Digital History

The Era of Good Feelings

Shifting Political Values Previous Next
Digital History ID 3525



Traditionally, the Republican Party stood for limited government, states' rights, and a strict interpretation of the Constitution. By 1815, however, the party had adopted former Federalist positions on a national bank, protective tariffs, a standing army, and national roads.

In a series of policy recommendations to Congress at the end of the War of 1812, President Madison revealed the extent to which Republicans had adopted Federalist policies. He called for a program of national economic development directed by the central government, which included creation of a second Bank of the United States to provide for a stable currency, a protective tariff to encourage industry, a program of internal improvements to facilitate transportation, and a permanent 20,000-man army. In subsequent messages, he recommended an extensive system of roads and canals, new military academies, and establishment of a national university in Washington.

Old-style Republicans, who clung to the Jeffersonian ideal of limited government, dismissed Madison's proposals as nothing but "old Federalism, vamped up into something bearing the superficial appearance of Republicanism." But Madison's program found enthusiastic support among the new generation of political leaders. Convinced that inadequate roads, the lack of a national bank, and dependence on foreign imports had nearly resulted in a British victory in the war, these young leaders were eager to use the federal government to promote national economic development.

Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Daniel Webster were the preeminent leaders of the second generation of American political life--the period stretching from the War of 1812 to almost the eve of the Civil War. All shared similar backgrounds. Each was born on a poor or modest farm. Each became a lawyer. Each arrived in Washington, D.C., around the beginning of the War of 1812 and became the preeminent spokesman of his region--Clay of the West, Calhoun of the South, Webster of the North. Each possessed extraordinary oratorical talent. Each served in the cabinet as secretary of state or secretary of war. They died within a few months of each other in the early 1850s.

The leader of this group of younger politicians was Henry Clay, a Republican from Kentucky. Named Speaker on his very first day in the House of Representatives in 1811, Clay was one of the "War Hawks" who had urged President Madison to wage war against Britain. After the war, Clay became one of the strongest proponents of an active federal role in national economic development. He used his position as Speaker of the House to advance an economic program that he later called the "American System." According to this plan, the federal government would erect a high protective tariff to keep out foreign goods, stimulate the growth of industry, and create a large urban market for western and southern farmers. Revenue from the tariff, in turn, would be used to finance internal improvements of roads and canals to stimulate the growth of the South and West.

Another leader of postwar nationalism was John C. Calhoun, a Republican from South Carolina. Calhoun, like Clay, entered Congress in 1811, and later served with distinction as secretary of war under Monroe and as vice president under both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Later, Calhoun became the nation's leading exponent of states' rights, but at this point he seemed to John Quincy Adams, "above all sectional and factious prejudices more than any other statesman of this Union with whom I have ever acted."

The other dominant political figure of the era was Daniel Webster. Nicknamed "Black Dan" for his dark hair and eyebrows, and "the Godlike Daniel" for his magnificent speaking style, Webster argued 168 cases before the Supreme Court. When he entered Congress as a Massachusetts Federalist, he opposed the War of 1812, the creation of a second national bank, and a protectionist tariff. But, later in his career, after industrial interests supplanted shipping and importing interests in the Northeast, Webster became a staunch defender of the national bank and a high tariff, and perhaps the nation's strongest exponent of nationalism and strongest critic of states' rights. He would insist that the United States was not only a union of states but a union of people. His words--that the United States was a "people's government, made for the people, by the people, and answerable to the people"--would later be seized on by Abraham Lincoln.

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