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Developing an American identity, 1800-1848

The period from 1800 to 1848 saw the United States grow from a fledgling nation into a developed country. Despite growth in politics, economics, and foreign policy, regional divisions persisted, leading to the Civil War. The question is whether these developments promoted a unified American identity or a divided regional one.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] In this video I want to take a look back at the period from 1800 to 1848, kinda from a bird's eye view. This is a huge time in American history. In 1800, the United States was just a fledgling nation, less than 20 years out from winning its independence. Political parties were in their infancy, infrastructure was practically non-existent, and one disastrous war with a world power, with the likes of Great Britain or France, could easily have wiped it out. But fast forward to 1848, less than 50 years later, and by then the United States had developed a great deal as a unified independent nation. It occupied a vast amount of territory in North America, trains and steamships transported goods to distant markets, factories churned out textiles, and politics saw the rise and fall of not one, but two party systems. Despite all this growth, in 1848 the United States was just 12 years away from the onset of an incredibly bloody civil war that pitted Southern states against the U.S. government. This seems like quite a contradiction. Over the course of the first half of the 19th century, was the United States developing a unified national identity? Or were its geographic sections developing a divided regional identity, barely held together by the Constitution? What we're doing here really is asking a historical question. If you saw this on the AP exam, the question might look something like this. Explain the extent to which politics, economics, and foreign policy promoted the development of the American identity from 1800 to 1848. Sounds pretty fancy schmancy. But we can translate that to a simpler question. What tied the United States together as a country over the course of 1800 to 1848, and what split it apart? To answer this, let's review what happened in this period in these three areas, politics, economics, and foreign policy, and see if we think they contributed to a unified American identity or a divided regional identity. And just to remind you this is a big overview of the historical developments from 1800 to 1848. I'm not gonna take a lot of time here to explain everything in depth, but if you find that you're unfamiliar with some of the things we discuss, make a note of it and then go back to review that concept when you've got some time. Okay, as we set about to answer this question, let's just brainstorm some of the major political, economic, and foreign policy developments in this time period. It doesn't have to be an exhaustive list of everything that happened, just some key highlights. I'll suggest a few, but feel free to pause the video and see what you can think of on your own. Alright, what happened in politics? Well, there was the development of political parties. First, the Federalists and the Democratic Republicans, and then later on they were replaced with the Jacksonian Democrats and the Whigs. There was the expansion of the right to vote to almost all white men in this era, and there were a lot of political controversies. Two that come to mind are the Missouri Compromise and the Nullification Crisis. So which of these things contributed to a unified identity, and which contributed to a regional identity? Well, I would say that the Missouri Compromise and the Nullification Crisis were both examples of regional identity trumping American identity, since they concerned the balance of power between free states and slave states, and whether states or the Federal Government should have the final say. The expansion of the right to vote seems like a point for unification to me since it celebrated American democracy as the birthright of white men from all states. On political parties, I might say this is inconclusive. There are elements of both unity and division among them since political parties weren't exclusively defined by region in this time period, but they were often defined by how much power they believed the Federal Government should have compared to the states. Okay, on to economics. Major developments in this time period include the Market Revolution, the controversy over tariffs, and the increasing separation between the economies of the industrial North and the agricultural South. Of these, I would say that separate economic systems definitely promoted a divided regional identity. The controversy over tariffs also promoted divisions in that Southern plantation owners thought that tariffs gave advantage to Northern manufacturers at their expense. The Market Revolution is a bit tricky to categorize. It promoted some ties between the sections because it became easier to conduct business over long distances due to innovations in transportation and communication. But a lot of the major networks of transportation and communication connected the North and the West to each other, not the South. Lastly, foreign policy. In this era there was the War of 1812, as well as westward expansion that caused conflict with Native Americans and with Mexico. I'd say that the War of 1812 was a force that brought Americans together in a shared sense of patriotism following victories like the Battle of New Orleans. The westward expansion was a bit more of a mixed bag. In general, most white Americans supported the concept of Manifest Destiny and thought that the removal of Native Americans for that purpose was justified. But westward expansion also led to regional conflict because the admission of new states into the Union threatened the balance of power between free and slave states in Congress. So based on the evidence we've gathered here, let's see if we can formulate a thesis statement to answer this question. The prompt is asking us to evaluate the extent to which developments in politics, economics, and foreign policy promoted the development of an American identity. So I think that we want to approach this not as an either-or, or a yes-no question, but rather a question of degree. I would say that the overall evidence here points to a divided regional identity with a few points of unity. Americans agreed that the United States needed to expand, and that democracy was the birthright of all white men, but in almost every other aspect of politics, economics, and foreign policy they were divided along sectional lines. Would you come to the same conclusion? Remember this is only one way of answering this question. You may have come up with some different examples, or you might interpret these examples in a different way than I have, and that's okay. The next step now that you've evaluated your evidence and composed your thesis statement, is to think about how you might arrange the thoughts you've gathered here into an argumentative essay.