American political and religious identity in the early 19th century was influenced by region, the dominant political parties of the day, and events such as the Second Great Awakening. Learn about early 19th century American regional, political, and religious identity in this video lesson.
In 2014, if you were to ask the average person on the street in New York City to identify who they are, you might hear a variety of different answers. Some might answer with their race or gender, or some may say simply that they are Americans. In fact, it is very common today for people in the United States to think of themselves first and foremost as Americans. However, in the early part of the 19th century, that was not necessarily the case. Let’s learn more about American identity in the early part of the 1800s.
Before the United States existed, citizens of the British colonies thought of themselves primarily as British subjects. In fact, many historians have argued that the American Revolution was an attempt by some to reassert their rights under the British crown. However, once the break with Britain was made, a new national identity was formed. This identity did not focus solely on the United States, though.
Many saw themselves first and foremost as citizens of the states in which they lived. Individuals associated themselves with their local surroundings because the young country had not yet been linked together as a strong national unit despite having overcome the difficulties of the revolution. To be sure, Americans still loved their country and appreciated their national independence, but many still associated their identity with their particular state. For example, a farmer from Georgia might identify himself first and foremost as a Georgian, meaning that his allegiances would be with his state and then with the federal government in Washington, D.C.
This regional identity extended to politics in many ways. Early American history saw the formation of political parties, which were largely based on regional identities, issues, and desires. For example, the Federalist Party, which had members such as John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, was largely located in the Northeastern part of the country. The Federalists favored a stronger federal government that supported a national banking and economic system. They sought to maintain and develop strong ties with Europe, especially Great Britain. This was driven largely by the need of the shipping industry in the Northeast and New England, which drew strength from trade with the British.
When the War of 1812 began, many in New England were strongly against it. In fact, there were rumblings of peace movements and even secession from the rest of the country. The 1814-1815 Hartford Convention saw delegates from across New England discuss their grievances regarding the war, with some extremists even advocating secession. With the war’s conclusion in 1815, these Federalists were largely discredited, and the Federalist Party fell apart and never again competed for national office. During the first years of the 19th century, however, many in the Northeast identified with the Federalists for regional and political reasons.
In the Southern United States, the Democratic-Republican Party was much more popular. It was the political party founded by Jefferson, clinging to his ideals of republican government that were more focused on the needs of the states and of an agrarian country. Adherents of this party were generally against the national debt and the national bank. Following the War of 1812, the Democratic-Republicans became the only national political party, and it dominated national politics until splitting apart into four groups in the 1820s, some of which were influenced by various regional political differences.
For many early Americans, religion was another strong factor influencing their personal identity. The vast majority of Americans in the early 19th century were of a Protestant background. This crossed ethnic boundaries, meaning that Germans, British, Dutch, and other groups all shared similar traits.
Catholics and Jews were present in the United States at this time, but they were not nearly as prevalent as Protestants. Most colonies had been established by particular groups, meaning that various states had backgrounds in particular denominations. For example, Maryland was established by Catholics in the 1600s, and thus, many citizens of Maryland remained Catholic in the 1700s and 1800s. Other states, such as Virginia, were heavily Anglican. In Pennsylvania, there was a large Quaker population, impacting the religious and cultural identity of many within that powerful mid-Atlantic state.
While many colonies were created with established churches (the official church of that colony’s government), there was no established church of the new United States government. Some states kept their established churches into the 1800s, but by the middle of the 19th century, separation of church and state had taken effect on the state level as well. Thus, many Americans identified themselves with a particular religious denomination, but it was generally not influenced by the state in the early years of the 19th century.
Perhaps the most significant event to impact religious identity in the early 19th century was the Second Great Awakening, a large-scale Protestant religious revival that swept across the country, gaining millions of new Christians and energizing thousands of churches. The awakening largely consisted of revival meetings that brought thousands of people together to spread the message of spiritual salvation. The messages focused on the individual’s conversion and experience with God, making it an incredibly important development for individual religious identity.
Because of this new influx of Christianity in 19th-century America, there was a rise in reform movements seeking to cure the ills of society, such as poverty, alcoholism, and slavery. In each of these movements, it was individual religious identity that was a driving factor. Citizens saw themselves as responsible to God for the well-being of their fellow man, and thus, many began working to help others in society who were less fortunate.
One aspect of religious identity in the 19th century that is often overlooked is how it impacted slavery. For many slaves, there was no hope in their daily existence; there was only grueling work in the field and a life of subjugation. Yet religion offered hope of spiritual freedom. Many slaves sang spiritual songs and hymns and gathered for worship service to ease the troubles of their difficult lives. For many slaves, a Christian religious identity was the only saving grace of their difficult lives on plantations across the South.
For Americans in the 19th century, politics and religion were the two primary factors in their personal identity. Political identity was often dictated first by where they lived; your allegiance was often first and foremost to your state, explaining some of the sectional issues that plagued early American history. Second, your political identity was influenced by the dominant political parties of the day, much as it is in modern America. Many in New England aligned themselves with the Federalist Party, while Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party gained many adherents in the South early on.
For religious identity, it was much more complex and varied. While the vast majority of early Americans were Protestants, their specific religious denominations were often influenced once again by the region in which they lived. The Second Great Awakening injected a new religious fervor into the country, bringing millions of new believers into the Christian faith and infusing social reform movements with an influx of religion, new adherents, and new purpose. All of that combined to dramatically affect how Americans viewed religion in the early 19th century.
Whether it was political parties and issues, religious denominations, or social reform movements, the political and religious identity of Americans in the early 19th century often revolved around where they lived, who they were, and what mattered most to them. In that regard, they were very similar to modern Americans.
Upon completion of this lesson, you should be able to:
- Summarize how Americans’ individual identities in the 19th century were influenced by region, political parties, and religion
- Understand how the Federalist Party fell
- Describe the Second Great Awakening and how it affected life in 19th century America