James Monroe and the Era of Good Feelings
Copyright © 2012, Henry J. Sage

Monroe as President | Sectional Issues | Monroe Doctrine | The Marshall Court | Missouri Compromise

James Monroe. A recent biographer of James Monroe calls him the “first national security president.” Well known for his "Monroe Doctrine," crafted largely by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, President Monroe also oversaw the securing of treaties that stabilized America's borders at a time when this disposition of territory in North America was still unsettled. James Monroe was also the last president of the “Virginia Dynasty” and the last candidate to run for president unopposed. He received all electoral votes but one. (The other went to John Quincy Adams, for reasons more or less unknown.) At the time of Monroe's accession to the presidency, the world had changed dramatically because of the American and French Revolutions. After centuries of frequent warfare, the nations stepped back from confrontation as they contemplated the bloody past. The next century has been called the “hundred years' peace.” Perhaps an overstatement, it was nevertheless a time of comparative quiet in the international arena.

The Monroe Administration: Last of the “Virginia Dynasty”

In addition to being the last of the Virginia dynasty, President James Monroe was also the last veteran of the American Revolution to serve in the White House.  In 1776 at the age of 18 James Monroe enlisted in the Third Virginia Regiment and served alongside John Marshall. Two years later he was commissioned as an officer in the Continental Army and participated in a number of battles under Washington’s command, including the attack on Trenton in December, 1776. By the end of the war he had risen to the rank of colonel.

James MonroeAs a member of the Confederation Congress from Virginia in the 1780s, delegate James Monroe was one of the leading proponents of the Northwest Ordinance passed in 1787.  He also participated in the Virginia ratifying convention, and although he opposed Constitution for reasons similar to those of Patrick Henry and other fellow Virginians, he was elected senator from Virginia in 1790. Monroe subsequently served as minister to France under Presidents Washington and Jefferson and was instrumental in negotiating the Louisiana purchase with Napoleon’s government.

Monroe was appointed secretary of state by President James Madison in 1811, but because of his military background, he also served as secretary of war during the war of 1812. When the British marched on Washington in 1814, Secretary Monroe personally rode out to gauge the British advance and warned President Madison of the impending danger. His leadership in the War Department helped improve America’s military capability.

In 1816 James Monroe was elected president of the United States. Monroe’s own diplomatic experiences, combined with the skillful diplomacy of Monroe’s Secretary of State Richard Rush and later John Quincy Adams, led to important advances in American foreign relations during his two terms in the White House. The Rush-Bagot and Transcontinental treaties firmed up America’s borders and spread its domain to the Pacific Ocean.  Despite many involving domestic issues that challenge to his leadership, President Monroe concentrated heavily on America’s security.

As mentioned in the previous section, the Federalist Party had hinted at secession from the Union and called the Hartford Convention to protest what it saw as unfair treatment of the New England states, who had vigorously opposed the War of 1812. The more or less successful conclusion of the conflict, however, had done the party in. Thus James Monroe became the first president to govern without organized opposition. Monroe was still part of the “Virginia dynasty,” however, and his policies did not go unscrutinized. Because some benefits did accrue to the United States from the war, the nation returned to concern with domestic matters, which soon enough began to divide the country along sectional, if not political, lines.

James Monroe, who succeeded his fellow Virginian James Madison as president, was Jefferson’s law student, of whom Jefferson remarked, if you turned Monroe’s soul inside out, it would be “spotless.” He was the last president to dress in the old colonial style. His distinguished cabinet included John Quincy Adams, John C. Calhoun and William Crawford, all three of whom became candidates for President.

Monroe’s First Inaugural Address showed that the Republicans had adopted many Federalist Nationalist principles—Monroe supported a standing Army, strong Navy, fortifications, and support for manufacturing. It was said at the time that “The Republicans have out-federalized federalism.” But Monroe was still an old Jeffersonian at heart—he vetoed certain bills on Constitutional grounds, the only grounds, it was believed at the time, on which presidents could legitimately veto actions of Congress. (That would change when Andrew Jackson, who had his own views of the Constitution and presidential power, entered the White House.)

Anglo-American Agreements. In the aftermath of the War of 1812, both Americans and Britons were fatigued from decades of struggle. Although America did not fight in the Napoleonic wars, lasting tensions over neutral rights, etc., had kept the country on edge.  Thus both parties were disposed to try to secure peace for the future and entered into negotiations to achieve that end. A Commercial Convention of 1815 ended unfavorable trade practices by the British and allowed American access to various markets.

The Rush-Bagot Treaty. In 1817 many armaments (naval forces and forts) remained around the shores of the Great Lakes. Furthermore, Canadians were very apprehensive about American expansionist tendencies. British Minister Charles Bagot and American Secretary of State Richard Rush reached an agreement in 1817 designed to reduce tension along the Canadian boundary and avoid a naval arms race. (Minister Bagot in Washington flattered the Americans, calling Dolley Madison a “queen”.) The Rush-Bagot Treaty provided the basis for an unguarded boundary and demilitarization of the Great Lakes. Each side was allowed to keep one ship on Lake Champlain and Lake Ontario and two ships on the upper Great Lakes, one a revenue cutter. The agreement was ratified by the Senate as a formal treaty, and became a model of disarmament.  It created the longest unguarded international boundary in the world.

