U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Roundtable: Good and Bad Feelings, Monroe’s National Tours, and Emotion in U.S. Foreign Relations

James Monroe Statue (Rapid City, South Dakota)

We continue our special roundtable on the Era of Good Feelings at 200 (catch up on Parts 1, 2, and 3). Today’s post is by Wendy Wong Schirmer, a historian of early America and U.S. foreign relations, who received her Ph.D. from Temple University. She is currently working on a book project that examines the relationship between print culture, neutrality in the early republic, and the politics of slavery.

Good feelings suggestively lend themselves to the study of emotion in nationalism and also foreign relations. “The Era of Good Feelings” derived its name from the Boston Columbian Sentinel’s July 12, 1817 account of the popular response to President James Monroe’s tour of Boston. In the aftermath of the War of 1812, Monroe undertook three tours of the United States—one of the North (1817), the Chesapeake Bay Area (1818), and of the South and West (1819). All of them were reported in the newspapers, among them the Washington National Intelligencer, although the last two tours were not as popular as the first. On the face of it, Monroe meant to inspect coastal fortifications and border areas. But his tours, which gave him opportunities to reach out to different sections of the union, were also designed to counter factionalism and unite the country around a nationalist vision that amounted to Republican one-party rule: as Monroe ventured into traditionally staunch Federalist territory with his first national tour in 1817, he meant for Republican-Party rule and the growing marginalization of the Federalists into political oblivion to develop into true nonpartisanship.[1]

Historians undertaking the study of U.S. foreign relations under the aegis of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR) have in recent years approached their subject very broadly, beyond international power politics and state-to-state relations. A quick perusal of the table of contents for the third edition of Explaining the History of American Foreign Relations offers gender, memory, the senses, and psychology as potential avenues of fruitful inquiry. Within that expansive rubric, Monroe’s national tours provide possible opportunities for the study of emotion in Early U.S. foreign relations. While they have often been relegated to “domestic” matters, the boundary between foreign and domestic at the time was not as acute as it would subsequently become. As such, Monroe’s tours might be juxtaposed with the rising tension in the union over different, emerging varieties of nationalism, which competed with the president’s hoped-for Republican partisan anti-partisanship. The disintegration of Monroe’s consensus would allow for the second-party conflict, where differences over westward expansion, policy toward Native Americans, and war against Mexico were fundamental.[2]

While emotion is not new to the study of early America, or to the study of U.S. foreign relations, few studies have specifically examined its role in the foreign relations of the early republic. Nicole Eustace and Sarah Knott have demonstrated the importance of emotion—variously called passion, feeling, and sentiment—in early America. Emotion mattered, because governance and maintaining stability for the successful conduct of foreign relations required popular support, which could either bolster or undermine union at home and independence abroad. National tours put the president in touch with the people in various sections of the country. As a medium with a paradigm, they had their precedent in George Washington’s tours of the United States in 1789 and 1791, whose importance to national unity T.H. Breen has recently emphasized. With their unity at stake and fearful of foreign influence, Americans came to characterize a similar effort by the infamous French Minister, Citizen Genet as a form of usurpation during a time of diplomatic crisis. Genet’s tour from South Carolina to Philadelphia in 1793, David Waldstreicher observes, not only mimicked but constituted an open challenge to the people’s purported affections for President Washington.[3]

In the lead-up to Monroe’s presidency, a combination of national fragility and diplomatic crises prior to the War of 1812 had taught Americans that cultivating the right kind of sentiment in public and in private was important in uniting peoples and nations. The wrong kind of sentiment would achieve precisely the opposite, leading to factionalism and the ultimate loss of American independence and the end of the American Revolution’s experiment in republican self-government. Attention to the role of emotion or sentiment within the framework of safeguarding the union reminds us that nation-building in the early republic was a complex process requiring balance. The fuzziness of the boundary between foreign and domestic during the early national period had been a holdover from the British Empire, meaning that no real difference existed between constitutional government and national self-determination. And according to James Lewis, Jr., it would remain that way until the Jacksonians took the reins of federal power in 1829. Then, foreign and domestic policies could be seen as separate in a manner previously impossible when union no longer provided the essential framework in which Americans interacted both with each other and the rest of the world.[4]

Emerging and competing varieties of nationalism ultimately compromised the national(ist) sentiment that Monroe’s tours had meant to foster. The lessened popularity of his tours to the Chesapeake and to the South and West, compared to his tour to the North, might well suggest ways in which the “Era of Good Feelings” was not able to contain the fissures that were developing over driven by banking and internal improvements and westward expansion. Divisions over slavery would further exacerbate the variety of antagonistic permutations of American nationalism. Slavery and various nationalisms that meant different things to different people would play their part in ultimately rendering the logic and language of union unworkable, producing an increasing onset of bad feelings as well.

