Trade and Improvements: Young America and the Transformation of the Democratic Party
Eyal, Yonatan, Civil War History
In 1860, when Stephen A. Douglas prepared his run for the presidency, he invited New York banker and financier August Belmont to become national chairman of the Democratic party. Belmont had arrived in the New World barely twentyyears earlier, at the age of twenty-four, and now he was helping to run the campaign of the most prominent leader of the Democracy. As a representative of the Rothschild family in New York, and as one of America's richest men during the nineteenth century, Belmont symbolized the East Coast establishment, or what Jacksonians loved to call the "money power." Yet he remained a staunch Democrat throughout his life, never wavering in his commitment to the coalition established by Old Hickory in the 1820s and 1830s. How could someone so seemingly un-Jacksonian fit so well within the leadership of the antebellum Democratic party?
The answer is "Young America," a faction of the Democracy that displaced the organization's established leadership and reshaped what it meant to be a Democrat by the late 1840s and early 1850s. On the eve of the Civil War, the Democracy no longer stood for the same policies, no longer represented the same outlook, that had dominated its heyday in the 1830s. Between the time Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren served as the leading Democratic icons and the moment Stephen Douglas and August Belmont took their place, several transformations altered the core of Democratic ideology. (1)
European nationalist organizations associated with the revolutions of 1848 collectively became known as "Young Europe," and members of the U.S. Democratic party who sympathized with European dissenters began calling themselves "Young America" in emulation. These Young America Democrats fundamentally altered the principles of their political organization. Led by figures such as Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois and editor John L. O'Sullivan of New York, they gained power during the late 1840s and early 1850s. In place of an insular and domestically oriented Democracy, they ushered in a new internationalist consciousness within their party and mid-century American culture as a whole. Displacing the romantic agrarianism heralded by Jefferson and Jackson, they substituted a forward-looking market orientation that emphasized business opportunity, technological growth, and overseas commercial expansion. Young America Democrats also formulated new positions on race relations and slavery, social reform, and constitutional interpretation. They made the Democratic party and American society more progressive, dynamic, international, and humanitarian.
This essay will address the new economic orientation of Young America Democrats, or what contemporaries often called "young Democrats." What beliefs about commerce and finance transformed the party of Jackson and Van Buren into the party of Douglas and Belmont? In the late antebellum period, young Democrats started to leave behind the outmoded philosophy of agrarianism and republican virtue in favor of market opportunity and international commerce. Tempted by the market revolution, Democrats finally came to terms with the challenges of economic growth, in the process discarding much of their strict construction constitutionalism. Young America Democrats reoriented their party to become more economically progressive, hungry for prosperity and trade, and no longer so worried about monopoly and corruption. In fostering this shift, Young America Democrats moved their organization closer to the traditional views of Whiggery, with consequences for the party realignments of the 1850s. (2)
Although there is not enough space here to address some of the larger questions regarding Young America Democrats, a few introductory generalizations can be made. First, young Democrats organized a relatively self-conscious movement. They and others referred to the faction as the "young Democracy," the "progressive Democracy," or simply as "Young America." They based this self-consciousness on a generational affiliation: almost all the Young America leaders were born between 1810 and 1815, as the early republic moved from division and turmoil toward peace and prosperity. When Young American William Allen became chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1845, his constituents observed that he occupied "an enviable position Regarded universally as the Leader of the young Democracy of the Nation. The older portion of the Party are compelled to acknowledge your fitness for that post, and even for any so high as the people can hereafter confer." (3)
Young Americans tended to enter the party during the 1830S, usually because of a personal attraction to Old Hickory and sympathy for his limited government ideology. After joining the party, their beliefs began to change as the market revolution picked up speed during the 1840s. The shift I discuss here is an internal evolution, in other words. By introducing new ideas into the Democracy, they created a more diverse organization. Despite their new economic thinking, Young Americans remained Democrats because of the party's commitment to other issues they cared about. For example, August Belmont would never have joined the Whigs regardless of how economically progressive he became, since he championed American intervention in the European revolutions of 1848 as well as the annexation of Cuba. These were quintessentially Democratic policies. In short, the Young America Democracy was a generationally conscious group that made its party evolve toward new financial thinking, though they remained loyal to the Democracy because of various other, noneconomic commitments.
