Modern history


Overthrowing the Tyranny of Distance

No sooner was President Monroe reelected in 1820 than campaigning began for the election of 1824. By the spring of 1822, a journalist could already comment that the “electioneering begins to wax hot.”1 All the rival presidential candidates called themselves Republicans, and each claimed to be the logical successor to the Jeffersonian heritage. Ironically, what the campaign produced was the breakup of the party and the traditions everyone honored. One-party government proved an evanescent phase in American history.

The presidential campaign of 1824 reflected a clash of personal ambitions, to which issues of region, class, and political philosophy were secondary. Three of the five leading contenders belonged to the cabinet. The power brokers favored William H. Crawford of Georgia, secretary of the Treasury under both Madison and Monroe. A big man physically, Crawford had a jovial manner that disguised a strong mind and an even stronger ambition. He had deferred that ambition by standing aside and preserving party unity when Monroe was anointed in 1816. Now the Republican establishment felt Crawford’s rightful turn had come. Despite his embarrassing conflicts of interests, Jefferson and Madison supported him, perhaps influenced by his birth in Virginia. To reassure proslavery politicians alarmed by the Missouri controversies, Crawford pitched his campaign as a return to the virtues of Old Republicanism—state sovereignty, economy in government, and strict construction of the Constitution. To solidify their proslavery credentials, the Crawfordites succeeded in blocking implementation of a treaty Secretary of State Adams negotiated with the British to cooperate in suppressing the Atlantic slave trade.2But Crawford’s candidacy turned out to have little popular appeal outside southern Radical circles. Only Martin Van Buren’s prototypical political machine in New York state loyally backed Crawford out of devotion to party regularity as the highest good.3

1. Quoted in James F. Hopkins, “Election of 1824,” in History of American Presidential Elections, ed. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. (New York, 1985), 363.

2. See Bradford Perkins, Castlereagh and Adams (Berkeley, 1964), 275–77.

3. See Chase Mooney, William H. Crawford (Lexington, Ky., 1974), 213–48; James S. Chase, Emergence of the Presidential Nominating Convention (Urbana, Ill., 1973), 48–50.

Secretary of War John C. Calhoun offered a clear ideological alternative. The South Carolinian was an energetic proponent of the new Republican nationalism and an architect of the Second BUS, the Tariff of 1816, and the vetoed Bonus Bill that would have promoted internal improvements. A lawyer and planter like Crawford, Calhoun had a more cosmopolitan background, having been educated at Yale and the famous law school in Litchfield, Connecticut (Lyman Beecher’s hometown). A “war hawk” in 1812, he remained convinced that defense imperatives dictated nationalist policies and internal improvements. At Monroe’s War Department he undertook fortifications and western exploration and had upgraded the Military Academy under the leadership of Superintendent Sylvanus Thayer. In person Calhoun was all business, dour, analytical, and intense.4

While the previous two candidates defined themselves in terms of policy, the next two defined themselves as regional favorites. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts enjoyed a solid power base in the East, as New England was then called, with additional support extending along the band of Yankee settlement across upstate New York. Legend has portrayed Adams as aloof and impractical; in reality he was an active and capable player in the political game. Though he started public life as a Federalist like his president-father, he had long since become a Republican, and the anti-British stands he had taken during his tenure at the State Department could not be exploited by an opponent trying to use his early past against him. Adams had wide experience in foreign affairs even before becoming secretary of state. Now, with his Transcontinental Treaty and the Monroe Doctrine as monumental achievements, Adams could lay a solid claim to the nation’s attention and respect. Although everyone found him austere and moralistic, these qualities did not hurt Adams much with the Yankee voters of his time.5

As Adams was the candidate of the East, Henry Clay of Kentucky proclaimed himself the candidate of the West. The resolution of the Missouri controversies had showcased his political talents. On economic issues, Clay of course embraced the new Republican nationalism just as Calhoun and Adams did. In sharp contrast to them, Clay was outgoing, charming,

4. See John Niven, John C. Calhoun and the Price of Union (Baton Rouge, 1988), 75–88, 93–101; John Larson, Internal Improvement: National Public Works and the Promise of Popular Government (Chapel Hill, 2001), 127–28.

5. Melba Porter Hay, “Election of 1824,” in Running for President, ed. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. (New York, 1994), I, 77–99; Daniel Howe, The Political Culture of the American Whigs (Chicago, 1979), 44–45.

and witty, the life of any party. With so many contenders in the presidential race, most observers expected that no one would secure a majority in the electoral college, throwing the race into the House of Representatives for final decision. Clay welcomed this eventuality. As Speaker of the House, he expected to be in a strong position there.6

The one candidate running as an outsider was General Andrew Jackson, famous from Horseshoe Bend, New Orleans, and Pensacola, and since 1823 senator from Tennessee. Jackson possessed an appeal not based on issues; it derived from his image as a victor in battle, a frontiersman who had made it big, a man of decision who forged his own rules. Anyone with a classical education knew to regard such men as potential demagogues and tyrants; the word for the danger was “caesarism.” Jefferson delivered a straightforward opinion of Jackson’s presidential aspirations: “He is one of the most unfit men I know of for such a place.”7 In fact, no one liked Jackson for president except the voting public. Many of the latter, however, found in him a celebrity hero. The fact that only men could vote probably helped Jackson. Many men of voting age had served in local militia units and took pride in Jackson’s exploits as a commander of militia.8

At first, the established politicians did not take Jackson’s candidacy seriously. Adams wanted Jackson to take second place on his own ticket, figuring that he would balance its geography nicely. He expected Jackson would be grateful because Adams had saved his authority after the Florida invasion of 1818 and had sided with him again in 1821 when Jackson, during a short term as governor of Florida Territory, had characteristically defied another federal judge.9 The high point in Adams’s courtship of Jackson was the ball Louisa Adams staged on January 8, 1824, to celebrate the ninth anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans. A thousand guests attended the Adamses’ house on F Street for the climax of the Washington social season. The general, however, had no interest in becoming a junior partner in someone else’s enterprise.

Jackson nursed a special grudge against Crawford and Clay for opposing his Florida actions. (Calhoun’s opposition remained a government secret.) When other candidates organized stop-Crawford movements, they

6. See Merrill Peterson, The Great Triumvirate: Webster, Clay, and Calhoun (New York, 1987), 116–31.

7. Quoted in Michael Heale, The Presidential Quest (London, 1982), 55.

8. For sympathetic insight into Jackson’s appeal, see Charles Sellers, The Market Revolution (New York, 1991), 174–81; Robert Remini, Jackson, II, 71–75.

9. See Robert Remini, Jackson, I, 409–17.

sometimes enlisted Jackson for that purpose, since they did not feel threatened by him. Jackson was originally nominated for president by a resolution of the Tennessee legislature in 1822; ironically, this represented a stratagem by Clay supporters to stymie Crawford in their state. Once Jackson’s popularity became apparent, his nominators recoiled in horror, but it was too late.10 Calhoun made the same mistake in North Carolina. Jackson’s unexpected popularity there and in Pennsylvania, two states crucial to Calhoun, derailed the latter’s campaign. Early in 1824, Calhoun decided that he would settle for the vice presidency this time around; he was still young (forty-two) and could afford to wait for the big prize. Pleased to have him out of the race and hoping to pick up his supporters, both Jackson and Adams agreed to take him as their running mate. In the end, therefore, Calhoun received an overwhelming electoral vote for vice president.

Customarily, the Jeffersonian Republican Party selected its presidential candidate by a joint caucus of party members in the two houses of Congress. In the absence of a functional opposition, this nomination had become tantamount to election, as in Monroe’s case. Conventional wisdom held that Crawford, the insider, would prevail in the caucus. The other candidates denounced the caucus as a method of choosing the Republican nominee, both out of self-interest and because it seemed a system that did not necessarily reflect national public opinion. They boycotted it. Then fate intervened: Crawford suffered a mysterious illness, perhaps a stroke, in September 1823, though he was but fifty-one years old. The treatments of his doctors only made him worse. The seriousness of his condition was kept quiet, but it became unclear how well he would recover. His backers, not knowing what else to do, went ahead and nominated him at a caucus in February 1824. But only 66 out of 240 members showed up, shattering the myth that Crawford’s men controlled Congress. This proved the last such nominating caucus ever held. The American political community did not allow the congressional caucus to preempt the means of choosing the president.11

To have three members of his cabinet running for president against each other proved awkward for Monroe, who remained scrupulously neutral. The rivals sought to embarrass each other by planting scandal

10. This intrigue is unraveled in Charles Sellers, “Jackson Men with Feet of Clay,” AHR 62 (1957): 537–51.

11. Noble Cunningham, “The Jeffersonian Republican Party,” in History of U.S. Political Parties, ed. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. (New York, 1973), 268–71; Chase, Presidential Nominating Convention, 41–50.

stories anonymously. Particularly troublesome was Crawford’s campaign, based on a state-rights Radicalism that clearly contrasted with the Republican nationalism of the administration as a whole. But Crawford had expected Monroe’s full support and felt betrayed. Relations between the president and his secretary of the Treasury gradually soured, though for the appearance of party unity Monroe did not remove him and even helped cover up the extent of his incapacity in the winter of 1823–24.12

In the nineteenth century it was not customary for presidential candidates to campaign overtly.13 Their supporters made speeches and wrote articles on their behalf; the candidates themselves directed matters by private correspondence but in public preserved the fiction that the presidential office sought the man, not the man the office. Jackson’s chief campaign document appeared anonymously under the pseudonym “Wyoming”; it was largely the work of his aide John Eaton. The Letters of Wyoming called for the election of Jackson to restore accountability and public spirit (then called “virtue”) to a republic whose government allegedly had lost touch with the people and become corrupt. While all the other candidates were intriguing in the capital, Jackson alone, claimed Wyoming, remained in touch with the “honest yeomanry” of the country. Jackson’s campaign marked the debut of a common and effective tactic in American politics: running against Washington, D.C. It took advantage of the unfocused resentments of people who had suffered from the hard times after 1819.14

The campaign of 1824 fell in the midst of a transition from one system of electing presidents to another. In the early days of the republic, the presidential electors had been chosen by state legislatures. However, public opinion throughout the country was shifting in favor of having the electors chosen by the voters, and since the last presidential contest in 1816, several more states, including all the newly admitted ones, had adopted a popular vote for presidential electors. Generous franchise laws, including the popular election of presidential electors, constituted one of the ways that new states bid for settlers. Old states, worried about losing population, felt pressure to adopt similar rules. By 1824, the number of states following the popular practice had grown to eighteen out of twenty-four. (Later in the century, a similar mechanism would spread women’s

12. See Noble Cunningham, The Presidency of James Monroe (Lawrence, Kans., 1996), 126–30.

13. The most conspicuous exceptions to this rule were Stephen A. Douglas in 1860 and William Jennings Bryan in 1896; neither was an incumbent.

