19th Century America

The 19th was the United States' first full century as a nation. It was full of birth pangs, moments of triumph, and things that made everyone shake their head and wonder what was going on. One of the most interesting of the latter bits was when British ex-pat Joshua Norton crowned himself Emperor of the United States, "reigning" from San Francisco.

Most people remember the 19th century for the Civil War. While it certainly was a significant event, one of the most important events in American history even, there were a number of surrounding factors that were just as important, and without which the War Between the States would never have developed.

Arguably the most significant of these was Western Expansion. The idea that Americans were fulfilling some kind of national destiny by claiming the Western part of the continent was called Manifest Destiny, and its origins can be found in the writings of some of the most prominent Founding Fathers, like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Their dedication to the Enlightenment ideal of human progress (that mankind controlled its own destiny, and that that destiny was to move ever forward) translated into a need to expand their country as far as possible.

As with anything else, God used that humanist doctrine to advance His own truth. While politicians and opportunists went West to obtain land, gold, and freedom, Christian missionaries went to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ. People like Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and Jason Lee braved the Oregon Trail simply to share their faith with the Native Americans in the Western Territories; the Whitmans even gave their lives, becoming the Pacific Northwest's most famous martyrs.

Meanwhile, back in the East the bigwigs were conspiring to breach the 3,000 mile gap between the East and West coasts with a recently improved invention: the steam engine train. The First Transcontinental Railroad wasn't completed till 1869 (four years after the Civil War had ended), but it's origins reach back to the 1840s when it was first envisioned by Asa Whitney.

In fact, the transcontinental railroad was a significant element of Abraham Lincoln's presidential campaign and administration. This was the problem: the North wanted the Trans to go through their territory because they had so much industrial product to move, while the South wanted it to run through the bottom half of the States so they could transport cotton, sorghum, and other agricultural goods.

The reality was a bit of a compromise, but the violent debates that stirred Congress had no small part in fomenting the division that would ultimately erupt in full-blown war. Slavery was the main issue, but it affected so many other factors that to reduce the origins of the Civil War to slavery alone is a bit revisionist and narrow-sighted.

For a lot of the 19th century, it seemed that the United States led a charmed existence, that Progress was a sure thing and there was nothing really to fear, certainly no problem that couldn't be overcome. The last two decades were exceedingly prosperous, leading to a sense of smug optimism that only the terror of World War I, the moral chaos of the Jazz Age, and the sudden insecurity of the Great Depression could effectively end.

Not everyone was man-centered and materialistic, however. The 19th century saw a surge in evangelism unlike anything the fledgling nation had seen, so pervasive and productive that it was called the Second Great Awakening. Unfortunately, a lot of doctrinal dilution came with the new preaching, but there were plenty of genuine conversions, and much good came of them.

It's difficult to reduce a one hundred year span to a few paragraphs, and there are certainly things we could have mentioned. Comprehensive treatments aren't always the best way to study history, though; each era has its own spirit and attitudes (its own zeitgeist, if you want to get all technical and German) that best represent it. We hope you'll bear that in mind in your study of the 19th century in America, and indeed throughout your study of history here and around the globe.

Topics of Interest from the 19th Century:

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur.Read more of his reviews here.

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