Part Three: The Romance Of The West
Chapter I
New Worlds

While Calhoun was instructing the South in the theory of a Greek democracy, other sons of the South were learning, in the new world to which they had removed, the ways of a very different democracy--a democracy native to the frontier and quite unconcerned with Greek ideals. In the Ohio valley was gathering a multitude of rough libertarians who had exchanged the restrictions of the old settlements for the freedom of the new. To these bumptious levelers rulership by established authorities made no appeal. They attached no respect to broadcloth, but preferred to manage their affairs in their own way by appeal to the majority. Taught by experience the worth of certain Jeffersonian principles, they took seriously the doctrine of equality and proposed to put it into practice. They were coonskin apostles of liberty and equality--if not of fraternity--backwoods democrats who by virtue of numbers established in common practice the principle of the sovereignty of the popular will. Springing up naturally on the frontier, the practice of democracy received from it a new validity and became the determining factor in the nationalism that America was creating in the early years of the nineteenth century. That it was a crude and often shoddy democracy, that it never justified its pretensions in the eyes of a critical realism, did not lessen the zeal with which men clung to it or weaken their loyalty. Democracy became the common faith of the West, and in becoming the common faith of the West it was put in the way of becoming the common faith of America.

If the romantic temper is a spontaneous by-product of social change, that temper found in the upheaval attending the western migration a plentiful aliment that had been wanting in the static eighteenth century. In that older world men had been held fast in the grip of the customary and familiar; but in the free West all was new and strange. The crossing of the Appalachian barrier that had long held back the settlements was an adventurous undertaking that fired the imagination. Romantic in spirit and scope, it was meanly picaresque in a thousand unlovely details. Plain men engaged in it, provident and improvident, hard-working and shiftless; heroes had a share in it, but blackguards and outlaws and broken men--the lees and settlings thrown off from the older communities--had a share as well. The world that provided a stage for the courage of Daniel Boone and the fighting qualities of George Rogers Clark bred also the Davy Crocketts and Mike Finks and Col. William Suggses, who discovered there opportunities for the development of less admirable qualities; and it engulfed in its depths a host of nameless adventurers who drifted into the wilderness settlements, drank and quarreled and begot children, suffered from the chills and ague, spread a drab poverty along the frontier, and were put away under ground and forgotten by the more fortunate who salvaged prosperity from the abundant wreckage.

From this crude society emerged the new states with governments designed to serve simple ends. Jealousy for his sovereign right to do as he pleased was the chief concern of the free western voter; as a sovereign citizen he refused to be subject to the creature commonwealth. If governors and legislators and judges got uppish he would throw them out of office and put in others who better understood the rights of free Americans. It was this rude equalitarianism that marked the early stage of western commonwealth building. Naive Jeffersonians, these frontier citizens had not learned from Hamilton how useful the political state may become to those who know how to control its policies to their particular ends; but that lesson they were soon to learn. The citizens of Georgia received excellent instruction from no less a man than Chief Justice Marshall in the matter of the Yazoo frauds; and as such lessons sank into their minds their political philosophy underwent a silent change. The coonskin individualism that created Jacksonian democracy was gradually undermined by a middle-class individualism that inclined to the Whiggery of Henry Clay. The former was a spontaneous expression of the frontier spirit, the latter a calculating expression of the maturing settlement. The one discovered its native habitat on the backwoods farm, the other in the county seat town. The one was agrarian laissez faire, the other was exploitative paternalistic. The followers of Jackson wanted the state kept simple and frugal, the followers of Clay wanted it to engage in ambitious programs of internal improvement; and from these antagonistic principles emerged a bitter feud between Democracy and Whiggery that in western townships revived the old alignment of agrarian and Federalist of earlier times.

