January 29, 2008

Uneasy Politics in the Era of Good Feelings

John Siemann ’08 discusses his research of political adjustments made in a time of shifting social values in 19th century America

John Siemann ’08 (Clarksburg, N.J.) is a history and government & law major. He is performing honors thesis research on the influence of changing social and economic values on American politics during the early to mid 1800s. Advising him is Deborah Rosen, professor and head of history. In the following paragraphs, Siemann shares an overview of his research.

While the inauguration of President Madison sometimes is characterized as a period of political agreement and cooperation—classified often as the Era of Good Feelings—there were serious and significant fissures that were slowly rising to the surface of American politics.

Some of the discord arose from the inveterate ideological disagreement between Federalists and Democratic Republicans that had shaped and defined the political clashes of the first two decades of the United States. However, serious changes in the political culture of the United States coupled with changing demographic and economic trends created not only a new series of potential problems and issues but required that many questions of the prior generation be examined through entirely different political and social lenses.

The state constitutional conventions provided a forum where these new conflicts and ideas were expressed, debated, and partially resolved. They not only helped to delineate the emerging divide between different segments of society but also, because of the regional and chronological differences in the summoning of conventions, helped elucidate the evolution of the ideas and ideology that framed the political discourse of the period.

I will focus primarily on conservative delegates and the general philosophy that they evinced throughout the various conventions. This will include not only the beliefs and fundamental assumptions which buttressed their positions but also the methods and means that ‘conservatives’ employed to limit the change in government structure and participation.

I will explore how, in their conceptualization of society, order and hierarchy played a role in determining the composition, scope, and function of government. I hope to explore not only the ideological underpinnings of this group, but also the cohesion and composition of its members and whether their relationship was one of ideological similarity or political expediency.

I have been examining conventions from: Massachusetts (1821), New York (1820), Virginia (1829), New York (1846), Michigan (1849), California (1850), and Massachusetts (1853). Depending on the direction of my research, I might also include an examination of Connecticut (1818) and Pennsylvania (1836). Being afforded the opportunity to leverage a wide array of historical documents and news publications has greatly palliated one of the most salient concerns I had upon starting my research, the availability and accessibility of sources.

However, getting a hold of primary sources has hardly been a problem and the availability of digital archives has made my early efforts both more efficient and easier to conduct. It has, however, been disappointing to find that, for a small minority of earlier conventions, the records seem to no longer be in existence. This lack of sources for certain states has not permitted me to include conventions that I believe would have otherwise been germane subjects for my research.

Having completed my preliminary research of the convention records, the extent to which the political landscape of the period changed has been rather striking. A great many of the underlying assumptions and outlooks which informed the positions of many conservative members of the conventions, were almost completely enervated by the end of the period I examined.

While the early debates examined whether broadening the suffrage was politically and morally just, delegates to later conventions—both conservatives and radical members—necessarily assumed that no competent white male ought to be denied the ability to participate in the political process. This was a marked change from the earlier conventions, in which many of the delegates argued that property and interest, not natural right or civic equality, ought to determine the political privilege afforded to each citizen of the state. While this would seem to indicate a lack of ideological continuity between the two generations of conservative leaning delegates, both groups possessed a shared outlook.

While conservative members of later conventions were unable to beat back the ineluctable advance of a more democratic suffrage, when they argued for the implementation of literacy tests or denial of voting rights to legal aliens, they continued to operate under the earlier paradigm which held political participation to be a privilege and not a natural right assumed by all white males.

There also existed a symmetry between the two groups on other issues including the power of the executive, the basis of representation in both houses of the state legislature and the independence and power of the state judiciary. While the particulars being debated were often different, the same process and mode of thinking were employed to formulate policy and political ideology.

I am quite excited about continuing my initial research and more closely unifying the various conventions and ideology of the period.

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