In another follow up to the Treaty of Ghent, Albert Gallatin and Richard Rush in London signed an the Convention (Boundary Settlement) of 1818. It provided for the U.S.-Canadian boundary to be set along the 49th Parallel to the Rocky Mountains and provided for joint occupation of the Oregon Territory from there to the Pacific Ocean. The agreement also established the northern Louisiana purchase border at the 49th parallel. In addition, Americans received perpetual fishing rights off the coast of Canada forever, and a commission was established to adjust territorial disputes.

The Adams-Onis Treaty. In 1819 Secretary of State John Quincy Adams negotiated the Transcontinental Treaty with Spanish Minister in Washington Luis de Onis. The Adams-Onis Treaty fixed the southern boundary of Louisiana to the Pacific Ocean and ceded Florida to the U.S. Adams’s position was aided by Andrew Jackson’s unauthorized foray into Florida, which Spain had difficulty governing. In addition, Mexico was threatening to revolt for independence, and Spain saw much of her colonial empire in America crumbling. The U.S renounced its claims to Texas and agreed to assume $5 million in claims of Americans against the Spanish government. The result of the Adams-Onis Treaty, along with the Rush-Bagot agreement, was that all major border issues west to the Pacific were settled.

The Era of Good Feelings: But with Hard Feelings Beneath

Shortly after James Monroe was sworn in as president in 1817, he made a goodwill trip through New England.  A Massachusetts newspaper applauded his visit and declared that the time was now an “Era of Good Feelings.” Historians have picked up that phrase, and it is generally associated with the period following the war of 1812.  It is true that with the end of the Napoleonic wars and the ratification of the Treaty of Ghent, the world was a much calmer and safer place.  Captain Stephen Decatur had neutralized the Barbary Pirates and American trade was free to go forth with its accustomed vigor.

Symbolic of the general feeling of goodwill in the nation, James Monroe ran unopposed for reelection in 1820 and received every electoral vote but one.  Although the Federalist Party had disappeared by 1820, some of their nationalist ideas persisted.  For example, although Republicans had opposed the national bank in Jefferson’s time, Madison had found it inconvenient to run a war without a national financial institution at his disposal, so the Bank was rechartered in 1816.  Madison also felt that a peacetime standing army and a strong Navy were essential safeguards for the country.

The Embargo of 1807-1809 and the War of 1812 had stimulated manufacturing and industry in the United States, and a system of protective tariffs was felt to be useful.  As the export of southern cotton drove the economy of that region to new heights, prosperity seemed well distributed throughout the land.  Tariffs and land sales provided all the income that the national government needed to support its operations comfortably. The treaties discussed above improved America’s relations with foreign powers.

In short, it seemed to be a time of peace, prosperity, and liberty; the Jeffersonian balance between individual liberty and responsible government had apparently been reached. Yet the Era of Good Feelings could not last in a society of so many contending interests. Although the surface of public affairs appeared calm, significant troubles were roiling not far below the surface.

Substantial population growth, improved transportation links within the various sections, and attacks on the institution of slavery contributed to a growing sense of regionalism in the new nation. Powerful sectional loyalties had already begun to undermine national unity. The trans-Appalachian West—with its rich soil and developing system of water transportation—experienced substantial growth after 1790. Native Americans offered some resistance but were pushed aside by the onrushing settlers. The growth in the West typified the incredible population growth of the whole nation. Areas that had been populated by Indians and fur traders became the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio, and by 1819 nine new states had been added to the original thirteen. The mix of people in the West led to the creation of a new regional culture of a rootless, optimistic folk. Their interests soon diverged from their Eastern, urban oriented brethren, and the country did begin to divide along sectional lines.

Differences between different sections of the country were exacerbated by a financial panic which swept across the country in 1819.  The lucrative trade that followed the war of 1812 slowed to a near halt, and people lost their jobs in urban areas.  Banks failed, mortgages were foreclosed and farm prices took a precipitous drop.  The financial problems were not limited to any one area of the country but swept from the eastern cities to the western agricultural regions.  Declining cotton prices hurt the South, and many people blamed the problems on the banks.

Sectional Issues, 1815 to 1860

The Tariff.  Tariffs are taxes assessed by the national government on imported goods, and they have two basic purposes.  Revenue tariffs are relatively low import duties collected on all imports and are used to offset the expense of maintaining the necessary apparatus to control national ports and borders.  Monitoring the inflow of people and goods into a nation can be expensive, and tariffs help offset the costs. Modest revenue tariffs are accepted as a necessary means of doing business internationally.

