Looking Backward in a New Republic: Conservative New Englanders and American Nationalism, 1793-1833

Author: ORCID icon orcid.org/0000-0002-6647-5784
Almog, Asaf, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Gallagher, Gary, History, University of Virginia
Varon, Elizabeth, History, University of Virginia

This dissertation reexamines the role of New England’s conservative tradition in the construction of American nationalism from the 1790s to the 1830s. In 1848 Daniel Webster stated that “from 1776 to the latest period, the whole course of American public life was marked by a peculiar conservatism… Where reform was necessary, [the Founders] reformed. What was valuable they retained; what was essential they added; and no more.” Webster's statement, I argue, encapsulated a political culture of “conservative reform” that dominated a New England-based social group, later dubbed the “Brahmin caste of New England”: a self-conscious elite, all Harvard-affiliated, who maintained a distinct and influential “republic of letters” throughout the early republic and the antebellum era.
In an era fraught with violent challenges to political and social regimes, a vision of conservative reform guided these New Englanders as they sought to chart the Republic’s political and cultural direction. “Looking Backward” examines how the New England elite—figures including politician Timothy Pickering, orator Edward Everett, editor Caleb Cushing, and reformer Lydia Maria Child--adapted its world-view to meet the challenges of Jeffersonian Republicanism, the Haitian Revolution, debates over slavery expansion, the rise of Jacksonian populism, and the advent of Garrisonian immediatism. The role of New England’s conservative reformers in the construction of American nationalism, I argue, was crucial yet complicated, and at times paradoxical. On the one hand, New England’s conservative reformers played a conspicuous role in the construction of American national culture. They became prominent agents of the Republic’s rise to cultural independence by establishing institutions such as the Boston Athenaeum and the literary periodical North American Review, seeking to build an independent bastion of classical culture and to make Boston “the Athens of America.” New Englanders dominated the framing of the past as well, as the region’s orators, scholars, and writers celebrated the settlement at Plymouth in 1620 as the beginning of American history and cast New England as the fountain of the nation’s unique experiment in representative government. On the other hand, however, New England elites also served as an “other,” increasingly alienated from the Republic’s self-image, and tainted by association with the defunct Federalist Party and ill-fated Hartford Convention. This reality meant that they had a dual role as shapers of enduring nationalist myths and as symbols of a repudiated past.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
New England; Conservatism; Federalist Party; Whig Party; Race; Slavery; Democracy; Timothy Pickering; Edward Everett; Caleb Cushing; North American Review; Unitarians
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