Modern history

New Frontiers



When Parker Cleaveland graduated from Harvard University in 1799, his well- to-do family might have expected him to pursue a career in medicine, law, or the ministry. Instead, he turned to teaching. In 1805 Cleaveland secured a position in Brunswick, Maine, a territory that was then part of the state of Massachusetts, as the first professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at Bowdoin College.

In 1806 he married Martha Bush, who joined him on the Maine frontier. The Cleavelands emerged as leading citizens of Brunswick, a community of some three thousand residents. Most local families supported themselves in the lumbering or shipbuilding trades, but the recently opened college attracted middle-class professionals, whose intellectual interests and consumption habits transformed Brunswick into a more cosmopolitan town.

Over the next twenty years, the Cleavelands raised eight children, boarded and fed dozens of students, entertained faculty and visiting scholars, and corresponded with professors at other institutions. The busy couple served as a model of new ideals of companionate marriage, in which husbands and wives shared interests, friendship, and affection. They also instilled republican virtue and scientific principles in their charges. While Parker taught the students math and science, Martha trained them in manners and morals.

Professor Cleaveland believed in using scientific research to benefit society. Thus when local workers asked him to identify colored rocks found in the river, Parker began studying geology and chemistry. In 1816 he published his Elementary Treatise on Mineralogy and Geology, which served as a text for college students and a handbook for travelers interested in the topic. He also lectured throughout New England, displaying mineral samples and performing chemical experiments.

The Cleavelands viewed Bowdoin College and the surrounding community as a laboratory in which distinctly American values and ideas could be taught and sustained. So, too, did the residents of other college towns. Although less than 1 percent of men in the United States and no women attended universities at the time, frontier colleges were considered important vehicles for bringing republican virtue—especially the desire to act for the public good rather than for personal gain—to the far reaches of the young nation. Yet these colleges were also enmeshed in the country's racial history. Several were constructed with the aid of slave labor, and all were built on land purchased or confiscated from Indians. In Maine, the Penobscot nation lost considerable territory to whites following the American Revolution, much of it under the direction of Massachusetts governor John Bowdoin II, the college's namesake. Moreover, the Indians' displacement continued as the success of colleges like Bowdoin attracted more white families to frontier regions.

The purchase of the Louisiana Territory by President Thomas Jefferson in 1803 marked out a new American frontier and ensured further encroachments on native lands. This vast territory covered 828,000 square miles and stretched from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains and from New Orleans to present-day Montana. The area was home to tens of thousands of Indian inhabitants.

In the late 1780s, a baby girl, later named Sacagawea, was born to a family of Shoshone Indians who lived in an area later included in the Louisiana Purchase. In 1800 she was on a berry-picking expedition when her group was attacked by a Hidatsa raiding party that killed several Shoshones and took a number of women and children captive. Sacagawea and her fellow captives were marched some five hundred miles to a Hidatsa- Mandan village near present-day Bismarck, North Dakota. Eventually Sacagawea was sold to a French fur trader, Toussaint Charbonneau, along with another young Shoshone woman, and both became his wives.

Portrait of Meriwether Lewis, 1815.

Private Collection/The Bridgeman Art Library

In November 1804, an expedition led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set up winter camp near the village where Sacagawea lived. Lewis and Clark had been hired by the U.S. government to lead an exploring party through the newly acquired Louisiana Territory. Both Charbonneau, who spoke French and Hidatsa, and Sacagawea joined the expedition as interpreters in April 1805.

The only woman in the party, Sacagawea traveled with her infant son strapped to her back. Her presence was crucial, as Clark noted in his journal: "The Wife of Chabono our interpreter we find reconsiles all the Indians, as to our friendly intentions. A woman with a party of men is a token of peace."

BOTH CLEAVELAND AND SACAGAWEA forged new identities on the frontiers of the United States. Yet while Cleaveland gained fame as “the father of American mineralogy,” Sacagawea was rarely mentioned in accounts of the journey over the following decades. The American histories of both Sacagawea and Cleaveland were shaped by the efforts of political leaders and ordinary citizens to extend the boundaries of the emerging nation. Their different fates make clear that the young United States was marked by stark racial, class, and gender divisions—divisions that were more often deepened than bridged by the nation’s expansion westward.

