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article number 195
article date 12-27-2012
copyright 2012 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
“The Era of Good Feeling” … Investment and Transportation Improvement, 1814
by James Truslow Adams

From the 1932 book, The March of Democracy.

FROM the very beginning of American settlement until that Christmas Eve, 1814, when peace was made at Ghent, Europe, (end of the War of 1812) our relations to it had been among the most prominent of the mental preoccupations of the American people. Throughout the whole colonial period our fairly constant squabbling with Parliament or royal governors kept our dependence upon Europe constantly before us. As part of a European empire we had been involved in all the wars started in the Old World between the greater powers.

Then came the Revolution, and after Independence we were, as we have seen, caught in every eddy of the Napoleonic conflicts. With peace both in Europe and America, however, there began an entirely new era. The Christmas present which the American people received in December, 1814, was nothing less than an almost precise century of time in which to concentrate solely upon their own problems of organizing their government and society and of the physical conquest of the continent, with scarce a thought of the Old World, its standards, ideals, or embroilments.

I do not mean that we were completely isolated, for we have never been that, but our relations with Europe became matters for statesmen and secretaries of state to deal with rather than forces which compelled the people at large to keep their eyes turned eastward overseas, diverting their energies, complicating their national policies and dividing us on questions with which we had no immediate concern instead of on those naturally arising from our domestic economic and sectional problems. In May, 1815, we sent Captain Decatur with a small fleet to force Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli to respect our rights and to renounce all levying of tribute on us for the future. It was a significant little gesture, and our final shot in Europe until 1917. With immense zest we made a complete right-about-face and turned our thoughts and energies from overseas eastward, to the development of the natural resources in the West.

The attitude of the Federalists toward the war, and more especially the nation’s extreme dislike of the proceedings of the Hartford Convention, had left the Federalist Party without a shred of power or influence save in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Delaware, which States cast their vote for Rufus King in the Presidential election of 1816. There were then nineteen States in the Union, five west of the mountains, and every one of the nineteen, except the three named, went solidly for James Monroe, who was elected by 183 votes to King’s 34. So certain was the result held to be in advance that there was no real contest anywhere. Four years later, in the election of 1820, the “last of the Virginia dynasty” was re-elected by an even more overwhelming vote of 231 to 1, a single dissenting vote only, from New Hampshire, preventing Monroe from sharing with Washington the honor of a unanimous election.

Our fifth President, James Monroe. Fourth Virginian President.

Largely from the absence of an opposition party, his eight years of office have been called the “era of good feeling.” Rather it may be called the era of slack water, of pause before new and violent controversies were to be aroused by the problems and personalities now coming to the front. The old Federalist Party had disintegrated, but the Republican Party, by force of circumstances, had become more than half Federalist in its policies.

From the acquisition of Louisiana by Jefferson onward, one measure after another, seemingly necessitated by the exigencies or opportunities of the moment, had come to make it difficult to distinguish a Republican in practice from a Federalist in theory. The break-up of the Federalists was so obviously complete that the Republican Party was alone left in the field, but that fact tended to obscure another which was that by a continual shifting of their ground and abandonment of clear-cut principles, the Republicans also were preparing a break-up of their own party, impregnable as it seemed, with its vote of 231 to 1 in 1820.

Inaugurated in March, 1817, Monroe made John Quincy Adams, son of old President John Adams and one of the most distinguished diplomats of the time, his Secretary of State. The appointment could not have been bettered, although it was in part made for geographical reasons. Of the five Presidents thus far elected, four had been Virginians, and if Monroe were re-elected, as seemed inevitable, the nation would have had a Virginian for chief Executive for thirty-two years out of the first thirty-six of its existence.

Antagonism was developing to this continued control by the South, and Monroe for that reason wished to put a New England man in the highest post in the Cabinet, although by doing so he disgruntled Henry Clay, who promptly declined the offer of the War Department, and was elected Speaker of the House. Calhoun accepted the War portfolio, and William H. Crawford of Georgia continued at the Treasury. With William Wirt of Virginia as Attorney General, the Cabinet was entirely drawn from the South with the exception of Adams.

