Periodizing the 19th century in American history is especially difficult for historians. Put most simply: a lot happened in the years between 1800 and 1900! Thus creating a single theme for the entire century is problematic. Should the 19th century end with the Civil War? The Gilded Age? Or should we even push the boundaries into the twentieth century and shanghai the Progressives into the story of the 19th century as well? This essay will argue that it is best to view 19th century America, stretching roughly from the Revolution of 1800 to the Gilded Age – as the era first great “modernization” of American life. Modernization in this context is taken as being the consequences of the three great revolutions of American economic life in the 19th century – the market, communications, and transportation revolutions. The struggles of this century should be seen, then, in this context as being the struggle between various groups of American society – slaveholders, artisans, farmers, former slaves – to bring the fruits of this “modernization” home to their communities.
Building upon the famous “consumer revolution” of the late seventeenth and eighteenth century, the first decades of the nineteenth century America was swept up in a market, communication, and transportation revolution which fundamentally altered every aspect of American society. Canals, steam power and later railroads and the telegraph led to a creation a truly national market and further expanded Americans access international markets. [Howe] This process, which I will call “modernization”, did not stop in the first decades of century but continued to expand exponentially as the nineteenth century marched on – with the transcontinental railroad creating a truly “continental” market for the first time and Americans becoming ever more tied into international financial and labor markets. The changes that modernization wrought were huge – urbanization, immigration, industrialization. Examples from four wars America fought provide a key example of how far the reach of this process of “modernization” became: the most famous battle of the War of 1812 (Battle of New Orleans) could only have been fought because of the poor communication of the time, compare that to the Mexican War where President Polk could issue orders from Washington and have them quickly carried out by General Taylor in Mexico, [Howe] this became even more prominent as Lincoln spent much of the Civil War in the telegraph office and could quickly receive casualty reports and see his orders carried out by his far flung armies, and finally by the Spanish-American War of the end of the century America was able to fight a truly international war with armies and navies in the Philippines and the Caribbean.
The consequences of this “modernization” and the revolutions driving it were immense. Traditionally it is typical to see the politics of this era as driven by those who were beneficiaries of modernization and those who were left out. However, a better prospective is to view political conflict of this era as being the attempts of various groups in American society to harness the forces of modernity for their own benefit. In this light group, traditionally seen as “anti-modern”, such as the Populists or slaveholders, become instead political groups seeking to remake modernity in their own imagine. If we look careful at the Populists, for example, we will see that they were less opposed to the communications, transportation, and market revolutions but instead trying to bring these forces to aid the plight of small farmers and artisans. By regulating the railroads, better educating the average farmer, and employing the latest technological innovations in agriculture the Populists sought to harness the forces of modernization in ways that directly benefited themselves. They were less trying to turn back the clock to than make the passage of time work for them. [Postel] The same goes for slaveholders. Traditionally seen, by themselves and later historians, as “anti-modernists” a quick look at antebellum slaveholders shows us were more than open to the forces of modernity as long as it did not challenge the slave system itself. Thus they supported canals and railroads in ways that would expand the market reach of their slave grown cotton (and other products) and embraced technological innovation (like the cotton gin) but opposed efforts at modernity that would weaken slaveholding – such a federal infrastructure investment that might expand the scope of federal power in ways that might one day challenge slavery.
What such a perspective on the 19th century does is expand and integrate two often isolated ways of looking at different halves of the century – the market, transportation, and communication revolution of the first half and industrial revolution of the second. Looking at the century as a whole it is clear that these two processes were linked and built off one another. No process shows this linked nature of both halves of the century than the Christianization of American society in the nineteenth century. Driven by the communication and transportation revolution, evangelical Christianity increased in power and scope throughout the century. Through sabbitrainian, Prohibition, and other reform campaigns American society was increasingly more Christian than it ever was in the eighteenth or even seventeenth century. [Butler] The forces of modernity – the communication and transportation revolutions – were allowing evangelical men and women to give their campaigns a truly national scope and reach. [Howe, Doresy] With each passing decade this process of Christianization was bringing more and more men and women into the evangelical churches. While the scholarship often focuses on the reform efforts of the first half of the century, the latter half of the century saw just as much activity among evangelicals – Moody and the “muscular Christianity” of the Gilded Age come to mind. This process of Christianization was also creating its own discontents with groups stigmatized by evangelicals – such as Catholics and skeptics – and those opposed to the more radical efforts at reform – slaveholders – increasingly unhappy with this Christianizing machine. At the same time, these groups left unhappy by the Christianization of American society (or certain forms of the Christianization, in the case of slaveholders) were increasingly able to articulate challenges to this status quo because of the very forces of modernity that were helping to power Christianization itself. Thus modernization is everywhere in the nineteenth century.