14. The Letters of Wyoming to the People of the United States (Philadelphia, 1824).

suffrage from west to east.) Meanwhile, a tradition was developing that presidential electors should pledge themselves in advance instead of exercising their individual discretion. But not all states cast their electoral votes as a block; five states awarded them by congressional district to the candidate who carried that district.15 The election of 1824 was the first in which it is possible to tabulate a popular vote for president, although it does not include all the states. Jackson’s cause, based on his personal popularity, exemplified and benefited from the changing nature of presidential campaigns and the more direct role of the electorate. All the other candidates were still playing the political game the old-fashioned way, assuming that opinion leaders could speak for their followers and act as power brokers.

As the returns gradually accumulated in the absence of a common date for states to choose their electors, it became apparent that Jackson had won a plurality of both popular and electoral votes, but no candidate had the required majority in the electoral college. Of popular votes, Jackson had 152,901 (42.5 percent), Adams 114,023 (31.5 percent), Clay 47,217 (13 percent), and Crawford 46,979 (13 percent).16 The small numbers indicate a low turnout, plus the fact that six states had no popular votes for president. The electoral votes stood as follows: Jackson 99, Adams 84, Crawford 41, and Clay 37. Jackson had undercut Clay in the West, just as he had hurt Crawford among Old Republicans. Jackson owed his electoral college lead to the three-fifths clause of the Constitution, which inflated the voting power of slaveholding states. Without it, he would have received 77 electoral votes and Adams 83.17

Under these circumstances, the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution provided that the House of Representatives should choose a president from among the three top contenders, with the delegation from each state casting one vote. Since Crawford was so far behind the other two, and his health still a question mark, Jackson and Adams were clearly the two most credible candidates. Adams had no intention of bowing out just because Jackson was the front-runner. Now came the round of lobbying congressmen, when Adams came into his own. He understood well this kind of politics, based on an “old-boy” network and implicit understandings. Adams held on to the delegations from the seven states he had carried in the general election and won over three more as well. In Illinois,

15. Remini, Jackson, II, 81.

16. The figures given in Robert Remini, Henry Clay (New York, 1991), 249.

17. Calculated by Robert Forbes, “Slavery and the Meaning of America” (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 1994), 499.

the chief issue in state politics at the time was whether or not to introduce slavery. Illinois’s sole congressional representative, Daniel Cook, strongly antislavery, found no difficulty in preferring Adams to Jackson. To firm up support in Maryland, Adams promised not to exclude Federalists from the patronage. Meanwhile, Congressman James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, a Jackson supporter, was trying to broker a deal in which Jackson would make Clay secretary of state in return for Clay’s support. Buchanan’s plan got nowhere; in fact, Clay had already made up his mind to support Adams.18

Originally, Clay had hoped to use his influence in the House to benefit his own candidacy; as things turned out, he could be only kingmaker, not king. Adams and Clay had rubbed each other the wrong way in the past, especially when they had been colleagues in the American negotiating team at Ghent, but now they proved capable of reaching a momentous understanding in a three-hour private meeting on Sunday evening, January 9, 1825.19 Their alliance was quite logical: Clay and Adams agreed on the issues, both being nationalists who wanted the government to promote economic development, and their different sectional power bases complemented each other. Besides, Clay thought a military hero with a record of defying civilian authority a dangerously inappropriate choice for president.

“Harry of the West” had three states he could deliver in the House: Kentucky, Ohio, and Missouri (whose lone member was grateful for Clay’s role in getting the state admitted).20 Added to the ten states already in Adams’s camp, they made thirteen: a majority of the twenty-four states. Jackson, although he had carried eleven states in the electoral college, received the votes of only seven state delegations in the House; he was less popular inside the political community than he was with the public at large. On a snowy ninth of February 1825, John Quincy Adams was elected sixth president of the United States by the House of Representatives on its first ballot. Back home in Quincy, Massachusetts, his eighty-nine-year-old father felt overwhelmed with emotion when the news arrived.21 Not until George Bush would another former president see his son in the White House.

18. See Peterson, Great Triumvirate, 148.

19. Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Containing Portions of His Diary, ed. Charles Francis Adams (Philadelphia, 1874–77), VI, 464–65; Samuel Flagg Bemis, John Quincy Adams and the Union (New York, 1956), 40–41; Remini, Henry Clay, 255–58.

20. Robert Seager II, “Henry Clay and the Politics of Compromise and Non-Compromise,” Register of the Kentucky Historical Society 85 (1987): 8.

21. John Adams to John Quincy Adams, Feb. 18, 1825, Memoirs of JQA, VI, 504.

The outcome stunned the political community. Most observers had supposed that Jackson’s popularity in the West would force Clay to throw his support in that direction. (Indeed, Kentucky’s legislature had “instructed” Clay and the rest of the state’s House delegation to vote for Jackson.) It might have made sense in general ideological terms for the Crawford supporters to switch to Jackson, but they were not sure they could trust the general. The extraordinary personal bitterness between the two principals inhibited Crawford’s followers from allying with Jackson too readily. So they waited, expecting the process to require several ballots; if a deadlock between Adams and Jackson developed, they could hope that Crawford might emerge as a compromise choice.22

It was Adams himself who made the quick resolution of the contest possible. By successfully winning over the delegations of three states Jackson had carried in the general election (Maryland, Illinois, and Louisiana), he had created a situation in which an alliance with Adams was the only winning option for Clay. Clay’s decision to support Adams was therefore, in the words of one historian, “the only reasonable and responsible one, the only one that could avert a long drawn-out battle leading to constitutional crisis.”23 But however rationally and constitutionally defensible, the outcome outraged the Jacksonians, who saw their popular and electoral pluralities frustrated. The election of 1824–25 marked the last time the constitutional machinery of Jeffersonian republicanism, defined in the Twelfth Amendment of 1804, would prevail over the politics of mass democracy. The House of Representatives has never again chosen a president.24

While the election of 1824 marked the end of nonparty politics, it also laid the foundation for the party system that was to come. The alliance of Adams and Clay formed the basis of what would be called first the National Republican and later the Whig Party. Before long, Jackson’s and Crawford’s followers would coalesce into the Democratic Republican, later named the Democratic Party. Of the five presidential contenders in 1824, only Calhoun did not manage to find any comfortable home in the second party system. Among the larger public, diligent historical research

22. Crawford himself would have considered Adams the lesser evil to Jackson. Mooney, William H. Crawford, 295. On Crawford’s chances as a compromise candidate, see Thomas Jefferson to Richard Rush, June 5, 1824, Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. John Leicester Ford (New York, 1899), X, 304–5.

23. Peterson, Great Triumvirate, 129.

24. There was a disputed election resolved by a special commission in 1876, a disputed election resolved by the Supreme Court in 2000, and one other case, in 1888, when the winner of the popular vote did not win the electoral vote.

has shown substantial continuity in voting alignments between 1824 and subsequent elections.25

What Clay himself wanted in return for supporting Adams was, of course, to be designated his heir. The State Department had served as the stepping-stone to the presidency in early republican history: Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and now Adams had all been secretaries of state. When Adams appointed Clay secretary of state, everyone knew what it meant. Whether there had been an explicit prior agreement between the two men to this effect we shall never know; most historians today think not. But Andrew Jackson’s comment epitomized the bitterness he felt: “The Judas of the West has closed the contract and will receive the thirty pieces of silver. His end will be the same.”26


The issues the incoming president would face were intimately bound up with what historians have called “the transportation revolution.” People throughout the United States recognized the need for a better transportation system. The Great Migration had increased the number of agricultural producers wanting to get their crops from the interior to national or international markets. While some people moved westward, others were migrating to the coastal cities to work in the merchant marine and its many ancillary occupations, from shipbuilding to insurance. These city people had a need to be fed even more urgent than that of the farmers to market their crops. Pressure for improvements in transportation came at least as much from cities eager to buy as from farmers seeking to sell. Urban merchants hoped to funnel as much farm produce as possible from as large a hinterland as possible into their own market, either for consumption or transshipment elsewhere.27 Technology, new or newly applied, made available improvements in transportation, but constructing “internal improvements” posed problems not only physical but also economic, legal, and political. Who should be responsible for addressing the needs and funding the solutions? Private enterprise, local, state, or national government? Adams, Clay, and Vice President Calhoun all supported

25. See Donald Ratcliffe, The Politics of Long Division: The Birth of the Second Party System in Ohio, 1818–1828 (Columbus, Ohio, 2000), esp. p. 331.

26. Andrew Jackson to William B. Lewis, Feb. 14, 1825, Correspondence of AJ, III, 276. On whether there had been an explicit agreement, see Remini, Henry Clay, 258; Charles Sellers, The Market Revolution (New York, 1991), 199.

27. See Meinig, Continental America, 216–23.

spending federal money on transportation, but many other political leaders disagreed.28

The pressure of the great westward movement itself first made it clear that locally maintained country roads would be insufficient. In preparation for admitting Ohio to statehood, Congress had agreed back in 1802 to devote some of the proceeds from the sale of public lands there to the construction of a gravel road to facilitate trans-Appalachian travel, communication, and commerce. Begun in 1811 at Cumberland, Maryland, on the Potomac, the National Road (also called the Cumberland Road) reached Wheeling on the Ohio in 1818, fulfilling a dream of linking those two river systems. Thereafter the road was extended piecemeal to the west across Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. It constituted one of the few portions of Albert Gallatin’s vast scheme for a national system of internal improvements that the federal government actually ever implemented. The road profited the construction industry wherever it went and raised land values. Thanks to the traffic it generated, Baltimore temporarily surpassed Philadelphia to become the nation’s second-largest city in the 1820s.29 In the early twentieth century the National Road was extended east to Atlantic City and west to San Francisco and renamed Highway 40; later, portions of it were incorporated into Interstate 70.

