Charles Brockden Brown: “Wieland; Or, the Transformation” (1798)

The horrors of war would always impend over them, till Germany were seized and divided by Austrian and Prussian tyrants; an event which he strongly suspects was at no great distance. But setting these considerations aside, was it laudable to grasp at wealth and power even when they were within our reach? Were not these the two great sources of depravity? What security had he, that in this change of place and condition, he should not degenerate into a tyrant and voluptuary? Power and riches were chiefly to be dreaded on account of their tendency to deprave the possessor. He held them in abhorrence, not only as instruments of misery to others, but to him on whom they were conferred. (36)


Another unfortunate gap in this blog is now over. This one is due to my summer travels. Now, I am back in Taiwan and ready to write, beginning with the first American gothic novel: Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown. Brown was not only the first American gothic writer, he was the first professional novelist of the young American republic. A little context on this may be useful.

Early colonial society in British North America quickly became both diverse and quite different from England. This was due to the unique conditions, varied economies, and diverse ecologies of mainland North America. Some of the basic examples of this are planation slavery in Virginia and the Puritan town in New England. Over the course of the first half of the eighteenth century, as the colonies developed, they retained some of this uniqueness but became more alike and also more culturally tied to England. The evidence for this is in architecture, furniture, the books colonists read, and fashions. In short, the American educated elite created simulacra of English society, often on a smaller scale. Look at Jefferson’s home, Monticello. The American Revolution revealed the limits of this trans-Atlantic culture. Although independence was won politically and militarily, American culture was still tied to England. The early republican period was concerned not only with establishing the political foundations of American government, but also with establishing cultural independence. The most well-known example of this was Emerson’s call for a distinctive American culture, but the efforts preceded his declaration by decades. The quote above, from the early parts of Wieland show Charles Brockden Brown engaged in an effort to establish—in the written word—what made America different from Europe. Overall, despite the fact that Brown was importing the gothic tradition to America—he was clearly influenced by William Godwin, something even more apparent in Arthur Mervyn—he struggled to make it fresh and American. In this work, it comes across most clearly in the trans-Atlantic geography of the novel. Characters move across a wider canvas. (I am suddenly thinking of Lovecraft’s writing which was both intensely local but at times global in scale.)


Wieland is narrated by Clara Wieland and follows her life on a farm with her brother Theodore. Theodore Wieland married Catherine Pleyel. They maintain a close friendship with Catherine’s brother Henry. They live a quiet life of filled with conversation and intellectual fulfillment. Again, expressing a American sentiment, the Wielands are not wealth estates holders. They have a humble background, complicated by their father’s oddities and bizarre death. He was a follower of a strange religion, which he attempted to deliver to the Indians. He died suddenly of spontaneous combustion. This left the Wielands as orphans. When Theodore is given the chance of claiming an inheritance in Europe he refuses, choosing the more simple life. So, unlike in much of British gothic writing, we are not looking at the elite. However, in sentiment, custom, and morality the narrator Clara reveals a level of humble virtue that was so much a part of the early American ideal.

Their life is disrupted by the arrival of Carwin. He is physically mysterious and the details of his past are only revealed in fragments. Clara comes to know that he is wanted in Europe for robbery, but escaped to America. She is—it seems—attracted to Carwin despite the threat he poses to her virtue. Clara often claimed she felt he was a risk to her life as well, but the subtext is much more sexualized it seems to me. With his arrival Clara—and more importantly Theodore—start to hear voices. Many of these are produced by Carwin who has the ability to throw his voice, a skill he mastered and uses for his own benefit. Pleyel, who is preparing to marry Clara, overhears a conversation suggesting Clara had a sexual relationship with Carwin. Pleyel leaves after confronting her on this. Clara denies having this conversation. It was created by Carwin, who had his own designs on Clara. Later, Theodore killed Catherine and his children, claiming that he was ordered to by voices he has heard. Clara immediately blames Carwin for creating these voices. Carwin confronts Clara, confessing his malevolent uses of his ability, but denies ordering Theodore to kill anyone. Carwin saves Clara’s life from Theodore who escaped from jail. At the end, Clara leaves America for Europe, following Pleyel.