Other than in trade, the losses of the war had not been great. Only about 1500 men had been killed in battle, although the total casualties were several times that number. With the exception of the destruction of our new buildings and of our records in Washington, there had been little serious damage to property on shore. Raids along the coast, of farms or villages having been more exasperating than costly.

The blockade had destroyed most of our trade temporarily, as we have noted, and in the fall of 1813 there could have been seen 249 oceangoing vessels, 90 of them among the largest owned, tied up at their wharves at Boston while the British patrolled the sea. With the return of peace, however, trade began to move again like a freshet thawed out in the spring and in one month 144 vessels cleared from Boston for all parts of the world. Conditions were rapidly changing, however, and, partly due to the war and partly to other causes, the alignment between the three sections of the country was to become much sharper than ever in the next few decades.

Embargo, Non-Intercourse, and the blockade of the war had all acted as forced draughts under the development of American manufactures. In New England in 1807 there had been only 8000 spindles in the cotton mills. In 1815 there were 500,000. What was true of the textile industry in that section was also true of iron manufacturing in the Middle Colonies, and to a lesser degree, of manufacturing generally in the North.

New England did not yet realize that her future was in the factory and not on the sea, and the old shipping merchants fought bitterly against the change. The interests of the two forms of employment of capital were diametrically opposed to each other, the shippers wanting free-trade and heavy importations, the growing manufacturers wishing protective tariffs and home markets limited to domestic goods.

Mills at Norwich Falls, Connecticut.

By the end of the war it is said that 100,000 men, women, and children, mostly of the latter two, were employed in New England in textile mills alone, and both this growing industrialism, and the increasing trade with the interior of the country, were rapidly developing urban centres of population. This was true of the North and to a lesser extent of the West but not of the South. Thus between 1810 and 1820, the population of Boston rose from 32,250 to 43,300, New York from 96,400 to 123,700, Philadelphia from 91,900 to 112,800, and Baltimore from 35,600 to 62,700.

In the South, the metropolis of Charleston, remained stationary at 24,700, showing an increase of only 69 persons in ten years. New Orleans, however, as the great entrepôt for all the direct export trade of the West, was advancing as rapidly as the Northern cities. The great trend toward urbanization of the population was not to set in fully until about 1820, continuing from that time to the present day, but the difference in that respect between North and South had already become evident.

For a time after the signing of peace, the Northern factories were hard pressed by what we would call today “dumping” by British manufacturers. Fearing the increasing American competition, the British deliberately shipped over all the goods they could at prices below cost of production, not for immediate profit but with the deliberate intent to throttle young and dangerous rivals. It was a policy which could not be indefinitely sustained and, in spite of our severe crisis of 1819, manufacturing had taken too deep root to be thus killed off.

Unlike agriculture, manufacturing called for considerable amounts of fluid capital, and this was being produced in the North and West but not nearly so rapidly in the South. The capital needed was coming from manufacturing itself, from shipping, and from various forms of quick trading, such as speculating in the rapid rise in values of real estate in growing cities. At the time of the Revolution, planters like Washington and Charles Carroll had been among the richest of Americans, but fifty years later no Southerner could vie in wealth with new men in the North.

For example, Stephen Girard in Philadelphia, starting with shipping, was worth perhaps $5,000,000 in 1820, and John Jacob Astor possibly twice that in New York. The latter, a German immigrant who, unknown and almost illiterate, had arrived in that city in 1783, could, by 1808, invest $500,000 capital in one of his enterprises alone, the American Fur Company. Rough and unscrupulous in his methods, uncultured but coarsely vigorous, he thought imperially in business. His plan to establish the seat of his fur trading at Astoria in the Oregon country had been interfered with by the war, but otherwise the conflict had brought him large winnings in lucky shipping ventures, profits from a single voyage sometimes running to $70,000 cash.

In the South little or no such free capital was being created. In that section, capital was chiefly in the form of land and slaves. The export of tobacco fell off sharply after the war, and the increased production of Virginia had to compete with the richer soils of Kentucky and North Carolina. There was little or no surplus of any sort at the year’s end in the old tobacco States, where the poorer whites scrabbled for an existence, and the richer saw profits eaten up by the need of keeping on the slaves and their natural increase. The lower South, the “cotton belt,” was indeed enlarging its acreage and crops by surprising leaps, but somehow in plantation economy book, profits have a way of getting turned back into the property for one need or another.