Despite widespread clamor for better transportation and its manifest tangible benefits, doubts remained in some quarters whether the Constitution delegated power to the federal government to construct internal improvements. These doubts, combined with disputes over which routes the government should favor, proved strong enough to ensure that the National Road had no counterparts. And when Congress passed a bill in 1822 to authorize the collection of tolls on the National Road, thereby making it self-funding, Monroe vetoed it. Along with his veto he transmitted to Congress a 25,000-word explanatory essay arguing the same position Madison had enunciated in 1817, that the country needed internal improvements financed by the federal government, but that only a constitutional amendment could authorize them. Yet Monroe proved no more consistent than Madison had been on the issue of internal improvements. At the last minute he inserted into his document a qualification

28. See Carter Goodrich, Government Promotion of American Canals and Railroads (New York, 1966); John Lauritz Larson, “Jefferson’s Union and the Problem of Internal Improvements,” in Jeffersonian Legacies, ed. Peter Onuf (Charlottesville, 1993), 340–69.

29. Joseph S. Wood, “The Idea of a National Road,” in The National Road, ed. Karl Raitz (Baltimore, 1996), 93–122.

that the constitutional power to levy taxes for “the general welfare” might authorize spending federal money on certain internal improvements even without an amendment. Later, the president requested an advisory opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court on the subject. Modern lawyers will be surprised to learn that he got one. In an opinion written by Associate Justice William Johnson of South Carolina and kept confidential by Monroe, the Court advised the president that federally funded internal improvements were constitutional.30 Emboldened, Monroe signed a bill to extend the National Road and another authorizing a “General Survey” of possible routes and estimated costs for a number of other roads and canals.

While the federal government dithered, arguing over routes and the meaning of legal texts, resourceful state and local authorities moved to encourage the building of turnpikes. Some of these, like the Lancaster Turnpike in Pennsylvania, antedated the War of 1812. Typically, a state legislature chartered a corporation and granted it the exclusive franchise to build a certain road and charge tolls for its use. (In those days obtaining a corporate charter required special legislative action.) To help raise the necessary capital, state and local governments would often subscribe some of the stock in the turnpike company, creating a “mixed” public-private enterprise. The private stockholders often included hundreds of small investors, local boosters motivated not only by the promise of dividends but even more by hope of rising land values for themselves and their kinship groups in the area where the turnpike would pass. The political popularity of turnpikes and the large number of small investors in them testify to the extent of grass-roots enthusiasm for improved transportation.31

Despite their popularity, turnpikes provided only slow and uncertain transportation. Stagecoaches usually went six to eight miles an hour, though on an unusually fine road, such as that between New York and Philadelphia, they could make over eleven miles an hour.32 In the event, turnpikes proved more helpful in moving people into the hinterland than in bringing their produce back out. Wagon transportation of goods could seldom compete with river boats and canal barges for distances over a hundred miles. While turnpikes did benefit the communities they served, not least in higher property values, they never paid much in the way of

30. Donald G. Morgan, Justice William Johnson (Columbia, S.C., 1954), 122–25.

31. See John Majewski, A House Dividing: Economic Development in Pennsylvania and Virginia Before the Civil War (New York, 2000), 49–58.

32. George Rogers Taylor, The Transportation Revolution (New York, 1966), 142.

dividends. For one thing, it was too easy to avoid the tollbooths (paths around them came to be so well known they were called “shun-pikes”). Had the roads been financed by bonds, the bondholders would have had a legal claim to payment. Financing them instead by taxes and stock sales meant many a small farmer lost a hundred dollars or so of savings, but the benefits were widely distributed among local users whether they had invested or not. Small investors, then as now, seldom pick the most profitable stocks.

The invention of the steamboat enhanced the comparative advantages of water transportation. In 1787, John Fitch had built the first American steamer, but he could not obtain financial backing and died in obscurity. The first commercially successful steamboat, Robert Fulton’s Clermont, plied the Hudson River starting in 1807. Steamboats proved most valuable for trips upstream on rivers with powerful currents, of which the Mississippi was the ultimate example. In 1817, a twenty-five day steamer trip up the Mississippi from New Orleans to Louisville set a record; by 1826, the time had been cut to eight days. Pre-steamboat traffic on the Mississippi had been mostly one-way downstream; at New Orleans, boatmen broke up their barges to sell for lumber and walkedback home to Kentucky or Tennessee along the Natchez Trace road.33

Early steamboats, with side or rear paddlewheels, navigated rivers, lakes, and the coastal trade. They were built with drafts as shallow as possible to avoid obstacles in the water. The joke ran that they could float on a heavy dew, and it was literally true that one of them could carry eighty passengers with forty tons of freight in two feet of water.34 Even so, the dredging of rivers and harbors became one of the most important kinds of internal improvement that state and federal authorities undertook in this period.

For all their utility, nineteenth-century steamboats were dangerous. Between 1825 and 1830 alone, forty-two exploding boilers killed 273 people. Commenting on steamboat accidents, Philip Hone of New York City, one of the great diarists of the period, observed in 1837, “We have become the most careless, reckless, headlong people on the face of the earth. ‘Go ahead’ is our maxim and pass-word, and we do go ahead with a vengeance, regardless of consequences and indifferent to the value of human life.”35In 1838, an enormous boiler explosion in Charleston took 140 lives.

33. Brooke Hindle, Emulation and Invention (New York, 1981), 25–57; Feller, Jacksonian Promise, 24; Thomas Clark and John Guice, Frontiers in Conflict (Albuquerque, N.M., 1989), 258.

34. Sellers, Market Revolution, 132.

35. Diary of Philip Hone, ed. Bayard Tuckerman (New York, 1889), entry for May 22, 1837, I, 260.

Congress responded that year with the first federal regulation, warranted by the interstate commerce clause. From then on, every steamboat boiler had to bear a certificate from a government inspector. Steamboats continued to blow up. In 1845 Congress extended the jurisdiction of federal courts to include cases arising on inland waterways.36

Even after the invention of steamboats, merchants continued to favor sailing ships for ocean voyages because they did not have to devote a lot of precious cargo space to carrying fuel for a long voyage. The famous American clipper ships that traded between New England and China in the 1850s were sailing vessels. In general, seaborne commerce needed improvement less urgently than land and river commerce; indeed, the oceans had constituted the highways of traffic for generations. The first ocean vessels to find steam practical were warships. They used steam power to enable them to maneuver independently of the wind and bring their guns to bear. But even they kept full sailing rigging, so they could conserve fuel for times when it was most needed. A Canadian named Samuel Cunard pioneered the development of transatlantic commercial steamships starting in 1840. Instead of wood fuel, his ships burned coal, which took up less space in the hold; they cut the westward crossing time from thirty to fourteen days. In 1847, Congress awarded a subsidy to Edward Collins to create an oceangoing steamship line under the U.S. flag, but the Collins Line did not compete successfully with the Cunard Line and went bankrupt after a decade.37

Besides carrying goods and passengers, ocean vessels also hunted whales and fish. For two decades beginning in 1835, four-fifths of the world’s whaling ships were American. New Bedford, Massachusetts, dominated American whaling (as Nantucket had done in the eighteenth century). The demand for whale oil, used for lighting, increased as more people left the farms and moved to cities. Other whale products included whalebone, used much as we use plastic; ambergris, used in perfume; and spermaceti, used as candle wax. In sharp contrast to textiles, whaling ships employed an all-male labor force. The historian William Goetzmann has aptly called the bold navigators who added to geographical

36. Ruth Cowan, Social History of American Technology (New York, 1997), 111; Harry Scheiber, “The Transportation Revolution and American Law,” in Transportation and the Early Nation (Indianapolis, 1982), 15–16.

37. Robert Post, Technology, Transport, and Travel in American History (Washington, 2003), 18–20; Stephen Fox, Transatlantic: Samuel Cunard and the Great Atlantic Steamships (New York, 2003), xii, 6.

knowledge in their pursuit of the leviathan the “mountain men of the sea.” The forty years beginning in 1815 represented the golden age for the American whaling industry; its fleet peaked at mid-century, just before the new petroleum industry began to replace whale oil.38

Canals further extended the advantages of water transport. Canals might connect two natural waterways or parallel a single stream so as to avoid waterfalls, rapids, or obstructions. Locks raised or lowered the water level. Horses or mules walking along a towpath moved barges through the canal; an animal that could pull a wagon weighing two tons on a paved road could pull fifty tons on the towpath of a canal.39 In Europe, canals had been around a long time; the Languedoc Canal connected the Mediterranean with the Bay of Biscay in 1681. In North America, canal construction had been delayed by the great distances, sparse population, and (embarrassing as it was to admit) lack of engineering and management expertise.40 During the years after 1815, a society eager for transportation and open to innovation finally surmounted these difficulties. Because canals cost more to construct than turnpikes, public funding proved even more important in raising the capital for them. Energy and flexibility at the state level got canal construction under way when doubts about constitutional propriety made the federal government hesitate. Many canals were built entirely by state governments, including the most famous, economically important, and financially successful of them all, the Erie Canal in New York.41

Astonishingly, this ambitious artificial waterway from Albany to Buffalo was completed in eight years. On October 26, 1825, Governor DeWitt Clinton boarded the canal boat Seneca Chief in Lake Erie and arrived at Albany a week later, having been cheered in every town along the way. He then floated down the Hudson to New York harbor, where, surrounded by a flotilla of boats and ships of all kinds, he poured a keg of Lake Erie water into the Atlantic. On shore, the city celebrated with fireworks and a parade of fifty-nine floats. The canal had contributed mightily

38. William Weeks, Building the Continental Empire (Chicago, 1996), 67; William Goetz-mann, New Lands, New Men: America and the Second Great Age of Discovery (New York, 1986), 231–46; Lance Davis, Robert Gallman and Karin Gleiter, In Pursuit of Leviathan (Chicago, 1997).

39. Philip Bagwell, The Transport Revolution from 1770 (London, 1974), 13.

40. Noticed by Michel Chevalier, who included much information on the transportation revolution in his Society, Manners, and Politics in the United States, trans. T. Bradford (Boston, 1839), 272.

