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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
The Triumph of Nationalism/The House Dividing
Topic: Culture of the Common ManTopic: Cult of DomesticityTopic: ReligionTopic: ExpansionTopic: America in 1850
Topic: Culture of the Common Man
Overview of Triumph of Nationalism
Resource Menu: The Culture of the Common Man
Text 1. Andrew Jackson
Text 2. Mark Twain
Text 3. Thomas W. Dorr
Text 4. Mechanics/Workers
Text 5. Richard Allen and David Walker
Text 6. Nathaniel Hawthorne
Text 7. James Fenimore Cooper
Text 8. Ralph Waldo Emerson
Text 9. John C. Calhoun
Text 10. Walt Whitman


Topic Framing Questions
  •  How did Americans respond to the emergence of a functioning democracy in which the majority of free adult males could vote?
  •  How did Northerners view the purposes of political rights and power?
  •  How did Southerners view them?

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1.  Andrew Jackson, Veto Message Regarding the Bank of the United States, July 10, 1832
In 1831 Congress passed a bill to "modify and continue" the Bank of the United States. Jackson vetoed it and here explains why. Dry reading but valuable, it will give you a concise statement of Jackson's vision of what America should be. He objects to the bill's provisions because they do "not measure out equal justice to the high and the low, the rich and the poor." To continue the Bank's monopoly, he says, would bestow the government's bounty upon the current stockholders and no one else. To approve the bill's exchange provisions would favor banks over merchants, mechanics, and other private citizens. To ratify the bill's tax arrangements would penalize American stockholders and send an inordinate percentage of the bank's profits to foreign investors, mostly in Great Britain. Indeed, Jackson spends a great deal of time detailing the national security threat that large scale foreign investment in the Bank of the United States would pose to this country. He also devotes much effort to a painstaking refutation of the Supreme Court decision that declared the Bank constitutional. In the end he offers this summary of his position: "In the full enjoyment of the gifts of Heaven and the fruits of superior industry, economy, and virtue, every man is equally entitled to protection by law; but when the laws undertake to add to these natural and just advantages artificial distinctions, to grant titles, gratuities, and exclusive privileges, to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society . . . who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their Government. . . . If [government] would confine itself to equal protection, and, as Heaven does its rains, shower its favors alike on the high and the low, the rich and the poor, it would be an unqualified blessing." A good selection to pair with Cooper's The American Democrat. 14 pages (wide margins).

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2.  Mark Twain, chapters 21 and 22 from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1885
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is set in the 1840s and offers a portrait of the people Jackson brought to power, men and women far different from the noble, thoughtful rustics of Thomas Jefferson's bucolic democratic vision. Here Twain satirizes the roots of American culture, including its class divisions and anti-intellectualism. These chapters contain the Sherburn-Boggs episode, framed by the rehearsal for and performance of the King's and Duke's Shakespearean entertainment. Approximately 12 pages.

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3.  Thomas W. Dorr, An Address to the People of Rhode Island, 1834
This piece suggests the unevenness with which the fruits of the American Revolution spread across the country. While democracy took root in some areas, in others it was withdrawn or impeded. Its spread was not an uncontested progress. Fifty-eight years after 1776 the people of Rhode Island had to take up arms to win what the Revolution has promised. Through much of the nineteenth century Rhode Island was governed under its original charter, which limited suffrage and the right to hold office to men who owned $134 worth of property. By 1834 the state had become urban, and a significant portion of its population was made up of nonlandowners. Thomas W. Dorr, a Harvard-educated attorney, rebelled against the charter and eventually led a force against the state government. Here he offers a concise statement of the democratic impulse that was at work not only in Rhode Island but throughout the nation. Could be used with students. 3 pages.

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4.  The Boston Mechanics' and Laborers' Mutual Benefit Association on the formation of its cooperative society, 1845

The Workingman's Committee of Philadelphia on the state of public instruction in Pennsylvania, 1830

The rough and ready trans-Appalachian democracy that Jackson's victory brought to Washington had its counterpart in America's eastern cities. In them workers agitated for equality and for the full enjoyment of the fruits of their labor. These two brief statements provide a flavor of that agitation and a sense of the American urban environment of the period. Raising issues of equality, liberty, power, and class, they offer context for all the texts of this section. Could be used with students. 3 pages.

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5.  Richard Allen, selection from Confession of John Joyce, 1808

David Walker, excerpts from David Walker's Appeal, 1830

For enslaved blacks the emergence of a functioning democracy during this period meant nothing. For free blacks it meant very little because, without the vote, they could not participate in it. With few rights, one of the chief ways they could lay claim to a place in American society was to demonstrate their respectability. In the Age of the Common Man they had to be uncommonly aware of their standing and perceived character. They couldn't afford to excite any additional white hostility. The authors of these two selections inveigh their readers to behave respectably, but the character of their appeals vary radically.