Numerous books and articles have showcased the agrarian-republican worldview of the Jeffersonian-Jacksonian tradition. On the whole Democrats tended to distrust market change, to see in the transportation revolution ripe opportunities for wealthy interests to enslave them in new channels of dependency. Although exceptions such as the existence of pro-banking Democrats complicate the picture, and although Democrats could be seen as aides to small-time capitalism, the overall thrust of the party remained agrarian, suspicious of economic development, and jealous of concentrated power. Jacksonian Democrats put these well-worn convictions into action by opposing federal subsidies for internal improvements, challenging the prevalence of banks and exclusive corporate charters, and insisting on a sparingly administered federal government exercising expressly delegated powers. Young America Democrats challenged these tenets of party orthodoxy, diversifying the range of views within the Democratic party. (4) By 1857 one magazine concluded that "if it were not for the tide of immigration from the Old World, we should soon be without laborers, so vulgar does Young America hold it to cultivate the soil." (5)
August Belmont played an important role in this party transformation. Emigrating from the Rhineland to New York in 1837, he established a profitable banking house and became an active participant in Democratic affairs. President Franklin Pierce appointed him minister to the Netherlands in 1853, a perch from which the businessman did all in his power to further American commerce. Most notably, he opened the Dutch East Indies to American trade. Continuing his mission, Minister Belmont wrote to Secretary of State William L. Marcy in 1856 in an effort to have the United States raise tariff duties on certain articles--a decidedly un-Jacksonian position. Belmont applauded the establishment of banks in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and other parts of Europe, with little hint of the blush that such praise might elicit given the antibank, Independent Treasury course of the Democratic party thus far. He argued that the proliferation of European banking would stimulate Continental industry, which might increase the flow of European goods to America. The way to meet such competition, he told Marcy, was by raising duties. At other times Belmont wished to lower trade barriers, although in this instance he argued for raising them. "I am and have been a strong adherent to the principles of free trade," he wrote Marcy, "but these principles must never blind us to the exigencies of our own peculiar position, and the somewhat reckless spirit of enterprise of our people." (6) Belmont, the epitome of the young rather than old Jacksonian Democrat, appeared willing to put aside the economic principles of his party for the ends of commercial prosperity. Self-interest was the new order of the day, and Jackson would have turned in his still-fresh grave. (7)
Belmont had served in the Netherlands only for a few months before he asked Marcy for authorization to spend part of his time furthering Young America's program of domestic economic expansion. He thought it in his power, he wrote Marcy, "to assist materially some of the large works of public improvements, such as Canals and Rail Roads now being in the course of completion in the different sections of our country & which are so essential to the development of our national wealth[;] this I can do by imparting to leading Bankers & Capitalists such information of the resources & prospects of these enterprizes[sic], as will give them sufficient confidence to invest their money in them." Belmont expected that "a very large amount of European Capital will most likely" wash up on American shores, especially as escalating tensions led to the Crimean War in 1854. He wanted to use his European financial ties to further internal improvements in the United States. After meeting with the Queen Mother of Holland, Belmont reported that she seemed most impressed by "our magnificent steamers, our extensive system of Rail-Roads[,] and our wonderful progress in general." (8) So was he.
The historian George Bancroft also served as a Democratic diplomat, becoming minister to Britain in late 1846. He and colleagues at home rejoiced at England's repeal of the Corn Laws that year. This great reform in European mercantilist orthodoxy inspired young Democrats to believe that an unprecedented and lucrative era of free trade was at hand. It motivated them all the more to jettison old-fashioned Jacksonian agrarian ideas; there was simply too much money and opportunity to be had. …
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Publication information: Article title: Trade and Improvements: Young America and the Transformation of the Democratic Party. Contributors: Eyal, Yonatan - Author. Journal title: Civil War History. Volume: 51. Issue: 3 Publication date: September 2005. Page number: 245+. © 1999 Kent State University Press. COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group.
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