Creating an American Identity

In his inaugural address in March 1801, President Thomas Jefferson noted that the United States was “kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe,” that is, Europe. He believed that the distance allowed Americans to develop their own unique culture and institutions. Jefferson also viewed the nation’s extensive frontiers as a boon to its development, providing room for “our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation.”

For many Americans, education offered one means of ensuring a distinctive national identity. Public schools could train American children in republican values, while the wealthiest among them could attend private academies and colleges. Written works such as newspapers, sermons, books, and magazines helped forge a common identity among the nation’s far-flung citizens. Even the presence of Indians and Africans contributed to art and literature that were uniquely American. In addition, the construction of a new capital city to house the federal government offered a potent symbol of nationhood.

Yet these developments also illuminated underlying conflicts that defined the young nation. The decision to move the U.S. capital south from Philadelphia was prompted by concerns among southern politicians about the power of northern economic and political elites. The very construction of the capital, in which enslaved and free workers labored side by side, highlighted racial and class differences in the nation. Educational opportunities differed by race and class as well as by sex. The question thus remained: Could a singular notion of American identity be forged in a country where differences of race, class, and sex loomed so large?

Education for a New Nation

The desire to create a specifically American culture began as soon as the Revolution ended. In 1783 Noah Webster, a schoolmaster, declared that “America must be as independent in literature as in Politics, as famous for arts as for arms” To this end, the twenty-five-year-old Webster published the American Spelling Book, which by 1810 had become the second best-selling book in the United States (the Bible was the first). In 1828 Webster produced his American Dictionary of the English Language.

Webster’s books were widely used in the nation’s expanding network of schools and academies and led to more standardized spelling and pronunciation of commonly used words. Before the Revolution, public education for children, which focused on basic reading and writing skills, was widely available in New England and the Middle Atlantic region. In the South, only those who could afford private schooling—perhaps a quarter of the boys and 10 percent of the girls—received any formal instruction. Few young people enrolled in high school in any part of the colonies, and far fewer attended college. Following the Revolution, state and national leaders proposed ambitious plans for public education. In 1789 Massachusetts became the first state to institute free public elementary education for all children, and private academies and boarding schools proliferated throughout the nation.

Before 1790, the American colonies boasted nine colleges that provided further education for young men, including Harvard, Yale, King’s College (Columbia), Queen’s College (Rutgers), and the College of William and Mary. After independence, many Americans worried that these institutions were tainted by British and aristocratic influences. Situated in urban centers or crowded college towns, they were also criticized as centers of vice where youth might be corrupted by “scenes of dissipation and amusement.” New colleges based on republican ideals needed to be founded.

Frontier towns offered opportunities for colleges to enrich the community and benefit the nation. Located in isolated villages, these colleges assured parents that students would focus on education. The young nation benefited as well, albeit at the expense of Indians and their lands. The founders of Franklin College in Athens, Georgia, encouraged white settlement in the state’s interior, an area still largely populated by Creeks and Cherokees. And frontier colleges provided opportunities for ethnic and religious groups outside the Anglo-American mainstream—like Scots-Irish Presbyterians—to cement their place in American society.

Frontier colleges were organized as community institutions in which extended families—composed of administrators and faculty, their wives and children, servants and slaves, and students—played the central role. The familial character of these col- leges—and their lower tuition fees—was also attractive to parents. Women were viewed as exemplars of virtue in the new nation, and the wives of professors were thus especially important in maintaining a refined atmosphere. They held salons where students could learn proper deportment and social skills. They also served as maternal figures for young adults living away from home. In some towns, students in local female academies joined college men on field trips and picnics to cultivate proper relations between the sexes.

Literary and Cultural Developments

While frontier colleges expanded educational and cultural opportunities, older universities also contributed to the development of a national identity. A group known as the Hartford Wits, most of them graduates of Yale, gave birth to a new literary tradition. This circle of poets, playwrights, and essayists expressed distinctly American (though largely Federalist) perspectives. Members of the Hartford Wits published paeans to democracy, satires about Shays’s Rebellion, and plays about specifically American dilemmas, such as the proper role of the central government in a republican nation.

