Henry Adams: “History of the United States of America: During the Second Administration of James Madison” (Parts Two and Three)

To men who believed that every calamity was a Divine judgment, politics and religion could not be made to accord. Practical politics, being commonly an affair of compromise and relative truth,—a human attempt to modify the severity of Nature’s processes,—could not expect sympathy from the absolute and abstract behests of religious. Least of all could war, even in its most necessary form, be applauded or encouraged by any clergyman who followed the precepts of Christ. The War of 1812 was not even a necessary war. Only in a metaphysical or dishonest sense could any clergyman affirm that war was more necessary in 1812 than in any former year since 1783. Diplomacy had so confused its causes that no one could say for what object Americas had intended to fight,­—still less, after the peace in Europe, for what object they continued their war. Assuming the conquest of Canada and of Indian Territory to be the motive most natural to the depraved instincts of human nature, the clergy saw every reason for expecting a judgment. (920)

The final two volumes of Henry Adams’ nine volume history of America during the presidencies of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison cover the final year of the War of 1812, the peace settlement, and the legislation passed during the final two years of Madison’s term. There is also space, after almost 2,600 pages of detailed diplomatic, political, and military history to consider how the United States had changed between 1800 and 1815. The changes are dramatic and for Adams signified a consolidation of the national character. This is not very far from how historians now reflect on the War of 1812. They see it as an important war for its contribution to American identity and American nationalism. Of course, it provided many heroes (two would become presidents) and symbols (the National Anthem). I could not find any historians that agree with me that it should be looked at as a war for empire. I hope that is a sign of my novelty and not a sign that I am totally off base.

My opening quote is from Adams’ coverage of the Massachusetts clergy and their sustained opposition to the war. When reading it, I found it a useful reminder that some people certainly saw the war of 1812 for what it was, a vainglorious and ultimately successful attempt to expand the reach of the U.S. empire. I have covered this in my previous posts, so I will move to why Adams thinks 1815 was a turning point in the American identity.

Between 1800 and 1815, the United States became committed to the Federalist policies, even as they were being enacted by Republican legislatures. Acceptance of a national debt, a standing army, an expanded navy, and taxation were made necessary by the war and proved to be not at all as odious as the Jeffersonians made it out to be. There was a common acceptance of national development as well. “For the first time in their history, as a nation, the people of the United States ceased to disturb themselves about politics or patronage.” (1245) What replaced these political divisions was a movement toward economism. He even mentions in passing that this had a tragic consequence in entrenching slavery in the South. North and south, across parties, all whites could apparently enjoy the profits derived from the Cotton South, without political divides getting in the way. “The Rights of Man occupied public thoughts less, and the price of cotton more.” (1253) This, I hope we can agree, was not a positive shift in American life. It seems to suggest an end to a fierce debate in the early years of the American republic over what liberty would mean. It would not be until the Civil War that such a debate was revived (and again, capital and economic necessity would win out over an expanded definition of freedom).

While becoming more economically-minded and politically-unified, the nation had also become more integrated with canals, roads, and internal markets. Perhaps reflecting the turn toward practical politics, thought was also driven toward pragmatism. The hard-headed theological Puritanism of the colonial era gave way to new religious movements that had a softer, more unifying perspective. Adams reports on the rise of Unitarianism. Fixed principles in religion went along with fixed principles in politics. In literature, the shift in these years was the turn away from England and the development of an American character. Adams spares a few words for fellow Library of America member Washington Irving and his The History of New York.

The result of all of this, for Adams, was a country that was no longer in danger of being divided into separate nations. It is not clear what he made of the Civil War. Apparently it was not evidence of a divided nation. Writing at a time when the Civil War was commonly seen as an unfortunate scuffle between brothers, perhaps Adams really meant it. Is it possible that we can look at the period covered in Adams’ history as the beginning of the closing of political options and therefore the real end of the American Revolution. Never again could a politician get away with calling his election to president a “revolution,” like Jefferson did in 1800.

Adams ends his history connecting to some of the themes in his other work about the shift from the medieval to the modern. For the United States, the dynamo won out in 1815.

New subjects demanded new treatment, no longer dramatic but steadily tending to become scientific. The traits of American character were fixed; the rate of physical and  economical growth was established; and history, certain that at a given distance of time the Union would contain so many millions of people, with wealth valued at so many millions of dollars, because thenceforward chiefly concerned to know what kind of people these millions were to be. They were intelligent, but what paths would their intelligence select? They were quick, but what solution of insoluble problems would quickness hurry? They were scientific, and what control would their science exercise over their destiny? (1345)




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