In such a contest the principle of Whiggery must eventually triumph. It was an expression of "the genius of the times." Economics and psychology were daily arguing in its behalf. From the first early settlements of the Ohio valley, it must be remembered, circumstances were creating a new middle class that was to stamp itself indelibly on western life and institutions. The spirit of speculation had entered the wilderness with the early surveyors. With its vast resources the Inland Empire offered the first opportunity to exercise the newly won right to exploit the western hinterland, and it was seized upon greedily. Agriculture was still the common business and land hunger the common passion. The irruption of the land-hungry hordes upon the fertile Ohio valley, it will be recalled, synchronized with the speculative debauch that followed the conclusion of the peace of 1783, and this in turn was a by-product of the sudden expansion of the new capitalistic finance. Speculation had suddenly become every man's business, and wild lands and wild-cat banks, joining fortunes for better or worse, brought forth a characteristic progeny. The new gospel of progress found more willing hearers than the old gospel of righteousness. Every adventurer into the Ohio valley was a potential speculator, and every settler was eager to sell out to a later comer at an advance. The real-estate agent followed close on the footsteps of Daniel Boone, quick to profit from the explorations. Land was the staple commodity and such a turnover had never before been known in America. Every clearing in the woods was speedily capitalized, and every town site was reckoned rich in potential values. The new cities were founded in unearned increment and prospered with its increase. With European peasants flocking to the West from their poverty-stricken countries, and the exploited of the East seeking new openings there, it was an unlucky speculator who could not exchange his paper values for substantial equivalents. Law, religion, education, culture, were pressed into the service of speculation. How widely the spirit permeated the West is suggested in the experience of Timothy Flint, frontier missionary. Writing from Saint Charles, Missouri, in 1818, he commented somewhat bitterly:

"Religion, when I came here was considered contemptible. The phalanx of opposition was in array from one end of the street to the other. Why did they invite me here? On speculation. A minister--a church--a school--are words to flourish in an advertisement to sell lots." (John Ervin Kirkpatrick, Timothy Flint, etc., Appendix B, p. 293.)

From the determining factors, then, of abundant wild lands, rapid increase in population, and an elastic credit, operating on a vast scale, came the optimistic, speculative psychology of the new West. It is the common disease of every period of unstable economics. It had traveled west with every extension of the frontier; and it became acute in the Ohio valley in the romantic days following the War of 1812. In colonial times before the upheaval of the Revolution, prices of land and commodities had been stable. The basic silver currency varied little in quantity or value; coin was scarce, but the occasional emission of paper money produced little disturbance, for the reason that the farmer habitually reckoned his income in the produce of his farm and fireside. But with the unsettling of exchange values by the wide use of bank notes, prices at once shifted to a speculative basis. The familiar commodities ceased to have a fixed use value, and a cash psychology superseded the traditional commodity value. The old stability was gone. The familiar domestic economy that functioned primarily in terms of consumption rather than profit disintegrated under the workings of a paper system and gave place to a speculative economy.

It was this revolution that set apart the new West from the older traditional America and made it the special repository of the new middle-class spirit of progress. The change had been long preparing. Writing from Boonesborough in January, 1776, the agent of the Transylvania Land Company pointed out that the western country "abounded with land mongers," and that his company had already issued nine hundred patents. (1) These adventurous spirits were only pioneers pointing the way for later hordes that after 1815 pushed eagerly onward. "Old America seems to be breaking up, and moving westward," commented a traveler in 1817 as he watched the long line of Conestoga wagons moving towards Pittsburgh; and in the fall of the same year Timothy Flint said of Saint Charles, Missouri, that "there was an average of one hundred people every day coming to the town, or passing to near-by points. Nearly all were poor and not one family in fifty had a Bible" (Kirkpatrick, Timothy Flint, etc., p. 102). "This western fever has seized old and young," remarks a character in Cooper's Home as Found, "and it has carried off many active families from our parts of the world. . . . Most of the counties adjoining our own have lost a considerable portion of their population." One reason for this vast exodus from the East is suggested by a recent student who remarks: "A considerable part of the significance of the frontier lies behind the frontier. In one sense, the westward expansion of the American people was a flight from the new industrialism" (Norman Ware,The Industrial Worker, p. xx). To these adventurers from the East was added an increasing immigration. During the period from the close of the Revolution to the War of 1812, the annual immigration averaged no more than four or five thousand. In the year 1817 it rose to 22,000, and thereafter an augmenting stream poured into America and filtered westward. They were natural prey to shrewd promoters, and in Martin Chuzzlewit Dickens has drawn a picture--not wholly caricature-- of what befell some of them. But whatever might be their individual fate, they provided fuel to the fire that was consuming the old agrarianism and clearing the ground for the western middle class.


With land as its staple commodity the West naturally interpreted progress in terms of increasing land values; and these in turn were dependent on better markets, better roads, and a freely flowing tide of immigration. In a country of such vast distances internal improvements were an everyday necessity. With every mile that a turnpike was driven into the wilderness new opportunities were opened up. Monies paid for wild land went into the Federal treasury; it was only just, according to the western view, that such monies should return to the West in the form of public improvements, for with such improvements tax values were increased, prices of all commodities rose, and progress was furthered. The Federal government could not fairly leave its offspring to shift for themselves, but must consider itself in loco parentis< to the rising commonwealth. It was a persuasive argument appealing alike to farmer and speculator, to town and country. But it played havoc with the older Jeffersonianism. Jefferson thought always in terms of the agrarian producer functioning in a stable economic world; speculation was not in his philosophy; unearned increment was a crop he never calculated on; and in sympathy with an older liberalism he would reduce the state to the narrow role of policeman. But the new West, thinking in terms of its immediate needs, desired a broad and benevolent paternalism. It wanted the Federal government to butter its bread regardless of the ultimate cost of the butter.