41. See Nathan Miller, The Enterprise of a Free People: Economic Development in New York during the Canal Period (Ithaca, 1962).

to the prosperity of New York City (which in those days meant simply Manhattan). Even the urban artisans, who had originally opposed it in fear of higher taxes, had become enthusiastic about the Erie Canal. Because it facilitated transshipment of goods from New York City inland, the canal encouraged the extraordinary growth of the port of New York. One day in 1824 some 324 vessels were counted in New York harbor; on a day in 1836 there were 1,241.42

The Erie Canal’s effects elsewhere were at least as dramatic as those in New York City. Across western New York state, construction of the canal mitigated the hard times following the Panic of 1819, and its operation stimulated both agriculture and manufacturing. The Erie Canal made New York the “Empire State.” Within nine years, the $7,143,789 it had cost the state to construct the canal had been paid off in tolls collected; by then its channel was being expanded to accommodate more traffic.43 The canal initiated a long-term boom in the cities along its route, including Albany, Utica, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo. Between 1820 and 1850, Rochester grew in population from 1,502 to 36,403; Syracuse, from 1,814 to 22,271; Buffalo, from 2,095 to 42,261.44

The canal transformed the quality as well as the quantity of life in western New York state. Where earlier settlers had been to some extent “self-sufficient”—eking out a subsistence and making do with products they made themselves or acquired locally—people now could produce for a market, specialize in their occupations, and enjoy the occasional luxury brought in from outside. When fresh Long Island oysters first appeared on sale in Batavia, a western New York town, it made headlines in the local newspaper. The cost of furnishing a house fell dramatically: a clock for the wall had dropped in price from sixty dollars to three by midcentury; a mattress for the bed, from fifty dollars to five. Although some of this saving was due to mass production, much of it was due to lower transportation costs.45 Changes from the rustic to the commercial that had taken centuries to unfold in Western civilization were telescoped into a generation in western New York state. While some people moved to

42. Feller, Jacksonian Promise, 17–18; Ronald Shaw, Erie Water West: A History of the Erie Canal (Lexington, Ky., 1966), 184–92; Christopher Clark, Social Change in America: From the Revolution Through the Civil War (Chicago, 2006), 155.

43. Ronald Shaw, Canals for a Nation (Lexington, Ky., 1990), 42, 49.

44. Shaw, Erie Water West, 263.

45. Republican Advocate, Nov. 5, 1825, quoted in Carol Sheriff, The Artificial River (New York, 1996), 3; Donald Parkerson, The Agricultural Transition in New York State (Ames, Iowa, 1995), 10.

cities, other families moved to new farms where they could maximize their contact with markets. The value of land with access to transportation rose; that of farmland still isolated fell. The social and cultural effects of these changes were particularly felt by women, causing some to turn from rural household manufacturing to management of middle-class households based on cash purchases.46 The religious revivals of the burned-over district reflected in part a longing for stability and moral order amidst rapid social change. They began with efforts to tame the crudity and vice of little canal towns and went on to bring a spiritual dimension to the lives of the new urban middle and working classes.

Meanwhile, by the shores of the Great Lakes, the canal facilitated the settlement of northern Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois by people of Yankee extraction moving west by water and sending their produce back east the same way. Without the canal, the pro-southern Butternuts would have dominated midwestern politics, and the river route down to New Orleans would have dominated the midwestern economy.47

Canals were more exciting for shippers and engineers than for passengers. Long-distance travel by canal boat proved effective in moving large numbers of people, but it was not much fun. The speed limit on the Erie Canal was four miles an hour, and travelers like the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne commented on the “overpowering tedium” of the journeys. Catherine Dickinson of Cincinnati, the aunt of Emily Dickinson, complained like many others of sleeping quarters so “crowded that we had not a breath of air.” Still, canal travel was safe and suitable for families, and passengers relieved their boredom with singing and fiddles. Harriet Beecher Stowe summed it up: “Of all the ways of travelling, the canal boat is the most absolutely prosaic.”48

Others rushed to imitate New York’s canal success. Ohio complemented the Erie Canal with a system of its own linking Lake Erie and Cleveland with the Ohio River and Cincinnati. The canals brought the frontier stage of Ohio history to a rapid close and integrated the state into the Atlantic world of commerce.49 The Canadians constructed the Welland Canal, bypassing Niagara Falls for vessels going between Lake

46. Parkerson, Transition, 146; Mary Patricia Ryan, Cradle of the Middle Class: The Family in Oneida County, New York (New York, 1981).

47. See Douglas North, The Economic Growth of the United States (New York, 1961), 102–11.

48. These and other reports are quoted in Shaw, Canals for a Nation, 178–86.

49. Andrew Cayton, Frontier Republic: Ohio, 1780–1825 (Kent, Ohio, 1986), x. See also R. Douglas Hurt, The Ohio Frontier (Bloomington, 1996), 388–96.


Erie and Lake Ontario. Pennsylvania undertook the most extensive canal system of any state. Jealous of New York City, Philadelphia businessmen wished to expand their own city’s commercial hinterland beyond the 65-mile-long Lancaster Turnpike. A group of them led by Matthew Carey persuaded the Pennsylvania legislature to commence in 1826 the Mainline Canal, going all the way to Pittsburgh and the Ohio River. The Mainline Canal was an even more impressive engineering feat than the Erie: 395 miles long, it rose 2,322 feet over the Alleghenies and had 174 locks and an 800-foot tunnel.50 Its backers hoped that the Mainline Canal would compete successfully with the Erie because, being farther south, it would be blocked by ice for a shorter time in winter. But inevitably, it cost more time and money to surmount Pennsylvania’s more formidable geographical barriers, and the planners of the Mainline Canal compounded their difficulties by dissipating resources on too many feeder canals. As a result, Pennsylvania’s canal system came into operation just a little too late. The advent of a startling new technology spoiled the hopes of the state’s canal builders. When the Mainline Canal finally linked Philadelphia with Pittsburgh in 1834, it included a railway portage over the crest of the mountains. By this time it was clear that it would have been more efficient to build a railroad all the way. The Mainline Canal’s advocates had not wanted to wait for railway technology to develop, so they pressed ahead with a program that quickly became obsolescent.51 In transportation projects, as in love and war, timing was critical.

Yet even internal improvements that did not earn a profit for their owners could still be economically valuable to their region by lowering shipping costs. Improved transportation made a big difference to daily life in rural America. Not only could farmers sell their crops more readily, they could also buy better implements: plows, shovels, scythes, and pitchforks, now all made of iron. Even sleighs with iron runners became available. Clothing and furniture could be purchased instead of homemade. Information from the outside world was more readily available, including advertisements that told of new products, helpful or simply fashionable. As early as 1836, the Dubuque Visitor, far off in what is now Iowa (then part of Wisconsin Territory), advertised ready-made clothing and “Calicoes, Ginghams, Muslins, Cambricks, Laces, and Ribbands.” And instead of

50. Larson, Internal Improvement, 86.

51. Julius Rubin, “An Imitative Public Improvement,” in Canals and American Development, ed. Carter Goodrich et al. (New York, 1961), 67–114.

bartering with neighbors or the storekeeper, rural people increasingly had cash to facilitate their transactions.52

Did internal improvements benefit everybody? No. Sometimes local farmers or artisans went bankrupt when exposed to the competition of cheap goods suddenly brought in from far away. Northeastern wheat-growers were hurt once the Erie Canal brought in wheat from more productive midwestern lands. Some of them could switch from grains to growing perishable vegetables for the nearby cities, but others had to abandon their farms. Generations later, travelers could find the ruins of these farmhouses among the woods of New England. Before the great improvements in transportation, such farms, however inefficient on their infertile and stony soil, could yield a living producing for a nearby market. There were also people, mostly in the South, who didn’t expect to use internal improvements and therefore didn’t want to have to pay for them. These included not only the lucky owners of farms or plantations located on naturally navigable waterways but also subsistence cultivators who were almost self-sufficient, perhaps supplementing what they grew by hunting and fishing as their Native American precursors had done. If these people felt content with their lives—as some of them did—they would not care to have internal improvements changing things. Similarly isolated were certain ethnic enclaves in the North such as the Pennsylvania Amish, whose members traded little and mainly within their own community. People like that could afford to be indifferent to internal improvements. But the lives of most Americans were powerfully affected, and usually for the better.

Finally, internal improvements could be opposed for reasons that had nothing to do with their economic effects. There were those who felt their stake in the status quo threatened by any innovation, especially innovation sponsored by the federal government. All slaveholders did not feel this way, as Clay and Calhoun clearly demonstrated, but some did. North Carolina’s Nathaniel Macon confided their fears to a political ally in 1818: “If Congress can make canals, they can with more propriety emancipate.” Northern enthusiasm for internal improvements needed to be checked, he cautioned. “The states having no slaves may not feel as strongly as the states having slaves about stretching the Constitution, because no such interest is to be touched by it.” The strident John Randolph

52. Ronald Shaw, “Canals in the Early Republic,” JER 4 (1984): 117–42; William Gilmore, Reading Becomes a Necessity of Life (Knoxville, Tenn., 1989), 110; Gary Nash et al., The American People, 3rd ed. (New York, 1994), 350.

of Roanoke made this logic public: “If Congress possesses the power to do what is proposed in this bill,” he warned in 1824 while opposing the General Survey for internal improvements, “they may emancipate every slave in the United States.”53 Men like Macon and Randolph were willing to block the modernization of the whole country’s economy in order to preserve their section’s system of racial exploitation. Clay made the opposite choice, and for the time being he could count on the trans-Appalachian West, free and slave states alike, to back internal improvements. Calhoun, however, was about to change his mind.


As part of the celebration of the Erie Canal’s completion, cannons were placed within earshot of each other the entire length of its route and down the Hudson. When Governor Clinton’s boat departed from Buffalo that October morning in 1825, the first cannon of the “Grand Salute” was fired and the signal relayed from gun to gun, all the way to Sandy Hook on the Atlantic coast and back again. Three hours and twenty minutes later, the booming signal returned to Buffalo.54 Except for elaborately staged events such as this, communication in early nineteenth-century America usually required the transportation of a physical object from one place to another—such as a letter, a newspaper, or even a message attached to the leg of a homing pigeon. This was how it had been since time immemorial. But as transportation improved, so did communications, and improved communications set powerful cultural changes in motion.

