Part III: The Growth of American Society

There was an exuberance to be found in the United States of the early nineteenth century, a feeling of confidence in the ability of the new nation and of its people to overcome all difficulties. The Puritan dream of America as a "city upon a hill" seemed on the verge of becoming reality.

There were several sources for this optimism. The country, except during the War of 1812, was at peace, and that battle with England had seemed to many Americans the final act of the War for Revolution, confirming the new nation's independence. Despite some economic problems, the United States enjoyed great prosperity, with the opening of western lands making more than enough room for the newcomers from Europe seeking political freedom and opportunity. The purchase of Louisiana from France in 1803 extended American boundaries to the Pacific, and the Lewis and Clark expedition to explore the purchase reported that even more fertile lands and great forests lay awaiting exploration and settlement.

But the most important factor was the continued success of the national experiment in democracy. In the bloodless "revolution of 1800," as the election of 1800 came to be called, power had peacefully changed hands from the Federalists to the Republicans, an event then unparalleled in human history. Although slavery cast a shadow on the future (see Part IV), most Americans took pride in the fact that no other people in the world at that time enjoyed so much freedom. Despite the fears of the Anti-Federalists in the 1780s, the national government in Washington did nothing to invade the rights and privileges of its citizens. People joined enthusiastically in the political process, a fact noted with amazement by European visitors. If the ideal of the citizen as an engaged, conscientious member of the polity would take hold any place, it seemed that the new United States offered the most fertile soil.

This confidence did not preclude an awareness of problems, of the sense that Americans had not yet achieved a perfect society. But writers, artists and politicians all believed that these issues could be resolved, that the new Americans would be able to control their destiny and, to match the more perfect Union established by the Constitution, that they would create a more perfect society as well.

In this section we see this exuberance and confidence in a variety of documents that, with one exception, look forward to a more democratic society in which individual opportunity would be unfettered.

  1. Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural (1801)
  2. Black Hawk, Surrender Speech (1832)
  3. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835)
  4. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance (1841)
  5. Dorothea Dix, Memorial to the Massachusetts Legislature (1843)
  6. Horace Mann, Report No. 12 of the Massachusetts School Board (1848)
  7. Seneca Falls Declaration (1848)

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