The second kind of tariff is the protective tariff, and it has a quite different purpose.  Protective tariffs are duties laid on particular goods designed to help the manufacturers or producers of similar products in the host nation by artificially raising the price of foreign goods. Tariffs can be of a specified amount or ad valorem as a percentage of the product’s value.

Obviously, goods that a nation does not produce in abundance will not be assigned protective duties.  Products which foreign competition tends to render unprofitable are supposedly aided by high protective tariffs. The difficulty with protective tariffs is that they raise prices for domestic consumers, and when levied on products that are produced regionally, they tend to favor one part of the country over another. Furthermore, they tend to generate retaliatory measures by other nations.

Under the Constitution Congress has the sole power to levy tariffs, a change from the Articles of Confederation, under which the states had the right to do that on their own.  Early tariffs were designed primarily for revenue, although there was some moderate protectionism attached to them.

The Tariff Act of 1816 was enacted to protect American manufacturing against British postwar textile im­ports and promote national economic self-sufficiency.  The Panic of 1819 encour­aged high tariffs in order to protect American jobs, a factor which also makes tariffs attractive to consumers.  Except for the commercial interests of New England, for whom trade was often reduced by high tariffs, heavier duties were supported in every sec­tion of the country.  In time, however, the South and Southwest turned against protective tariffs, concluding that they increased the costs of imports and inhibited the export of southern cotton. 

Tariffs continued to rise in the 1820s as duties on manufactures, woolen goods, cotton, iron, and finished products continued to move upward.  In 1828 the highest tariff in the pre-Civil War period was passed, and in the South it became known as the Tariff of Abominations, which led to the nullification crisis of 1832 (discussed below.) Following that crisis tariffs were gradually lowered (with intermittent rises) until the time of the Civil War.

Internal Improvements. Internal improvements is the name given to what we today call infrastructure building.  The southern and western parts of the United States needed roads, canals and harbor facilities to get their goods to market.  Most of the older sections of the country, the east and northeast, had already built those facilities at their own expense. The issue was how much federal money should be put into building projects that did not cross state lines. The states that needed large capital investment to improve transportation facilities often lacked the funds to support them and sought federal assistance.  Westerners, for example,  were most enthusiastic for federally financed internal improvements such as the National Road, which would connect them with eastern markets.

Those regions which had already invested capital in internal improvements did not want to spend money on what they already had. For most part, during the early 19th century the federal government stayed out of the construction of internal improvements. In 1817 President Madison believed that a Constitu­tional amendment would be needed for the U.S. to get into building of roads or canals.  John C. Calhoun supported federal expenditures for transportation under the notion of the “general welfare” clause and for military necessity.  (Interestingly, President Eisenhower sold the idea of the interstate highway system in the 1950s on the basis of national security.) Although not a large issue, the question of internal improvements did sharpen regional differences.

Land Policy.  The liberal land acts of 1800 and 1804 reduced the price of public land and the minimum size unit available for sale. Sales boomed, then slumped during the War of 1812, then boomed again until 1818. Then agricultural prices fell as foreign markets shrank and the Panic of 1819 destroyed many farms.  The West strongly favored a cheap land policy while the North feared it would drain off cheap labor and provide less income for the federal government. The South worried about competition from cotton producers in the virgin lands of the Southwest. 

Land was the most valuable asset that the federal government possessed, and selling it created a steady source of revenue. Liberal land sales policies also spurred development in the frontier regions and attracted immigrants.  Understandably, people who wanted to go out west and settle favored cheap land that could be purchased on generous terms.  Land speculators, who had no intention of settling on or developing the properties they owned, also wanted cheap land for obviously selfish reasons. Established interests, which tended to be concentrated in the East and Northeast, supported higher land prices to maximize profits for the government.

Despite the competing interests land sales boomed through much of the 19th century, and the income from land sales provided a major portion of the income needed to operate the federal government.  For much of the 19th century the government operated very comfortably on the revenue from tariffs and land sales. In the later decades land sales and distribution would be used to finance the building of thousands of miles of railroads.

Banks. Most Americans today probably see banks as convenient places to save money, secure loans for automobiles or homes or to start businesses; they probably don't think much about the relationship between banking policy and the overall economy. What many Americans do pay attention to, however, is the cost of borrowing money. In other words, they pay attention to the interest rates that banks are charging for loans. The national banking system we have today is the Federal Reserve System, established in 1913.  The Federal Reserve System with its twelve member banks controls the vast majority of the banks in the United States and determines basic interest rates. The interest rates that “the Fed” charges to member banks determine the interest rates that banks charge for home loans and so on.

The first Bank of the United States was created by Alexander Hamilton during the first Congress.  It was chartered in 1791 for 20 years, but its charter was not renewed in 1811.  Some who opposed the bank questioned its constitutionality; others opposed its competition with state banks and the fact that most of its stock was foreign owned.  Absence of a national bank during War of 1812, however, complicated war financing and lowered value of bank notes.  In response, Congress created a Second Bank of the United States in 1816, again chartered for 20 years.  The new bank was badly managed at first and was associated with the Panic of 1819.  New management and tighter credit policies saved the bank, but at the expense of public favor.

