transcend Reconstruction and sell the whole world on the truth of the American dream. As Hawley said, “The masses of the American people desired to make long strides in the Centennial year toward perfect reconciliation. Divine Providence gave us a splendid opportunity to shake hands.”

The Commission extracted exhibits from most of the states and 39 foreign countries. It sold $10 million in small shares to the public and chose a bucolic site in Fairmount Park. The tract was readied, blueprints finalized for more than 200 structures, and in 1875 an army of workers erected the buildings, including Main Hall (at 20 acres the largest enclosed space in the world). The planning having avoided any corruption or disputes, the Exhibition opened, on schedule, on May 10. Foreign dignitaries and President Grant were on hand for the opening, and Grant pulled a valve to summon to life the 40’ tall, 680-ton steam engine that would serve as a power plant for all the other intriguing machines in Machinery Hall: Goodyear rubber, Sharps rifles, Yale locks, Edison telegraphs, Westinghouse air brakes, Pratt and Whitney machine processes, refrigerators, steel cables for the Brooklyn Bridge, Krupp artillery, and a newly patented “telephone.”

Alas, then came Philadelphia’s sweltering summer. The park’s asphalt promenades became gooey, and the heat and noise inside the pavilions insufferable. For Centennial Day, the Commission elected to stage the mass celebration of the Fourth of July at midnight, and outside Independence Hall instead of at the fairgrounds. The red-white-and-blue mood was in any event to shortly turn black when news of Custer’s last stand came on July 6, followed by news on July 9 of the massacre of black celebrants in South Carolina. Too, foreign correspondents insisted on contrasting “the pretentious national Exhibition” with the poverty, filth, and labor strife just blocks away. Still, some 8 million paying customers had made the pilgrimage to the Exhibition, which broke even. Systems worked. America worked. Americans worked.


The Civil War era, it seems to me, hard-wired four telling traits into Americans’ character, traits they would go on to display time and again during their later career as a world power. The first is a careless lack of responsibility: the American people and political system invariably put off pressing problems until they finally cannot be ignored any longer. Because of delay, the solutions prove exponentially more costly and less satisfactory than they could have been. The second is amnesia: the American people tend to forget or misremember their past mistakes and ordeals out of a cheerful optimism and faith in the future born of their civil religion. The third is an amazing power of resilience: Americans invariably rebound from the ravages of war in a very short time and recover their confidence. The fourth, to paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, is a nationalism with the soul of a church, because the United States resurrected after its death in Secession purged old myths only to fuse nationalism even more inextricably with a cult of material progress disguised as a holy calling. That coalescence of Union and Creed, power and faith, rendered Americans uniquely prone to sanctimony, but also uniquely immune to cynicism.

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