Death of Elder Wieland (spontaneous combustion)

Death of Elder Wieland (spontaneous combustion)

In order to interpret this, I want to go right to the question of human freedom. In the opening parts of the novel, America is presented as a land of equality and freedom. It gives opportunity to orphans and allowed social mobility. Nevertheless, we find our characters quite trapped. Clara is trapped by the sexual politics of the time, expectations of virtue, and general pertinence. Theodore, it turns out, is trapped by a madness that seems to run in the family. Perhaps his father’s religious delusions were rooted in the same madness that caused him to kill his family. Pleyel is much like Clara in his fidelity to social expectations. Carwin is the free agent that disrupts this system. As a consequence he may have driven Theodore over the edge with his use of his ability to create ominous voices. If we look closer, many of the chains that the characters feel are rooted in the Old World. Theodore’s inheritance threatens to transform him into an aristocrat. Carwin himself escaped from Europe and survives on remittances from Europe. Theodore’s philosophy, which is often tinged with fatalism, comes from books imported from Germany. We are presented with a type of chaos caused by the social and political disruptions of the American Revolution. Clara and Theodore seem to us like the United States, orphaned and set on their own, but traumatized by Old World burdens. Theodore reflects the madness of slavery, religious zealotry, and other more schizophrenic aspects to American life. Clara is filled with properness and virtue (what early American republicans thought Europe lacked) but ends up settled in Europe after coming to face with a certain madness of the frontier life. The death of her sister-in-law forced the break. “But now, severed from the companion of my infancy, the partaker of all my thoughts, my cares, and my wishes, I was like one set afloat upon a stormy sea, and hanging his safety upon a plank.” (141)

What I am trying to suggest is that the major theme of Wieland is separation and the division between the Old World and the New. Brown is uncertain quite where that takes him or what to do with it. Unlike a more vulgar work like The Contrast, which places American virtue and European hypocrisy in stark terms. In Brown’s Wieland the divisions are confused, chaotic, and traumatic. This makes it a more realistic tale.                                                                                                       

Henry David Thoreau: “The Maine Woods” (1864, posthumous)

The Anglo-American can indeed cut down, and grub up all this waving forest, and make a stump speech, and vote for Buchanan on its ruins, but he cannot converse with the spirit of the tree he fells, he cannot read the poetry and mythology which retire as he advances. He ignorantly erases mythological tablets in order to print his handbills and town-meeting warrants on them. Before he has learned his a b c in the beautiful but mystic lore of the wilderness which Spenser and Dante had just begun to read, he cuts it down, coins a pine-tree shilling, (as if to signify the pine’s value to him,) puts up a deestrict [sic] school-house, and introduces Webster’s spelling-book. (769–770)


One thing that strikes the reader of Henry David Thoreau’s book The Maine Woods is that he is describing a region under incessant threat of industrial capitalism. There is a struggle for survival at the heart of this book between the expansionist forces of New England capitalism and a more diverse world sheltered in the woods of Maine. The book consists of three essays written by Thoreau after three separate trips to the Maine forests. The first was in 1846, when he was living in Walden. The second was in 1853. The final trip was in 1857. A close analysis (which I will not do here) will suggests a gradual erosion of the wilderness in the face of expanding American capitalism. With these tours we are really seeing different stages of this conquest. Thoreau finds much appealing about Maine compared to Massachusetts, but cannot help but notice that that world is under growing stress.


The works Thoreau published during his life were really philosophical tracts that were presented as autobiographical narratives of his time living with nature. A Week was about a river trip. Walden, of course, was about his two years living near Walden pond. They can be read for the naturalistic value they offer, but mostly we approach those texts for what they say about Thoreau’s values and philosophy. The Maine Woods is much closer to a real travelogue.

