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AHHS — Chapter 4

Chapter 4 – The Virginia Dynasty:  Spectacular Growth of the Union of the States, 1801 – 1824, by Clyde N. Wilson of S. C., Ph.D.,  S.I.S.H. 


During the administrations of three great Virginia statesmen and friends, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe,  Americans created new States across almost  half  a continent and acquired vast new territory for future States.   The population tripled without much immigration, and the Jeffersonian party and most Americans favoured and lived happily with a limited central government that in peacetime interfered very little with the States and the citizens.

Growth of the Union

Even before Jefferson took office in 1801, Kentucky (from land ceded by VA) and Tennessee (from land ceded by NC) had become States and were already exercising influence in Union affairs. There was a post-Revolutionary flood of settlers across the Appalachians.  Between 1790 and 1820 the population of KY increased from 73,677 to 581,434 and that of TN from 35,691 to 422,823.  In 1811 a Kentuckian, Henry Clay, was elected Speaker of the House. In 1824 two of four presidential candidates were from the new States:  Clay from KY and Andrew Jackson from TN.  Before Monroe left office five new States had been admitted to the Union from western territories of the 13 States.  Three of these   OH, IN, and IL – were from the Northwest Territory ceded by VA for the use of all Americans.  (By 1820, OH had 581,434 people.)  Two new States, AL and MS, came from Georgia’s western lands.  And two more new States, LA and MO, came from the Louisiana Purchase.

The Louisiana Purchase

The Union in 1800 was surrounded on the south and west by sparsely populated territories of the once great but now weak Spanish empire.  Dynamic Americans could not help but look longingly at the unused land and resources beyond the Mississippi River.  Even more importantly, free use of the river and its great port at New Orleans were essential to the prosperity of the Americans west of the Appalachians.  In 1803, by a secret treaty, Spain transferred the vast territory north and west of New Orleans to Napoleonic France.  Jefferson heard of this and sent Monroe to Paris to see what could be done in the interest of the western States.  As it turned out, Napoleon decided not to try to launch a new empire in America but instead sold what became known to Americans as the Louisiana Purchase for money to support his European campaigns.  This added to the Union a vast territory from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains.  The borders were somewhat vague – by some interpretations Texas was included.  In 1810, American settlers in what was known as West Florida declared independence from Spain.  This added the Gulf Coast and the port of Mobile to what would become the States of Alabama and Mississippi.

Jefferson sent two young Virginia friends, William Clark and Meriwether Lewis to explore the new territory, then largely unknown to civilization.  They ascended the Missouri River, crossed the Rocky Mountains, and reached the Pacific at the mouth of the Columbia River.  They brought back a vast amount of information about geography, weather, flora, fauna, Indian tribes, and potential resources.  A similar expedition in a more southern region under Zebulon Pike got only as far as “Pike’s Peak” (in present Colorado).   It brought back the news that sparse rainfall would make the region problematic for agriculture.

The War of 1812

Britain and France were engaged in a world war for 20 years before and during the administrations of the Virginia Dynasty.  Both powers declared blockades that attempted to prevent neutral shipping from trading with their enemy.  Much of the U.S. Northern economy was based on shipping and suffered from impositions by both powers in trade with Europe and European colonies in the New World.  British offenses were more numerous because Britain ruled the seas.  American merchant ships were seized.  British warships stopped American vessels on the high seas and took away into harsh service seamen they considered to be British.   In 1807, off Hampton Roads, a British warship Leopard fired on and boarded the U.S. Navy vessel Chesapeake, killing several sailors and carrying off others. This created fiery grassroots indignation among American patriots.

The Jeffersonians tried a series of boycott policies to force the great powers to respect American neutral rights on the seas.  These were not successful and were harmful to New England, which protested vigourously and evaded the laws.  In fact, New Englanders resented Jeffersonian attempts to secure American rights peacefully far more than they did British impositions.  Even if they got only every other ship through they were still making huge profits off trade with wartime Europe.  New England leaders cared little if some of their sailors were impressed.   These were lower class people whose lives were likened by John Adams to those of Southern slaves.    Southerners and Westerners, who had no ships, resented British atrocities more than did the merchants.  There was a rising sentiment outside the commercial areas, eloquently expressed by young John C. Calhoun of SC, that the Union could not allow itself to be treated so dishonourably and must make a less cowardly response.

Another consideration contributed to the declaration of war by the U.S. against Britain in 1812.  The British had not completely withdrawn from the Northwest Territory as they had promised.  There they incited some of the Indians to war against Americans.  In 1811 General William Henry Harrison from VA defeated the largest uprising, led by Tecumseh, at Tippecanoe in what became Indiana.  Some Americans even envisioned “liberating” and annexing Canada, although this proved to be a pipe dream.  Canadians, both British and French, did not want to be “liberated.”

The war that followed was not a success, although the infant American navy had some heroic exploits to record.   In the northeast, an American invasion of Canada was defeated and repulsed.  A British fleet sailed into Chesapeake Bay, bombarded Baltimore, and sent soldiers to burn Washington, forcing President Madison and the government to flee.  In the Northwest things began badly when General William Hull, from CT, surrendered Detroit to the British without firing a shot.  By hard fighting with mostly Southern volunteers, the Virginian General Harrison was able to recover the Northwest Territory.

