Critical Book Review III: The Nation Takes Shape
In his book, The Nation Takes Shape, Marcus Cunliffe outlines what he calls a half a century of immense progress. He focuses in on the period of time from after the Constitution is drafted to the end of Andrew Jackson s presidency. (1789-1837). In his book he outlines the major events pertaining to the evolution of our newly independent country. He illustrates the steps that the nation took in becoming America and establishing themselves as a free country where democracy reigns. Throughout this book Cunliffe breaks down the emergence of America into six distinct evolutionary processes: The national government, our foreign relations, the expansion of the west, the growth of the economy, the expanding sectional rifts which formed the basis for the civil war, and finally the growth of a more equal democracy. Cunliffe illustrates these points as the way, The Nation Takes Shape.
Cunliff first talks about the origin and growth of partisan politics. In doing so, he outlines the process by which the constitution was to be interpreted by the American people. The vagueness of the document led to disputes between various factions of people who interpreted it in different ways. The initial split happened around 1790 when the first bank of the United States was given a twenty-two year charter. This struggle was caused by Thomas Jefferson (a democratic-republican), who believed in strict constructionism, and Alexander, Hamilton (a Federalist) who believed in loose constructionism. Jefferson said that the constitution did not give any provision for the US to have a bank because it was not spelled out in the constitution. But Hamilton using the premise of implied powers said it did because it gave them the power to lay and collect taxes, borrow money, and regulate commerce. By 1793 many of the voting population in the country started to adopt one of the two beliefs. This split was accentuated in the election of 1796 where John Adams (a Federalist) was elected president, and Thomas Jefferson (a Democratic -Republican in 1819) was elected vice. Since the Supreme Court was the place where a final decision as to the constitutionality of a bill or action was made, they were the determining factors for the implied powers of the constitution. In 1819 Supreme Court Chief Justice Marshall, in the case McCulloch v. Maryland, decided that, indeed the constitution did give the government “implied power”. In this case the Supreme Court decided that the implied power of the constitution did give people the right to seek out an end, not expressed in the constitution but consistent with its ideals, in where the means are constitutional. This in effect was the beginning of the party splits in the American government.
The second evolutionary process that Cunliffe mentions is the view of America among the world from both our s and the European prospective. While America was drafting its constitution, so much was going on in Europe that America was of little interest to them. In a time when all of Europe was shaken by the French Revolution and the assignation of Napoleon Bonaparte to power in France, America was nothing more than a minor distraction to most European countries. Since the United States had a small military, it did not want to be involved in the French-British conflict of the time. America tried to stay neutral while trading with Europe, but France and Great Britain kept on violating their neutrality rights. The United States kept on trying to trade, but both sides put blockades on each other s ports. This meant that the other countries took their ships. The British, however, not only took their ships, but they also impressed American sailors.
During all of this mayhem President Madison came to power. Because of Britain’s violations of America’s sailors, he asked congress to declare war against Britain. Congress voted yes to the war. Afterwards, it was named the War of 1812. After two years of fighting, General Andrew Jackson came out victorious. A treaty was signed in Belgium, and the growing nation finally earned a little respect. After the war America suspected British and Russian plans to take the Oregon area; from this suspicion a new policy was adopted. In 1923, The Monroe Doctrine was drafted. It stated that America would no longer be open to colonization, and would henceforth adopt a policy of isolationism from European affairs. This was the basis for foreign policy for many years to come (Until World War I). With this new policy, America had no external enemy to fear-nothing but oceans and Mountains to the east and west, nothing but peaceable Canada to the north and the rearranged fragments of the Spanish Empire to the southwest and the south. America was now ready and able to start expanding form a small annoyance to a large world power.
The next topic that Cunliffe focuses on is the expansion of the west. Although the first thirteen colonies were once thought to be large enough for the Americans to comfortably live, America had become interested in expansion into the west. Before America could hope to expand onto the frontier there were some problems that needed to be overcome. The first major problem was that of ownership of the western land. Not only did the individual states hold claims to the land, but also some of that land was promised to soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War. Gradually the states gave back their land to the Government. The Ordinance of 1785, which sold lots in 640 acres for one dollar per acre, set the wheels of westward expansion in motion. The first people to arrive in the west were the pioneer farmers who cleared the land and cultivated it. These people however were poor, so the needed a cheaper way to buy land. In 1800 this problem was settled and a new plan was made where in people could buy 320 acres at two dollars per acre but could be paid off over four years. In 1804 this was cut once more, now people could buy 160 acres of land for two dollars an acre that could be paid off over four years also. Similar changes led to the one in 1840, which sold 40-acre lots for one dollar and twenty-five cents an acre. Now the land was cheap and reasonable and a perfect place for new immigrants to establish themselves. This established the west as an integral part in American affairs.
The next topic Cunliff talks about is the expanding American economy. He says that between the dated of 1789-1837, the American economy showed an impressive trend from vulnerability and uncertainty to strength and confidence. Immediately after their independence, America had a poor export market. However due to the wars in Europe in the late 1700 and early 1800 s against Napoleon, most of Europe turned to America to import goods from. This was around the time of the industrial revolution, when farms and plantations were able to increase efficiency of their trade. Although by 1837 America had not yet felt the full effects of industrialization its economy was being expanded in many new industries. The steel, coal and iron industries were established while the cotton industry was expanded. While this economy did have its weak points, it was still new and had accomplished much in its short time. By 1837 Americas industry was established and ready to grow.
The immerging nationalism, in conflict with sectional rifts in America is the next topic that Cunliffe writes on. After the signing of the constitution, Americans started building national pride. Popular Symbols were adopted by Americans, and became an important piece of American life. As America started gaining world power, the momentum of these symbols started to increase. But while people were proud to be Americans, inside the country, sectional rifts were growing. These sectional rifts were the ones that led to the Civil War. Differences between northerners and southerners stemmed from the geography of their respective states. In the south, cotton was the most important crop, and slaves were used to harvest it; while in the north it was more industrialized and slavery was not permitted. Thus the slavery question was added to the already growing sectional conflict. Another factor was the uneven distribution of wealth and national power. The north seemed to control most of this while the south was neglected. These rising controversies were the beginning of a split in the Union.
The final topic in Cunliffe s book is the growth of a more equally balanced country. He shows the change made in America in Jackson s time. Andrew Jackson was a man of the people, and he strongly was against a class system and an aristocracy. Jackson was a common man, and stood up for the common people. His actions were all to push for a government that acted within the limits of the Constitution. That is showing nationalism by only allowing the government to do what the people have given it powered to do. He also did what was in his power to better the common man in the economy. His actions were what became known as Jacksonian Democracy.
All of these factors were a part of the expansion and development of the nation. In the book one really gets the idea of how the nation took shape.