The young nation also produced a number of novelists. Advances in printing and the production of paper increased the circulation of novels, a literary genre developed in Britain and continental Europe at the turn of the eighteenth century. At the same time, improvements in girls’ education produced a growing audience among women, who were thought to be the genre’s most avid readers. Novelists like Susanna Rowson and Charles Brockden Brown sought to educate readers about virtuous action by placing ordinary women and men in moments of high drama that tested their moral character. They also emphasized new marital ideals, by which husbands and wives became partners and companions in building a home and family.

Among the most important American literary figures to emerge in the early nineteenth century was Washington Irving. While living in Europe in the 1810s, he wrote a series of short stories and essays, including “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” that were published in his Sketchbook in 1820. These popular folktales drew on the Dutch culture of the Hudson valley region in New York and often poked fun at more celebratory tales of early American history. But Irving also wrote serious essays. One challenged colonial accounts of Indian-English conflicts, which he argued ignored courageous actions by Indians while applauding atrocities committed by whites.

While Irving achieved fame by making fun of romanticized versions of American history, books that glorified the nation’s past were also enormously popular. Among the most influential were a three-volume History of the Revolution (1805) written by Mercy Otis Warren and the Life of Washington (1806), a celebratory if somewhat fanciful biography by an Anglican clergyman, Mason “Parson” Weems. The influence of American authors increased as residents in both urban and rural areas purchased growing numbers of books. By 1820—1821, for instance, an astonishing 80 percent of households of middling wealth in Chester County, Pennsylvania, owned books.

Artists, too, devoted considerable attention to historical themes. Charles Willson Peale painted Revolutionary generals while serving in the Continental Army and became best known for his portraits of George Washington. Samuel Jennings offered a more radical perspective on the nation’s character when he presented Liberty Displaying the Arts and Sciences (1792) to the Philadelphia Library Company. Many of the library’s directors opposed slavery, and Jennings portrayed Lady Liberty offering a book to a group of attentive African Americans. Engravings, which were less expensive than paintings, circulated widely, and many also highlighted national symbols like flags, eagles, and Lady Liberty.

Engravings of nature were especially popular. Books like Cleaveland’s Elementary Treatise on Mineralogy and Geology included plates that illustrated rocks and geological formations. William Bartram’s Travels (1791), based on his journey through the southeastern United States and Florida, illustrated plants and animals, such as the alligator, previously unknown to Anglo-American scientists.

In the 1780s, Benjamin Franklin helped found the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia to promote American literature and science. Like-minded gentlemen in Boston and Salem established the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Colleges like Bowdoin, Franklin, and Dickinson advanced scientific research in frontier regions, while the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia established the nation’s first medical school. As in the arts, American scientists built on developments in continental Europe and Great Britain, but the young nation prided itself on contributing its own expertise.

The Racial Limits of American Culture

One subject that received significant attention from writers and scientists in the United States was the American Indian. White Americans in the late eighteenth century often wielded native names and symbols as they worked to create a distinct national identity. In long-settled regions along the Atlantic seaboard, where Indian nations no longer posed a significant threat, some Americans followed in the tradition of the Boston Tea Party, dressing as Indians to protest economic and political tyranny. Antirent rioters in the Hudson valley, participants in the Whiskey Rebellion, and squatters in the backcountry of Maine disguised themselves as Indians before attacking landlords, tax collectors, and land speculators. More well-to-do whites also embraced Indian names, costumes, and symbols. Tammany societies, for example, which were named after a mythical Delaware chief called Tammend, promoted patriotism and republicanism in the late eighteenth century and attracted large numbers of skilled artisans, lawyers, and merchants.

Poets, too, focused on American Indians. In his 1787 poem “Indian Burying Ground,” Philip Freneau offered a sentimental portrait that highlighted the lost heritage of a nearly extinct native culture in New England. The theme of lost cultures and heroic (if still savage) Indians became even more pronounced in American poetry in the following decades.

Such sentimental portraits of American Indians were less popular along the nation’s frontier, where Indians still posed a threat. Even a woman like Sacagawea, who aided the efforts of Lewis and Clark, did not become the object of literary or artistic efforts for several generations. Sympathetic depictions of Africans and African Americans by white artists and authors appeared with even less frequency. Most were produced in the North and were intended, like Jennings’s Liberty, for the rare patrons who opposed slavery. Typical images of blacks and Indians were far more demeaning. Especially when describing Indians in frontier regions, authors, artists, politicians, and soldiers tended to focus on their savagery, their duplicity, or both. Most images of Africans and African Americans highlighted their innate inferiority and exaggerated their perceived physical and intellectual differences from white Americans.

