America: Expansionary Politics to 1877

In the class to this point we have seen the evolution of America: from the first contact of European natives, to the explosion of Civil War and reconstruction. Underlying this narrative, there are many themes which we can see when we examine the underlying story. I think perhaps the most cogent theme to examine is that of expansion. Expansion, of control over lands, of political hegemony, and of economic power underlies the story of America at this point in time. The beginning brought the Europeans, in their hunger for land, gold, and other riches to expand throughout the Americas, driving out and dominating Native populations. This tradition of expansion was then continued by the newly sovereign United States in the concept of manifest destiny, as the expansion the United States into the western frontier. Further, it was a question of expansion that was the underlying issue that set off Civil War itself. As AJBEANE noted, one of the drivers of the compromises that preceded the civil war was whether the institution of slavery should be allowed to expand. This dichotomy between containment and expansion drove the divide between North and South as each feared that if it were not to have it play out as it wished, it would lead to an expansion of the other’s political power. The drive to expand, in political power, in national land, in economic clout drove many men’s actions as the United States grew out of the seeds of European conquest, it seemed necessary that the nation must expand. This expansionary mindset perhaps drove the frontier mindset as well, as through the view of expansion, there are not fixed borders, but rather fluid boundaries which were merely frontiers to be explored and conquered.

The Teapot Boils: The Inevitable Breakdown

In the final chapter, Wilentz details the final motions as the tensions that had long been building break out in civil war. As AJBEANE says, there had been many attempts to reduce the tension and prevent a civil war, but the fundamental problem was never addressed, and so, looking back, it is clear that the war was inevitable. Lincoln’s election proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, as, despite his vowed intention to not touch slavery where it already was the law, Southern Slave owners were terrified that Lincoln intended to deprive them of their “property.” With the election of Lincoln, and the secession of South Carolina, it would prove only a matter of time before most of the Southern slave-holding states would follow suit. For a time it was thought that, perhaps, the states which had seceded could be cajoled back into the union, but with the fundamental issue still looming, such attempts would prove doomed to failure, and civil war became a certainty.

Fort Sumter is where it became apparent that there would be, must be, war. Initially Wilentz points out that some believed that Fort Sumter could be given up to cool secessionists tempers, and perhaps aid in bringing the secessionists back into the union and preventing more states from seceding. But the political climate insured that such thoughts proved only wishful thinking as it seemed that to give up Fort Sumter without a fight would be a sign of weakness. With the union being unwilling to surrender Fort Sumter, the newly formed confederacy could not stand allowing a hostile fort to remain in such a strategic location, and thus attacked it and set off the final spark to set the civil war fully ablaze.

The Southern Scare: Southern Fear of British Abolitionism

In Chapter 14, Davis makes the case that one of the driving forces behind the South’s fear of restriction on the expansion of slavery was British abolitionism. Davis makes the case that the south saw this British abolitionism as a new form of british control as NIPAPPAYLIOU noted. “… Southerners believed that Britain was attempting to spread their abolitionist ideas throughout the world as a new form of imperialism.” This fear of British cultural imperialism coincided with a period of vehement anti-British sentiment, which fed into anti-Federalist sentiment, as the federalists were viewed as being too pro-British. This anti-British sentiment, alongside connections between Britain and abolitionism, and a fear that Britain was seeking to collapse slave-holding economies so that their newly slave-free colonies could become competitive, lead to intense suspicion of Northern abolitionists as potentially being unpatriotic and likely to be in bed with British interests. The irony of this all was of course that, despite Britsh abolitionism and anti-British sentiment which was strongest in the south, when the Civil War finally came to the fore, Britain would consider joining the war, but on the Southern side, rather than the Northern side. Thus while Southern fear may not have been entirely unwarranted, with regards to beliefs that Britain was seeking to abolish slavery more broadly, it was almost certainly overstated.

