- Balancing Act: Young America’s Struggle to Revive the Old Democracy
This impressive first book challenges us to look anew at the Democratic party of the late antebellum period and thereby to appreciate the profound influence of the party’s self-styled progressive vanguard, the “Young Americans.” In the 1840s and 1850s, “Young America” had its heyday as a faction in the political party of Old Hickory. Led by men such as editor John O’Sullivan, whose Democratic Review was the organ of the new movement; politicians Stephen Douglas, James K. Polk and Franklin Pierce; and New York financier August Belmont, this faction, Eyal explains, broke with the agrarian and strict constructionist orthodoxies of the past and embraced commerce, technology, regulation, reform, and internationalism. They defied, so Eyal seeks to prove, the “recurrent stereotype of the Democrats and racists and imperialists” and appeasers of the slaveocracy (p. 12).
Eyal’s book, he notes early on, is a political, not a cultural, history. It is meant to complement the extensive scholarship on the literary branch of Young America—a New York-based movement of editors and writers who wanted to break free of dependence on European standards of high culture and to prove the excellence and exceptionalism of America’s own literary tradition.1 As important as they were, drawing into their orbit the likes of Hawthorne and Melville, literary Young Americans were eclipsed in prominence by political ones.
Young Americans represented, literally, a new generation of political leaders. “Sons of the Jacksonians and grandchildren of the Founders,” they confronted a paradox: Jacksonians had promoted the idea that representatives should be accountable to their local constituents, but now in the 1840s, those constituents were demanding, in the name of localism, that Democratic politicians abandon some of the party’s most hallowed economic principles (p. 32). Around the country, but especially in western boomtowns, Democratic constituents wanted to tap the power of the market revolution in order to generate prosperity and [End Page 42] development—and that meant supporting the very sorts of state-sponsored “internal improvements” that Democrats had traditionally decried.
Young Americans (or New Democrats), most prominently Stephen Douglas of Illinois, proved responsive to constituent pressures and skilled at justifying internal improvements in a political language that Democrats could call their own. To meet the mounting demands for the construction of railroads, canals, telegraphs, turnpikes, bridges, harbors, steamships and other vehicles of the market revolution, Young Americans advocated Congressional land grants to the states; this created the comforting fiction that internal improvements were locally rather than federally sponsored. They argued that improved transportation networks would perpetuate the agrarian vision of Jefferson by allowing farmers to sell their products and therefore to prosper. And they linked internal improvements to free trade: they accepted moderate tariffs as a necessary means to generate government revenue, and they defended the Independent Treasury (the Jacksonian alternative to the Second Bank of the United States) not as a “scheme to quash [the] special priviledge” of the Whiggish Northeastern eastern monied elite, but as a pro-growth instrument for promoting development and commerce (p. 79).
With the economy booming in the mid-1840s and the first Young American president, James K. Polk, in office, reform-minded Democrats set their sights on exporting American democracy. Allying themselves with the “Young Europe” movements springing up on the continent, some New Democrats called for foreign intervention to support the revolutions of 1848. While such calls had little practical consequence, they do reveal, Eyal notes, the strong strain of idealism—a belief in the transcendent power of democracy—that animated Young Americans. Such idealism drove many influential New Democrats, such as Belmont, who became President Pierce’s minister at the Hague, into the foreign service. And it drove New Democrats to look to the American West and the Caribbean as fields where they might plant democracy. “Bringing Cuba and Mexico into the liberty-loving folds of Union seemed no different from helping Louis Kossuth to shrug off autocracy...