home_in_the_woods_1847_thomas_cole
Home in the Woods. By: Thomas Cole.

By 1848, America had undergone a significant transformation from the America that the Founding Fathers left just a few decades before.

The era is essentially defined by the expansionism that took hold and would not let go. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 852. For the Jacksonian Democrats, this expansionism was centered on extending slavery and the removal of the Native Americans and Mexicans from the newly acquired land. See id.

Amidst the implementation of these policies, both the communications revolution and the transportation revolution changed Americans’ lives. See id. The spread of roads, steam, and the telegram made life faster and more dynamic than the previous generation of Americans had known.

Ralph Waldo Emerson declared that “America is the country of the Future,” as it “is a country of beginnings, of projects, of vast designs and expectations.” Id. at 853 quoting “The Young American,” in Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. I, ed. Robert Spiller (Cambridge, Mass., 1971), 217-44, quotation from 230. Americans had developed a gift for optimism and hopefulness. But even more than that, Americans had become inventive and spent considerable time debating new ideas, such as “mechanical inventions, communitarian experiments, religious sects, the reform of customs and institutions.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 853.

Americans had expanded the borders of the country, fostering a collective belief in the greatness of America. The country had come to accumulate accomplishments and to improve the livelihoods of Americans while expand the country’s international role.

All of this came at a price, however. These developments solidified sectionalism and ensured that slavery would be one of the most contentious issues. With every territory acquired, an argument about slavery was inevitable.

Nonetheless, in 1848, most Americans had every reason to be hopeful about the future. The transformation that had taken place in their lifetimes showed the promise that the future held for the country as a whole.

Unfortunately, the seeds had already been planted for what was to come: Civil War.

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