Because of the scheduled packets, news from Europe almost always arrived in New York City first. Competition among the packets placed a greater emphasis on speed, and these sailing vessels out of Liverpool shaved the average westward crossing time from fifty days in 1816 to forty-two days a decade later. Beginning in 1821, arriving ships would send semaphore signals of the most important messages to watching telescopes on shore, saving precious hours in transmitting information. During the 1830s, two New York commercial papers, the Journal of Commerce and the Courier and Herald, starting sending schooners fifty to a hundred

53. Nathaniel Macon to Bartlett Yancey, April 15, 1818, quoted in Larson, Internal Improvement, 105; Macon to Yancey, March 8, 1818, in James Sprunt Historical Monographs, no. 2 (Chapel Hill, 1900), 49; John Randolph in the House of Representatives (1824), quoted in Larson, Internal Improvement, 143.

54. Shaw, Canals for a Nation, 43.

miles out to sea to meet incoming ships and then race back to port with their news, trying to scoop each other.

From New York City, information dispersed around the country and appeared in local newspapers. In 1817, news could get from New York to Philadelphia in just over a day, traveling as far as New Brunswick, New Jersey, by steamer. To Boston from New York took more than two days, with the aid of steamboats in Long Island Sound. To Richmond the news took five days; to Charleston, ten.55 These travel times represented a great improvement over the pre-steamboat 1790s, when Boston and Richmond had each been ten days away from New York, but they would continue to improve during the coming generation. For the most important news of all, relay express riders were employed. In 1830. these riders set a record: They carried the presidential State of the Union message from Washington to New York in fifteen and a half hours.56

Communications profoundly affected American business. For merchants eagerly awaiting word of crop prices and security fluctuations in European cities, the advantage of being one of the first to know such information was crucial. New Yorkers benefited because so many ships came to their port first, even though Boston and Halifax, Nova Scotia, were actually closer to Europe. The extra days of delay in receiving European news handicapped merchants based in Charleston, Savannah, or New Orleans. The availability of information affected investors of all kinds, not only commodity traders. No longer did people with money to invest feel they needed to deal only with their relatives or others they knew personally. Through the New York Stock Exchange, one could buy shares in enterprises one had never seen. Capital flowed more easily to places where it was needed. Information facilitated doing business at a distance; for example, insurance companies could better assess risks. Credit rating agencies opened to facilitate borrowing and lending; the first one, the Mercantile Agency, was established by the Tappan brothers, who also created the New York Journal of Commerce and bankrolled much of the abolitionist movement.57 In colonial times, Americans had needed messages from London to provide commercially relevant news. Now, they could get their news from New York and get it faster. Improved communications stimulated economic growth.58

55. Taylor, Transportation Revolution, 145; Allan R. Pred, Urban Growth and the Circulation of Information, 1790–1840 (Cambridge, Mass., 1973), 31, 36–48.

56. Pred, Urban Growth, 13.

57. Conference on “Risk and Reputation: Insecurity in the Early American Economy” at the Library Company of Philadelphia (2002).

58. See Robert Wright, The Wealth of Nations Rediscovered (Cambridge, Eng., 2002), 18–25.


Source for both maps: Allan Pred, Urban Growth and the Circulation of Information (Harvard University Press, 1973).

Among the lessons learned from the War of 1812, the military importance of communication seemed clear. Better communications would have made the Battle of New Orleans unnecessary; indeed, faster communication between Parliament and Congress might well have avoided the declaration of war in the first place. If war did have to be waged in North America, better communications would enable the high command in Washington to maintain military command and control better than it had along the Great Lakes frontier in 1812–13. Events in Florida in 1818 underscored this need. Influenced by defense considerations as well as by the economic interests of those who needed to keep abreast of the market, the federal government played a central role in the “communications revolution” which accompanied the “transportation revolution.” Together, the two revolutions would overthrow the tyranny of distance.59

The United States Post Office constituted the lifeblood of the communication system, and it was an agency of the federal government. The Constitution explicitly bestowed upon Congress the power “to establish post offices and post roads.” Delivering the mail was by far the largest activity of the federal government. The postal service of the 1820s employed more people than the peacetime armed forces and more than all the rest of the civilian bureaucracy put together. Indeed, the U.S. Post Office was one of the largest and most geographically far-flung organizations in the world at the time. Between 1815 and 1830, the number of post offices grew from three thousand to eight thousand, most of them located in tiny villages and managed by part-time postmasters. This increase came about in response to thousands of petitions to Congress from small communities demanding post offices. Since mail was not delivered to homes and had to be picked up at the post office, it was a matter of concern that the office not be too distant. Authorities in the United States were far more accommodating in providing post offices to rural and remote areas than their counterparts in Western Europe, where the postal systems served only communities large enough to generate a profitable revenue.60 In 1831, the French visitor Alexis de Tocqueville called the American Post Office a “great link between minds” that penetrated into “the heart of the wilderness”; in

59. See Richard John, “American Historians and the Concept of the Communications Revolution,” in Information Acumen, ed. Lisa Bud-Frierman (London, 1994), 98–110.

60. Harry Watson, Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America (New York, 1990), 26; Richard John, Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse (Cambridge, Mass., 1995), 3–5, 50–52.

1832, the German political theorist Francis Lieber called it “one of the most effective elements of civilization.”61

The expansion of the national postal system occurred under the direction of one of America’s ablest administrators, John McLean of Ohio. McLean served as postmaster general from 1823 to 1829, under both Monroe and John Quincy Adams. Like just about everybody in Monroe’s cabinet, he nursed presidential ambitions. Waiting for his chance at the big prize, he allied himself politically with John C. Calhoun and shared the young Calhoun’s nationalistic goals. While European postal services were run as a source of revenue for the government, McLean ran the U.S. Post Office as a service to the public and to national unification. He sought to turn the general post office into what one historian has described as “the administrative headquarters for a major internal improvements empire that would have built and repaired roads and bridges throughout the United States.”62 But John McLean proved no more able to make himself a transportation czar than Albert Gallatin. Congressmen were not willing to delegate such authority, since it would have sacrificed their own power over favorite projects and “pork barrel” appropriations.

Not only did improved transportation benefit communication, but the communication system helped improve transportation. Even without a central plan, the post office pushed for improvements in transportation facilities and patronized them financially when they came. The same stagecoaches that carried passengers along the turnpikes also carried the mail, and the postmaster general constantly pressed the stages to improve their service (though, because the federal government subsidized the means of conveyance but seldom the right of way over which they traveled, passengers complained bitterly about the wretched roads). Contracts for carrying mail helped finance the early steamboats as well as nurture the stagecoach industry. Bidders for the contracts competed feverishly with each other— which did not hurt the political influence of the postmaster general. When a two-party system came to American politics, it would be predicated upon the existence of an enormous Post Office, both as a means of distributing mass electoral information such as highly partisan newspapers and as a source of patronage for the winners.63

Newspapers, not personal letters, constituted the most important part of the mail carried by the Post Office. Printed matter made up the

61. Quotations from Richard John, “The Politics of Innovation,” Daedalus 127 (1998), 188–89.

62. John, Spreading the News, 108.

63. Ibid., 90–98; John, “Politics of Innovation,” 194.

overwhelming bulk of the mail, and it was subsidized with low postal rates while letter-writers were charged high ones. Editors exchanged complimentary copies of their papers with each other, and the Post Office carried these free of charge; in this way the provincial press picked up stories from the metropolitan ones. The myriad of small regional newspapers relied on cheap postage to reach their out-of-town, rural subscribers. As early as 1822, the United States had more newspaper readers than any other country, regardless of population. This market was highly fragmented; no one paper had a circulation of over four thousand. New York City alone had 66 newspapers in 1810 and 161 by 1828, including Freedom’s Journal, the first to be published by and for African Americans.64

The expansion of newspaper publishing resulted in part from technological innovations in printing and papermaking. Only modest improvements had been made in the printing press since the time of Gutenberg until a German named Friedrich Koenig invented a cylinder press driven by a steam engine in 1811. The first American newspaper to obtain such a press was the New York Daily Advertiser in 1825; it could print two thousand papers in an hour. In 1816, Thomas Gilpin discovered how to produce paper on a continuous roll instead of in separate sheets that were slower to feed into the printing press. The making of paper from rags gradually became mechanized, facilitating the production of books and magazines as well as newspapers; papermaking from wood pulp did not become practical until the 1860s. Compositors still set type by hand, picking up type one letter at a time from a case and placing it into a handheld “stick.” Until the 1830s, one man sometimes put out a newspaper all by himself, the editor setting his own type. The invention of stereotyping enabled an inexpensive metal copy to be made of set type; the copy could be retained, and if a second printing of the job seemed warranted (such as a second edition of a book), the type did not have to be laboriously reset.65More important than innovations in the production of printed matter, however, were the improvements in transportation that facilitated the supply of paper to presses and then the distribution of what they printed. After about 1830, these improvements had reached the point where a national market for published material existed.

64. Richard Kielbowicz, News in the Mail (Westport, Conn., 1989), 3, 71; Joyce Appleby, Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans (Cambridge, Mass., 2000), 100.

65. Ronald Zboray, A Fictive People (New York, 1993), 9–11; William Huntzicker, The Popular Press (Westport, Conn., 1999), 165. On papermaking, see Judith McGaw, Most Wonderful Machine (Princeton, 1987).

