Seth Cassel
December 2007


Enlightened Individualism in America During 1800-1855



"Few innovations of the American Revolution were accomplished in a minute."


The period of 1800-1855 saw the fruition of many of the ideas not fulfilled during the American Revolution. At the heart of the period was the foundation of the very notion that the American Revolution was based on, the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was a time of new thought and a fresh examination and appreciation of the human world. This movement first inspired the American Revolution, and as the new nation began to mature, Enlightenment ideas continued to impact its development.

The Enlightenment began in Europe during the 18th century with the educated classes and through commerce and the exchange of ideas, spread throughout the world, particularly to the English colonies in America. The Enlightened thinkers placed emphasis on reason and the human, rather than holding God in a prominent role in the life of man. This trend can be seen in the religion of the Enlightenment, Deism, which held that God was simply a clock-maker who, once creating the clock, the human, would let it wind down on its own accord. Deism, in addition to other Enlightened ideas of the time, as seen in the writings of Locke and Rousseau, brought about an unprecedented valuing of the individual human and the rights inherent to a person.

Changes in Europe due to the Enlightenment gradually led to an increase in economic and political independence in the American colonies. As Alan Taylor points out, many individual colonists were also becoming self-reliant as "colonial conditions permitted most adult, free men to own sufficient land to employ themselves and their families, [in] a cherished condition called "independence."" The American colonies "provided fertile ground for putting the [Enlightenment] philosophers' words into action." These words, especially those of Locke who "stated that all people are born with equal rights to life, liberty, and property" (the right to personal independence), were reflected in the Declaration of Independence. This document, in part, was authored by the Enlightened colonial thinkers, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.

After the American Revolution was won, the following years saw the loss of the very personal independence that many of the colonists desired. The first step in this deprivation was the United States Constitution, whose control did not rest in the hands of the common man. The Constitution gave power to a strong, elitist central government that was removed from the people. With the rise to power of the Federalist Party, this elitist idea once again was promulgated. For example, in the Adams Administration the enactment of the Alien and Sedition Acts empowered a core body of government officials with sweeping powers over the people. Also, Jefferson's election of 1800 "meant less the triumph of the lower classes… than the transfer of leadership in government from representatives of the commercial and financial classes to those interested in agriculture." It was not until Jacksonian Democracy that reforms introduced by the Enlightenment, and fought for in the American Revolution, began to be realized. The Jacksonian Age (1824 -1850) brought about the disestablishment of the elitist government, giving people the power to control their own destiny, driven by a desire for a return to personal independence. "Jacksonian Democracy was a part of an intellectual current…, a current sweeping through America. If that current has to be given a name, it might be best called romantic individualism." This romantic individualism was characterized by "individuals and families governing themselves, that is, managing their own affairs." One major example of the Jacksonian enlightened reforms was the annulment of the Second Bank of the United States. Jackson felt that the Second Bank of the United States was "undemocratic because it concentrated vast and monopolistic "power in the hands of a few men,"" and he vetoed a bill that would have renewed its charter. The end of The Bank brought power closer to the people and reinforced the ideas of personal independence set forth in the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment's ideas of personal independence during the first half of the 19th century also fueled the migration of American settlers to the West, the frontier of the United States. One's ownership of a store, boat, workshop, or more importantly a farm, given the agrarian nature of America during the time, gave the capability and feeling of control. "[T]he individuals who composed the American nation were property-minded men, as full of optimism for themselves as for their country." Thus, with the "increasing scarcity of good farmland in the East," some Americans, fueled by a desire for personal independence, looked to the West.

The Enlightenment emphasized reason and called for a critical examination of the world, asking people to scrutinize institutions and society and bring it inline with natural law, thus perfecting it. Individuals began questioning religious doctrine and authority, which alarmed church leaders and other devout people during the 18th century. These actions spurred on the Great Awakening, a Calvinist movement that advocated a return to hell-fire and brimstone. The two movements, the Enlightenment and the Great Awakening, which in a combination like that of Hegel's thesis and antithesis, synthesized in the form of the early 19th century's Second Great Awakening. The Second Great Awakening took the idea of perfection of institutions from the Enlightenment and the religious aspect from the original Great Awakening and caused a renewal of faith in a wide swath of American Christianity.

American culture during the early 19th century was also influenced by the enlightened idea of individualism. Considered to be the first great American poet, Walt Whitman wrote poetry that "presented and honed the Jacksonian ideas," which included the idea of self and personal independence. Also, in early American visual art, individualism held an important role. The Hudson River School, founded by Thomas Cole, is considered to be one of the first American art styles and often portrays the individual amongst nature. For example, Cole's painting Landscape (1825) captures this individualist spirit as two men work apart in an isolated, rugged wilderness.

The American Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century, while certainly the product of technological advancements, was also spurred on by the Enlightened ideas of Jacksonian Democracy. The Enlightenment's Adam Smith proposed a laissez-faire system in which the government would stay out of the economy, an idea adopted by the Jacksonian Democrats. In the 1837 decision over Charles River Bridge Company v. Warren Bridge Company, the ruling of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Roger Brooke Taney, reflected this enlightened thinking. Taney sided with the Warren Bridge Company, and in doing so implemented Adam Smith-like ideas, "provid[ing] greater flexibility within the law, and thus more opportunity for capitalists, during a period of dynamic growth." Therefore, as a result of the Enlightenment, Jacksonian Democracy gave more liberty to businesses, encouraged entrepreneurship, and took a hands-off approach to capitalism, stimulating the growth of industry during the American Industrial Revolution. The Enlightenment's influence on the development of the American Industrial Revolution also had far-reaching consequences for slavery. The cotton gin, an Industrial Revolution invention that enabled one person to efficiently separate seeds from cotton fibers, propelled cotton to cash crop status in the South. This growing cotton industry further benefited from Enlightened laissez-faire economics and "shackled the region to slave labor."

Although arriving in the United States before the period of 1800-1855, the Enlightenment was the driving influence behind the times. It infused Americans with a valuation of their personal liberties and independence. The Enlightenment fueled political changes, westward expansion, the prevailing religious movement of the time, the development of a national culture, and the Industrial Revolution, which in turn caused an entrenchment of slavery in the South.




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