Master's Theses



Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


During the Antebellum Era, many of Thomas Jefferson’s concepts became part of the great debate that led to the Civil War. The debate over Jeffersonianism incorporated all aspects of Thomas Jefferson’s life. From slavery and agriculture to manufacturing, industrialization, and tariffs, all played a part in the splintering of the American nation. While some would say that slavery caused the Civil War, the real cause was the incompatibility of the various visions Americans held for the future of their nation. Like the great conflict of the 1790s between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, the men of the antebellum era divided over an industrialized nation and an agricultural one. The only difference between the antebellum debate and that of the 1790s was that in the 1830s, 40s, and 50s, all parties claimed to be rooted in the political ideals of Thomas Jefferson. This crisis of Jeffersonianism began in the early 1830s, when South Carolina nullified the Tariff of 1832. The reactions of President Andrew Jackson during the Nullification Crisis led to the creation of political ideologies that opposed the Jacksonian Democrats. The two most important political groups were the nationalists and the extreme states’ rights men. While the crisis was resolved without bloodshed, it left the political foundations of America in shambles. Neither of the parties formed during the Nullification Crisis were a major party; rather, members of both political parties filled the ranks of these minority groups. Men influential enough to sway the nation their way formed these new political organizations. John C. Calhoun organized the extreme states’ rights men. Using Jefferson’s theory of nullification laid down in the Kentucky Resolution, he convinced South Carolina to nullify the Tariff of 1832. Like Jefferson, the extreme states’ rights men saw agriculture as the future of America. They believed in a central government with little power that could be controlled by the states. Most of the men included in this group lived in the South and then later called for the South to secede. The literary voice of the extreme states’ rights men was William Gilmore Simms. Editor, author, and sometimes politician, Simms converted from nationalism to secessionism. Like Calhoun, Simms began changing his political views after the Nullification Crisis. Through his literature, he justified Southern institutions and actions by defining them as Jeffersonian in nature. His defense was that Jefferson was a Southerner, who owned a plantation, as well as slaves, and who made his living from the earth. If it was good enough for Jefferson, it was good enough for America. The nationalists, on the other hand, were the exact opposite. They favored federal power over the states, internal improvements, and an industrialized nation, as opposed to an agricultural nation. They were not against agriculture; however, they believed that agriculture should support the industrialized growth of America. Led by men like Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, the nationalists pushed for internal improvements and the industrialization of America. Like extreme states’ rights men, the nationalists claimed to be the heirs of Jefferson. In this case, they drew their Jeffersonian roots from the presidency of Thomas Jefferson. During his presidency, Jefferson actually strengthened the federal government’s power, with the Louisiana Purchase and the enforcement of the Embargo of 1807. John Pendleton Kennedy became the voice of the nationalists. Through his writing, he defended nationalist ideologies by poking fun at the South for relying solely on commercial agriculture for its survival. Kennedy believed that the true Jeffersonian vision for America was one in which agriculture supported industry. The farmers of America would feed the workers who produced their items for trade with the rest of the world, creating a flourishing trade system that would strengthen American power. The crisis in Jeffersonianism affected all areas of American society, from North to South, and East to West. However, the different political ideologies could not be contained within individual sections of the country. The politics of the time were confusing, because men bounced from party to party on a whim. Every election year saw the major-party candidates fighting for nominations in their own parties, as well as against third-party candidates. In the end, the political crisis ended after the Civil War. The men of the antebellum era strove to build Jefferson’s America, but in the process, they adjusted their ways and built Hamilton’s instead.


Todd Leahy

Date of Award

Spring 2007

Document Type

Thesis - campus only access


© 2007 Josuha Haar


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