Author Interview--Mark Power Smith (Young America) Part 1

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature Mark Power Smith to talk about his new book, Young America: The Transformation of Nationalism before the Civil War, published by the University of Virginia Press in September 2022.

Mark Power Smith received his Ph.D. from the University College London. He is a Junior Research Fellow in History at Mansfield College, University of Oxford, and author of The Connell Short Guide to President Lincoln.

Mark, how did you come to write a book about the Young America movement?

MPS: First of all, I was attracted to the way Young America Democrats incorporated literary culture into their politics. Not only were prominent authors like Walt Whitman associated with the movement, but politicians themselves were interested in promoting the nation’s literature and - more broadly - what we might call its intellectual culture. Politics and literature seemed to be connected in important ways – an insight that was perhaps better appreciated by an older generation of historians like Perry Miller than it is today. I wanted to investigate this relationship. What did politicians stand to gain from literary culture? What could it tell us that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novels were discussed in the same breath as issues like immigration and territorial expansion? Why was the democratization of literature so important to the success of self-government in the United States?

Going forward, this line of investigation seemed to unsettle the ways in which historians usually think about the Democratic Party. Politicians like Stephen Douglas and Samuel S. Cox are often characterized as the archetypal wirepullers in antebellum politics, or simply lackeys of the Slave Power. Yet, they were also profoundly committed to the nation’s intellectual culture – for example, playing an instrumental role in the founding of the Smithsonian Museum. What should we make of this dimension of their worldview? As I did more research, I came to appreciate just how ideological these men were. There is nothing to admire in the politics of Young America, but these Democrats were profoundly idealistic and committed to the implementation of certain political ideas. I asked myself: if we begin to look again at this aspect of the Democratic program, how does antebellum politics look different as a whole?

Finally, I was interested in the transnational element of the politics of Young America. Here was the American counterpart to the great “young” movements so prominent in Europe. Yet, there wasn’t much to praise about the vanguard of U.S. liberalism and progress. The Young Americans were deeply invested in racial hierarchies and supportive of slavery within the Union. This apparent paradox could surely tell us something quite significant about how the terms liberalism, progress and nationalism were understood in the mid-nineteenth century, as opposed to how we think about them today. In turn, we might begin to appreciate how historical change confounded those who lived through it, and how the visions of progress some people held – thankfully – never came to pass.

What do you argue in Young America?

MPS: I argue that a faction within the Democratic Party associated with the term Young America was influential in pre-Civil War politics, advocating territorial expansion, cultural nationalism and racial segregation. The book argues that behind this program was a new view of democracy and suffrage not as products of American historical development, but as natural rights for white men. Certainly, Jefferson had argued that natural rights should provide the foundation for the American republic in the Revolutionary Era, but he stopped short of counting democracy among them. Instead, democratic government rested on specific historical and cultural conditions. That all changed with the Young Americans who began to argue that voting itself constituted a great natural right. This shaped their optimistic view of exporting democracy overseas and also their anti-institutional view of self-government. Rather than relying on formal mechanisms, the popular voice could be articulated through literature and art. But it ultimately led them to the conclusion that the problem of slavery could be settled by throwing it open to the vote of white male settlers in the territories. The result was profoundly destabilizing, contributing to secession and Civil War.

Ultimately, I put at the centre of my story a nationalist movement that simply cannot be understood if we think of antebellum political ideologies purely in terms of “northern” and “southern” sections of the Union. I also foreground the role of ideas in underpinning Americans’ sense of national belonging. Perhaps we might be better served thinking about nationalism not as an expression of collective memory rooted in an imagined past, but as a particular theory of national development, pointing towards an idealized view of the future.

As we get into the Young America movement, I want to start by asking you how you define the movement and its chronological boundaries.

