James M. McPherson - The Illustrated Battle Cry of Freedom

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The Illustrated Battle Cry of Freedom : The Civil War Era , by James M. McPherson
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First Edition - 800 pages - October 2003
Published by Oxford University Press
ISBN 0-19-515901-2 / ISBN 0195159012

Book Excerpt

Reprinted from
The Illustrated Battle Cry of Freedom : The Civil War Era
by
James M. McPherson ,
pages 7-10.

Reprinted with the permission of the publisher.

Copyright © 2003 James M. McPherson.


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In 1850, Zachary Taylor -- the last president born before the Constitution -- could look back on vast changes during his adult life. The population of the United States had doubled and then doubled again. Pushing relentlessly westward and southward, Americans had similarly quadrupled the size of their country by settling, conquering, annexing, or purchasing territory that had been occupied for millennia by Indians and claimed by France, Spain, Britain, and Mexico. During the same half-century the gross national product increased sevenfold. No other nation in that era could match even a single component of this explosive growth. The combination of all three made America the Wunderkind nation of the nineteenth century.

Regarded as "progress" by most Americans, this unparalleled and unrestrained growth had negative as well as positive consequences. For Indians it was a story of contraction rather than expansion, of decline from a vital culture toward dependence and apathy. The one-seventh of the population that was black also bore much of the burden of progress while reaping few of its benefits. Slave-grown crops sustained part of the era's economic growth and much of its territorial expansion. The cascade of cotton from the American South dominated the world market, paced the industrial revolution in England and New England, and fastened the shackles of slavery more securely than ever on Afro-Americans.

Even for white Americans, economic growth did not necessarily mean unalloyed progress. Although per capita income doubled during the half-century, not all sectors of society shared equally in this abundance. While both rich and poor enjoyed rising incomes, their inequality of wealth widened significantly. More dangerous was the specter of ethnic conflict. After 1830 waves of immigrants, most of them Roman Catholic, alarmed some Protestant Americans, sparking nativist organizations that resisted cultural pluralism.

The greatest danger to American survival at midcentury, however, was neither class tension nor ethnic division. Rather it was sectional conflict between North and South over the future of slavery. To many Americans, human bondage seemed incompatible with the founding ideals of the republic. If all men were created equal and endowed by the creator with certain inalienable rights including liberty and the pursuit of happiness, what could justify the enslavement of several millions of these men (and women)? The generation that fought the Revolution abolished slavery in states north of the Mason-Dixon line; the new states north of the Ohio River came into the Union without bondage. South of those boundaries, however, slavery became essential to the region's economy and culture.

Meanwhile, a wave of Protestant revivals known as the Second Great Awakening swept the country during the first third of the nineteenth century. In New England, upstate New York, and those portions of the Old North west above the 41st parallel populated by the descendants of New England Yankees, this evangelical enthusiasm generated a host of moral and cultural reforms. The most dynamic and divisive of them was abolitionism.

By midcentury this antislavery movement had gone into politics and had begun to polarize the country. Slaveholders did not consider themselves egregious sinners. And they managed to convince most nonslaveholding whites in the South (two-thirds of the white population there) that emancipation would produce economic ruin, social chaos, and racial war. The slavery issue would probably have caused an eventual showdown between North and South in any circumstances. But it was the country's sprawling growth that made the issue so explosive. Was the manifest destiny of those two million square miles west of the Mississippi River to be free or slave? Like King Solomon, Congress had tried in 1820 to solve that problem for the Louisiana Purchase by splitting it at the latitude of 36" 30' (with slavery allowed in Missouri as an exception north of that line). But this only postponed the crisis. In 1850 Congress postponed it again with another compromise. By 1860 it could no longer be deferred. The country's territorial growth might have created a danger of dismemberment by centrifugal force in any event. But slavery brought this danger to a head at midcentury.

At the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 the United States was an insignificant nation on the European periphery. Its population was about the same as Ireland's. Thomas Jefferson thought that the Empire for Liberty he had bought from Napoleon was sufficient to absorb a hundred generations of America's population growth. By 1850, two generations later, Americans were not only filling up this empire but were spilling over into a new one on the Pacific coast. A few years after 1850 the United States surpassed Britain to become the most populous nation in the Western world save Russia and France. By 1860 the country contained nearly thirty-two million people, four million of them slaves. During the previous half-century the American population had grown four times faster than Europe's and six times the world average.

Three factors explained this phenomenon: a birth rate half again as high as Europe's; a death rate slightly lower; and immigration. All three were linked to the relative abundance of the American economy. The ratio of land to people was much greater than in Europe, making food supply more plentiful and enabling couples to marry earlier and to have more children. Though epidemics frequently ravaged North America, they took a lesser toll in its largely rural environment than among Europe's denser population. The land/people ratio in the United States raised wages and offered opportunities that attracted five million immigrants during that half-century.

Although the United States remained predominantly rural in this period, the urban population (defined as those living in towns or cities with 2,500 or more people) grew three times faster than the rural population from 1810 to 1860, going from 6 percent to 20 percent of the total. This was the highest rate of urbanization in American history. During those same decades the percentage of the labor force engaged in nonagricultural pursuits grew from 21 to 45 percent. Meanwhile the rate of natural increase of the American population, while remaining higher than Europe's, began to slow as parents, desiring to provide their children with more nurture and education, decided to have fewer of them. From 1800 to 1850 the American birth rate declined by 23 percent. The death rate also decreased slightly-but probably no more than 5 percent. Yet the population continued to grow at the same pace through the whole period -- about 35 percent each decade -- because rising immigration offset the decline of the birth rate. For the half-century as a whole, the margin of births over deaths caused three-quarters of the population increase while immigration accounted for the rest.

Economic growth fueled these demographic changes. The population doubled every twenty-three years; the gross national product doubled every fifteen. At some point after the War of 1812 -- probably following recovery from the depression of 1819-23 -- the economy began to grow faster than the population. Although most Americans benefited from this rise of income, those at the top benefited more than those at the bottom. While average income rose 102 percent, real wages for workers increased by somewhere between 40 and 65 percent. This widening disparity between rich and poor appears to have characterized most capitalist economies during their early decades of intensive growth and industrialization.


Copyright © 2003 James M. McPherson

The Illustrated Battle Cry of Freedom : The Civil War Era , by James M. McPherson
The current price of the book at amazon.com is indicated to the right ...
The BUY button will add this book to your amazon.com shopping cart
If the price and BUY button are not shown, please click here
First Edition - 800 pages - October 2003
Published by Oxford University Press
ISBN 0-19-515901-2 / ISBN 0195159012

Link to our BOOK REVIEW