The national bank in the early 1800s did essentially the same thing that the Federal Reserve system does today: it determined the value of money. When there was no national bank, all banking was done by state banks.  They issued paper banknotes based on their gold and silver deposits, which circulated as currency, and they made profits by loaning money.  Absent strong controls on what the banks were allowed to do, many banks, sometimes known as “wildcat banks,” loaned money more or less indiscriminately in hopes of maximizing profits.  They sometimes issued more paper banknotes than they could safely cover with their gold and silver reserves; for paper to have any value in that era, it had to be backed by hard money. (During the American Revolution, paper Continental dollars unbacked by specie were all but worthless.)

Speculators and people who wanted to buy land favored loose banking policies because money was easy to get, and since the value of money tended to go down as more and more notes were issued, the condition known as inflation, loans were relatively easy to repay.  Furthermore, in an inflationary economy with rising prices, people who were obliged to borrow money in order to do business, such as farmers, favored inflation as it would drive up the prices they could get for their products and therefore their profits. Those competing interests tended to divide along sectional lines, as did the tariff and land policies.

Bankers, on the other hand, resisted inflation, for if they loaned money at 5% interest, but inflation proceeded at a 5% rate, the money they were paid back for loans was worth less than the money they had originally given to borrowers. The Bank of the United States controlled the value of currency by requiring state banks to redeem their own banknotes to the national bank in hard currency or specie when the national bank presented their notes for payment.  Thus if speculators on the frontier borrowed money from a state bank, and used that money to pay the federal government for land, and that bank paper wound up in possession of the national bank, the national bank could demand payment in gold or silver. 

That relationship between the National Bank and the state banks placed a brake on the propensity of state banks to lend beyond the capacity of their reserves to cover their paper, which in turn tended to hold down inflation, as the value of money was stable.  The presence of the national bank was therefore seen as a positive influence that helped maximize the profits of banking interests, while those who used banks for loans saw the national bank as harmful to their interests. 

In 1815 President James Madison realized that the country was in a financial muddle; the United States had had to return $7 million in gold to England in 1811.  Banking policy was confused, and the competing interests of debtors and creditors kept the nation in financial turmoil. Madison said that if state banks could not control currency, a national bank was neces­sary.  Treasury Secretary Dallas introduced new bank bill, which passed in 1816.

The Second Bank of the United States lasted until Andrew Jackson vetoed the bill to recharter it in 1832. Although the Second National Bank did well under the leadership of Nicholas Biddle, Jackson was not friendly to banks.


While there were squabbles over the tariff, the bank, internal improvements and land policies, the most divisive sectional issue was slavery, although the issue generated surprisingly little controversy from 1789 to 1819.  Slave importations increased during the 1790s, but the slave trade was quietly abolished in 1808, when all the states except South Carolina had ceased to import slaves. 

Some of the framers of the Constitution had felt, perhaps reasonably and sincerely, that slavery was diminishing in the United States.  In fact Virginia had reduced its number of slaves substantially during the 1780s.  Virtually all of the founding fathers looked with disfavor on slavery; Washington, Jefferson, Madison, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, George Mason, and numerous others were more than a little uneasy about the institution in the country based upon the notion that “all men are created equal.”

A major factor in the evolution of slavery was the invention of the cotton gin, attributed to Eli Whitney, but probably invented by a slave. The cotton gin transformed the cotton industry and made it possible to produce more cotton of different varieties faster and more cheaply, thus allowing Southern cotton interests to make substantial profits.  At the same time, the textile industry in England, which was at the forefront of the first industrial revolution, created a great need for supplies of cotton. The demand kept prices up, and merchants and traders in the Northeast profited from the traffic as well. Thus cotton—and slaves—became the engine that drove the Southern economy.

By 1819 free and slave states had entered the Union in equal numbers, and slave-produced cotton became king in the South. Southerners ardently defended slavery while most northerners were indifferent, believing that slavery was a local issue.  Many westerners, espe­cially native southerners, also supported slavery. The moral issue of slavery, always lurking in the background, was not prominent in the early 1800s, and the first crisis over slavery since the Constitutional convention occurred when Missouri sought to be admitted in 1819.  (The Missouri compromise will be discussed below.)

Around 1830 the abolitionist movement began and opponents of slavery began to challenge the “peculiar institution” on moral, humanitarian, religious, and libertarian grounds. Jefferson's statement that “we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go” lost traction once the moral issue began to be raised. The issue of slavery was not always at the forefront of public debate, but as the years went on and the abolitionist movement grew in strength, the moral issue could no longer be ignored.