So the signs of capitalist development are all around. We see it in the creeping settling of farmers, the formation of towns, the evaporation of Indian cultures, the rising of picket fences, and mills. Yes, it is not the cruel textile mills of Lowell, but it is the start and Thoreau is wary of much of what he observes. “But Maine, perhaps, will soon be where Massachusetts is. A good part of her territory is already as bare and commonplace as much of our neighborhood, and her villages generally are not so well shaded as ours. We seem to think that the earth must go through the ordeal of sheep-pasturage before it is habitable by man.” (710) Some parts of the forests Thoreau explored have already been worked over. In his account of the first trip, he described an old logging camp that has been abandoned, leaving the countryside “overgrown with weeds and bushes.” (626)

Many may approach The Maine Woods as a book of naturalism, and they would not be wrong. I find Thoreau’s descriptions of the people of the Maine forests as fascinating as his descriptions of the landscape. The Indian guides that so affected Thoreau with their beliefs and the fiercely independence settler stand are the center of The Maine Woods. These are, in the end, the only forces that could oppose the creeping gigantism of New England “civilization.” (I am often reminded of Deadwood these days, and I felt it again here in the assumed opposition of the pioneer settlers to the forces of state and corporate power.)

The only hope for the yet pristine parts of the Maine forests was that the United States may have already looked beyond New England and, by the 1850s, was more interested in exploiting and settling the “great West.” Yet even this is a false hope. For Thoreau, Bangor stands as a cancerous tumor in the middle of the woods. The forests are alive still but only for the moment.

We have advanced by leaps to the Pacific, and left many a lesser Oregon and California unexplored behind us. Though the railroad and the telegraph have been established on the shores of Maine, the Indian still looks out from her interior mountains over all these to the sea. There stands the city of Bangor, fifty miles up the Penobscot, at the head of navigation for vessels of the largest class, the principle lumber depot on this continent, with a population of twelve thousand, like a star on the edge of night, still hewing at the forests on which it is built, already overflowing with the luxuries and refinements of Europe, and sending its vessels to Spain, to England, and to the West Indies for its groceries, —and yet only a few axe-men have gone “up river,” into the howling wilderness which feeds it. The bear and deer are still found within its limits. (655)

So, although The Maine Woods is clearly one of Thoreau’s less well-known works and overshadowed by Walden and his great essays, it is historically significant and should be understand in the environmental history of the United States. In a world without wild spaces anymore, it is not always that useful go back to the imagined pristine wilderness. As much as Thoreau believes it exists, he did not understand how the Indians used and misused the natural world even centuries before whites arrived to the Americas. More useful, perhaps, is to look at the original crimes that led to the triumph of capital over the commons. Without fully knowing it, Thoreau did this in The Maine Woods. While describing the forests of Maine he was looking into the seizure of the commons. How this happened, where, when, and by whom are some of the most important historical questions of our time as we struggle to restore the commons before capital succeeds in the destruction of all life.

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)



Henry Adams: “History of the United States of America: During the Second Administration of James Madison” (Part One)

The government expected no other difficulties in the Southern country, and had no reason to fear them. If new perils suddenly arose, they were due less to England, Spain, or the United State than to the chance that gave energy and influence to Tecumthe. The Southern Indians were more docile and less warlike than the Indians of the Lakes. The Chicksaws and Choctaws, who occupied the whole extent of the country on the east back of the Mississippi from the Ohio to the Gulf, gave little trouble of anxiety, and even the great confederacy of Muskogees, or Creeks, who occupied the territory afterward called the State of Alabama and part of George, fell in some degree into a mode of life which seemed likely to make them tillers of the soil. (771)

In the final quarter of his history of the Jeffersonian Republicans during the presidencies of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, Henry Adams breaks from tradition. Previously, he divided each term into two volumes, each covering a legislative session. In his coverage of the second term of Madison, however, he uses three volumes and spends most those three volumes on the first year and a half of that term, up until the Treaty of Ghent ends the War of 1812. He has little to say about the rest of Madison’s achievements (perhaps there were none) and instead centers on the changes to the nation since Jefferson took office.

My basic reading of Henry Adams history (see the previous six posts) has been a bit contrarian but largely supportive. He was writing a history of the United States in the world a century before it would become cool to do so. Indeed, it is now the newest way to be trendy enough to (with a little luck) land an academic post. My own book is in this tradition. Certainly, he is still too much in diplomatic history, but my placing much of the story in London, Paris, or Madrid, Adams was being quite forward thinking. While another great historian of the turn of the century, Frederick Jackson Turner, was looking to the frontier, Adams still saw the American story in an Atlantic context. Adams sees a general irony in the Jeffersonians. They came into office hoping to undo the Federalist project, but had more or less enshrined it by 1817, when Madison retired. Yes, the Federalists were defeated, but not because their ideas were destroyed. Instead, the Federalists were co-opted. This is a common enough occurrence in American politics that we need not dwell on it now. My contrarian reading has been that Adams missed a larger irony, and one much more destructive. What the Jeffersonians did not want to confess was that the United States was like Europe in imperial ambition. By doubling the size of the nation and then fighting what can only be looked at as a war of empire. Britain and the U.S. were fighting over who would dominate North America. In my last post I argued that the war, being fought with debt and by the working poor, should be eerily familiar to American readers. The U.S. made at least three invasions during the war with England. The first was in Canada, where the army announced their goal of spreading liberty. They also invaded the Northwest territories, finishing the job Harrison began in the war against Tecumseh. Third, they began the conquest of the southern tribes such as the Creek, beginning Jackson’s fatal work.

