Sectional nationalism: The culture and politics of the Massachusetts conservative elite, 1815--1836

Date of Completion

January 1990


American Studies|History, United States




This study examines the Boston-based elite's reassertion of a traditional republican ethos in a period of rapid change and analyzes the resurgence of conservatism that they led. The contributions of Massachusetts leaders to the development of American commerce, industry, and culture have long been recognized. Careful study of their politics and their effort to propagate a particular version of American history reveals their various activities as integral parts of a coherent campaign to preserve a hierarchical and deferential social ideology and to stamp their regional and class values on the nation at large. Their struggle for power and relevance merits study in itself and is central to an understanding of the transformation of early national society.^ Born and bred to lead, the Massachusetts elite found themselves out of power nationally, except for the presidency of the problematic John Quincy Adams. Despite their victory at the state constitutional convention of 1820-1821, they were hampered in their pursuit of power within the emerging party system by loyalty to a political culture that emphasized individual character. To buttress their political quest, the elite mounted a many-faceted cultural crusade, centered on a conservative interpretation of American history. Although now frequently taken at their word as nationalists, they intended to advance their section's interests by defining America in New England terms. In the Webster-Hayne debate, Daniel Webster, building on this foundation, shifted the burden of sectionalism to the South, portraying New England as the bastion of the imperiled Union. The failure of his presidential bid shows the persistence of elite political culture and its irrelevance by 1836.^ The Massachusetts conservatives failed to stem the tide of change, but the nature and importance of their campaign to shape American history to serve their political and social purposes has not previously been fully understood. Their endeavor to strip American history of radical potential and root it uniquely in New England set the dominant terms of later scholarship, and their determination to foster an authentic national culture established an academic tradition that still influences American public life and letters. ^