The strongest counterweight to this argument is a narrative which focuses on the rise and fall of slavery and its consequences in Reconstruction. The narrative of this scope – a “short nineteenth century” – has great power for it focuses our attention on race relations, sectional conflict, and the struggle of African-Americans in a way that could easily be overlooked in the sort of narrative arc outlined above. This story has great power, in that the “Unfinished Revolution” of Reconstruction continues to reverberate through to today. [Foner] However, there are ways to incorporate the struggle against (and for) slavery and the struggle for African-American freedom and independence into a “modernization” narrative of the nineteenth century.
As John Brooke has recently argued, the “Benevolent Empire” of the first decades of the nineteenth century was important to the rise of both Northern and Southern nationalism and the sectional conflict. Driving by the forces of the modernity – especially the communications revolution – “the Benevolent Empire” united North and South in processes of evangelical reform. Yet this unity was shattered by the strong radical critique by some Northern evangelicals against slavery in 1830s. Yet both North and South continued to use the institutions of the “Benevolent Empire” to shape their regional identities into a “free labor North” and a “slave South.” Thus modernity played a key role in shaping the sectional crisis of the 1850s and 1860s.
The above “modernization” narrative can also easily include the struggles of African-Americans during the “Unfinished Revolution” of Reconstruction. In many ways the battles of Reconstruction between newly freed slaves, former Confederates, and moderate Southerners was a battle over who would gain the fruits of modernity in a post-slavery world. African-Americans struggled to leverage the communication, market, and transportation revolutions in ways that would strengthen their community and provide economic opportunity. The “New South” which emerged out of Reconstruction largely denied them the benefits of modernity – limiting African-Americans access to the market, to transportation, to education, and to the better sort of industrial jobs. The African-American “freedom struggle” in the twentieth century would largely be a struggle to reap the benefits of modernity that were denied to them in the wake of Reconstruction.
Thus while a narrative which focuses on the sectional crisis, slavery, and the fight of African-Americans provides a powerful counter-narrative to one “modernity” it is clear from the above that the “modernity” narrative can easily accommodate elements of the that narrative. The larger problem facing the “modernity” narrative of the nineteenth century is where it should end. It is obvious that the force of “modernity” – the market, transportation, and communications revolutions – continues to impact and shape American life in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Yet, it is possible to mark a stopping point for the nineteenth century “experience” of modernity and the beginning of the twentieth – the Gilded Age. The Gilded Age marks a clear turning point in American’s struggle with modernity. The Populists, in many ways, are the key group here. While they were clearly working to bring modernity to the small farmer and artisan they were trying to do so in ways that were firmly nineteenth century was of thinking. They continued to draw upon the political ideology of “republicanism” which dominated the nineteenth century but would be eclipsed in the twentieth by the “social question” [Rodgers]. Indeed, the evangelical Christianity the Populists espoused was generally optimistic and post-millennial compared to the more pessimistic and pre-millennial evangelicalism which would take root in the twentieth century. The failure of the Populist attempt to bring the forces of modernity to bear on improving the plight of the small farmer and artisan played a key role in those shifts. [Creech]
Thus while the Populists and Gilded Age provide an important line of demarcation between the nineteenth and twentieth century, that line is fuzzy. There was much continuity between the nineteenth and twentieth century and the American experience of “modernity.” But such a narrative of nineteenth century development does provide key insights into the entirety of the century in ways that other narratives do not.