Witchery and the Great Awakening

The Salem Witch Trials, and other witch trials though out the early American colonial period, were a terrible tragedy, the reasons of which are still debated. A variety of possible reasons have been claimed, but one stands out to me as the most likely reason. Many of my classmates have put forward one argument or another, and I think most of the reasons put forward did, to an extent, have  an effect on the witch trials. Overall I agree with Kindig that the primary reasoning behind the witch trials were religious, however I would expand on that assertion.

In looking at the witch trials in the context of the great awakening, it bares an obvious resemblance to the witch trials which took place in Europe following the reformation. But what is the uniting factor which explains why both these periods of religious change should cause witch trials? As I see it, the witch hunts came about as a result of a shift of religious authority  from the educated elite to a more personal or grassroots religiosity. This change in who controlled the religious power could have moved the concept of witchcraft into the forefront as the more superstitious religion of less educated common folk moved to the fore. This i think is the most logical explanation for the trend itself, however each individual trial was most likely caused by different individual factors, which played into the trend.

Slavery in the North, Virginia, and South Carolina

Slavery took on distinct forms in the various regions of America. In the North slavery was not as commonplace as in the South, but slavery in some areas was still the primary backbone of physical labor, and unlike the South, Northern slaves were more directly in competition with working class whites, but at the same time had more elements of their own autonomy and were often quite close to their white owners. In Virginia slavery underwent several transformations. Slavery saw its roots initially in Virginia as very similar to indentured servitude, with some slaves finding freedom after working for a master for a set number of years. The beginning years of slavery in Virginia showed a surprising degree of egalitarianism between freed blacks and whites, with some blacks becoming planters and slave owners themselves. As time went on however, and more slaves entered Virginia, the elites among the society grew upset at the idea of this near racial equality and worked to enshrine black inferiority into the laws, resulting in a vast removal of the rights of freed blacks and of those of slaves.  In South Carolina, a interesting dichotomy emerged, slaves were crucial to almost every aspect of South Carolina life, from working the fields to fighting Indians, and the slave owners profited greatly from the slaves’ skills and  labor, but the slave owners were greatly fearful of the possibility of a slave uprising, as they were outnumbered by their slaves and instituted harsh slave codes to attempt to prevent it. But in spite of this slaves had  a greater degree of cultural autonomy than within other portions of the American colonies.

Rise of the Plantation Elite

In his discussion of the Chesapeake colonies, Taylor discusses the rise of the ruling plantation elites who would go on to form the basis of the Antebellum South’s title-less aristocracy. The Chesapeake colonies saw a brief period of social mobility in the formative years of the colonies, during which time many of these elites made their place, a combination of freed servants and the initial planters who hired these servants formed the basis of this elite, but those who would come to the Chesapeake colonies after this brief period found the period of social mobility to be very short  lived, as usable land vanished, thus leaving a growing divide between the wealthy landowners possessed plenty of good land to grow tobacco, and those with little or no land who were struck with poverty. This growing divide was further widened by the Governor of Virginia, who gave out vast land grants to his favorites among the plantation elite, which resulted in growing tensions between the ruling class and the lower classes, as well as those landowners dissatisfied with their position, ultimately resulting in Bacon’s rebellion and the recall of the governor. After this rebellion the planter elite underwent a major change, as they moved to build solidarity with the lower classes by developing a genteel manner and emphasizing shared racial bonds and their differences, conflicts, and superiority towards the Indians and Africans.

Unlike Virginia, the Carolinas did not start off with a planter elite at odds with the poorer common planters and servants, rather from the beginning the Carolinas  the planters found a need for the commoners as they feared the possibility of slave and Indian alliances , and knew that they needed white commoners to help defend them against these dual threats. The fear of slave revolt drove these  planter elites to greater solidarity with the white commoners and also drove them to attempt to set black slaves and Indians at odds with each other  by offering indians rewards for black slaves being returned and declaring war on Indians who harbored black slaves. The plantation elite were able to fully establish their power, eventually overriding the Lords Proprietor and controlling the majority of political power within the Carolinas.