Whether their depiction was realistic, sentimental, or derogatory, Africans, African Americans, and American Indians were almost always presented to the American public through the eyes of whites. Few blacks or Indians had access to English-language schools, books, or newspapers, and few whites were willing to publish or purchase works by those who did. Educated African Americans like the Reverend Richard Allen of Philadelphia or the Reverend Thomas Paul of Boston generally wrote for black audiences or corresponded privately with sympathetic whites. Similarly, cultural leaders among American Indians worked mainly within their own nation either to maintain traditional languages and customs or to introduce their people to Anglo-American ideas and beliefs.

White Americans who demanded improved education generally ignored or excluded blacks and Indians. Most southern planters had little desire to teach their slaves to read and write. Even in the North, states did not generally incorporate black children into their plans for public education. It was African Americans in cities with large free black populations who established the most long-lived schools for their race. The Reverend Allen opened a Sunday school for children in 1795 at his African Methodist Church, and other free blacks formed literary and debating societies for young people and adults. Still, only a small percentage of African Americans received an education equivalent to that available to whites in the new Republic.

U.S. political leaders were more interested in the education of American Indians, but government officials never proposed any systematic method of providing them with schools. Instead, various religious groups sent missionaries to the Seneca, Cherokee, and other tribes. A few of the most successful students were then sent to American colleges to be trained as ministers or teachers for their own people. However, just as with African Americans, only a small percentage of American Indians were taught to read or write in English, and whites made almost no efforts to teach Indians the languages and histories of their own nations.

The divergent approaches that whites took to Indian and African American education demonstrated broader assumptions about the two groups rooted in geographical expansion and slave labor. Most white Americans believed that Indians were untamed and uncivilized, but not innately different from Europeans. Africans and African Americans, on the other hand, were assumed to be inferior, and most whites believed that no amount of education could make blacks their intellectual or moral equals. As U.S. frontiers expanded, white Americans considered ways to “civilize” Indians and incorporate them into the nation. But the requirements of slavery made it much more difficult for whites to imagine African Americans as anything more than lowly laborers, despite free blacks who clearly demonstrated otherwise.

Emigration and Colonization

Some African Americans did question the benefits of remaining in the United States. In the late 1780s, the Newport African Union Society in Rhode Island developed a plan to establish a community for American blacks in Africa. Many whites, too, viewed the settlement of blacks in Africa as the only way to solve the nation’s racial dilemma. William Thornton, a Quaker physician who had inherited his father’s sugar plantation in the West Indies, joined a group in London who tried to establish a free black commonwealth on the west coast of Africa. He traveled to the United States to promote what he called colonization. But when Thornton presented his plans to the Free African Society in Philadelphia in 1787, local leaders opposed the effort.

Over the next three decades, the idea of emigration (as blacks viewed it) or colonization (as whites saw it) received widespread attention. Those who opposed slavery hoped to persuade slave owners to free or sell their human property on the condition that they be shipped to Africa. Others assumed that free blacks could find opportunities for economic, religious, and political leadership in Africa that did not exist in the United States. Still others simply wanted to rid the nation of its race problem by ridding it of blacks. In 1817 a group of southern slave owners and northern merchants formed the American Colonization Society (ACS) to carry “civilization” and Christianity to the African continent and establish colonies of freed slaves and free-born American blacks there. Although some African Americans supported this scheme, northern free blacks generally opposed it, viewing colonization as an effort originating “more immediately from prejudice than philanthropy.”

Ultimately the plans of the ACS proved impractical. Particularly as cotton production expanded from the 1790s on, few slave owners were willing to emancipate their workers. Indeed, even in the supposedly enlightened communities where higher education flourished, slavery was widely accepted. In southern colleges, in particular, slaves cleared land, constructed buildings, cleaned rooms, did laundry, and prepared meals.

