The Early Eighteenth Century: American Romanticism (1820-1865)

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The Early Eighteenth Century: American Romanticism (1820-1865)

America and Utopia: from its very beginning the language of utopia has been used to describe the American experiment.

  • 1603: “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world” (Winthrop).

  • 1776: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, “ (Jefferson 11).

  • 1963: “This is our hope. … With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day” (King).

  • 2008: “Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America's improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars; statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787” (Obama).

Key Events that Shaped 1820-1865

  • 1820: Missouri Compromise (No slavery in Louisiana north of 36 30’ except in Missouri)

  • 1823: Monroe Doctrine (Warns all European nations not to colonize America)

  • 1830: Indian Removal Act

  • 1831: Trail of Tears

  • 1837: Financial panic and failures of numerous banks lead to severe unemployment, which persists until the 1840’s.

  • 1844: Telegraph invented by Samuel Morse

  • 1846-8: Mexican American War

  • 1848: Seneca Falls Convention (Inaugurates campaign for women’s rights)

  • 1848-9: California Gold Rush

  • 1857: Dread Scott v Sanford decision (Supreme Court denies African Americans Citizenship)

  • 1861-65: Civil War

  • 1863: Emancipation Proclamation

Cultural Issues that Shaped American in the Early 18th Century

  • American Romanticism

  • Industrialization

  • Manifest Destiny

  • Slavery and the Civil War

  • “The Woman Question”

American Romanticism

  • “Both place and time were changed, and I dwelt nearer to those parts of the universe and to those eras in history which had most attracted me. Where I lived was as far off as many a region viewed nightly by astronomers. We are wont to imagine rare and delectable places in some remote and more celestial corner of the system, behind the constellation of Cassiopeia’s Chair, far from noise and disturbance. I discovered that my house actually had its site in such a withdrawn, but forever new and unprofaned part of the universe” (Thoreau 59).

Some Characteristics of American Romanticism…

  • Romantic thinkers emphasize the importance of imagination and feeling in reaction to the premium placed on reason during the 18th century. They believed that the particular and specific individual was more important than universal laws.

  • Many Romantics represented the primitive and untrammeled over the artificial or developed as an aesthetic ideal in their paintings, writing, and social theory.

  • The Romantic period is marked by Protestantism in political action-stressing above all the “Rights of Man:”

    • In Europe and America, Romantic philosophy included radical assault on virtually all social institutions. Fundamental hierarchies of government, notions of sovereignty, once emblems of social and literary stability, now exemplified the dead hand of the past. (Harper’s Ferry is a useful example)
  • Many Romantics stressed a hope for the future and belief in innate goodness of man and were wary of the danger of institutional restraint.

  • Because the Romantic movement included many women and former slaves, it stressed a development of theory of political rights for those previously excluded.

Key Terms in American Romanticism:

  • Transcendentalism

  • Pastoral

  • Sublime


  • According to theorist Lawrence Buell the pastoral is, “in the loose sense of being preoccupied with nature and rurality as setting, theme and value in contradistinction from society and the urban…[the pastoral] refers not to the specific set of obsolescent conventions of the eclogue tradition, but to all literature-poetry or prose, fiction or non-fiction-that celebrates the ethos of nature/rurality over against the ethos of town city. This domain includes for present purposes all degrees of rusticity from farm to wilderness” (463).


  • “A New England movement which flourished from 1835-60. It had its roots in Romanticism and in post-Kantian idealism by which Coleridge was influenced. It had a considerable influence on American art and literature, Basically religious, it emphasized the role and importance of the individual conscience, and the value of intuition in matters of moral guidance and inspiration. The actual terms was coined by opponents of the movement but accepted by its members (Ralph Waldo Emersion is one of the leaders, published The Transcendentalists in 1841). The group were also social reformers. Some members, besides Emerson, were famous and include Bronson Alcott, Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne” (DL< 936).


  • “According to Romantic writers, the sublime caused the reader to experience elestasis ("transport"). Edmund Burke developed this line of thought further in his influential essay, ‘The Sublime and the Beautiful’ (1757). Here, he distinguished the sublime from the beautiful by suggesting that the sublime was not a stylistic quality but the powerful depiction of subjects that were vast, obscure, and powerful. These sublime topics or subjects evoked "delightful horror" in the viewer or reader, a combination of terror and amazed pleasure.” (DL< 874).


  • In its most basic form, the Industrial Revolution can be defined as the shift in manufacturing that resulted from the invention of power-driven machinery to replace hand labor. Although its origins are hard to pin down exactly, the shift in manufacture covers roughly 1770 to 1840 in both Europe and America.

Characteristics and Implications of the Industrial Revolution…

  • No attempt was made to regulate the shift from the old economic world like that of the “Pilgrims” (Mercantile Capitalism) to the new, since even liberal reformers were committed to the philosophy of Laissez-faire-‘let do’ or ‘let alone’ out lined in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.

    • Under the theory of Laissez-faire, general welfare can be ensure only through free operation of economic laws, and government should maintain a strict policy of noninterference to leave manufacturers to pursue, unfettered, their private interests
    • For the great majority of the laboring class, the results of laissez-faire and the ‘freedom’ of contract it secured were inadequate wages and long hours of work under harsh discipline in sordid conditions-insurance, laws restricting child labor, minimum wage, environmental concerns, insurance, etc. did not exist.
    • While conditions for the poor worsened, the landed and mercantile class enjoyed prosperity owning to the market success.