In the South, things went better.  Andrew Jackson of TN had already established himself as a successful commander.  In 1810 he had defeated a major Indian uprising at Horseshoe Bend in what became Alabama.  (Davy Crockett and Sam Houston were among Jackson’s soldiers in that battle.)  In 1814 a large British fleet sailed to New Orleans.  On board was a complete set of officials for a British government for the Louisiana Territory and veteran soldiers who boasted that they would soon be in possession of “booty and beauty.”  Jackson’s TN and KY volunteers, behind cotton bale defenses, decimated the attacking British invaders.  Finally Americans could take some pride in the war which had changed nothing.  They even celebrated it as “the second War of Independence” because they had asserted themselves against British power. Harrison and Jackson became presidential contenders.

A further consequence of the war was the discrediting of New England and the decline of the Federalist Party.  New Englanders with a few exceptions rabidly opposed and undermined the war effort.  They traded with the enemy.  Massachusetts refused to allow its militia to leave the state in answer to a constitutional Federal call for help in defending the northern border, although for years afterward it demanded that the Federal Government pay its militia expenses.  In 1814, the MA, CT, and RI legislatures sent delegates to meet at the “Hartford Convention” to consider secession.  Secession was not recommended, but demands were made for five amendments to the U.S. Constitution to reduce the weight of the South in Congress.

A footnote to the war in the Southwest is the acquisition of East Florida (now the State of Florida).   East Florida was a Spanish territory without any effective government. The territory was a continuing threat to GA – bands of marauding Indians and criminals crossed the border, kidnapped, murdered, looted, and disappeared back into East Florida.  In 1818 Andrew Jackson, as army commander in the South, pursued hostiles into East Florida, seized two Spanish forts, executed two British subjects accused of encouraging the raids, and remained in control.  Although Jackson had undoubtedly exceeded his orders and threatened to involve the U.S. in war with European powers, President Monroe was able to secure the purchase of East Florida from Spain.  Along with the earlier acquisition of West Florida, this meant that the U.S. ever after would unavoidably be involved in the Caribbean.

The Missouri Controversy:  A Fire Bell in the Night

The treaty acquiring the Louisiana Purchase required that the French residents retain citizenship and property rights, including slaves.  In 1812 the southern portion of the territory was admitted to the Union as the State of Louisiana.  New England Anglo-Saxon Protestants raged unsuccessfully against a new State with French-speaking and Catholic people but they fit easily into the Southern Culture.  The next new State from the Louisiana Purchase was Missouri, quickly populated by people from the South.  The people adopted a constitution based on that of KY and applied for admission to the Union.  A Northern majority in the House of Representatives voted that slavery be eliminated in MO as a condition of admission.  The Senate refused to go along and Congress and the country were thrown into turmoil that lasted two years.

Everyone understood that this move had nothing to do with sympathy for bonded African Americans.  It was an attempt to create a division that would bring about a new Northern political party to replace the Federalists.  The elder statesmen Jefferson and Madison understood this.  Jefferson lamented that the Northern move had come on the country like “a fire bell in the night” and was likely to ruin the work of the Founding Fathers.  The attempt to dictate a constitution and society to a State which the people had founded was unprecedented and violated the true nature of the Union of sovereign States.  As always, Jefferson wished the country could be rid of slavery, but “we have a wolf by the ears,” which could not safely be let go.  The best policy for the welfare of the African American bonded people and for American society was allowing them to spread out rather than bottling them up.

Eventually, politicians engineered a “compromise.” MO was admitted to the Union without the restriction and ME, which until then had been a part of MA, became a separate State.  It was provided that within the Louisiana Purchase no bonded African Americans could be held in territory above an east/west line drawn from the southern border of MO, leaving only the Arkansas territory to the South.  Legally, the compromise did not apply to FL or to any territory beyond the Purchase that the U.S. might later acquire.  It was not much of a true “compromise” because different majorities voted separately for each part.  Northerners largely voted against it and in 1846 would try to prevent the territorial division principle from being applied again to territory gained by the Mexican War.  Still later, when the Kansas/Nebraska acts were passed, the same people who had opposed the compromise raged that a sacred pact had been violated.  A considerable number of Southern leaders opposed the settlement also, asserting that the South had made a fatal mistake by allowing the Northern majority to make conditions for future sovereign States.  Most Americans, probably, hoped that a troublesome issue had been settled for good.  But the Union would never be the same again.  The IL legislature in the 1820s seriously considered legalizing slavery, but Midwesterners were mostly determined to keep black people, free or slave, elsewhere.

Suggestions for Class Discussion

What characteristics of the Southern Culture produced statesman like Thomas Jefferson and leaders like Andrew Jackson?

Recommended Readings

  • The Missouri Controversy, 1819-1821, by Glover Moore, pub. 1953.
  • The Old Northwest, A Chronicle of the Ohio Valley and Beyond, by Frederick L. Ogg, (#19 in The Chronicles of America series), pub. 1919.
  • The Rise of the New West, 1819-1824, by Frederick Jackson Turner, (vol. 14 of The American Nation: A History series), pub. 1906.