About half the content of newspapers in this period consisted of advertising, invariably local. (Half of daily newspapers between 1810 and 1820 even used the term “advertiser” in their name.) The news content, however, was not predominantly local but rather state, national, and international stories. Many if not most newspapers of the 1820s were organs of a political party or faction within a party, existing not to make a profit but to propagate a point of view. Since custom inhibited candidates for office from campaigning too overtly (especially if running for the presidency), partisan newspapers supplied the need for presenting rival points of view on the issues of the day. Such papers relied on subsidies from affluent supporters and government printing contracts when their side was in power.66 The newspapers of the early republic often printed speeches by members of Congress, a particularly valuable service since Congress itself did not publish its own debates until 1824. The papers also published periodic “circular letters” from the members to their constituencies. Newspapers played an essential role in making representative government meaningful and in fostering among the citizens a sense of American nationality beyond the face-to-face politics of neighborhoods.67

It did not require much capital to publish one of the small papers typical of the day. Even a limited circulation made the enterprise viable, and papers often catered to a specific audience. One kind of newspaper specialized in commercial information, especially commodity and security prices; a business and professional readership avidly devoured such periodicals, while many planters and farmers took an interest in their subject matter too. The party-political press and the newspapers published for profit competed with each other for advertisers and readers, and over the next generation the distinction between them blurred. In 1833, the New York Sun reached out for a truly mass audience by charging only a penny a copy and selling individual copies on the street instead of by subscription only; soon it had many imitators. The New Orleans Picayune, founded in 1837, took its name from the little coin that defined its price. The drop in prices quickly produced a dramatic rise in circulation; between 1832 and 1836, the combined circulations of the New York dailies

66. Bernard Weisberger, The American Newspaperman (Chicago, 1961), 70; John, Spreading the News, 41.

67. On this subject, see Michael Schudson, “News, Public, Nation,” AHR 107 (2002): 481–95; Richard D. Brown, The Strength of a People: The Idea of an Informed Citizenry (Chapel Hill, 1996).

quadrupled from 18,200 to 60,000.68 The growing commercialization of the press entailed both positive and negative effects. News reporting and editing became more professionalized and the newspapers less blatantly biased. On the other hand, the number of newspapers, the variety of their viewpoints, and the detail with which they covered politics all gradually declined. These developments, however, remained in their early stages during the first half of the nineteenth century.

On the frontier, pioneer newspaper editors performed a function similar to the schoolteachers and religious evangelists: They brought civilization. At the age of twenty, Eber D. Howe moved from Buffalo to the Western Reserve area of Ohio, following a typical path of Yankee migration. There he started the Cleveland Herald and later the Painesville Telegraph. In the early days, he had to rely on once-a-week mails to fill his papers with news. After writing the articles and setting them in type, he would mount his horse to deliver the papers himself to scattered farmhouses, sometimes taking payment in kind. He kept the settlers in touch with what was happening in the world, even though the news was forty-some days old from Europe and ten days old from New York.69 To people at the time, of course, this did not seem slow.

Despite its admirable function of helping keep the citizenry informed, the typical local post office did not present a very edifying scene. Except in the handful of cases where a postmistress was in charge, it was a purely male environment where the occasional woman who ventured in was considered fair game. Most postmasters were also storekeepers selling liquor by the drink on the premises. The federal government mandated that post offices open every day, and this overrode whatever state and local laws might require Sunday closings. The post office thus became a conspicuous exception to general Sabbath observance in small-town America. On Sundays many men would flock to the local post office after church to pick up their mail and have a drink. Christian reformers, including Lyman Beecher and Senator Theodore Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, called for the suspension of transportation and sorting of mail on Sunday, and for postmasters to have the option of closing their offices that day. The reformers argued that the government’s rules were effectively preventing conscientious observers of the Sabbath from working for the Post Office.

68. Gerald Baldasty, The Commercialization of News in the Nineteenth Century (Madison, Wisc., 1992), 11–35; Menahem Blondheim, News over the Wires (Cambridge, Mass., 1994), 25; Huntzicker, Popular Press, 1–6.

69. Appleby, Inheriting the Revolution, 100–101.

The sabbatarians mounted concerted campaigns to change postal rules in 1810–17 and again in 1827–31; antisabbatarians rallied to oppose them. With the communications revolution, it became possible to wage a nationwide contest over public opinion. Both sides used the mails to enlist support for their view on how the mails should be treated; the debate proved a training ground for organizing grassroots politics. The sabbatarians pioneered mass petition drives, a tactic later exploited by the antislavery movement, which included many of the same people. The sabbatarian postal cause won more supporters among Presbyterians and Congregationalists than other Christian denominations, and fewest on the frontier where information was precious. As long as the transmission of urgent news remained slow, the antisabbatarians were able to prevail, pressing the needs of the military and of merchants in remote business centers. After the invention of the electric telegraph these arguments carried less weight, and much of the transportation of the mails on Sunday was discontinued. In 1912, after a hundred years of recurrent agitation, the sabbatarians, aided now by organized postal workers, finally succeeded in closing U.S. post offices on Sundays. This antebellum reform, like temperance and women’s suffrage, at last achieved its big victory in the Progressive era.70

In spite of the sabbatarian controversy, it would be a mistake to assume that the churches opposed improved communication. In fact, the evangelical movement seized upon the communications revolution, exploited it, and even fostered it. Religious publishers took advantage of advances in the technology of printing to turn out Bibles and tracts by countless thousands, many of which they distributed free of charge. The churches also contributed heavily to a new genre of printed matter, the magazine. Magazines, even more than newspapers, tended to be published for specialized audiences with similar interests and opinions. Literary and scientific magazines had existed in America for more than a generation. The most influential included Boston’s North American Review, founded in 1815 and modeled on Scotland’s Edinburgh Review in its wide-ranging subject matter, and Richmond’s Southern Literary Messenger, which began in 1834. Agricultural journals appealed to sophisticated farmers and planters. But most of the periodicals with national circulations and successful publishing histories before 1840 were religious. They included the Christian Spectator (Congregationalist), the Christian Register (Unitarian),

70. John, Spreading the News, 162–64, 173, 178, 201; John G. West, The Politics of Revelation and Reason (Lawrence, Kans., 1996), 137–70. For more, see Wayne Fuller, Morality and the Mail in Nineteenth-Century America(Urbana, Ill., 2003).

the Watchman-Examiner (Baptist), Zion’s Herald (Methodist), and the United States Catholic Miscellany. In 1829, the Methodist Christian Advocate claimed twenty thousand subscribers, at a time when no secular periodical had as many as five thousand. The religious press was certainly as authentically popular a medium as the political press.71

In democratizing American political life, the transportation and communications revolutions played an even more important role than did changes in state laws and constitutions. While states in the 1820s were abolishing remaining property qualifications for voting, and providing that presidential electors should be chosen by the voters instead of the legislators, the spread of information kept the voters politically informed and engaged, especially since so many of the periodicals existed for this express purpose. Improved roads made it easier for rural farmers to come into the polling place, typically the county courthouse. The turnout of eligible voters increased markedly in the generation from 1820 to 1840, and foreign visitors marveled at the extent of public awareness even in remote and provincial areas of the country.72 A periodical of particular value in creating an informed public was Niles’ Register, published in Baltimore from 1811 to 1849. This weekly constituted the closest thing to a nonpartisan source and provided, as it boasted, “political, historical, geographical, scientifical, statistical, economical and biographical” information. Historians as well as contemporaries have reason to be grateful to Hezekiah Niles.

Besides newspapers and magazines, the production and distribution of books also changed. A new book publishing business developed out of the old craft of printing. These early publishing companies typically acted as printers, wholesalers, and even retailers of their own books.73 In the 1820s, the modest American book publishing industry was scattered among a number of cities, each serving a regional market. As transportation improved, publishing gradually concentrated in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, with Cincinnati as a smaller western center. Few books were published south of the Potomac, where population was dispersed and literacy rates lower; however, the South’s river transportation network facilitated the distribution of books brought in from outside. Conversely,

71. Candy Gunther Brown, The Word in the World: Evangelical Writing, Publishing, and Reading (Chapel Hill, 2004), esp. 155; Leonard Sweet, ed., Communication and Change in American Religious History (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1993); David Nord, Evangelical Origins of Mass Media in America (Columbia, S.C., 1984).

72. Ronald Formisano, The Transformation of Political Culture: Massachusetts, 1790s–1840s (New York, 1983), 16.

73. See Rosalind Remer, Printers and Men of Capital (Philadelphia, 1996).

Boston was able to remain in the publishing business even without access to the kind of river transport system New York and Philadelphia enjoyed, because New England’s high literacy rate made it a fine regional book market. Although concentrated in fewer cities, the publishing industry expanded steadily; the value of books manufactured and sold in the United States rose from $2.5 million in 1820 to five times that by 1850 even while the price of individual books fell sharply.74

A historian named William Gilmore has studied the distribution of printed matter in the Upper Connecticut River Valley of Vermont and New Hampshire during the early nineteenth century. Thousands of newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, almanacs, advertisements, and books of all kinds, including hymnals, children’s books, and textbooks, circulated among the inhabitants. As a consequence, he found, “landlocked rural residents in areas such as the Upper Valley kept up with many recent intellectual trends in the North Atlantic Republic of Letters.”75 The printed media were overcoming geographical isolation and providing consumers with unprecedented choices in what to read.

The expansion of publishing enabled a few American authors to earn a living, for the first time, by writing. One of the earliest writers to take advantage of this new opportunity was New York’s Washington Irving. Irving’s Sketch Book (1819), a collection of short stories and essays, proved an instant success with the public. Some of its tales, including “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” found an enduring place in the hearts of American readers. “Rip Van Winkle,” about a man who goes to sleep for twenty years and awakens to find his world utterly transformed, spoke to the feelings of a generation acutely aware of the quickening pace of change. Yet Irving’s writings owed much of their popularity to the fact that they were comfortable and comforting. They affirmed traditional values, sentimental favorites, and picturesque local color; they poked fun at people who were too serious, like Ichabod Crane in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Irving went on to a celebrated career, wrote commercially successful histories and biographies, was rewarded by the government with diplomatic posts in Britain and Spain, and became recognized internationally as an American “gentleman of letters.”76

74. Michael Bell, “Conditions of Literary Vocation,” in The Cambridge History of American Literature, ed. Sacvan Bercovitch (Cambridge, Eng., 1995), II, 13–17; William Charvat, Literary Publishing in America, 1790–1850 (Philadelphia, 1959).

75. Gilmore, Reading Becomes a Necessity of Life, 205.

76. See Bell, “Conditions of Literary Vocation,” 17–24; Ralph Aderman, ed., Critical Essays on Washington Irving (Boston, 1990).

A contemporary and rival of Irving, less polished but more profound, was James Fenimore Cooper. Cooper’s father, William, a large-scale land speculator and Federalist congressman, had founded Cooperstown, New York. When the elder Cooper died he left Fenimore and his five siblings each assets worth fifty thousand dollars. Unfortunately he also left tangled legal affairs that led ultimately to the family estates having to be auctioned off at depressed prices after the Panic of 1819. Cooper found himself unable to live his expected life of a gentleman landowner and turned to his pen for a livelihood. When Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, set in medieval England, attained great success upon its appearance in the United States in 1819, Cooper decided that romances based on American history could be popular too.