Manifest Destiny

  • According to the Oxford English Dictionarymanifest destiny n. (also with capital initials) orig. U.S. (now hist.) is the doctrine or belief that the expansion of the United States throughout the American continents was both justified and inevitable”. For example John O’Sullivin commented in 1845, Our manifest destiny is to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions” (OED).

Characteristics and Implications of Manifest Destiny…

  • The period from 1820 to 1865 saw a dizzying growth in the nation’s population and territorial reach; increasing urbanization; and the expansion of railroads, canals, and other forms of transportation that allowed for more extensive economical forms of distribution.

  • The nation’s population of approximately four million in 1790 jumped to thirty million by 1860, in part because of the massive emigration from Ireland and elsewhere in Europe that occurred during the 1840’s and 1850’s.

  • Territorial space available to this burgeoning population dramatically increased following the war with Mexico (1846-48), which added 1.2 million square miles of land to the 1.8 million square miles that the nation held before the war; this is the area that would become Texas, California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and parts of New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming.

  • In 1838 the Cherokees were forcibly removed by federal troops under General Winfred Scott. They were sent on what would be called the Trail of Tears to present day Oklahoma. During the winter march an estimated 4,000 people of 13,000 died.

Slavery and the Civil War

  • A politics of antislavery has an important place in the careers of a number of the American Romantic writers. For example, when the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was enforced in Boston in 1851 Thoreau publicly delivered the following:“Slavery and servility have produced no sweet-scented flower annually, to charm the senses of men, for they have no real life: they are merely a decaying and a death, offensive to all healthy nostrils. We do not complain that they live, but that they do not get buried. Let the living bury them: even they are good for manure” (Thoreau).

Characteristics and Implications of Slavery and the Civil War…

  • In 1859 John Brown’s violent raid on Harper’s Ferry failed to initiate a slave rebellion in the South, but his action was later used during the civil war as an example of the “holy war against slavery” that would fulfill the promise of freedom guaranteed in the Declaration.

  • While some Romantic Abolitionists advocated the need for the Civil War, many, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, had little notion of the suffering and destruction involved in the conflict that would eventually kill over 600,000 Americans before Grant’s surrender to Lee in 1865.

  • While the fourteenth amendment granted former slaves the right to Due Process and Equal Protection, laws like Dread Scott v. Sanford (1857) kept former slaves from being recognized as citizens. Instead of a rise in education and standard of living for former slaves, the post-Civil War era was marked by the resurgence of segregationist practices and anti-black violence, most notably lynching.

“The Woman Question”

  • Elizabeth Cady Stanton stated in Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” (Stanton 687).

Characteristics and Implications 19th century Women’s Rights…

  • The fact that women had such a significant place in urban reform movements is not surprising, given that urban reform centered on creating homelike, domestically attractive conditions for the poor, and that another major reform effort of the pre-civil war period centered on women’s rights.

  • In 1848, at the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s resounding “Declaration of Sentiments” invoked Jefferson’s Declaration, substituting male for British tyrannical authority to show how the nation’s social institutions and legal codes mainly severed the interests of America’s white male citizenry.

  • That same year , the New York State Legislature, in response to critics like Stanton, passed the nation’s most liberalized married women’s property act, which made it legal for women to maintain control over the property they brought to the marriage.

  • Although Cady Stanton and Suzan B. Anthony began the struggle for national suffrage in the United States, national voting rights for American women did not exist until the nineteenth amendment was ratified in 1920.

Henry David Thoreau

  • “His interest in the flower or the bird lay very deep in his mind, and was connected with Nature, -- and the meaning of Nature was never attempted to be defined by him. ... His power of observation seemed to indicate additional senses. He saw as with a microscope, heard as with an ear-trumpet, and his memory was a photographic register of all he saw and heard” (Emerson).

Characteristics/Background: Henry David Thoreau

  • “Henry David Thoreau aspired to write great literature by adventuring at home, traveling as he put it, a good deal in Concord, Massachusetts. ‘As travelers tgo around the world and report natural objects and phenomena, so let another stay at home and report the phenomena of his own life’” (Norton Anthology 825).

  • In 1843, Thoreau’s brother John died of lockjaw in his arms. His brother’s death inspired the elegiac A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers that he wrote during his stay at Walden Pond, and which was initially poorly received.

  • Between 1847 and 1854 Thoreau produced as many as seven full revisions of Walden, which was finally published in 1854.

  • Thoreau died of Tuberculosis in 1862 at the age of 44.

  • Recognition of Thoreau as an important writer was slow in coming, but by 1906 he was becoming widely recognized as a social philosopher, naturalist, and an the author of one of the masterpieces of American fiction.

  • In 1906 Mahatma Gandhi read “Civil Disobedience,” and later acknowledged its important influence on his thinking about how best to achieve Indian independence. Later in the century, Martin Luther Luther King Jr. would similarly attest to the crucial influence of Thoreau on his adoption of nonviolent civil disobedience as a key to the Civil Rights Movement in the Untied States.

Walden Pond

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