A cotton plantation in the South.

The new big cotton plantation of that day, run much like a Northern factory in that owner and hands were growing farther apart from all friendly contact, had the disadvantage that the labor supply could not be quickly adjusted to the demands of production or price. Where a Northerner was paying fifty cents or a dollar a day to a man or child whom he could turn off at a moment’s notice, the Southerner had to buy his slaves at about $8oo each in 1818, and incurred in addition, the costly responsibilities of feeding, clothing, and looking after the slave in sickness, knowing that death meant a heavy capital loss. Sometimes an epidemic would carry off a third of the blacks on a plantation in a few weeks. Slack working, petty thieving, the difficulty of getting a good overseer, runaways, sick or dead negroes, all reduced profits.

Capital invested in land and slaves could be made profitable only by raising as large crops as possible, regardless of price. There was incessant demand for new and unworn lands, and the cotton belt spread ever westward. Many of the big old plantation homes were beautiful, and living in them was on a bounteous scale, but capital was not accumulating in liquid form, and the economic life, as well as the social structure, was becoming more and more “set” in the mould of one basic industry instead of being increasingly diversified as in the North.

Only a very small proportion of all Southerners were rich enough to own slaves, and the slaveless whites, despised even by the slaves themselves, were driven on to poorer and poorer lands, or emigrated to the West, where they glimpsed a possibility of getting away from the hopeless poverty and the sinking in the social scale which seemed to be their fate in the slave States.

Southern wealth was passing from the old tobacco aristocracy of Virginia, and to some extent from the rice planters of Carolina, to the new cotton magnates, who too frequently had little of the cultural background of the older families. Life in the southern tier of States, with the somewhat enervating climate, the monotonous single industry, the big-scale management of slave labor, and the loneliness of the big plantations must have been dull, and little conducive to intellectual vigor and effort. No Washingtons, Jeffersons, Monroes, or Marshalls were to come from it. On the other hand, much of its most vigorous stock was passing steadily westward.

In 1790, when Washington was inaugurated, there were about 222,000 people living beyond the mountains, or a little over five per cent of our total population. By 1820 the number had risen to over 2,600,000, more than twenty-seven per cent of the whole. During the hard times in the East after the war, the stream of westward migration rose to a flood. Emigrants poured along the old roads headed for the Land of Promise. Some were lured by good soils and pleasant situations as they journeyed, and along the Mohawk Valley route, for example, flourishing villages sprang up all the way to Buffalo.

Pioneer Roads Eastern United States.
Pioneer Roads West of Appalachia.

Following the road from Philadelphia, the pioneers struck the junction of the Alleghany and Monongahela Rivers, forming the Ohio at Pittsburgh, and that town quickly became one of the great gateways to the West, where travelers and goods were trans-shipped from wagons to the boats plying down the river. By 1816 it was incorporated as a city, and had its shipyards, rolling mill, steel furnace, and other industries. The National Road, on the construction of which Congress spent $7,000,000, was completed in 1818, carrying traffic at the rate of ten miles an hour by way of Cumberland to Wheeling, and for a time this road, connected with one from Baltimore, remained the chief route to the Ohio. It was an amazing improvement over any other we had had and greatly facilitated the ceaseless westward flow.

However, until the coming of the railroads, considerably later, land transportation remained costly as compared with water, and another great impetus to the building up of the West came with the development of the steamboat. In 1785, John Fitch had begun his efforts to make steam navigation practicable on our rivers, and had tried a steamboat on the Delaware. In spite of his persistence and the regular running of a boat for a while in 1790, he was not to achieve success, and for the most part, his experiments met with only jeers from the public.