Many southerners who were opposed to slavery stuck with it because of large amounts of invested capital in land and cotton and slaves. Many Northerners who opposed slavery were also afraid of a flood of cheap labor if the slaves were freed. Southern non-slave owning farmers resented what they saw as unfair competition from slave labor. In 1819 the federal government offered a $50 bounty to informers of illegal slaves being imported into the country.  The foreign slave trade was declared to be piracy, and the death penalty was authorized for American citizens engaged in the slave trade. The controversy over slavery would continue until the Civil War broke out in 1861.


Many southerners who were opposed to slavery stuck with it because of large amounts of invested capital in land and cotton and slaves. Many Northerners who opposed slavery were also afraid of a flood of cheap labor if the slaves were freed. Southern non-slave owning farmers resented what they saw as unfair competition from slave labor. In 1819 the federal government offered a $50 bounty to informers of illegal slaves being imported into the country.  The foreign slave trade was declared to be piracy, and the death penalty was authorized for American citizens engaged in the slave trade. The controversy over slavery would continue until the Civil War broke out in 1861.

The Monroe Doctrine

Not surprisingly, the Monroe Doctrine, a cornerstone of American foreign policy, was the result of events that began in Europe. Following the Napoleonic Wars, a Quadruple Alliance was created in 1815 among Great Britain, Prussia, Russia and Austria. France was admitted in 1818, making it the Quintuple Alliance. Its purpose was to restore the world to prewar status, which could have included the return of Spanish rule over colonies in Latin America.  The British, who remained detached from the Alliance’s continental moves, hoped to keep the former Latin American colonies free from Spanish control in order to advance their commercial interests.  British Foreign Secretary George Canning proposed a joint Anglo-American action to prevent intervention of the Alliance nations in the New World.  President John Quincy AdamsMonroe's informal advisers, Jefferson and Madison, urged cooperation with the British.

Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, however, had other ideas.  He was more concerned about Russia’s claims in the Pacific Northwest and about potential French or Spanish intervention in South America. Russia owned Alaska and had ventured down the Pacific coast into California, where they built a fort.  Arguing that the United States should not be following “in the wake of a British man ofwar,”Adams recommended that the United States act unilaterally to establish policy with regard to the Western Hemisphere. Secretary Adams drafted language which President Monroe decided to include in his annual message to Congress of 1823.

The final document, which was prepared largely by Adams, included the following points:  

          • The American continents were no longer open to colonization by the European powers;
          • Political systems in the Americas differed from those of Europe;
          • The United States would consider it a danger to America if the European system were extended to the Western Hemisphere;
          • The United States would not interfere in European affairs, nor with existing colonies.
    The European response to the Monroe Doctrine (not so called until years later) was one of  ridicule and scorn—Europeans claimed that the doctrine had no standing in international law. Although the U.S. had shunned British overtures, the effectiveness of the Monroe Doctrine was nevertheless dependent on the Royal Navy. Yet the announcement of the Monroe Doctrine and the response underscored onesignificant resultof the War of 1812: United States independence was no longer an issue. The most severe challenges to the Monroe Doctrine were to come later in American history as America assumed a protective stance toward its southern neighbors, which often created conflict with those nations. 

The beginning of the Hundred Years’ Peace left the United States free to pursue its continental destiny essentially undisturbed by European affairs. Although Europe was by no means free from turmoil for the remainder of the century, the great wars which had shaken the entire Western world would not recur until 1914.  Americans felt detached enough from Europe subsequent proposals were advanced to abolish the State Department (or at least the diplomatic corps) on the grounds of irrelevance.

Political Developments

As the years of international conflict waned, domestic affairs rose to the fore in the American political system. Economic issues, the further growth of democracy, the creation of new states, and the spread of American settlers into the Mississippi Valley were the focus of the political leaders of the 1820s and beyond.  American political development was far from complete, and the men who sought to develop and extend the American Republic faced challenges less daunting than those of their predecessors, perhaps, but they were still of great import. The American nation was growing and evolving, far more rapidly than men and women of the first generation had expected.

The Second Generation of Political Leaders

The national leaders who followed in the footsteps of the founding generation were by many measures lesser men than the giants who had gone before.  Many sought the presidency, but few were chosen, and those elected to the nation’s highest office were not always the best men for the job.  Yet this second-generation kept Americandemocracy moving forward, although, like their predecessors, they were not able to solve the nation’s biggest problem, slavery.  Here are brief sketches of some of the leaders of the early 19th century.

John Quincy Adams: Nationalist

As Monroe’s secretary of state, John Quincy Adams, was the North’s best known political leader in the 1820s. Originally a Federalist like his father, Adams converted to the Republican party after 1800. Adams was capable, ambitious, and intelligent, but he was inept in personal relationships and was a demanding perfectionist. He was a committed nationalist, open-minded toward tariff policy, and supportive of the bank and internal improvements. He was personally opposed to slavery. Recently he has become better known for his speech to the Supreme Court in the now famous Amistad case, as he was depicted in the Steven Spielberg film by Anthony Hopkins. He is by consensus one of America’s most brilliant diplomats and author of the Monroe Doctrine and various treaties. He served 18 years in the House of Representatives after being president, which he fought courageously against slavery. He died in the halls of Congress.

