An American Identity

An American Identity

Voices of the Period

“I have always supported measures and principles and not men. I have acted fearless and independent and I never will regret my course."

                           —Davy Crockett, frontiersman, folk hero, and statesman


“I have an almost complete disregard of precedent, and a faith in the possibility of something better. It irritates me to be told how things have always been done. I defy the tyranny of precedent. I go for anything new that might improve the past.”

               —Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross


“There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.”








—Henry David Thoreau,

author of “Civil Disobedience” and Walden (the guy my Dad doesn't like)

History of the Period

What Is an American?


French writer Alexis de Tocqueville came to America in the early 1830s with a colleague to study and write about American prisons. Instead, they ended up traveling extensively and studying American democracy. In his book Democracy in America, de Tocqueville coined the word individualism as a way of describing the attitudes he found in America, where people are “always considering themselves as standing alone, [imagining] that their whole destiny is in their own hands.”

Jefferson’s Bargain


In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson purchased from France 828,000 square miles of North America for $15 million—about three cents per acre—and in the process, more than doubled the size of the United States. Jefferson sent explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, with their Corps of Discovery, to investigate the land, people, and plants and animals of the new territory. They crossed the continent, reached the Pacific Ocean, and led the way for decades of westward-bound settlers.

The War of 1812


In the War of 1812, the United States once again defeated Great Britain, asserting its independence from European control. However, the most important effect of the war may have been the sense of solidarity it fostered within the young nation.

The People’s President


The 1828 election of Andrew Jackson, “the People’s President,” ushered in the era of the “common man.” The center of power began to shift west, even as a two-party system was emerging.


Manifest Destiny Many Americans believed in Manifest Destiny, the idea that it was their right to settle America’s lands across the continent. By 1840, about 40 percent of the U.S. population lived west of the Appalachian Mountains. By 1860, following the great pioneer migrations to Oregon, California, and Texas, only about half of the population lived in the eastern part of the United States. Westward expansion inspired an upsurge of national pride and self-awareness.


Trail of Tears The tragic policy of “Indian removal,” a result of westward expansion, resulted in the confiscation of tribal lands and the relocation of more than 100,000 Native Americans. On the 1838 Trail of Tears, for example, thousands of Cherokee perished on the trek from Georgia to Oklahoma, where the promise of freedom from white settlement would last for only about 15 years.

On the Move Travel was transformed in the nineteenth century by new methods and routes of transportation. The National Road, begun in 1811, reached St. Louis and the Mississippi River by mid-century. In 1860, nearly 1,000 steamboats were plying the Mississippi, and some 30,000 miles of railroad track had been spread across the nation. The lure of the West motivated this revolution in transportation, which created a bond between existing and new states.

Coming to America In the first half of the nineteenth century, hundreds of thousands of immigrants—mostly European—were arriving on American shores. By the 1850s, the number was in the millions. Pushed from home by hardships and revolutions, these people were lured by a land of opportunity.

The Industrial Revolution A machine called the cotton gin, which separated cotton fibers from seeds, invented in 1793, revolutionized American industry. By 1860, more than 1,000 factories, mainly in New England, were turning more than 400 million pounds of Southern cotton into cloth, which was then sold around the world. However, while factories boomed in the North, enlarging the job market for women and immigrants, slavery grew stronger in the South.

A Flood of New Ideas Buoyed by a sense of their power to improve society, Americans set out to reform what they saw as problems or failures. Voters demanded better schools and public education slowly began to expand. Reform movements sprang up in religion, in temperance, and in women’s rights. All brought important changes, but the most revolutionary movement was the drive to end slavery.

Slavery and the Civil War States in the North had declared slavery illegal by 1804 and had begun the gradual emancipation of enslaved African Americans within their borders. By 1860, however, slavery was more entrenched than ever in the South. Out of a population of 31.5 million, there were four million enslaved African Americans and about 500,000 free blacks. In six states in the Deep South, the slave population accounted for approximately half of the total population.

Abolitionists—people who worked to end slavery—were black and white, Northern and sometimes Southern. They organized, preached, spoke, published newspapers, and wrote books. They also helped fugitives flee slavery via a network of secret escape routes into the North and into Canada, known as the Underground Railroad. As their actions intensified, they helped push the nation to the breaking point—the eruption of the Civil War. The war lasted for four years and remains to date the deadliest conflict in American history.

Individualism in the Reconstruction Era


America emerged from the Civil War with many questions unresolved. Chief among these was how to guarantee the rights of millions whom law and tradition had previously treated as property rather than people. The Reconstruction Era that followed the war was a tumultuous period in which former slaves capitalized on their newfound freedoms, including sending a record number of African Americans into government. The period did not last long, however, as a backlash ensued that included widespread violence. Freedoms for African Americans were rolled back and the rights of individuals were quashed, as the gains of Reconstruction evaporated and the Jim Crow system became firmly established throughout the South.


TIMELINE 1800-1870


  • The Louisiana Purchase nearly doubles the size of the United States.


  • Lewis and Clark lead an exploration of the Louisiana Purchase, reaching the Pacific Ocean.


France Napoleon Bonaparte declares himself emperor.


Robert Fulton’s steamboat makes its first trip, from New York City to Albany.


  • Latin America Independence movements result in wars and the creation of new governments.


  • The United States declares war on Great Britain; a treaty ends the war in 1814.


  • England Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is published.


The Erie Canal is completed, spurring canal building across the nation.


  • Cyrus McCormick invents the mechanical reaper.


Cherokees are forced from Georgia to Oklahoma Territory on the “Trail of Tears.”


  • Samuel F. B. Morse patents the telegraph.


  • Ireland Potato famine begins, leading to massive immigration to North America.


The Gold Rush begins in California.


  • Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is published.


Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is published.


  • Japan The Treaty of Kanagawa opens Japan to trade with the United States.


  • Abraham Lincoln is elected the sixteenth U.S. President.


The Union and the Confederacy fight the Civil War.


  • The Reconstruction Era begins in the South.