[1]Daniel Preston, Marlena C. DeLong, eds., The Papers of James Monroe: A Documentary History of the Presidential Tours of James Monroe, 1817, 1818, 1819 (New York: Greenwood Press, 2002); George Dangerfield, The Era of Good Feelings (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1952); Noble E. Cunningham, Jr., The Presidency of James Monroe (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996); Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought?: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

[2] Frank Costigliola and Michael J. Hogan eds., Explaining the History of American Foreign Relations.  3rd ed.., (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2016).

[3] Nicole Eustace, Passion is the Gale: Emotion, Power, and the Coming of the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008); Eustace, 1812: War and the Passions of Patriotism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012); Sarah Knott, Sensibility and the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009); T.H. Breen, George Washington’s Journey: The President Forges a New Nation (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016); David Waldstreicher, In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes:  The Making of American Nationalism, 1776-1820 (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 1997).

[4] James E. Lewis, Jr., The American Union and the Problem of Neighborhood: The United States and the Collapse of the Spanish Empire, 1783-1829 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000).

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I have to say I’ve really enjoyed this roundtable so far–and this might be my favorite post of them all (which is saying a great deal).

    I’m fascinated by the idea that the Era of Good Feelings actually masked bubbling sectional and partisan rancor–it makes sense as an idea, especially with the Missouri Crisis occurring smack dab in the middle of this “era.” I’m curious: could you give an example or two of how Monroe’s tour was perceived in the South? I find his tour being less successful in the South being an intriguing idea, especially with what happens to sectional rancor coming down the pipeline.

    Again, thanks for this contribution!

    • Hi Robert, thank you very much for your comments and your kind words– and for your great question! I have to admit that the idea of the Era of Good Feelings masking bubbling sectional and partisan rancor is something that I was wondering about as I finished up this post. Which is why I tried to couch my remarks in a way that suggested a need to dig further. So that makes two of us. For one, I’m always intrigued by what appear to be efforts at consensus or consolidation that get outpaced by what happens on the ground. And juxtaposed against Daniel Walker Howe’s treatment of the period, where he discusses competing nationalisms, I’d surmised that that was possibly what was happening in this case.

      General observation that the Southern and Western tours were less popular comes from Daniel Preston, who edits the Monroe Papers. Plus, Dangerfield from what I recall concentrates mostly, if not exclusively, on the Eastern tour, because this is Monroe making forays into “enemy” [read: Federalist] territory. Niles’ Weekly Register (Baltimore, MD) of May 18, 1819 noted that “he is everywhere received with great attention and respect, but there is much less pomp and parade than took place on his eastern journey.” Noble Cunningham, citing some of that reportage, reveals that the pace of the Southern tour is less hectic, even as he’s greeted with enthusiasm (cheering crowds in New Bern NC, elaborate welcome in Charleston SC, military honors in Savannah GA). So there are probably some tensions here between how the locals receive Monroe and the growing sectional rancor that I think would be fascinating to examine and work out in the future.

  2. Very interesting post. One could perhaps see Monroe’s tours not only in light of George Washington’s tours of 1789 and 1791 (mentioned in the post), but more generally against the backdrop of a longer line of European (and other) precedents, one notable example being the long tour of France undertaken by the young king Charles IX, along with a huge entourage, in 1564-65.

    • Louis, that’s a fascinating observation– and one that I hadn’t thought to consider. So I thank you for chipping in with that connection. Not least because it raises the issue of the relationship between president and people in a polity that had previously known monarchy.

  3. Wendy,
    Thanks so much for this post! In your bio above, you mention that your project is also about print culture. I’m wondering if you could say a bit about the differences between the circulation of texts and the circulation of bodies here. Maybe a more concrete way of asking that is, what do you think Monroe (or Washington) was able to do by physically touring the nation that couldn’t be done by pamphlets or periodicals? Or how did the two interact?

    • Andy, thank you very much for your question. One that I will admittedly be thinking harder about as I write, not least when it comes to connections between different kinds of media. So I’ll take a stab at this. From what I recall, public image matters for Washington, as it does for Monroe– and also Jefferson (although the image that Jefferson wants people to take away is that of a more private individual). For one, Washington not only wants the people to get a glimpse of their president, but he cares that they know that he cares about what they think. One obvious area where the circulation of bodies and texts does come together is the addresses that are an exchange between people and president. When Washington drops the proclamation of neutrality in 1793, newspapers print addresses from around the country voices their support, whereby the president replies. Something similar happens with Adams during the XYZ Affair. The same is true with Monroe on his northern tour, where some of those addresses from groups of citizens like the Committee of the town of Newport (RI) are collated and printed by Samuel Putnam Waldo. I think that what these presidents are able to do, or are at least attempting to do, is to model republican behavior in the flesh (Monroe took care to emphasize his republican manner of dress and credentials, for one), in a way that is complementary to the way print culture is meant to cultivate the “correct” public opinion conducive to republican self-government (or even in competition with it when it comes to newspapers and their editors who tend to be critical of the administration. This was the case during Washington’s presidency).

  4. What have historians posited, thus far, on why the two to the Chesapeake area, and to the South and West, were not as popular? Was it old news at that point? Changes in the crowds? Less publicity via newspapers? Weather? – TL

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