MPS: I define the Young America movement as a faction within the Democratic Party, made up of writers and politicians who clustered around a periodical from New York City, called the Democratic Review. The publication ran from 1837 to 1859 and enjoyed a wide circulation across the Union. During these years, the editorship did change hands, notably from New York's John O'Sullivan to Kentucky's George Sanders. But the political line stayed roughly the same: support for the 1848 Revolutions in Europe, territorial expansion in the Americas and advocacy for the intellectual culture of the United States against British influence. The ideological contours of the movement became sharper through its engagement with rival periodicals like the American Whig Review, which was set up explicitly to counter O'Sullivan's influence in intellectual life. 

The most important politician associated with the Democratic Review was Illinois' Stephen Douglas, who was very much the figurehead of Young America in Congress, even if he tried to distance himself from the label at crucial moments. Douglas and his allies took aim at their Whig, and later Republican, rivals in Congress, but also more moderate and conservative Democrats - often belonging to an older generation - who refused to fully embrace the "spirit of the age." Indeed, one of the things I wanted to do with the book was place intraparty disputes at the heart of the political crisis of the 1850s, as well as conflicts between parties and sections. Young America really crystallized as a political faction with the election of James K Polk in 1844 and reached a highpoint after the election of Franklin Pierce in 1852 It fractured after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, but still remained influential until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. 

Since you are raising the slavery issue, let us look into this--how does slavery figure into Young America as well as its expansionist arguments?

MPS: This is one of the really interesting puzzles about Young America. Generally, the scholarship takes a binary view of the issue, as it does of the Democratic Party more broadly. The two most influential studies of Young America in recent years are diametrically opposed: these Democrats are either characterized by their anti-slavery convictions or their tacit support for the institution and willingness to bow to the plantation elite. I wanted to follow historians like David Potter in jettisoning a binary perspective to look at slavery within a hierarchy of priorities, which include territorial expansion and free trade for white men. 

When examined in this context, we see that slavery was just one way to address a much larger concern for racial "inferiority" and segregation. In the most abstract terms, the desire to segregate the races led Young Americans to oppose slavery, especially in the territories. But, at the same time, it could be beneficial in the tropics, since this would transfer the enslaved populations of the mainland U.S. to regions where white workers did not - supposedly - work as effectively. The other "solutions" were more compatible with free labor, but still deeply racist and often dismissed as impractical for the Union's existing slave population, namely colonization and even "extermination." 

To understand Young America and the problem of slavery, we might turn to the way Walt Whitman thought about the issue. Whitman wanted to see a division between the "totality of white labor" and the "totality of black labor," in opposition to both the slave-based and abolitionist social orders which incorporated Black and white workers in the same communities.  

I want to stay with the expansionism argument for a moment longer and what seems like the other contradiction in Young America's argumentation--while they embrace democracy and popular sovereignty, they also embrace territorial expansion--are not these contradictory impulses? 

MSP: I think there probably is an extent to which territorial expansion and democracy seem to be contradictory impulses for us today. Historians, in particular, look at territorial expansion as a flagrant example of national aggression in this period, usually driven by a desire to perpetuate slavery. But for a lot of Democrats, particularly in the Northern states, the impulse to enlarge the national domain was entirely compatible with democracy. Young Americans assumed that creoles in Cuba, for example, would want to join the Union after achieving independence from Spain since the United States was synonymous with democratic government. The Union was a guarantee of free trade between independent states and the only real model of democracy at that time. Certainly, the result of expansion was violence and dispossession, especially for groups that did not want to be incorporated within the United States. But the idealistic intentions were much more than a fig-leaf: they actively encouraged violence. Young Americans consistently underestimated the scale of destruction, and the investment of time and resources that it would take to enlarge the Union because they believed it was a divine mission to spread democracy around the world. Tracing these ideas helps us to see how Young Americans saw territorial expansion as part of the revolutionary movements which culminated in Europe's uprisings of 1848. As Michel Gobat has written about recently, expansionism in the Americas was animated by liberal, even utopian impulses, including many abstractly anti-slavery ideals. Understanding the consequences of these beliefs is perhaps more important and unsettling than focusing exclusively on the slaveholders' desire for a vast southern empire.