So, the War of 1812 was not the second war of independence, but the next in a series of wars for a North Americana empire. The first was the Revolutionary War, followed by the Whiskey Rebellion, followed by the Shawnee War. There is enough in the text to suggest Adams was aware of this, but was either too prejudice or too hesitant to point it out. Being written at a time when the United States was projecting its imperial power into the Pacific, we are right to question his oversight (others such as Mark Twain were not so blinkered.)

Well, the volume for today is devoted almost exclusively to 1813. To Adams’ credit, he spends much of this volume reporting on the violent and suppression of the Creeks during the war. Patriots often forget about Andrew Jackson’s activities prior to his 1814 victory in New Orleans. He was down there suppressing the Creek uprising against the United States. Apparently efforts at bringing the Creek into a grand coalition to oppose the expansion of the United States into the West had been going on for a while. Tecumseh had worked on it and left among the Creek many of his ideas, and more importantly likeminded leaders. The battle (or massacre) at Fort Mims was one of the great victories of the Creek in this uprising. Adams’ account of this is the first I have ever read, but it is a compelling read. The enslavement of all the blacks at Fort Mims by the Creek reminds us that one of the reasons the southern nations were seen by whites as more “civilized” is that they embraced agriculture and slavery.


So, we certainly have wars of conquest going on. Despite the claim made my Adams that the only territory gained during the war was of Mobile (the Spanish Fort Stoddert), we should not forget these internal conquests of Indians. Tecumseh, of course, died during the war in similar actions in the Northwest.

Surrender of the Creek

Surrender of the Creek

Adams continues to point out of Republican ideology led to the government to try to fight the war on the cheap, ensuring that the poorest Americans would do the fighting and dying. Much of what the government dealt with during the war was how to fund the army. Keeping costs down, “doing more with less,” is not a recent delusion. “Even if the whole bounty were added to the pay, and the soldier were to serve but twelve months, he would received only twenty dollars a month and his land-certificate. If he served his whole term of five years, he received little more than twelve dollars a month. The inducement was not great in such a community as the United States. The chances that such a measure would fill the ranks was small; yet the measure seemed extravagant to a party that had formerly pledged itself against mercenary armies.” (883) “Mercenary armies,” of course, is code for a professional, trained, and paid army.

Henry Adams: “History of the United States of America: During the First Administration of James Madison” (Part Two)

Politicians of the old school looked coldly on the war spirit. Nations like individuals, when driven to choose between desperate courses, might at time be compelled to take the chances of destruction, often destroying themselves, or suffering irreparable harm. Yet the opponents of war could argue that Americans were not placed between desperate alternatives. They had persevered hitherto, in spite of their leaders, in the policy of peace; had suffered much injury and acute mortification, but had won Louisiana and West Florida, had given democracy all it asked, and had remained in reasonable harmony with the liberal movement of the world. (374)

Henry Adams

Henry Adams

In 1811 and 1812, the Jeffersonian Revolution could be said to have died with the coming of war with England. If Henry Adams’ account is to be believed, it was less a problem of war itself, but the consequences of war such as a standing army, increased taxation, and acceptance of the fact that the United States would and could play the imperial game were more devastating to the imagination of the Republicans. They seemed to really believe, for a time, that the nation was not their parents’ children. There are three important themes that this volume of Henry Adams’ history covers: the war against the Shawnee, the war debate, and the first year of the war and the changes it brought to the political system.