The most memorable of Cooper’s books were the five novels called “the Leatherstocking Tales.” The first of these, The Pioneers, appeared in 1823. The story takes place in a town called Templeton, presided over by a landed magnate named Marmaduke Temple. Contemporaries and posterity alike have found Temple and Templeton fictionalized versions of William Cooper and Cooperstown. In the complex character of Judge Temple, the author worked through his ambivalent feelings toward the dead father whose aristocratic values Fenimore Cooper shared but whose commercial dealings had betrayed the son’s trust. The novel also explores Cooper’s ambivalent feelings toward the westward movement, which was spreading not only the high civilization the author prized but also the mercenary greed he loathed. What seems at first a conventional romance actually grapples with fundamental moral questions of Cooper’s time and place. Three years later, Cooper produced The Last of the Mohicans, based on the siege of Fort William Henry during the French and Indian War. Here the heroic woodsman Leatherstocking, a marginal character in The Pioneers, becomes central. He and his Mohican Indian friends, Chingachgook and Uncas, exemplify the natural virtues that the westward movement was destroying. In Leatherstocking, Cooper had created an enduring American mythic figure, the manly hero who relates to nature rather than women, who stands outside society but not outside morality, who resorts to violence to do right. The myth sold well, both in Cooper’s time and since.77

Irving and Cooper both lived in Britain for several years, enabling the two authors to claim royalties on British editions of their works. Returning

77. See Alan Taylor, William Cooper’s Town (New York, 1995); Henry Nash Smith, introduction to James Fenimore Cooper, The Prairie (New York, 1950) v–xxi; Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence (Middletown, Conn., 1974), 466–513.

to America in 1833, Cooper repurchased his father’s mansion and tried to settle down to the life of a country squire. But he quarreled with his neighbors and his countrymen in general and soon found himself again embroiled in lawsuits. Cooper came to feel ever more estranged from the American society whose paradoxes he probed in his fiction. He identified with the old landed gentry rather than with the commercial world he inhabited. Ironically, he particularly despised the mass printed media that facilitated his own success. This bitterness is most evident in his novel Home as Found (1838), with its savage portraits of the unscrupulous journalist Steadfast Dodge and the demagogic politician Aristabulus Bragg. Cooper’s sense of alienation from bourgeois society would be typical of a host of later American intellectuals.

The extension of secondary education to many (not all) women in the years since American independence had created a new audience for printed matter. With female literacy rates rising, especially in the North, a majority of the audience for creative writing now consisted of women, for middle-class women had more leisure than their men. Women relished reading as a way to broaden their horizons, the more so since their everyday lives were so often constrained by home and children. Female writers sometimes found it easier to address this wide new audience than male writers did. In spite of the prevailing attitude that earning money was inappropriate for middle-class married women, some professional women writers and editors emerged. The best known of the American women writers of this generation was Catharine Maria Sedgwick, a New Englander. Sedgwick started out writing about young heroines who triumphed over adversity, then moved into historical romance with Hope Leslie, and finally developed a formula for didactic stories that reached a mass working-class audience. In her lifetime Sedgwick achieved both critical and commercial success, though she was then forgotten and has only recently been rediscovered. Disenchanted with the Calvinist theology of her cultural inheritance, Sedgwick turned to storytelling to convey her message of liberal spirituality. She exemplified the type of writer, especially common among women authors, who treated literature as a form of religious and moral suasion. This literary enterprise would achieve its high point in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852).78

In 1820, Daniel Boone died in Missouri at the age of eighty-five. The old frontiersman had been a model for Cooper’s Leatherstocking. Boone

78. Mary Kelley, ed., The Power of Her Sympathy: The Autobiography and Journal of Catharine Maria Sedgwick (Boston, 1993); David Reynolds, Faith in Fiction (Cam-bridge, Mass., 1981), 50–55.

had fought in the Revolution and opened Kentucky to white settlement; his passing seemed to mark the end of an era. Even before he died Boone had been transformed into a legendary figure. Timothy Flint, a Cincinnati journalist-printer, completed that process in his account of Boone’s life, the best-selling biography of the nineteenth century. In Flint’s hands Boone became a model for young Americans, courageous and self-reliant, a harbinger of progress. With the aid of mass communications, a hero from the past could help the coming generation cope with the future in a rapidly changing world.79


Innovations in technology often pose new questions in law. The steamboat company that employed Robert Fulton was owned by the powerful Livingston clan of New York; the state legislature rewarded them for their technological breakthrough with a monopoly over the steamboat trade in New York. The Livingstons then licensed Aaron Ogden to carry on the trade between New York City and the Jersey shore. Thomas Gibbons, a former business partner of Ogden, hired Cornelius Vanderbilt as his boat captain and Daniel Webster as his lawyer and challenged the monopoly. The case of Gibbons v. Ogden reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1824. There Chief Justice Marshall ruled that because the Constitution grants Congress power to “regulate commerce among the several states,” the monopoly granted by the state of New York could not be applied to commerce with New Jersey.80 Unlike the Court’s decision in the Bank case, this one was widely welcomed, for the steamboat monopoly had become unpopular even within New York and was soon repealed.

Even more important than the interpretation of the federal Constitution was interpretation of the common law by state courts. Unlike continental European lawyers, fascinated by Enlightenment reason and the law codes of Napoleonic times, the American legal profession venerated a heritage peculiar to English-speaking people, based on popular customs first recorded by the traveling royal judges of King Henry II. Fiercely defended by Anglo-American colonists before independence, respect for common law was reaffirmed in the federal Constitution’s Seventh Amendment. Common law provided the foundation for the legal system of every state save the former French colony of Louisiana. In the words of

79. John Mack Faragher, Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend (New York, 1992).

80. Gibbons v. Ogden, 22 U.S. (9 Wheaton) 1 (1824); Taylor, Transportation Revolution, 56–69.

Justice Joseph Story, common law constituted “the watchful and inflexible guardian of private property and public rights.”81

The use of common law implied a system based on custom and precedent, yet American judges established their independence of English decisions and shaped their rulings to evolving American needs. By no means unchanging, common-law jurisprudence, being derived from community experience, valued flexibility. Within its framework antebellum judges balanced the interests of society and the individual, of debtors and creditors, of freedom and regulation, of innovation and stability. Judges became increasingly self-conscious of their role as lawmakers for society. They restricted the scope of jurors’ discretion to finding matters of fact, reserving legal decisions for themselves. Two legal maxims often helped guide their opinions: salus populi suprema lex est(“the welfare of the people is the supreme law”) and sic utere tuo (“so use your right that you injure not the rights of others”).82 Judges gradually reinterpreted law on such subjects as eminent domain, water use, and patent rights in ways that facilitated entrepreneurship and technological innovation. This did not necessarily mean choosing between public and private interests, for in an age of many “mixed” public-private institutions, their opposition did not seem so sharp as it later appeared. Nor did the federal government’s jurisdiction over interstate commerce always preclude state legislation, as it had in the case of the steamboat monopoly. States exercised extensive “police powers” even in areas affecting interstate commerce, the Supreme Court acknowledged repeatedly.83 A litigious people even then, Americans provided their state courts with plenty to do. The decisions of state jurists like the eminent Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw of Massachusetts created the basis for an American common law jurisprudence.84

81. Joseph Story, Discourse as Dane Professor of Law in Harvard University (Cambridge, Mass. 1829), 6. Even in Louisiana, the common law came to predominate in the long run; Mark Fernandez, From Chaos to Continuity: The Evolution of Louisiana’s Judicial System, 1712–1862 (Baton Rouge, 2001).

82. Morton Horwitz, “The Emergence of an Instrumental Conception of American Law,” Perspectives in American History 5 (1971): 287–326; William Novak, The People’s Welfare: Law and Regulation in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill, 1996), 9, 44.

83. Willson v. Blackbird Creek Marsh Company, 27 U.S. (2 Peters) 245 (1829); New York v. Miln, 36 U.S. (11 Peters) 102 (1837); License Cases, 46 U.S. (5 Howard) 504 (1847).

84. See Leonard Levy, The Law of the Commonwealth and Chief Justice Shaw (Cambridge, Mass., 1957); William Nelson, Americanization of the Common Law, 2nd ed. (Athens, Ga., 1994).


Among the many aspects of life affected by the transportation and communications revolutions, politics was conspicuous. The availability of information coming from outside liberated people from the weight of local tyrannies, whether that of a local elite or a local majority. (Local authorities “were no longer the information gatekeepers for their neighbors,” as the historian Richard D. Brown has put it.)85 People could now read newspapers and magazines for themselves and could join organizations led by people who lived elsewhere, just as they could invest their money in distant enterprises. Politics, which had long seemed a game of personal rivalries among local leaders, became a battle over public opinion conducted through political organizations and the medium of print. The change occurred first, appropriately enough, in the state that built the Erie Canal. New York politics became a microcosm of the future of national politics. To understand these changes will require some attention to the state’s complex power struggles, particularly those between DeWitt Clinton and Martin Van Buren.

Governor DeWitt Clinton was a survivor of the Byzantine intrigues characteristic of the old New York state politics. But through all the kaleidoscopic recombinations of factions and clans, Clinton had nurtured a vision of strong government, a government acting in partnership with private enterprise to promote public prosperity and enlightenment. From 1815 on, the Erie Canal provided the centerpiece for this vision. In his youth Clinton’s friends dubbed him “Magnus Apollo” for his handsome physique and the diverse accomplishments of a Renaissance man; later critics used the nickname to satirize his pride and love of classical culture. In 1812, at the age of forty-four, Clinton had had the audacity to challenge Madison’s reelection as president, carrying the northeast. Thereafter the Virginia dynasty had no use for him, even though he was the nephew of Jefferson’s vice president. An innovator, DeWitt Clinton introduced economic and reform issues into the clannish political culture of New York. His long agenda included, besides internal improvements, aid to education, libraries, and manufacturing, prison reform, scientific agriculture, and the abolition of both chattel slavery and imprisonment for debt.86

85. Richard D. Brown, Knowledge Is Power (New York, 1989), 294.

86. Evan Cornog, The Birth of Empire: DeWitt Clinton and the American Experience (New York, 1998), 135; Steven Siry, DeWitt Clinton and the American Political Economy (New York, 1990), 255–71; Craig Hanyan and Mary Hanyan, DeWitt Clinton and the Rise of the People’s Men (Montreal, 1996), 94–99.