Daniel Webster: Lawyer and Orator, the “Divine Daniel”

Daniel Webster was a powerful congressional leader, a skillful constitutional lawyer and remarkable orator. Webster had a strong mind, but, though a rhetorical nationalist, he was devoted to serving the business interests of New England. He opposed the War of 1812, protective tariffs, the bank, cheap land, internal improvements, and slavery. His most famous orations include his appeal to the Supreme Court the Dartmouth College case, his famous “Union Address” of 1832, and his plea for the Union in the senatorial debates over the Compromise of 1850.  He was also co-author of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842.

Henry Clay: The Great Compromiser

Henry Clay of Kentucky was one of the most charming political leaders of his generation. Intellectually inferior to Adams and Calhoun, Clay nevertheless used his charisma and skill at arranging compromises to carry him far in national politics. He authored the American System of protective tariffs and internal improvements, canals, harbors, railroads, post offices and roads, to meld the interests of east and west. He supported the bank, and, a slave owner himself, he disliked but tolerated slavery.

John C. Calhoun: Nationalist and Spokesman for the South

John Calhoun of South Carolina possessed a powerful intelligence.  He was a staunch nationalist during the era of the War of 1812 and in fact was one of the "war hawks." But to keep his home base in South Carolina solid, he had to move in the direction of states’ rights, which made him the foremost spokesman of the southern cause, but less and less a viable candidate for president. His critics claimed that no human blood ran in his veins, but he could be powerfully persuasive in the Senate and in various offices which he held.

Note: The careers of Calhoun, Clay and Webster were so intertwined that they became known as the “Great Triumvirate.” All three men had great power and influence though none became president. [See the triple biography, The Great Triumvirate, by Merrill D. Peterson, 1987.]

The Great Triumvirate
Daniel Webster henry clay John C. Calhoun
Webster Clay Calhoun

DeWitt Clinton: Governor of New York

Clinton was a builder of the Erie Canal and a political mover and shaker.  As Governor of the Empire State, he was an early holder of that powerful position, often seen as a path to the White House. Five New Yorkers have been president, and at least twice that number have been significant players in presidential politics.

Martin van BurenMartin Van Buren: The “Red Fox”—“Little Magician”—“Old Kinderhook”

Martin Van Buren, the affable leader of New York’s “Albany Regency”—an early political machine—was the most masterful politician in the North.  He was one of three United States presidents of Dutch descent, all from New York, the other two being Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt. He seldom took a strong position on any of the key issues of the day; to him, issues were merely means of winning elections. When invited by Andrew Jackson to be his secretary of state, he was reluctant to accept as many colleagues warned him from joining the rough and ready “Old Hickory.” He accepted, however, and later wrote that when he first looked into Jackson’s eyes, he knew he had made the right choice.

Additional figures include William H. Crawford of Georgia, the great manipulator and states righter, whose stroke in 1824 took him out of the presidential race; Thomas Hart Benton, a colorful expansionist who supported homestead legislation and internal improvements, but who vehemently opposed all banks—he was the champion of small western farmers; William Henry Harrison, winner of the Battle of Tippecanoe; elected president in 1840 he served only 30 days as he died from complications from pneumonia, allegedly contracted during his inaugural speech, at two hours, the longest inaugural address ever; and John Tyler of Virginia, a one-time Democrat who broke with Jackson over states’ rights and was the first vice president to succeed to the White House (on the death of Harrison.)


Chief Justice John Marshall was a strong nationalist and held a Hamiltonian view of the Constitution. His decisions constantly favored manufacturing and business interests, advanced economic development, and established the supremacy of national legislation over state laws, both generally and in the economic arena, and affirmed the Constitution as “the Supreme Law of the Land.”

John MarshallJohn Marshall's father, Thomas Marshall, a lawyer for George Washington, had trained his son in the law when John was still in his teens.  Educated mostly at home, John Marshall had studied William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England, the most famous legal text of its time, and had learned by heart much of the poetry of Alexander Pope as a young man.  He served in the Virginia militia early in the Revolution and was later on Washington’s staff during the winter at Valley Forge.

Following his service in the American Revolution Marshall attended law lectures given by George Wythe at the College of William and Mary, and his license to practice in Virginia was signed by Governor Thomas Jefferson.  He developed a successful law practice in Richmond and argued a case before the United States Supreme Court. Offered the position of Attorney General by George Washington, he was obliged to turn it down because of business demands. (At Washington's request he forwarded the letter to the next candidate in line—the process of appointing cabinet members was far less formal in those days.)

Marshall’s tenure on the court established not only important legal precedents, but the great Chief Justice also instituted practices still followed by the court.  For example, the justices all shake hands before entering the chambers to hear a case, and the collegiality instituted by Marshall among the justices has persisted down to the present time. A colleague and friend of Marshall once remarked of the man, “He was more loved than he was respected, and he was very much respected.”