Adams throws the relationship between the white Americans and the Indians into the background. It only emerges momentarily. Thus when it came time to document the Shawnee revolt, Adams had to go back and review Thomas Jefferson’s attitude toward them. While he believed that they should be brought into civilization, he was as brutal as any other president in the seizure of their lands. “His greed for land equaled that of any settler on the border, and his humanity to the Indian suffered the suspicion of having among its motives the purpose of gaining the Indian lands for the whites.” (348) Jefferson’s actions toward the Northwest territory Indians caused the Shawnee revolt as much as his foolish embargo pushed the nation to war. Both of these would be Madison’s job to clean up while Jefferson enjoyed blissful retirement. As anyone who has gotten this far into Adams’ history would expect, we learn much more about William Henry Harrison than we do about Tecumseh and the Shawnee Prophet. There is enough here, however, to know that the US policy toward the Northwest territory was imperial and violence was the end result of the U.S. greed for land. It was not so much one of the causes of the later War of 1812, it was a branch of the same tree.


In regards to the build up to war, Adams is most fascinated by the irony of the Jeffersonian Republicans taking such a violent lead to war. Was their earlier passivity, reflected in the Embargo Act, a reflection of their earlier naivety. Was the violent calls for war issued from Congress in 1811 their true colors? He momentarily plays with the idea that 12 years is as long as any such revolutionary spirit can be sustained before more cynical forces take over. “After the Declaration of Independence, twelve years had been needed to create an efficient Constitutions; another twelve years of energy brought a reaction against the government then created; a third period of twelve years was ending in a sweep toward still greater energy.” (380-381) In any case, the war debates overtook all other Republican policies. Adams argues that the army bill that funded the war was really a revolution in domestic policy, sealing the final gap between the Federalists and the Republicans.

As for the war, Adams’ position is that the United States was unprepared for the conflict, particularly against a nation that had been at almost continual war against France for literally decades. The lessons of the American Revolution, a war of liberation, would not serve the United States in a war of empire. I am now thinking that it is interesting that historians called this the “Second War of Independence” in yet another attempt to avoid the confession that their republic had become an empire. A proclamation to the people of Canada painted the U.S. invasion of that territory as a liberation. “You will be emancipated from tyranny and oppression, and restored to the dignified station of freemen. . . The United States offer you peace, liberty, and security.” (503) How many people have heard those words as they looked down the barrels of U.S. rifles? Well, for better or for worse, the U.S. designs on Canada faltered.

War in Canada

War in Canada

Like other American wars of empire, the War of 1812 was fought with little sacrifice of the people. There was little physical damage and few casualties. “The country refused to take the war seriously. A rich nation with seven million inhabitants should have easily put one hundred thousand men into the field, and should have found no difficulty in supporting them.” (567) Instead, the was was fought by the poor, who needed the meager army salary. The patriotic but well-off served the nation by joining the militias for six months of voluntary service, although never saw action. (These were the G.W. Bushes of the 19th century.)

The year 1812 ended with the nation at war, Madison easily re-elected president, but deep discord across the nation over who will fight the war, what the war is being fought for, and who would pay for the war expenses. The pattern established in this conflict would be carried on in future American conflicts. The war will be paid with debt, fought by the poor, and in the end celebrated as a great victory of a united people.

Henry Adams: “History of the United States of America: During the Second Administration of Thomas Jefferson” (Part Two)

For a thousand years every step in the progress of England had been gained by sheer force of hand and will. In the struggle for existence the English people, favored by situation, had grown into a new human type,—which might be brutal, but was not weak; which had little regard for theory, but an immense and just respect for facts. America considered herself to be a serious fact, and expected England to take her at her own estimate of her own value; but this was more than could reasonably be asked. (978)

In volume four of Henry Adams’ history of the United States the major issue is foreign affair, and in particular, the rise and epic failure of Thomas Jefferson’s attempt at forced neutrality in the Napoleonic War, the Embargo Act. Adams believed that the failure of Jefferson’s foreign policy was America’s belief that it was more important to the world than they really were, more of an “established fact.” While, England and France were strong, established empires, the Americans were a passive force. “Jefferson and his government had shown over and over again that no provocation would make them fight; and from the moment that this attitude was understood, America became fair prey.” (978–979) Under the surface of this is the idea that Jefferson was both overstating his country’s importance (thinking that Europe could not afford to not trade with America) and underestimating its own power (by refusing to fight to defend its international position).