Clinton’s most successful philanthropic enterprise was the Savings Bank of New York, chartered in 1819. The idea that a bank could gather up small deposits from ordinary people and invest them seemed novel at the time. Clinton explained in a gubernatorial address that if working men had a secure place to save some of their wages, it would “prevent or alleviate the evils of pauperism.” The SBNY turned out to be a huge success, both with the saving public and financially. It played a key role in financing the Erie Canal, for the bank purchased twelve times as much of the canal’s bonded indebtedness as the second biggest investor.87

The popularity of Clinton’s great canal portended a period of Clintonian dominance in New York. To block this eventuality, Clinton’s political rival Martin Van Buren deployed his own faction of Republicans, called “Bucktails” for the emblems they wore in their hats to party meetings. Van Buren determined to trump Clinton’s appeal by changing the dominant electoral issue in the state from economic prosperity to political democracy. The Bucktails began to call for revision of the New York state constitution of 1777 to do away with the unpopular property qualifications for voting. By this time the legal voting requirements were more honored in the breach than in the observance. Clinton did not oppose doing away with the requirements; indeed, he enjoyed political support among propertyless Irish immigrants thanks to his own Irish ancestry. But he hoped to delay calling a constitutional convention until it could include on its agenda a reapportionment of legislative seats based on the census of 1820. This would improve the representation of the western part of the state, which thanks to the Erie Canal was both growing fast and pro-Clintonian. The Bucktails, however, succeeded in getting the convention held quickly and in stigmatizing the Clintonians as reluctant democrats for seeking delay.88

When the convention met in August 1821, Bucktails dominated it. James Kent, chancellor of the state’s highest court of equity and an elderly Federalist, made a forlorn defense of property requirements to vote for the state senate, though their demise was a foregone conclusion. But even Kent did not oppose the removal of property qualifications in voting for governor and the assembly.89 Actually, Van Buren and his close associates would have preferred to retain a modest property qualification, but some

87. Kathleen McCarthy, American Creed: Philanthropy and the Rise of Civil Society (Chicago, 2003), 88–90, quotation from Clinton on 90.

88. Cornog, Birth of Empire, 143; Siry, DeWitt Clinton, 239.

89. Kent’s speech is reprinted in Merrill D. Peterson, ed., Democracy, Liberty, Property: The State Constitutional Conventions of the 1820s (Indianapolis, 1966), 190–97.

of their supporters got the bit in their teeth and ran out of control. The property qualification for voting was abolished for white men, though the Bucktails pandered to racist sentiment by requiring that black voters have a net worth of $250, over the opposition of Clintonians. The convention also made various institutional changes and legislative redistricting (“gerrymanders,” critics charged) that weakened the Clintonians. As a slap at Clinton himself, the gubernatorial term was reduced to two years and a year sliced off the current term Clinton was already serving. When the governor naturally protested, he was made to seem the opponent of the new constitution in general, including its democratic features. Even today, some historians continue to accept the claims of Van Buren’s Buck-tails to have scored a dramatic victory for democracy at the New York constitutional convention of 1821. On the whole, however, partisan advantage rather than philosophical disagreement over democracy explains the differences between Bucktails and Clintonians at the convention.90

As a result of these tactics and an advantageous alliance with a group of so-called high-minded Federalists led by Rufus King, Van Buren’s followers gained control of the state government in 1822, creating a patronage machine nicknamed “the Albany Regency.” The Bucktails did not consistently support popular democracy, even for white men. When the presidential election of 1824 approached, the two factions of New York Republicanism reversed their roles as friends of democracy. The Bucktails wanted to keep the state legislature, which they controlled, in charge of choosing presidential electors, thinking to benefit Crawford. A new organization called “the People’s Party,” demanding a popular presidential election in New York, rallied all those who favored Jackson, Adams, or Clay to their banner. The Clintonians now embraced democracy as their cause and won with it in November 1824. As the candidate of the People’s Party, Clinton rode back into the governor’s mansion with a landslide victory in time to lead the celebrations of the canal’s completion. His running mate, the antislavery hero James Tallmadge, won election as lieutenant governor by an even larger majority. Although the new constitution increased the number of men who could legally vote for the state

90. The view that the constitutional convention witnessed the triumph of Bucktail democracy over Clintonian aristocracy is presented in Dixon Ryan Fox, The Decline of Aristocracy in the Politics of New York (New York, 1919), 264–68, and repeated, albeit with significant qualifications, in Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy(New York, 2005), 189–96. More persuasive analyses are those of Alvin Kass, Politics in New York State, 1800–1830 (Syracuse, N.Y., 1965), 81–89; and Donald Cole, Martin Van Buren (Princeton, 1984), 66–82.

assembly by 56 percent, the Clintonians remained competitive in New York politics.91

Despite the Clintonian victory in the state election of 1824, the presidential election took place, one last time, under the old rules: The lame duck legislature got to choose New York’s presidential electors. The Adams and Clay followers in the legislature formed an alliance that presaged the one their chiefs would forge at a later stage. But at the last minute, Van Buren succeeded in holding Clay’s New York electoral vote below the threshold the Kentuckian needed to finish in the top three candidates and qualify for consideration in the House of Representatives.92 When the contest then moved to the House, New York’s large delegation seemed split evenly between Crawford and Adams. Van Buren strove to keep it that way, in effect denying the state its vote for president, because he hoped for a deadlock in which he could barter New York’s vote to the highest bidder.

The Little Magician’s plan was foiled when Stephen Van Rensselaer, one of the “high-minded” Federalists who had been temporarily allied with Van Buren, decided to vote for Adams. Many years later, after Van Rensselaer had died, Van Buren told a story of how the old man had found an Adams ballot lying on the floor and took it as a sign from heaven. Van Buren, of course, had every reason to trivialize Van Rensselaer’s choice. The great patroon (as proprietors of Dutch land grants were called) might have decided to vote as he did for any number of causes. His constituents and the rest of his clan were for Adams, he had been lobbied by Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, and he was a longtime supporter of internal improvements. A month after the election, Van Rensselaer gave his own explanation in a letter to DeWitt Clinton. He had become convinced that Adams was bound to win eventually, and to cut short “the long agony” voted for him on the first ballot.93

In 1826, DeWitt Clinton was reelected to another two-year term as governor of New York, this time—amazingly—with the support of the Buck-tails, for both Clinton and Van Buren were now backing Jackson for

91. Hanyan and Hanyan, DeWitt Clinton, 13–14.

92. The legislature had distributed New York’s electoral vote thus: Adams 25, Clay 7, Crawford 4. When the electors met, Van Buren managed to detach three votes from Clay. See Cole, Van Buren, 136–37.

93. Autobiography of Martin Van Buren, ed. John Fitzpatrick (Washington, 1920), 152; Stephen Van Rensselaer to DeWitt Clinton, March 10, 1825, quoted in William Fink, “Stephen Van Rensselaer and the House Election of 1825,” New York History 32 (1951): 323–30. See also Shaw Livermore, The Twilight of Federalism (Princeton, 1962), 180–81.

president. Both men aspired to become Jackson’s designated heir. Clinton, who had been backing his old friend and fellow Royal Arch Mason longer than Van Buren had, might well have enjoyed the advantage in the contest. The choice would be important in determining the nature of Jackson’s political agenda. DeWitt Clinton had come to personify political enthusiasm for economic development and transportation in particular. His rival Van Buren, on the other hand, typified a kind of politician willing to play the economic issues whichever way seemed momentarily advantageous. Van Buren reached out to forge an alliance with Calhoun and arrange for him to be named Jackson’s 1828 running mate in order to make sure that Clinton was not chosen for the number two place.94 Had Clinton become Jackson’s confidant and designated heir, would Old Hickory have embraced Clinton’s faith in planned economic development? It would have made a dramatic difference to the course of American history, but we shall never know. For on February 11, 1828, Magnus Apollo died, the victim of a heart attack at the age of fifty-eight. If Jackson wanted an alliance with a major New York political figure, Martin Van Buren was now the obvious choice. Van Buren would bring to the national arena all the skills in party organization and flexibility in economic issues that he had learned in the demanding school of New York state intrigue. His career represented not the triumph of the common man over aristocracy but the invention of machine politics.

DeWitt Clinton, on the other hand, leader of the People’s Party, was an authentic but largely forgotten hero of American democracy. His Erie Canal liberated many farm families from commercial and political isolation. The public schools he supported provided the basis for mass literacy; his Savings Bank mobilized the thrift of small savers for investment capital. The infrastructure he worked to create would transform American life, enhancing economic opportunity, political participation, and intellectual awareness.


Late in 1833, a twenty-seven-year-old French engineer named Michel Chevalier arrived in the United States. American canals, bridges, steamboats, and railroads fascinated him. During his two-year tour of the country, he concluded that improvements in transportation had democratic implications. In former times, he remarked, with roads rough and dangerous, travel required “a long train of luggage, provisions, servants, and

94. Bartlett, Calhoun, 138.

guards,” making it rare and expensive. “The great bulk of mankind, slaves in fact and in name,” had been “chained to the soil” not only by their legal and social status but also “by the difficulty of locomotion.” Freedom to travel, the ability to leave home, was essential to the modern world and as democratic as universal suffrage, Chevalier explained:

To improve the means of communication, then, is to promote a real, positive, and practical liberty; it is to extend to all the members of the human family the power of traversing and turning to account the globe, which has been given to them as their patrimony; it is to increase the rights and privileges of the greatest number, as truly and as amply as could be done by electoral laws. The effect of the most perfect system of transportation is to reduce the distance not only between different places, but between different classes.95

As Chevalier realized, improved transportation and communications facilitated not only the movement of goods and ideas but personal, individual freedom as well. Americans, a mobile and venturesome people, empowered by literacy and technological proficiency, did not hesitate to take advantage of the opportunity provided (as he put it) to turn the globe to their account.

In traditional society, the only items worth transporting long distances had been luxury goods, and information about the outside world had been one of the most precious luxuries of all. The transportation and communications revolutions made both goods and information broadly accessible. In doing so, they laid a foundation not only for widespread economic betterment and wider intellectual horizons but also for political democracy: in newspapers and magazines, in post offices, in nationwide movements to influence public opinion, and in mass political parties.

95. Michael [sic] Chevalier, Society, Manners, and Politics in the United States, trans. T. G. Bradford (Boston, 1839), quotations from 208–10.

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