The Marshall Court established important building blocks os American jurisprudence. The Marshall Court

  • upheld the sanctity of contracts, beginning with Fletcher v. Peck, the Yazoo Land Fraud case in 1810;
  • asserted the precedence of federal power over state authority, and in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) the Court affirmed the constitutionality of the Second Bank of the United States, thereby legitimizing the doctrine of implied powers;
  • defined Interstate Commerce in Gibbons v. Ogden in 1824 and asserted the right of the Federal Government to exclusive control over that commerce, though later decisions granted the right of states to act where the Federal Government had not done so.
  • nationalized many issues, and can be said to have made the U.S. far more amenable to capitalism;
  • established a hierarchy of law: Constitution—Federal—State.

In 1837, Chief Justice Roger Taney, following Marshall’s lead, ruled in the Charles River Bridge case that public convenience superseded the rights of private the interests, thereby endorsing internal improvements and advancing economic development.

Marshall’s Leading Decisions

1803 Marbury v. Madison [see above, p. 6]. Marshall claimed for the Court the right of judicial review—the power of the Supreme Court to nullify federal laws found to be in conflict with the Constitution.

1810 Fletcher v. Peck

Fletcher was the first case in which a state statute was held void under the United States Constitution. The case originated in an action of the Georgia legislature, which in 1795 was induced by bribery to grant public lands, comprising much of what is now the states of Alabama and Mississippi, to four groups of purchasers known collectively as the Yazoo Land Companies. Popular indignation forced the legislature in 1796 to rescind the grant, on the ground that it had been secured by fraud. By that time, however, some of the land had been purchased by innocent third parties in New England and other parts of the country. Those buyers contested the validity of the rescinding act, contending that the original grant could not be repealed without violating the Contract Clause in Article I, Section 10: No State shall pass any Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts.

The decision was important for the protection of the vested rights of private property and extended the purview of the Contract Clause to public as well as private contracts, thereby making it applicable to transactions to which the state itself was a party. Speaking for a for a unanimous Court, Marshall wrote: “Is a clause to be considered as inhibiting the State from impairing the obligation of contracts between two individuals, but as excluding from that inhibition contracts made with itself? The words themselves contain no such distinction. They are general, and are applicable to contracts of every description.” Declaring that a public grant qualified as a contractual obligation and could not be abrogated without fair compensation, he therefore held that the rescinding act was an unconstitutional impairment of the obligations of contract.

1819 Dartmouth College v. Woodward

The Dartmouth College case arose from a dispute between the legislature of New Hampshire and the Trustees of Dartmouth College.  Dartmouth College was incorporated by a royal charter in 1769, which established a permanent Board of Trustees.  In 1816 Republicans gained control of the legislature and changed the Dartmouth charter, increasing the number of trustees and placing the Board of Trustees under the control of the governor.  The trustees sued, claiming that the United States Constitution contract clause rendered the state action invalid.  When the college lost its case in the New Hampshire state courts, Daniel Webster brought the case to the Supreme Court.  Webster’s eloquent plea for the college brought tears even to the eyes of Justice Marshall.

John Marshall decided the case, however, solely on the issue of the contract clause.  He declared that the charter which created a college was a contract that had created a corporation.  In so doing he defined a corporation as “an artificial being, invisible, intangible, and existing only in contemplation of law.” The corporation, he went on, possesses properties of “immortality, and, if the expression may be allowed, individuality; properties by which a perpetual succession of many persons are considered as the same, and may act as a single individual.” In other words, a corporation is a permanent legal creation which has essentially the same rights as an individual. Again citing Article I, Section 10 of the Constitution, he claimed that a contract was “beyond legislative control.” 

The significance of the sanctity of contracts and the definition of a corporation for the furtherance of business enterprises cannot be overstated

1819 McCulloch v. Maryland

The case of McCulloch v. Maryland involved the 2nd Bank of the United States and addressed the issues of national supremacy and implied powers in the Constitution. Opponents of the Bank of the United States sought state support to oppose the bank, and the Maryland legislature passed a law placing an annual tax of $15,000 on the bank. James McCulloch, the cashier of the Baltimore branch of the Bank, refused to pay the tax.

Marshall first attacked the question of whether or not the federal government had the right to create a national bank. Following the same line of argument as that used by Alexander Hamilton when the first bank was created, Marshall affirmed the right of the federal government to create a bank under the doctrine of implied powers.  Marshall argued that the national government was “supreme within its sphere of action,” and that the Constitution should not be read as a detailed blueprint, but a matter of general powers. Marshall wrote that although the word “bank” does not appear in the Constitution,

we find great powers to lay and collect borrow money; to regulate commerce; to declare and conduct a war; and to raise Support armies and navies.  … But it may with great reason be contended that government, entrusted with such ample powers, on the due execution of which the happiness and prosperity of the nation vitally depends, must also be entrusted with ample means for their execution.  The power being given, it is the interest of the nation to facilitate its execution.  It can never be their interest, and cannot be presumed to have been their intention, to clog and embarrass its execution by withholding the most appropriate means.