Building a National Capital

The construction of Washington City, the nation’s new capital, depended on the labor of slaves as well. The capital was situated along the Potomac River in an area surrounded by farms and plantations. More than 300,000 slaves lived in Virginia and Maryland, the states that provided the land for the federal district, and the commissioners appointed to oversee the city’s construction held almost 100 slaves themselves. Between 1792 and 1809, dozens of enslaved men were hired out by their owners, who were paid $50 to $70 annually for their slaves’ labor on the city. Most enslaved men cleared land, built roads, and constructed the White House and the Capitol. Some performed skilled labor as carpenters and sawyers (who cut trees and lumber) or as assistants to stonemasons and surveyors. A few enslaved women were hired as cooks, nurses, and washerwomen.

Free blacks also participated in the development of Washington, working in many of the same positions as slaves did. One of the most noteworthy African Americans involved in the project was Benjamin Banneker, a self-taught clock maker, astronomer, and surveyor. He was hired as an assistant to the surveyor, Major Andrew Ellicott, in 1791, helping to plot the 100-square-mile area on which the capital was to be built.

African Americans worked alongside whites, including many Irish immigrants, whose wages were kept in check by the availability of slave labor. Most workers, regardless of race, faced poor housing, sparse meals, and limited medical care as well as malarial fevers. Despite these obstacles, in less than a decade, a system of roads was laid out and cleared, the Executive Mansion was built, and the north wing of the Capitol was completed.

Although Washington City was considered a symbol of the nation, it was experts from abroad who created the U.S. capital. The streets were laid out according to plans developed by the French engineer Pierre L’Enfant, the Executive Mansion was designed by the Irish- born James Hoban, and the Capitol building was envisioned by the West Indian physician turned architect (and colonizationist) William Thornton. The Capitol’s construction was directed by the English architect Benjamin Latrobe, and African Americans and immigrants made up the majority of the labor force. What was perhaps most “American” about the nation’s capital were the diverse races and nationalities that designed and built it.

The United States Capitol This watercolor by William Russell Birch presents a view of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., before it was burned down by the British during the War of 1812. Birch had emigrated from England in 1794 and lived in Philadelphia. As this painting suggests, neither the Capitol nor the city was as yet a vibrant center of republican achievements. Library of Congress

Washington’s founders envisioned the city as a beacon to the world, proclaiming the advantages of republican principles. But its location on a slow-moving river and its clay soil left the area hot, humid, and dusty in the summer and muddy and damp in the winter and spring. When John Adams and his administration moved to Washington in June 1800, they considered themselves on the frontiers of civilization. The mile-long road from the Capitol to the Executive Mansion was filled with tree stumps and was nearly impossible to navigate in a carriage. On rainy days, when roads proved impassable, officials walked or rode horses to work. That November, when Abigail Adams moved into the Executive Mansion, she complained that the roof leaked, the huge house was hard to heat, and firewood was difficult to obtain. Abigail Adams was not alone in criticizing the capital city. Although the founders considered it “an experiment in republican simplicity,” most residents painted Washington in harsh tones. New Hampshire representative Ebenezer Matroon wrote a friend, “If I wished to punish a culprit, I would send him to do penance in this place . . . this swamp—this lonesome dreary swamp, secluded from every delightful or pleasing thing.” Others described the city as a “fever-stricken morass.”

Despite the drawbacks, the new capital played an important role in the social and political world of American elites, drawing wealthy and influential Americans to this center of federal power. From January through March, the height of the social season, the wives of congressmen, judges, and other officials created a lively schedule of teas, parties, and balls in the new capital city. When Thomas Jefferson became president, he opened the White House to visitors on a regular basis, a style that seemed appropriate for the man who had drafted the Declaration of Independence. This, too, helped reshape the Washington social scene. Yet for all his republican principles, Jefferson moved into the Executive Mansion with a retinue of slaves.

In decades to come, Washington City would become Washington, D.C., a city with broad boulevards decorated with beautiful monuments to the American political experiment. And the Executive Mansion would become the White House, a proud symbol of republican government. Still, Washington was characterized by wide disparities in wealth, status, and power, which were especially visible when Jefferson occupied the Executive Mansion and slaves labored in its kitchen, laundry, and yard. Moreover, President Jefferson’s efforts to incorporate new territories into the United States only exacerbated these divisions by providing more economic opportunities for planters, investors, and white farmers while ensuring the expansion of slavery and the decimation of American Indians.


• How did developments in education, literature, and the arts contribute to the emergence of a distinctly American identity?

• What place did blacks and American Indians inhabit in the predominant white view of American society and culture?

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