The American Political Nation, 1838-1893

By Joel H. Silbey | Go to book overview

Introduction: "The Lost Atlantis"

THE CHRONOLOGICAL BOUNDARIES of this study are unconventional but not arbitrary. I argue that a distinct era in the country's political history ended almost one hundred years ago. It had lasted for more than half a century. It was a political world -- or better, political nation -- markedly set off from what had come before and what would follow. As the United States moved into an era of great internal growth after 1815, and as the American people moved from their republican fears for the survival of a fragile nation to the exuberant optimism of middle-class egalitarian nationalism, their political dynamic substantially shifted. 1 A politics largely rooted in elite-dominated factions gave way, by the late 1830's, to a populistoriented, institutionally organized political nation dominated by a system of two-party politics "unique in its power and in its depth of social penetration." 2

The surface components and institutional structure of American politics have remained remarkably stable over two hundred years. Parties nominate, and the people elect Presidents, congressmen, and other officials to staff the same institutions of government. But in specific ways, the forces at play in political life have varied so markedly as to form distinctive political nations -- as in the years covered here. Each nation has had a singular political landscape, containing many familiar elements from the previous one, but in a unique mixture. Each has dominated a block of years and thus defined a specific chronological era. In each of them, the cast of mind and specific behavior are distinct; the political resources present -- that is, all of the elements constituting the American political nation -- come together differently and relate to one another in their own special way. 3

As an example of what I am suggesting, a two-party system has been part of American politics for most of the country's history under

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