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America’s Gold and Silver Age

ISSUE:  Winter 1940

America’s Silver Age. The Statecraft of Clay—Webster—Calhoun. By Gerald W. Johnson. New York: Harper and Brothers. $3.50. John Tyler, Champion of the Old South. By Oliver Perry Chitwood. New York: D. Appleton-Century Company. $4.00. Thoreau. By Henry Seidel Canby. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $3.75.

“If you think the fatal thought of men and institutions,” wrote Thoreau, “you need never pull the trigger. The consequences of thinking inevitably follow.”

Henry Thoreau was born in 1817 and died in 1862. Mr. Gerald W. Johnson dates the beginning of America’s Silver Age from the chartering of the second Bank of the United States in 1816. He ends his book with the deaths of Clay and Webster in 1852. John Tyler was elected to the House of Representatives in 1816, was President from 1841 to 1845, and died in the same year as Thoreau.

The period roughly between the War of 1812 and the Civil War, saw, says Mr. Johnson, “a change vastly more profound and more disturbing than anything that is occurring in our times, to wit, the Industrial Revolution.” He amplifies this further:

As a matter of fact, every important phase of our national life was changing faster then than it is now. Heterogeneous races were pouring into the country faster—in proportion to the whole population—than they are now. Urbanization was proceeding faster, in proportion to population, than it is now. The gap between the richest and the poorest was widening faster then than it is now. Every influence that political philosophers cite today as exerting a strain on the democratic ideal was stronger then than it is now. In addition to all this, the very foundations of civilization, not here, only, but in all the world were being wrenched and jarred by the introduction of steam, instead of muscle, as the main source of the energy by which the work of the world was performed.

Dr. Canby views the years from the 1830’s to the outbreak of the Civil War from the standpoint of effects rather than causes:

It was an age of violent contrasts. Outwardly stable in the long-settled East and South, inwardly it was bubbling with change. It was an age of conflicts, between idealism and materialism, between Abolitionism and slavery, between zeal and common sense, between the capitalist East and the adventurous West, between religion and the gospel of success. . . . It was the true youth of the American people, and indeed, like our own era, emphatically a time for youth. It was for youth that Emerson wrote, Parker preached, and Greeley edited. But this American youth inherited the experience of two hundred years of growing, and, particularly in New England and Virginia and South Carolina, seemed more like a maturing civilization than before or since.

To all appearances, however, the civilization of Virginia, as portrayed by Professor Chitwood in “John Tyler, Champion of the Old South,” and the civilization of New England in Thoreau’s Concord were poles apart. In the South, men like John Tyler, even Henry Clay himself, were preoccupied with men and institutions and their preservation. In Concord, Emerson and Thoreau were thinking the fatal thought to which the future belonged. Thoreau’s fame was of course largely local, but neither Professor Chitwood nor Mr. Johnson has occasion to so much as mention Emerson. The only outstanding political figure who touches the life of Concord as seen in Dr. Canby’s pages is Daniel Webster. He converted Thoreau’s Aunt Louisa Dunbar in a post chaise.

Nevertheless, of the three statesmen of the Silver Age, it is Webster, the Senator for “the interests,” who seems most like our contemporary. As Mr. Johnson points out, he was the first representative of “big business” in the Senate. As such he did not scruple to accept financial favors from his friends while drawing his salary from the government; and he did not always use his great powers of oratory in the interests of logic, not to say honesty. As Secretary of State, however, Webster showed himself able, patriotic, and f arseeing. And in the crisis which led to the Compromise of 1850, Webster, faced with “a choice between abolition and the Union, chose the Union.”

With his courageous support Henry Clay was able for the last time to force sectional interests to put the interests of the country as a whole first, and postpone the conflict which Mr. Johnson refuses to call “inevitable.” Clay did not think it was. Educated largely by personal association in his early years with Chancellor Wythe, Clay was a Whig in the great tradition of the eighteenth century, to which he belongs by temperament and principles.

Calhoun’s principles, imbibed ironically enough in New England, in New Haven first and then at Hartford, were rigidly legalistic and held with a theological fervor. In short, he was a Puritan. He gave the fanatical abolitionists better than he received. In the end, in Mr, Johnson’s view, he convinced even the moderates on the other side that the South was spoiling for a fight.

