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Young America movement

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Subject: Stephen A. Douglas, Cornelius Mathews, Locofocos, Democratic Party (United States), Cultural history of the United States
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Young America movement

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The Young America Movement was an American political and cultural attitude in the mid-19th century. Inspired by European reform movements of the 1830s (such as Democratic Party in the 1850s. Senator Stephen A. Douglas promoted its nationalistic program in an unsuccessful effort to compromise sectional differences.

John L. O'Sullivan described the general purpose of the Young America Movement in an 1837 editorial for the Democratic Review:

Historian Edward L. Widmer has largely placed O'Sullivan and the Democratic Review in New York City at the center of the Young America Movement. In that sense, the movement can be considered mostly urban and middle class, but with a strong emphasis on socio-political reform for all Americans, especially given the burgeoning European immigrant population (particularly Irish-Catholics) in New York in the 1840s.


John L. O'Sullivan (1874)

Historian Yonatan Eyal argues that the 1840s and 1850s were the heyday of the faction of young Democrats that called itself "Young America." Led by Stephen Douglas, James K. Polk and Franklin Pierce, and New York financier August Belmont, this faction broke with the agrarian and strict constructionist orthodoxies of the past and embraced commerce, technology, regulation, reform, and internationalism.[2]

In economic policy Young America saw the necessity of a modern infrastructure of railroads, canals, telegraphs, turnpikes, and harbors; they endorsed the "Market Revolution" and promoted capitalism. They called for Congressional land grants to the states, which allowed Democrats to claim that internal improvements were locally rather than federally sponsored. Young America claimed that modernization would perpetuate the agrarian vision of Jeffersonian Democracy by allowing yeomen farmers to sell their products and therefore to prosper. They tied internal improvements to free trade, while accepting moderate tariffs as a necessary source of government revenue. They supported the Independent Treasury (the Jacksonian alternative to the Second Bank of the United States), not as a scheme to quash the special privilege of the Whiggish moneyed elite, but as a device to spread prosperity to all Americans.[3]

The movement's decline by 1856 was due to unsuccessful challenges to "old fogy" leaders like James Buchanan, to Douglas' failure to win the presidential nomination in 1852, to an inability to deal with the slavery issue, and to rising isolationism and disenchantment with reform in America.[4]

Manifest Destiny

When O'Sullivan coined the term "Manifest Destiny" in an 1845 article for the Democratic Review, he did not necessarily intend for American democracy to expand across the continent by force. In effect, the American democratic principle was to spread on its own, self-evident merits. The American exceptionalism often attached to O'Sullivan's "Manifest Destiny" was an 1850s perversion that can be attributed to what Widmer called "Young America II."[5] O'Sullivan even contended that American "democracy needed to expand in order to contain its ideological opponent (aristocracy)."[6] Unlike Europe, America had no aristocratic system or nobility against which Young America could define itself.[7]


Aside from Young America's promotion of Herman Melville, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. They sought independence from European standards of high culture and wanted to demonstrate the excellence and "exceptionalism" of America’s own literary tradition. Other writers of the movement included Evert Augustus Duyckinck, Cornelius Mathews,[8] It was Mathews that adopted the name for the movement. In a speech delivered June 30, 1845, he said:

One of Young America's intellectual vehicles was the literary journal Arcturus. Herman Melville in his book Mardi (1849) refers to it by naming a ship in the book Arcturion and observing that it was "exceedingly dull," and that its crew had a low literary level.[10] The North American Review referred to the movement as "at war with good taste."[11]

Hudson River School

The Course of Empire: The Savage State by Thomas Cole (1836)

Apart from literature, there was a distinct element of art associated with the Young America Movement. In the 1820s and 1830s, American artists such as Asher B. Durand and Thomas Cole began to emerge. They were heavily influenced by romanticism, which resulted in numerous paintings involving the physical landscape. But it was William Sidney Mount who had connections to the writers of the Democratic Review. And as a contemporary of the Hudson River School, he sought to use art in the promotion of the American democratic principle. O'Sullivan's cohort at the Review, E. A. Duyckinck, was particularly "eager to launch an ancillary artistic movement" that supplemented Young America.[12]

Young America II

In late 1851, the Democratic Review was acquired by jingoism achieved an even higher pitch than O'Sullivan's [original] dog-whistle stridency."[13] Even Democratic Representative John C. Breckinridge remarked in 1852:

The change in tone and partisanship in the Democratic Review that Breckinridge referred to was mostly a reaction by the increasingly divided Democratic Party to the growth of the Free Soil movement, which threatened to dissolve any semblance of Democratic unity that remained.

Rise of Labor Republicanism

By the mid-1850s, Free Soil Democrats (those who followed David Wilmot and his Proviso) and anti-slavery Whigs had combined to form the Republican Party. Young America's New York Democrats who opposed slavery saw an opportunity to express their abolitionist sentiments. As a result, Horace Greeley's New York Tribune began to replace the Democratic Review as the central outlet for Young America's ever-evolving politics. In fact, Greeley's Tribune became a major advocate of not only abolition, but also of land and labor reform.[15]

The combined cause of land and labor reform was perhaps best exemplified by common good.[17]

See also


  1. ^ Widmer, p. 3.
  2. ^ Yonatan Eyal, The Young America Movement and the Transformation of the Democratic Party, 1828–1861, (2007)
  3. ^ Eyal, The Young America Movement and the Transformation of the Democratic Party, 1828–1861, p. 79
  4. ^ David B. Danbom, "The Young America Movement," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Sept 1974, Vol. 67 Issue 3, pp 294–306
  5. ^ Widmer, p. 189.
  6. ^ Widmer, p. 217.
  7. ^
  8. ^ Martin Duberman, and James Russell Lowell. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966) p. 50.
  9. ^ Widmer, p. 57.
  10. ^ Andrew Delbanco, Melville, His World and Work. (2005) p. 93.
  11. ^ Widmer, p. 110.
  12. ^ Widmer, p. 126.
  13. ^ Widmer, p. 189.
  14. ^ Widmer, p. 189.
  15. ^ Lause, pp. 118–19.
  16. ^ Lause, p. 35.
  17. ^ Lause, p. 119.

Further reading

  • Danbom, David B. "The Young America Movement," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Sept 1974, Vol. 67 Issue 3, pp 294–306
  • Eyal, Yonatan. The Young America Movement and the Transformation of the Democratic Party 1828–1861. (2007) Cambridge University Press.
  • Eyal, Yonatan. "Trade and Improvements: Young America and the Transformation of the Democratic Party," Civil War History, Sept 2005, Vol. 51 Issue 3, pp 245–268
  • Lause, Mark A. Young America: Land, Labor, and the Republican Community. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005.
  • Varon, Elizabeth R. "Balancing Act: Young America'S Struggle to Revive the Old Democracy," Reviews in American History, March 2009, Vol. 37 Issue 1, pp 42–48
  • Widmer, Edward L. Young America: The Flowering of Democracy in New York City. (1999) ISBN 0-19-514062-1
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