Adams also suggests that Jefferson misread the pulse of the American public in respect to British assaults on American sovereignty. While Jefferson invested all of his political capital on a forced peace through economic pressure, the people—much more honest about the nation’s imperial footing—was ready for war. The event that galvanized the public like never before was the attack by the British on the American ship “Chesapeake.” Only the force of his personality and his popularity seemed to hold back the tide of nationalistic exuberance among the people. The signs are there, in 1807, of a nation ready to project itself in the face of any insult, real or perceived. The embargo, may be read as yet another attempt by a closeted empire, but hiding it took every last bit of Jefferson’s ability and persuasive ability. He also had to put on a monarch’s cap, if only momentarily, to plug up the democratic energies calling for war.

Thus the embargo was imposed; and of all President Jefferson’s feats of political management, this was probably the most dexterous. On his mere recommendation, without warning, discussion, or publicity, and in silence as to his true reason and motives, he succeeded in fixing upon the country, beyond recall, the experiment of peaceable coercion. His triumph was almost a marvel; but no one could fail to see its risks. A free people required to know in advance the motives which actuated government, and the intended consequences of important laws. (1048)

Cartoon: A Smuggler During the Embargo Act 1807-1809 embargoact2

Adams sums up the costs of the embargo, of which the economic costs—not insignificant—were not the most significant. The republican experiment, Jefferson’s revolution of 1800, was “paralyzed” by the Embargo, requiring as it did Jefferson’s silencing of the people. Morally, the nation was harmed by the rise of smuggling and illicit trade. “Every citizen was tempted to evade or defy the laws.” (1118) Personally, Jefferson suffered great harm to his popularity and reputation. “America began slowly to struggle, under the consciousness of pain, toward a conviction that she must bear the common burdens of humanity, and fight with the weapons of other races in the same bloody arena; that she could not much longer delude herself with hopes of evading the laws of Nature and instinct of life; and that her new statesmanship which made peace a passion could lead to not better result than had been reached by the barbarous system which made war a duty.” (1126) I for one, do nor mourn this lost innocence. The non-imperial republic a myth form the beginning, as the Iroquois knew too well when being shuffled to reservations in upstate New York, or as the North Africans learned in the Barbary Wars. In the face of these things, Jefferson’s presumption that Americans could stand above such power politics looks more and more disgusting.

So where does Adams place the United States at in 1809, at the end of Jefferson’s first term? His last annual message to Congress in 1808 is revealing. While much of it was devoted to defending the faltering and heavily opposed embargo, Jefferson himself was capable of visions of future greatness for the nation, including a national university. As intellectual as he was, I doubt that he would have proposed such a nationalist institution in 1800. Jefferson was awash in nationalism and a population eager for greatness. Perhaps the national university was what Jefferson could offer in lieu of war. His final year in office even saw a return of the Federalists to a position of informing and contesting the president’s designs. “Not even in 1798 had factiousness been so violent as in the last month of President Jefferson’s power.” Jefferson himself was deeply hurt by his loss of popularity. Like so many sensitive introverts, Jefferson longed for “sympathy and love” of others.

Another picture of Jefferson. This one seemed more aristocratic to me.

Another picture of Jefferson. This one seemed more aristocratic to me.

More to Adams’ main point, Jefferson had left the nation very different and in complete betrayal of his revolution. “Jefferson has hoped to make his country forever pure and free; to abolish war, with its train of debt, extravagance, corruption, and tyranny; to build up a government devoted only to useful and moral objects; to bring upon earth a new era of peace and good-will among men.” (1246) His own actions and the victory of his enemies in his final months suggested the end of this dream. My feeling, if not Adams, was that this was always a myth, purely in the mind of Jefferson and his followers. One cannot hope to use the power of the state to end tyranny or promote morality or bring peace. It can only do the opposite.

The second half of Adams’ history, covering the presidency of James Madison, we suspect will only deepen the failure of the revolution of 1800, but we will see in future posts.

