Major Problems in the Early Republic 1787-1848 Essay

Pages: 5 (1655 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 1  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Native Americans

¶ … Republic, 1787-1848

Racial, economic, and social elitism in 19th century America

Although America was a land founded on the principles of liberty and democracy in theory, elite, wealthy, and aristocratic males have often dominated the institutions of its government. When we speak of the 'Founding Fathers' it is important to remember that all them were white, property-owning males and until Andrew Jackson assumed the presidency, they envisioned control of the government remaining in the hands of people much like themselves. One of the most profound, motivating philosophies behind the structure of the United States Constitution was the fear that certain factions might gain popular sway over the institutions of government -- hence the need for checks and balances to make even democratic institutions relatively non-responsive to the will of the people. If the Founding Fathers were not somewhat elitist and did not fear democracy, the members of the U.S. Senate would not be elected by members of the State Senates, there would be no electoral college, and no three branches of government.Download full Download Microsoft Word File
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Essay on Major Problems in the Early Republic 1787-1848 Assignment

Yet non-elite groups have a considerable, but often hidden influence in shaping the new republic. In fact, when defining who was in the 'elite' group, there was always a corresponding ideological need to define who were in the non-elite group, and to define the property, race, and gender of those on the margins. Even Thomas Jefferson, who believed in sweeping guarantees of religious liberty, also believed in the 'natural' racial differences between whites, blacks, and Indians (6.1). This underlines the profound impact the presence of African-Americans had upon the construction of the republic. Southerners defended their slave-holding practices as integral to their way of life, and feared their slaves even while they insisted upon the contentment of slaves. Southern populism, the right to state self-determination, was linked to Southern defenses of slavery, which effectively meant that an anti-elitist stance towards Washington was used to justify an elitist racist system at home. This resulted in a stand-off between President Andrew Jackson and South Carolina in what came to be known as the Nullification Crisis, or South Carolina's claim that it had the right to nullify federal laws, if it deemed those laws to be incompatible with its interests (11.4). The animosity between the south and what it perceived as the 'elite' north intensified after as more western territories were admitted into the union, as in the case of the Missouri Crisis, only tenuously resolved through the Missouri Compromise, which admitted Maine to the union as a free state, and Missouri as a state where slavery was legal, to keep the balance between slave and free states in the federal government (10.3). Fears of slave revolt increased exponentially after the charismatic black leader Nat Turner attempted to violently win freedom for his people in 1831 (8.8).

Thus, one could say that the American republic was founded upon the labor of slaves, just as much as it was founded upon the ideals of freedom. Enslaved labor created the plantation system of the south, enabled Jefferson to become as wealthy as he was and conceptualize his ideal of the gentleman farmer. Even while Jefferson attempted to justify black oppression by creating a typology of the races, he also advocated a less intrusive government as the ideal way of life. Granted, Jefferson had a more 'optimistic' view of Native Americans -- he believed that they could be incorporated into white society, but it was naturally assumed that these more primitive, noble savages would have to give up their culture, and that white culture would reign supreme. Jefferson's presidency also saw the expansion of America into new areas and territories, such as that of the Louisiana Purchase that resulted in the displacement of Native Americans. America began with an expansionist impulse, with racial elitism as well as egalitarianism.

A sense of American exceptionalism, based upon race, was thus hard-wired into the foundational institutions of the republic from early on, despite the language of the Declaration of Independence, also penned by Jefferson. Political enfranchisement was limited to property-owners, originally. As America began to expand, conflict between Native Americans, settlers, and the new leaders of the republic became rife. America defined itself as a new nation by having the right to exercise its Manifest Destiny over the territories to its farthest shores, which required those that possessed such territories to surrender to the federal government. As well as the British impressments of American sailors, and equally important reason for the War of 1812 was British military support for American Indians who were engaged armed resistance to the expansion of the American frontier to the Northwest. Great chiefs such as Tecumseh sided with the British, because they rightly saw the British as more protective of the land interests of their tribes (5.5).

Another irony in the American attitude towards race, however, was that those who were from the margins of American white society were often those most stridently opposed to Native American rights -- land hungry, landless whites denied even the right to vote, according to the American constitution. That is why President Andrew Jackson, the great populist who expanded voting rights to all male citizens, whether they owned land or did not Greater egalitarianism, also proudly advocated the Indian Removal Act of 1830 (9.3). The Act was strongly opposed by many whites, including Theodore Frelinghuysen, a Senator from New Jersey, who strongly opposed it upon moral grounds (9.4). However, the removal of the Five Tribes was executed, often forcibly, cumulating in the 'Trail of Tears' of the Cherokees, as well as a number of wars, in which the Indian tribes were finally defeated. The Act would allow many whites to improve their social and economic status, even while it solidified, for once and for all, the inferior place of Native Americans within the new nation. The fact that even supposedly 'good' and civilized Native Americans like the Cherokee who had accepted certain 'white' ways and methods of governance were expelled made it controversial, however, throughout the nation. In his surrender speech, Black Hawk said: "You know the cause of our making war. It is known to all white men. They ought to be ashamed of it. The white men despise the Indians, and drive them from their homes. But the Indians are not deceitful. The white men speak bad of the Indian, and took at him spitefully. But the Indian does not tell lies; Indians do not steal" (9.6).

American, despite its racial history is still often called a 'classless' society, in comparison to Europe. The fact that it came into being during the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution created tremendous social mobility in the north, while the acquisition of land in the west accomplished the same blurring of social divisions in other areas of the nation. It is true that in some ways, the Industrial Revolution made America less elitist than it was during the era of the Jeffersonian 'gentleman farmer' -- yet also less so, as individuals were less apt to toil on their own farms, and instead made into cogs in the mechanized production systems of land-owning capitalists, as took place at the Lowell Mills. Women, already politically disenfranchised because they lacked the vote, became further silenced -- they were not supposed to work for pay according to the separate spheres ideology of the time, yet many had to and were hemmed in by a paternalistic system of capitalism as well. Women's labor enriched the nation, even while women themselves were socially and politically marginalized and silenced as a collective labor force. The paternalistic system of factory oversight over all workers, men, women, and children was often likened to 'wage slavery,' given that the attitudes expressed by the factory owners seemed to parallel those same expressions articulated by overseers and slave-owners… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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