“America’s Silver Age” is a fresh and stimulating book. No one who reads it could feel, with Mr. Johnson’s schoolboys of the last generation, “that the period between the War of 1812 and the Civil War was practically a blank.” It is marred, however, by excessive quotation of the opinions of other writers and by constant repetition, not only of facts and ideas, but of whole paragraphs of almost identical phrasing. The style, also, suffers from a tendency to wisecrack.

Mr. Johnson rightly discounts the conventional Whig view of John Tyler as a Judas, with the remark that Tyler had never pretended to be a Whig. “On the other hand,” he says, “he had accepted the nomination for Vice-President on the Whig ticket, and no man with a nice sense of the proprieties would have done that unless he had been prepared to assist in carrying out the Whig program.”

It was not so much a sense of the proprieties that was lacking as a sense of the realities. As Professor Chitwood, the gentlest of critics, remarks at various junctures in his scholarly biography, Tyler is not to be criticized for what he did as much as for having placed himself in one awkward dilemma or another. According to his lights, Tyler acted at various crises in his career with honesty and courage. So far as consistent adherence to inherited principles could help him he applied his considerable talents and undoubted personal graces with success. When vision or a grasp of essentials was called for, this almost automatic response fell short.

In trying to find an answer to the question as to whether Tyler was “a patriotic statesman or a disloyal politician,” Professor Chitwood has assembled all the available evidence from public documents, private correspondence, newspapers, diaries and memoirs, and recollections of Tyler’s descendants. An inclination to the Roman school of political phraseology which he shares with his subject—he calls two of his chapters, for example, “A Young Solon” and “The Fasces Exchanged for the Toga”—and which is symptomatic of a polite piety in his mode of expression, does not prevent Professor Chitwood from making the definitive answer—that Tyler was neither the one nor the other. He was not consciously disloyal and he was certainly patriotic; but he was not, one concludes, a statesman, nor even a clearheaded politician.

Tyler’s father was Jefferson’s roommate at William and Mary, and it was Tyler himself, as Governor of Virginia, who pronounced Jefferson’s funeral oration in Richmond. Calhoun regarded himself as the true exponent of Jefferson’s theory, and even Clay considered himself his follower. Yet it is hardly an exaggeration to say, in Mr. Johnson’s phrase, that they were all three “poisonously anti-Jeffersonian” in actual fact. The whole truth is, of course, that Jefferson was so many-sided that men of the most varying views are able to invoke his name; but if we wish to single out any one man as the real, essential Jeffersonian of that age, that man is Henry Thoreau, the New Englander.

It was Thoreau who, while opposing Negro slavery, dared tell a society of Abolitionists that wage slavery in their native Massachusetts was as bad as involuntary servitude as practiced in the South. It was Thoreau who said: “I heartily accept the motto, ‘That government is best which governs least’.” “There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly,” It was Thoreau who said: “The expression ‘a liberal education* originally meant one worthy of freemen. Such is education simply in a true and broad sense. But education ordinarily so called—the learning of trades and professions which is designed to enable men to earn their living, or to fit them for a particular station in life—is servile.”

Dr. Canby is right in bracketing Concord in the nineteenth century with what he calls “Virginia of the statesmen” as “authentic moments in the history of civilization.” He believes also that Thoreau, although he was almost totally ignorant of the South and Southerners, might have found the life of the South more congenial than that of Concord, had he been able to overlook the evil of slavery. For Concord was undoubtedly provincial as the world goes, and Thoreau, with his universal mind, often felt it confining. But he remained all his life a local charter to outward seeming. It is consequently next to impossible to write a biography of Thoreau which will be interesting as a story. Everything that is of more than casual interest about Thoreau is in his writings. All a biographer can do is sift, compare, collate, interpret, annotate, and supply a background and frame. This Dr. Canby has done in a very thorough and comprehensive manner. It would be presumption to attempt to appraise his appraisal. He knows all there is to be known about Thoreau, and he has compressed the essentials between two covers for our convenience and profit.

But perhaps one may be permitted to doubt whether Dr. Canby’s explanation of Thoreau’s supposed love life explains anything. Of more importance is the question whether the outlines of Thoreau’s social philosophy are not unduly softened in biographical presentation, though Dr. Canby has added a chapter on “Thoreau in History” which goes far to sharpen the impression left on the reader’s mind. He gives the last word to Emerson: “His soul was made for the noblest society.”


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