Henry Adams: “History of the United States of America: During the Second Administration of Thomas Jefferson” (Part One)

[Indians] are combated by the habits of their bodies, prejudice of their minds, ignorance, pride, and the influence of interested and crafty individuals among them, who feel themselves something in the present order of things, and fear to become nothing in any other. These persons inculcate a sanctimonious reverence for the customs of their ancestors; that whatever they did must be done through all time; that reason is a false guide, and to advance under its counsel, in their physical, oral, or political condition, is perilous innovate that their main duty is to remain as their Creator made them, ignorance being safety, and knowledge full of danger. In short, my friends, among them is seen the action and counter-action of good sense and bigotry they too have their anti-philosophers. (Thomas Jefferson, 606)


This—from Jefferson’s second inaugural address—is how a philosopher president justifies conquest.

In the third volume of his history of the United States from 1800 to 1817, Henry Adams continues to focus his attention on foreign affairs. In my last post, I dwelled on how the Louisiana Purchase (or Jefferson’s first term in general) oversaw the emergence of the United States as a self-denying but no less openly imperial nation. Of course, Jefferson would continue these denials throughout his presidency and the nation would follow his lead. There are still those who deny this brutal truth. Adams himself seems unaware that the events he was recounting were describing the rise of an imperial nation. In Jefferson’s second term he was forced to face this by forces much more honest than he was. The first challenge was Aaron Burr, who should be given credit for calling a spade a spade as he attempted to carve our his own little empire. The second challenge, to dominate Jefferson’s second term was the European empires who knew very well that the United States was in the game and refused to allow the United States to pretend to be a passive bystander. I will deal with the embargo crisis later. For now, I will focus on Adams’ account of Aaron Burr’s conspiracy.

The official reading of the Burr conspiracy is that Aaron Burr was attempting to create an independent nation in the frontier areas, in places controlled by Spain. Immediately this seems to be an interesting historical coincidence since this is almost exactly what the U.S. settlers in Texas did in the 1840s. In a sense, they were much worse than Burr, even brining the United States into a war with Mexico. Evidence that Burr was after a private empire was that he collected military forces for the expedition down the Mississippi and had a massive holding (40,000 acres). Burr’s point of view was that he was renting the land from Spain and just planned to work it. In that case, he would have been a predecessor to the Bonanza farms of the later nineteenth century. Although he claimed he was not treasonous, he never claimed that he was not after a private demesne, just that his would be legally defined by the typical language of capitalist exploitation.


Adams takes on the position of the government that Burr’s plan was a grandiose effort at creating an empire in the west, even going so far as to kidnap people in Washington in order to effect his scheme, if he could not get the required aid from Britain or Spain. Adams gives a detailed history of the conspiracy that is a quite a lively read, covering a handful of chapters. When the conspiracy finally fell apart, as such wild dreams almost must when not backed by the authority of the state, it is reworked too the interests of political power. Adams points out that the trial of Burr became more of a fight between Jefferson and his enemies than a dialog on the costs and consequences of expansion and conquest. In re-reading, I find Aaron Burr’s honesty about the nature of the game fascinating and refreshing.

Adams seems quote sympathetic to the rolling of civilization across the continent. This enthusiasm for empire (never called that) is a bit strange coming from the same man who praised the virtues of the Middle Ages against modern civilization. He was simply not equipped to look at the expansion west of the United States in anything but the language of Manifest Destiny. This is him on the Lewis and Clark expedition, which was apparently great except for its modesty.

Creditable as these expeditions were to American energy and enterprise, they added little to the stock of science or wealth. Many years must elapse before the vast region west of the Mississippi could be brought within the reach of civilization. The crossing of the continent was a great feat, but was nothing more. The French explorers had performed feats almost as remarkable; but, in 1805, the country they explored was still a wilderness. Great gains to civilization could be made only on the Atlantic coast under the protection of civilized life. For many years to come progress must still centre in the old thirteen State of the Union. (751—752)

lewis and clark

What might a more honest republican empire had looked liked? Perhaps not much different. It may have faced the Napoleonic wars with more of a spirit of realpolitik. Perhaps it was this self-denial about empire that allowed Indians to sustain their autonomy as long as they did, but I doubt that. On the contrary, perhaps seeing Indians as colonial subjects, rather than people uncivilized by choice (as Jefferson’s inaugural stated) may have ensured a more honest and less destructive policy toward them. In any case, we still see shadows of Henry Adams when we read history textbooks today.