On December 18, 1807, a former slave named John Joyce, with the help of an accomplice and a considerable amount of gin, strangled and robbed a fifty-year-old Philadelphia widow named Sarah Cross. The following year Richard Allen, the founder of the AME Church, published an account of Joyce's trial along with his confession. The introduction, excerpted here, and the notation on the title page that the confession was printed "for the benefit of Bethel Church," clearly establish the publication as a tool in the AME Church's campaign to instill proper values and codes of conduct in its members. 2 pages.

David Walker's Appeal also contains an account of a murder meant to serve as an object lesson, but the meaning Walker extracts from the story he relates is far different from the one Allen derives from Joyce's story. David Walker was a free black born in 1785 in Wilmington, North Carolina. He settled in Boston in 1826 and opened a small clothing store there. In the latter part of the 1820s he wrote for abolitionist newspapers and conducted extensive research on slavery. His finding provoked a ferocious rage, to which he gave vent in his Appeal. 11 1/2 pages.

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6.  Nathaniel Hawthorne, "My Kinsman, Major Molineux," 1831, pub. 1832/1851
Published the same year as Jackson's veto message. Robin, "a youth of barely eighteen" and a second son with no hope of inheriting the farm, arrives in town after dark to seek his kinsman Major Molineux, who, he is sure, will help establish him in the world. He wanders the town, unable to locate the major, until the end of the story when a mob introduces him to his relative. By 1832 the American Revolution was over half a century old. The founding generation had passed from the scene, and a new generation was trying to figure out what kind of country the United States would be. They were, in effect, taking an adolescent nation into adulthood. In this story the initiation of a young man reflects the coming of age of a young nation. Could be used with students. 13 pages.

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7.  James Fenimore Cooper, selections from The American Democrat: A Treatise on Jacksonian Democracy, 1838
At this early stage in our national life, Cooper identified the central problems of a democratic society, and he sought to discuss them plainly in The American Democrat, a work he would have entitled "Anti-Cant" had he been able. We have offered the introduction and four central chapters in which Cooper discusses equality, the advantages and disadvantages of democracy, and the differences between the aristocrat and the democrat. American democracy, he contends, is a useful way to arrange a government, but it has its limitations and even hazards. A good selection to pair with Jackson, Hawthorne, Twain, and Whitman. 12 1/2 pages.

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8.  Ralph Waldo Emerson, excerpts from "Self-Reliance," 1841
One critic has written that "the rise of democracy, either the trans-Appalachian Jacksonian stripe or that of the eastern slums and factory towns, was what provoked the transcendentalist to his most significant reaction." We have chosen to illustrate that reaction with an excerpt from Emerson's "Self-Reliance." An exhilarating call to a vital and bracing individualism, it is also a critique of the culture of the common man. To help place it in that context, read it in the light of the following excerpt from Emerson's 1860 essay "Considerations by the Way."

"Leave this hypocritical prating about the masses. Masses are rude, lame, unmade, pernicious in their demands and influence, and need not to be flattered, but to be schooled; I wish not to concede anything to them, but to tame, drill, divide, and break them up, and draw individuals out of them. The worst of charity is that the lives you are asked to preserve are not worth preserving. Masses! The calamity is the masses. I do not wish any mass at all, but honest men only, lovely, sweet, accomplished women only, and no shovel-handed, narrow-brained, gin-drinking million stockingers* or lazzaroni* at all. If government knew how, I should like to see it check, not multiply population. When it reaches its true law of action, man that is born will be hailed as essential. Away with this hurrah of masses, and let us have the considered vote of single men spoken on their honor and their conscience." Could be used with students. 10 pages.

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9.  John C. Calhoun, excerpt from "A Disquisition on Government," 1851
"But now we are a mob," wrote Emerson in "Self-Reliance." How are we, then, to shape democracy so that majority rule does not become mob rule? This question vexed many in the early part of the nineteenth century, including Cooper, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Twain, and Calhoun. To address it, Calhoun framed the concept of a "concurrent majority." He recognized "interest groups" and asserted that a majority within an interest group should have the right to accept or reject a law within its sphere. Strongly recommended. 6 pages.

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10.  Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself," Sections 1 to 15; from Leaves of Grass, 1855
Are the issues raised in this section somehow reconciled in Whitman's poetry? If you select this text, you will have the opportunity to find out. Emerson wanted no masses at all, "no shovel-handed, narrow-brained, gin-drinking million stockingers or lazzaroni." Whitman, on the other hand, celebrated the masses, including the spinning girl who "retreats and advances to the hum of her big wheel" and the "newly-come immigrants" who "cover the wharf." Yet upon the publication of Leaves of Grass in 1855, Emerson hailed Whitman: "I greet you at the beginning of a great career." Whitman fulfilled Emerson's idea of the poet as inspired seer, "the man without impediment, who sees and handles that which others dream of, traverses the whole scale of experience, and is representative of man, in virtue of being the largest power to receive and to impart." What Whitman received and imparted was the raw experience of a democratic culture which he—standing "Apart . . . amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary"—elevated and transformed into art. 9 pages.

Toolbox: The Triumph of Nationalism / The House Dividing
Common Man | Cult of Domesticity | Religion | Expansion | America in 1850

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