The complete embodiment of this spirit of paternalistic progress was the master politician of the times, whose dramatic career, beginning as a Jeffersonian and ending as a Hamiltonian, suggests the confusions of a world in transition. Henry Clay was the hero of the new West, the spokesman of the new ambitions. A man of great personal charm, engaging manners, buoyant temperament, exuberant patriotism, and persuasive tongue, he migrated in 1797 at the age of twenty-one from Richmond, Virginia, to Lexington, Kentucky, then a booming county-seat town only twenty-two years removed from the building of its first blockhouse. The population of the state had more than doubled in seven years, and by 1797 it had risen above 180,000. Of this aggressive little world Clay soon became the accredited representative at Washington. He had been brought up under the old domestic economy and carefully tutored in the Jeffersonian philosophy. For four years he had been private secretary to George Wythe, a distinguished Virginian of the older generation, a profound lawyer and teacher, a scholarly political thinker, a humanitarian, and a confirmed agrarian. When Clay left Virginia he carried with him the Jeffersonianism of Wythe; but he was wanting in the trained intellect of his preceptor and his views were inadequately grounded. His subsequent career revealed him as an impressionable nature modifying his convictions with his environment. In Kentucky the spirit of speculative expansion seized him and inoculated his mind with the new gospel of progress. He early convinced himself that government was not doing its full duty unless it helped its citizens to make money, and he persistently pressed on Congress the need of federal aid to develop the West. In 1812 he fell victim to the war psychology, turned jingo, and substituted an ardent patriotism for sober reason. Thereafter he became increasingly nationalistic, demanding a strong army and navy, pleading for a loose construction of the constitution, arguing for paternalism. His Jeffersonianism was quietly put away like a garment out of style. Grossly ignorant of the schools of economic thought, he was an opportunist who shifted from the older domestic economy to the later capitalistic, without comprehending the significance of the change. Unread in history and political theory, he trusted his fluency to get him out of any inconsistencies he might blunder into. In the course of his long career he found himself at different times on both sides of every important question; yet gravitating to the middle-class position, the exponent of exploitation in the name of progress, spokesman of the commercial, financial and manufacturing interests, a new-model Federalist passionately defending the new money economy--a curious ending for one who began as a pupil of George Wythe.

And yet not curious when one considers the ambitions of the world that molded him. Clay was a born politician who rarely came to grips with reality. Devoted to the principles of republican liberty as he found them in the Constitution, he professed to believe that government could be trusted to distribute favors with impartial hand. Personally honest, he never realized how often he allowed himself to become the unconscious tool of powerful economic interests. With his desire to please everybody he was an easy prey for skillful lobbyists. He had been at one time attorney for the Bank, yet he denied vehemently that his defense of the institution had been influenced by such connection. He had become a Hamiltonian without gaining Hamilton's clear understanding of the economic basis of politics. A brilliant opportunist, he was guided by no fixed political principles but tacked with the shifting winds. A brilliant romantic, he was the persuasive prophet of an age that was dreaming of a prosperity that should gather in certain favored reservoirs through the agency of subsidies and taxes, and trickle thence through all the land to water the roots of industry. It was fitting that such a man should be the father of Whiggery, and fitting also that he should stand as the embodiment of the spirit of compromise. One great lesson, at least, he had learned, that greater men too often do not learn, the lesson that republican government rests on good will and that such good will demands a policy of give and take among rival interests. Compromise may be displeasing to earnest souls, but it is implied in any workable system of democratic rule.

Like Calhoun and Webster, Clay was a victim of changing times. If he had lived a generation later, when the middle-class revolution had been accomplished and the principle of capitalism was in undisputed control, he would have achieved a far greater personal success. But capitalism was not yet strong enough to uphold him against rival economies, and he failed of his lifelong ambition to be President. He was broken by the Jacksonian revolution, in spite of the fact that no other American politician has been so loved by a hero worshiping electorate-and it should be added, has been so lovable.

(1) See James Hall, Romance of American History, Appendix.