Continuing with our Era of Good Feelings bicentennial roundtable, I argue that the Era of Good Feelings is not quite as much of a misnomer as we usually make of it. If not exactly an “era of good feelings,” it was nonetheless an “era of nationalist feelings.”
One of the first things you will hear from historians about the so called “Era of Good Feelings” is that it is a misnomer. There might have been a three year stretch of relative “good feelings” from 1815-1818—especially if you were a white man—but by the panic of 1819, and with James Tallmadge’s famous amendment introduced that same year igniting the Missouri Controversy, there were many bad feelings to go around. And even between 1815 and 1818 you could find plenty of political intrigue and tension if you knew where to look for it (New York for example).
Our understanding of the period, it seems, has not changed very much since George Dangerfield’s classic The Era of Good Feelings came out in the early 1950s. Much like Richard Hofstadter’s scholarship from that same period, Dangerfield’s Pulitzer Prize winning book is engaging, witty, and strewn with subtle ironies, even as it does not fundamentally challenge the main premises of “consensus” scholarship. Dangerfield is quick to let us know that the Era of Good Feelings was not what it was hyped up to be, but the early United States still comes across as a serene place where well-meaning politicians and statesmen navigated the challenges of the time. As is often the case with such narratives, Dangerfield cast them as failing or succeeding despite of, or because of, all-too-human character traits and circumstances that were not always within their control.
Nevertheless, I would like to argue that in some ways the Era of Good Feelings was not a misnomer, though not for the reasons that either historians or contemporaries have usually given to explain it as a period of general amity. In fact, what crystalized my thinking on this matter was Dangerfield’s later book about the period, The Awakening of American Nationalism, 1815-1828. A bit more heavy on the argument side of things than The Era of Good Feelings, Dangerfield’s later study suggests that the common thread running through this period was nationalism. Though the argument that follows is familiar—this was an era in which the more decentralized and egalitarian vision for the country, as captured by Andrew Jackson, competed with the more centralized, elite version best captured by Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams—what I found particularly refreshing and suggestive was the use of the concept of nationalism to explain the overall tenor of things. According to Dangerfield, it was a period marked by a contest between two different versions of nationalism, which he casts as democratic (Jackson) and economic (Clay and Adams).
This last point, however, is where I diverge from Dangerfield. It is not that he is wrong—though I certainly do not agree with the benign tone Dangerfield employs in his analysis of either Jacksonian or Clay’s nationalism—it is that like so many other studies of the early republic, formal politics outweighs everything else in his analysis. Dangerfield starts off in the introduction with a marvelous quote by Gallatin from 1816:
The War [of 1812] has renewed and reinstated the national feelings which the Revolution had given and which were daily lessened. The people have now more general objects of attachment with which their pride and political opinions are connected. They are more American; they feel and act more like a nation; and I hope that the permanency of the Union is thereby better secured. (1)
Dangerfield also reminds us that Albert Gallatin who “did not arrive on these shores until 1780,” was better equipped than most to evaluate such things, having a broad frame of reference. Yet, in what follows The Awakening of American Nationalism does not pay much attention to “the people” and their “general objects of attachment” in the wake of the War of 1812. And instead it returns to formal policy making, as the narrative revolves around the individuals at the center of formal politics, leading up to the creation of the Second Party System.
But, as students of nationalism know, and as Gallatin’s quote so aptly suggests, nationalism is only successful inasmuch as the people (what ever that is exactly) become a nation—in that they believe that the nation is a reality in their lives and in world and historical events more broadly; in Gallatin’s words, the nation is a mental image that attaches itself to people’s “pride and political opinions.” Thus, to discuss this period as an era of revitalized nationalism, we need a much more cultural methodology, or rather a political analysis that construes politics much more widely than the affairs of parties and politicians.
Usually we discuss the early national period (1789-1812) or the 1830s, the “age of Jackson,” as the periods of national ferment. The period in between is often a period where we take account of such developments as the industrialization of the North (especially the founding of Lowell, Mass.), the construction of the Erie Canal, the advent of the steam boat, the expansion of cotton in the south, and so on. Much of the action supposedly happened in the economy and infrastructure. And the action around the Missouri Compromise is usually discussed as a sinister aside that fits better within a broader narrative that leads to the Civil War. It was the Era of Good Feelings after all, not much to discuss once we established that America saw a stable period of one party rule (the so called Second Great Awakening is an interesting exception as well, and is usually part of a separate discussion about religion). I would like to suggest, however, that 1815-1828 was in fact the “age of nationalist feelings,” perhaps more than any other period in the nation’s history. Though not necessarily good, and catastrophic for Natives and black peoples living in North America, it nonetheless suggests a certain unity of feelings among white men across the early republic over this period. If we take a few steps back from formal politics and even from the Panic of 1819 and the Missouri Controversy, we find that between 1815 and 1828 many of the people who constituted the nation (i.e. primarily white men) felt enthusiastic about their joint national endeavor. For them it was indeed an “era of good feelings,” as far as the nation was concerned.
I do not want to repeat arguments I made on the blog too many times before (though I will probably end up doing that anyway)–about how the War of 1812 and the Battle of New Orleans helped set the conditions for the ideology of Manifest Destiny to emerge in their wake—but I will reiterate two fine point that might have been lost a bit in earlier posts. One important change to occur in the United States in the wake of the War of 1812 is the congealing of a national popular culture that to a significant degree transcended regional and class divides. The classic work of Lawrence Levine, High Brow/Low Brow is very illuminating on this point. Another crucial development was the transformation of the United States from a nation anxious about its existence to a nation that has much more conviction and self confidence, especially vis-a-vis the nation from which it seceded—Britain. Dangerfield makes a similar point in the opening sentence of his introduction to The Awakening of American Nationalism:
Peace with Great Britain was proclaimed in Washington on February 18, 1815; and with the passing of the War of 1812, the shadow of political Europe withdrew from the scene which it had darkened and confused for many years, and a new light seemed to fall upon the map of the United States. (2)
This last point is of particular significance since it allowed the United States to expand Westward with a “capital W.” Thus the West was no longer a suspect region that tended to degenerate civilization, and instead was recast as the ultimate environment for the making of self-made American citizens. In sum, many Americans, across regional and class divides, bought into this new nationalist mythology over these years.
The decade and a half after the War of 1812, then, was an era of nationalist feelings in which a critical mass of people in the United States—again especially white men— cultivated a robust and vibrant sense of themselves as a nation. It was this period that allowed many in the United States to believe that they were somehow, as a collective, a real actor in a providential narrative that led West. It was the beginning of Americans’ longstanding capacity to be genuinely impressed with themselves. Surely there are few better barometers for the success of nationalism in the USA ever since.
(1) George Dangerfield, The Awakening of American Nationalism, 1815-1828 (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), 2-3.
(2) Ibid., 1.