Common sense required that necessary had to be understood in the sense of “convenient” or “conducive” to the business of government, rather than absolutely necessary. Once concluding that the federal government had the right to pass a law creating a corporation, namely, the National Bank, Marshall stated what to him was obvious, that the power to tax is the power to destroy. If the state of Maryland could pass a law that could tax the national bank, it could tax it out of existence, and the net effect would be to nullify a federal law. But, said Marshall, federal law overrules state law and thus the Maryland law was unconstitutional. He wrote:

“That the power to tax involves the power to destroy; that the power to destroy may defeat and render useless the power to create; that there is a plain repugnance in conferring on one government a power to control the constitutional measures of another, which other, with respect to those very measures, is declared to be supreme over that which exerts the control, are propositions not to be denied. …

“That the power of taxing [the bank] by the states, may be exercised so as to destroy it is too obvious to be denied.”

1824 Gibbons v. Ogden

Gibbons v. Ogden is the steamboat case. New York state had awarded to Aaron Ogden a monopoly right to operate a steamboat ferry between New York and New Jersey.  Thomas Gibbons operated a rival steamboat line and claimed the New York did not have the power to give Ogden an exclusive right. Examining the language of the Constitutional commerce clause Marshall argued that steamboats fell under the idea of commerce and that the federal government had the exclusive right to regulate interstate commerce.  New York's granting of a monopoly conflicted with federal powers.

The net result of the aforementioned cases is that Marshall established a hierarchy of law: the Constitution was the supreme law of the land.  All federal laws must conform to the Constitution or they shall be declared null and void. Likewise, state laws must conform to the Constitution.  And if state laws could nullify federal laws, then federal laws would be form without substance; state laws must not conflict with or contradict federal laws.  And where the Constitution gives powers over certain enterprises to the federal government, states may not usurp that power. 

In subsequent cases, Sturges v. Crowninshield and Cohens v. Virginia Marshall argued that state laws absolving debtors of their obligations was an impairment of contractual obligations, and that state court decisions were subject to review by the Supreme Court when constitutional issues were involved. In all, John Marshall wrote well over 500 decisions during his tenure, and the great majority were unanimous.

The Missouri Compromise

The Panic of 1819 worsened tension between the sections, and growing sectionalism repeatedly influenced the politics of the 1820s. The most sharply divisive event was the Missouri Crisis of 1819-1820. Many of Missouri Territory’s settlers were native southerners who owned slaves, and they petitioned for Missouri’s admission as a slave state. But New York Congressman James Tallmadge’s amendment to the admission bill called for the gradual abolition of slavery in the proposed new state. This was the first attempt to restrict the expansion of slavery since the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. The Tallmadge amendment was fiercely debated—it passed in the House but lost in the Senate.

The debate generated by the Tallmadge Amendment did not deal with the morality of slavery or the rights of blacks; what was at stake was political influence. Neither was it about he existence of slavery in the Southern states, but rather about it being further extended. At the time there were 11 slave states and 11 free states, and Missouri’s admission would give the slave states a majority, thus frightening northerners who already complained of the advantages the South gained from the Three-Fifths Compromise and who also feared having to compete with slave labor. Still, the free states had a 105-81 edge in House of Representatives, as the North’s population was growing more rapidly. Ironically, the North’s more rapid growth was partially attributable to slavery, since immigrants did not want to go where they would have to compete with slave labor.

The moral issue of slavery was not yet a serious question for open debate—that would come with the advent of the abolitionist movement about a decade later. Nevertheless, the Missouri crisis was serious and a significant harbinger of things to come. Henry Clay, known as the “great compromiser,” stepped in and took advantage of the fact that Maine had applied for admission as the 23rd state, making it possible to strike a balance. The Missouri Compromise admitted Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state, and the Thomas Amendment barred slavery north of the 36x30° latitude in the old Louisiana Purchase Territory. (The line runs along the southern boundary of Missouri.) Southerners accepted the terms since they believed the banned territory was environmentally hostile to slavery anyway, thinking it was part of the “great American desert.” Clay also worked out a second compromise when the Missouri constitution tried to ban free blacks from migrating into the new state. The Missouri Crisis warned of the potential divisiveness of the slavery issue.

Reaction to the Compromise was mixed: it was seen as a temporary solution at best; strong feelings about the slavery would continue to smolder. To Thomas Jefferson, the issue sounded like a “fire bell in the night”; he had previously written, as inscribed on the walls of the Jefferson Memorial:

God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.

The final compromise was accepted, but really accomplished by smoke and mirrors—it said that, in effect, “this constitution (Missouri) does not mean what it says.” But in the climate of the times, it was accepted with relief, and the country did not have to confront the slavery issue again until 1850, but by that time the abolitionist movement had thoroughly transformed the dynamics of the debate. It would be much harder next time.

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