Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles

1816: America Rising
C. Edward Skeen
Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2003.
$35.00, 320 pages, ISBN 0-8131-2271-6.

Gerardo Del Guercio
Université de Montréal

Few texts successfully correlate nationalism, state authority and market economy as powerfully as C. Edward Skeen’s 1816: America Rising. Skeen provides readers of American history with an in-depth study of why 1816 is the definitive year in United States culture. The purpose of Skeen’s book is to argue that America began to develop into a complex and coherent nation between 1812 and 1816 because of the internal problems that it overcame during that time span. Skeen examines how America’s second armed conflict with Britain raised questions such as the need to establish a uniform currency, a national bank, internal travel routes and national defense. Central to Skeen’s book is the division between federal and state government as to which legislative body should have exclusive power. What I will be arguing throughout this review is that C. Edward Skeen reaches his goal writing a text about how

narrow provincialism was beginning to erode. The strains within American society, particularly the agrarian-capitalist dichotomy, soon disrupted the brief harmony that was evident in 1816, and American life fell into the usual struggle between the multiplicity of interests that have marked the course of [America] ever since. [p. xvi]

C. Edward Skeen’s 1816: America Rising pivots around the impact of the War of 1812. America’s victory over Britain produced one certainty: “the United States was destined to become a great and populace country, outstripping even the nations of Europe” [p. 18]. The victory of the U.S. gained them international acclaim and settled the partisan rhetoric that was emerging prior to 1812. The war’s aftermath brought about a “decline of partisan rancor and a growing sense of nationhood and pride in being an American” [p. 33]. America was beginning to realize that patriotism would create a strong national foundation that would consequentially lessen the chances of foreign invasion.

America’s first measure to establish itself as a major economic power was to establish a uniform national currency and the Bank of the United States. Such enactments would be based on a protective tariff on imported goods. An import tax would protect American manufacturing interests against foreign markets and oblige traders to make specie deposits into American banks. America was forced to enact such provisions because the War of 1812 caused many American industrialists to flee to continental Europe fearing that the United States would once again become a British colony. Foreign traders would therefore be given U.S. dollars in exchange for precious metals. America was able to impose an import tax for the reason that it already had a strong manufacturing economy. Places like New England, for instance, “manufactured a sufficient supply of common and course fabrics to meet the country’s consumption” [p. 64].

A uniform currency and national bank generated great debate between federal and state government. Skeen notes that “banks, particularly in the Middle States, were reluctant to resume specie payment because they would be forced to contract their notes in circulation” [p. 74]. Congress maintained that all banks must resume specie payment or face fines. State governments argued that banks would function more feasibly if paper currency were not dependent on metal. The federal government deemed it quintessential to practice specie payment because America needed to follow an international standard that was founded on gold and silver. Paper currency was hence used as credit that carried no value without specie.

The greatest goal accomplished by America in 1816 was the institution of organized transportation routes. The division among Republicans and Nationalists concerning travel routes was made evident by Republican leaders Thomas Jefferson and James Madison who “generally favored sympathetic developments under the auspices of the federal government” but were ultimately “constrained by their constitutional scruples to preserve state sovereignty and local autonomy” [p. 97]. Systematic travel routes would favor all Americans, but great dilemmas arose as to which level of government should finance the project and whether taxes were just. The federal government proclaimed that taxes would be raised from revenues created from products transported on newly built canals, railroads and paved roads. The proceeds collected from such a method of taxation “would be pledged to redeem the principle and interest on the money borrowed to build the [routes]” [p. 111]. Transport taxes became problematic for the reason that states like New York, which raised large revenues, would have to allocate tax dollars to less productive states. Despite obvious conflicts, the American federal government continued to encourage modern transportation routes to unify the United States.

Fear of British invasion continued to manifest itself throughout 1816. America believed that the most effective manner to minimize the possibility of a war with England would be to reinforce its military. The United States decided to invest great sums of money in training soldiers. Acting Secretary of War George Graham estimated that “training 100,000 men at regular army pay for one month was $173,850, and $1,5 million for one million militia” [p. 145]. Allocating large amounts of money to army development would eliminate the “largely raw, untrained, ill-disciplined, ill-equipped militia” [p. 135] that fought in 1812. A properly trained army allowed America to gain great diplomatic status and sign the Adams-Onís treaty of 1819 with Spain.

The year 1816 saw several new states enter the union. Maine sought and later attained independence from Massachusetts, while Mississippi and Indiana followed shortly thereafter. Mississippi would split into two states to form Alabama. Dividing such a large territory produced a situation where “the people would have an equal number of representatives in Congress but double the number of senators and electors for president” [p. 162]. The addition of four new states to the union increased the multiplicity of interests that plagued American politics during the antebellum period.

The battle between state and federal government reached the criminal law courts. Skeen cites William Bevans, a navy officer on the U.S. Independence, who murdered a fellow officer at Boston Harbor. Both levels of government acted responsibly by entering a plea to Supreme Court Justice Story to have the case heard in their respective courts. Justice Story deemed that the case was under federal jurisdiction. Judge Marshall rejected the Massachusetts appeal to Story’s decision. Marshall based his decree on the constitutional stipulation that gave the federal government “exclusive jurisdiction over places purchased by the consent of the state legislature, such as forts, magazines, dock yards, etc.” [p. 183]. Story and Marshall’s decision proved to be yet another victory for the federal government over state authority.

The presidential election of 1816 produced the lowest voter turnout of any American election. Skeen includes the 1816 election because it demonstrates a crumbling Federalist party. The Federalists were plagued with internal conflicts surrounding their political agenda and a rising Republican party. The Republicans would eventually experience similar internal dissentions. Although political strife is unhealthy for any nation, it nonetheless did not tarnish the “good will and cooperation in the political life of the nation” [p. 231]. What it is important to remember is that America endured such hardships and used its newly acquired power in a responsible manner.

C. Edward Skeen’s 1816: America Rising is an effective text that clearly presents the debate between “those who believed that the federal government could be used to advance the interests of the nation” and those who advocated that “the interests of the country would best be served if that government’s ability to interfere in American life was limited” [p. 235]. Many of the problems raised in Skeen’s study continue to vex America. Even though the federal government holds the majority of influence in American politics, state governments nevertheless continue to fight to attain more power.



All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.