In any case, river boats could not facilitate travel up and down the coast to any extent, due to the direction in which the rivers flowed. In 1802, an uninterrupted line of stage coaches was inaugurated between Boston and Savannah, but these took four days from Boston to New York, one and a half from New York to Philadelphia, fifteen from Philadelphia to Charleston, and two more from that town to Savannah, or twenty-two and a half in all. The 1200 miles was traversed at an average speed of fifty-three miles a day, the hard journey costing $70 for transportation and about $25 more for board and lodging on the way.

Fairview Inn, Baltimore Maryland. A stopping-place on Frederick Road, on the route to the West at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

River transport was much more important in the West, and also as a means of reaching that section. In 1807, Robert Fulton, to whom the success was to come which had been denied to Fitch, and also perhaps recieved too much of the fame of establishing steam navigation in America, built the famous Clermont, which made her trial trip up the Hudson in August. Although her rudder did not work well, and the weight of her engine set in solid masonry was rather too much for the light craft, she reached Albany from New York in thirty-two hours, and a new epoch in our transportation had been opened.

The following summer, the vessel ran regularly, and the way having been pointed out, others began to ply on many of our rivers, although their use did not become general until after the War of 1812. Some idea of the remoteness of even the nearer West may be obtained from noting the best time which could be made between New York and Pittsburgh after the Clermont had reduced the time up the Hudson to only thirty-two hours. The best route from New York was by way of Albany as that utilized possible water routes to the full, yet by a combination of boat and turnpike it took twenty-three and a half days to cover the 916 miles.

In 1811, an all-water route by steam was opened from Pittsburgh to New Orleans, a vessel named for the latter city making the long trip successfully, although for the next two years she ran only between the Gulf port and Natchez.

In 1819, the first steamship to cross the Atlantic, the Savannah, made the trip between New York and Liverpool, and the modern age was dawning. About the same time there were some three-score stern-wheel river steamers operating regularly between Louisville and New Orleans, transporting freight to the upper Ohio River towns for less than half the charge for carrying the same freight overland from Baltimore or Philadelphia.

The magnitude of the Western trade of the present and future was realized by the Eastern merchants and capitalists, and each city hoped to become the chief clearing point for it, and to hold it against the menace of the Mississippi route. The National Road gave a great advantage to Baltimore, but in 1817, New York State authorized the building of a canal 363 miles long to connect the Hudson at Albany with Lake Erie, and although not finished until 1825 this was to prove one of the determining factors in the forging ahead of New York City.

View on the Erie Canal, 1830-1831.

The completion of the “big ditch,”—it was only four feet deep,—was celebrated throughout the entire State. A gaily decorated flotilla of canal boats started from Buffalo on October 26, and as the mules drawing it tramped along the towpath, they were startled in every village by shouting crowds who cheered the slow-moving procession of boats on their way. At Buffalo, two kegs of water had been placed on the leading one, and when the flotilla reached New York, this was towed out to Sandy Hook, where Governor Clinton poured the water from the lake into that of the sea, with the inevitable flow of accompanying oratory. The cannon on the Battery roared a salute, and that night there were balls, dinners, and illuminations in the city which was rejoicing in the vistas of new prosperity opened to it.

NEWSPAPER ANNOUNCEMENT OF THE CELEBRATION ATTENDING. THE OPENING OF THE ERIE CANAL From “The Truth Teller” of October 29, 1825. Canal Celebration. On Wednesday last, the waters of Lake Erie were admitted into the Great CanaI and that stupendous undertaking completed. The navigation between the Atlantic and the Lakes is now open, and a direct intercourse established between this city and the fertile regions upon the borders of the Canal Friday next, the fourth of November, is fixed for the celebration of this great event. Preparations of a grand scale are making to commemorate the day. The details of the different institutions, societies, &c. have been published in the daily papers. These will form a grand aquatic procession, which will proceed to the Ocean, and having assisted in performing the ceremony of uniting the Waters with the Ocean, will return to the Battery at three o’clock. National salutes will be fired from the different Batteries as the procession passes by, both in going and retuning. In the evening there will be a Grand Ball in the La Fay ette Circus, which is to be considerably enlarged and fitted up for the occasion, in a style of taste and elegance never surpassed in this city. We hope that no accidents will occur which may in any way disturb the rejoicings which are to take place.
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