America in the 1850s

1855 Through 1858 and John Brown

What was the state of the nation—to employ a twenty-first-century expression—in 1855?

The United States was in a curious, even odd, position. On one hand, the nation had never been so powerful or so prosperous. Sometime during the middle of the decade, foreign observers began looking on the United States with more respect and even a touch of fear. Anyone watching the population figures or the commercial exchanges could see the raw vitality of the Americans. But there was a flip side to the equation.

Americans were anxious about the state of the Union, as opposed to the state of the nation. The two things may sound synonymous to us, but enough differences exist to make it worthwhile to examine them. A nation takes a long time to be formed (ask the Germans or Italians of the nineteenth century), while a political union can be more readily effected. The Union which many Americans looked upon as a rather sacred thing was really a fragile one, born of a number of compromises between the North and the South. When, therefore, one asked Americans of 1855 about the state of the nation, they usually answered the question in terms of the Union. And in that year, the Union seemed imperiled by the increased tension over the subject of slavery.


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