The American Political Nation, 1838-1893

By Joel H. Silbey | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
The Contours of the American Political Nation: The Road to 1838

THE FIFTY-FIVE YEARS from 1838 to 1893 remain fascinating to American historians for their great personalities and vibrant confrontations, as well as for their ordinariness, confusion, and frequent failure to address deep-rooted national problems. Originating in the drama of the Jacksonian era, continuing through the intensity of the rise of sectional conflict, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Gilded Age, and all that subsequently occurred into the 1890s, it was a crucial time when much happened to several generations of Americans. Traditional periodizing schemes argue for the Jacksonian period and the Civil War years as major nineteenthcentury watersheds, with different periods on either side of the 1820's and 1860's. American political life was first democratized, then sectionalized; finally, the nation itself was economically transformed. The Civil War left deep political scars and bitter memories for a century and more thereafter; industrialization and urbanization reshaped the way Americans lived and directly affected the political world explosively and persistently. 1

While these periods, from the Age of Jackson onward, remain central to historians' understanding of nineteenth-century American politics, other, more recently developed periodizing schemes have come to dominate the study of America's political past. Over the past two decades, a number of scholars have moved away from the focus on great events to trace the underlying patterns structuring political life. These historians have convincingly argued that the many discrete events of the past have had a particular order that can be discerned and measured. Specifically, the critical election -- party system interpretation of American political history has become a powerful and widely applied scholarly convention. There have been five party systems since 1788, each characterized by a different pattern of electoral choice, William N. Chambers, Walter Dean Burnham, and their co-

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