Politics and Morality in America: 1800-1840

For most citizens, their view of the American identity is bound together with God, purpose, and ethics. Even when the ugly face of truth rises to stare them in the face, most Americans refuse to admit that their country doesn’t exist at least in part for some kind of high moral purpose and instead choose to view these bursts of immorality as anomalies. The US was founded upon a revolutionary zeal that sprang in part—though certainly not to the extent that most people believe—from a moral imperative, but it really wasn’t until those revolutionary growing pains were excised in the early part of the 19th century that Americans felt confident enough to turn their attention to the fixing the sins that were felt to have corrupted European societies.

Once the idea of the United States had sufficiently evolved into the country of the United States and the expansion westward to realize the concept of manifest destiny had begun, it was time for Americans to turn inward and decide what kind of country this great experiment was to become. The first European settlers had come to establish religious freedom—for themselves more than for all, of course—but the revolutionary ideal displaced much of the energy that had gone toward that; time and effort that had been spent in worship had by necessity been superseded by the need to create and expand a country. Once accomplished, Americans could return their attention to more spiritual matters, aided greatly by an evangelical revival that cropped up in every region of the country, though in different forms and styles.

Nevertheless, the message was always the same; it was time for a spiritual reawakening among the peoples of the United States, a reawakening that would result in establishing a moral order for the country. Although the immediate effects of these revivals were as small as their congregations, the ultimate effects were much father-reaching because they planted the seed of moral purpose in a few individuals who were fired up enough to spread their own brand of religious beliefs; people such as Lyman Beecher and John Kellogg and such influential religious movements as Mormonism and Unitarianism.

Several obstacles stood in front of those who took up the mantle of turning America into a beacon of morality in the world. Two specific objects of scorn became the centerpiece of the movements to reintroduce spiritualism into what had become a decidedly secular nation following the Revolution. That secularism had created what many viewed as an increasingly corrupt and even dissolute society; those inspired by the evangelicals put forth the call for a Protestant ethos that looked unkindly toward idle behavior and indulgence of any sort. In addition, the rise of the ideals of Jacksonian democracy emphasized an increasingly public awareness of their political responsibilities. These two forces combined to give birth to the temperance movement.

The temperance movement was aimed at reducing the effects of inebriety rather than merely drinking alcohol. Alcohol wasn’t considered a bad thing in itself; in fact, it was looked upon as gift from God. (For His sake, please don’t let Budweiser or Nascar find this out!) On the other hand, overindulgence of any kind was viewed as the work of the horned, forked-tongue one. The bad thing about overindulging in alcohol, of course, was that the effects could be detrimental to all aspects of American life, including the political process itself. Temperance movement leaders often decried how political operatives got voters drunk and then had them cast ballots in their candidate’s favor. (And this was LONG before Karl Rove ever even heard of Whatasizing his cheeseburger.) American prosperity had resulted in men having more income and more income meant an ability to buy more drink. The temperance movement was, therefore, a moral cause that extended far beyond merely religious beliefs; it engaged in an attempt to establish temperance as a guarantor of liberty and the American ideals.

Equally so, though on a far grander scale, was the abolitionist movement. The abolitionists were in some ways regarded as even more fanatical than their temperance counterparts and in fact the support of abolitionist views contributed to some members of congregations breaking apart from the larger denomination and creating smaller denominations. The issue at hand, of course, was the abolition of slavery and to these people the enforced bondage of another human being could—believe it or not—be viewed in only one way: as a moral issue. Unfortunately, even for many people in the north, slavery wasn’t just a moral issue, but also an economic one and political one and the ramifications of ending slavery were quite bigger than the ramifications of cutting back on alcohol consumption. Despite the opposition to the abolitionists, and despite the extreme and violent measures taken by some of the more fiery proponents, ultimately slavery did boil down exactly to that issue of morality. Could a country that was based on democratic principles and Christian codes of moral conduct really co-exist with a system that institutionalized the ownership of human beings? The very concept of American identity was at stake and it took a war to forge that identity.

The years 1810-1840 saw America toss off its revolutionary hesitancy and make its first tentative moves to establish an identity separate from its European midwives. The first colonists of this new land were those seeking specific religious freedoms and the Christian morality they adhered to came back into fashion following a period of secular attention to the establishment of a government. With that taken care of, the first half of the 19th century saw America take steps to formulate an identity based on an attitude of moral superiority.