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American Renaissance (Literature)

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HISTORIC POINT OF VIEW: 1830-1880

In the nineteenth century, America was seen as the land of promise, the land of future. Travellers, like Alexis de Tocqueville, arrived to find "the most unequivocal proofs of prosperity and rapid progress in agriculture, commerce, and great public works. (Democracy in America, 1835)" They saw a nation in full enjoyment of prolonged prosperity.

The nation territory now comprised thirty-one states, with a population of approximately twenty-three million people. In the East, several branches of industry were being developed. In the mid-west and the South, the agriculture was profitable, and there were railways that connected the settled parts of the country. The expansion of industry and population, however, had a high cost. In 1830 Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, providing funds to transport the Eastern tribes beyond the Mississippi. In 1834 a special Indian territory was set up in what is now Oklahoma. In all, the tribes ceded millions of hectares to the federal government during Andrew Jackson's two terms, and dozens of tribes were removed from their ancestral homelands. Most American Indians complied with the terms of the removal treaties, often with resignation. The Trail of Tears refers to the forced relocation of the Cherokee Native American tribe in 1838, which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 4,000 Cherokee Indians.

At the time, two Americas really existed: that of the North and that of the South. New England and the Middle Atlantic States were the principal centres of manufacturing, commerce, and finance. In the South, agriculture flourished and the chief source of wealth was the cotton crop. As the years passed, the interests of the North and South became obvious. The South resented the progress of the North and blamed them of 'aggrandizement'. Northerners, on the other hand, declared that slavery was responsible of the South's comparative backwardness.

From the middle of the 1840's the question of slavery was the gravest problem in America. The South, from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River, was a political unit which agreed on all fundamental policies in connection with cotton culture and slavery. The professional classes and most of the clergy now no longer apologized for slavery but defended it. They insisted that the relations of capital and labour were more humane under the slavery system than under the wage system of the North. However, the old patriarchal system of plantation, with its easygoing methods of personal supervision of the slaves by their master, was over. Since 1830, with the introduction of large-scale methods of production, the master often cease to have personal supervision and employed professionals, whose job was to extract the biggest amount of work from the slaves. While many planters still carried out the old system, there were cases of brutal cruelty. But the hardest criticism about slavery was not the cruelty, but the violation of the basic right of every man to be free and equal in opportunities.

In the presidential election of 1860, the Republican Party - with its determination of allow slavery to spread no further - nominated Abraham Lincoln. On Election Day, Lincoln and the Republicans were victorious. It was a foregone conclusion that South Carolina would secede from the Union if Lincoln were elected. But less than a month later, in Lincoln's inaugural address, he refused to recognize the secession, considering it "legally void." Nevertheless, eleven Southern states seceded from the union between late 1860 and 1861, establishing a rebel government, the Confederate States of America.

Thus, the Civil War broke out April 12, when guns opened fire on Fort Sumter in the Charleston, South Carolina, harbour. Unionists and Confederalists entered the war with high hopes for an early victory. However, the North had bigger advantage. It overran the population of the South by thirteen million people spread within twenty-three states against eleven. Along with its manpower, the Northern states, unlike the South, had abundant facilities for the manufacture of arms and ammunition, clothing, and other supplies. The South, on the other hand, had its advantages too. Since the fighting was on its own soil, it could protect its military front with a minimum of effort and upon a smaller war budget than the North.

In 1865, with the Union victory, slavery was effectively abolished, as well as the question of whether a state has the right to secede from the country. But the failure of Reconstruction, which continued until 1877, left the Southern whites in a position of firm control over its black population, denying them their Civil Rights and keeping them in a state of economic, social and political servitude. As a consequence, the United States remained bitterly divided.

In 1873 there was a serious depression in the economy of the nation, when the Philadelphia banking firm Jay Cooke and Company declared bankruptcy, causing the economy of the United States to collapse. Out of the country's 364 railroads, 89 went bankrupt. A total of 18,000 businesses failed between 1873 and 1875. Unemployment reached 14 percent by 1876. In 1877, wage cuts and poor working conditions caused workers to strike, preventing the trains from moving. President Rutherford B. Hayes sent in federal troops in an attempt to stop the strikes. The outcome of the fights was the death of more than 100 and many more casualties. The tension between workers and the leaders of banking and manufacturing went on well after the depression itself lifted in the spring of 1879, the end of the crisis coinciding with the beginning of the great wave of immigration into the United States which would last until the early 1920s.

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