In the most difficult period for his party and his movement since their inceptions, John L. O’Sullivan attempted to brace up the troops and squeeze out a victory.
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
During the Congressional elections of 1838, die‐hard Young America Democrats like John L. O’Sullivan and his readership had much to fear. The Van Buren administration faced the incredible political difficulty of holding together one‐party control through a third consecutive term. Not only was the “Little Magician” less personally magnanimous than his predecessor, but Jackson’s terms, sectional flares, and an endless train of local disturbances threatened the president’s Second Party System. Add to that the worst depression in American history before the Great Depression and at the very least, Democratic Party hegemony over the system seemed doomed. Van Buren had steered the Democracy through a successful presidential campaign, continued supremacy over policy‐making, and reunification with the radical “Equal Rights” or “Locofoco” Democrats in the key state of New York. But as architect of the Second Party System, Van Buren knew all too well that democratic politics only promoted peace so long as ideological consensus existed among politically motivated portions of the public. Given the slightest bit of institutional weakness from his own party, the Whigs might just be able to construct their own version of “Jacksonian” democracy or–in the worst case scenario–Americans’ still deep socio‐economic and political divisions may consume the larger society in civil war. To both practical politicians like Van Buren and ideological “movement” thinkers like O’Sullivan, the midterm elections of 1838 provided a sense of urgency and mission.
In the following article, O’Sullivan asks his audience of Democratic faithful, “Watchmen, how wears the night?” The bulk of his article is spent recounting the ideological divisions between Democrats and Whigs, and to students of the era there is nothing unusual from O’Sullivan here. For our purposes, O’Sullivan’s article is most significant because it demonstrates the fusion of Van Burenite practical politicking and locofoco idealism–the two most important components in O’Sullivan’s developing version of “Manifest Destiny” Young Americanism. As he interprets the form,
Democracy is bold and energetic, unresting in its perpetual striving after a better good, a higher perfection of social institutions…Democracy, then, among us must always be a restless, progressive, reforming principle. The utmost extent to which it can ever be deemed possible by any one to carry forward the great mission of democratic amelioration in the condition of society, in any present generation, must still fall very short of that ideal standard which must exist in the mind, and in the prophetic hope, of every democratic thinker, truly imbued with the spirit of his noble and sublimely simple faith. But it must be perpetually tending forward towards such amelioration, — perpetually engaged in some new reform, some new simplification, or the extirpation of some element in our institutions of which time had practically developed the evil character and influence.
In the end, the Democrats retained control of the incoming 26th United States Congress after a shift of only a few seats. Two years later, though, and “Martin Van Ruin” himself was not so lucky.
By John L. O’Sullivan. U.S. Magazine & Democratic Review 3, No. 9 (Sept. 1838): 3–17.
How Stands the Case?
“Watchmen, how wears the night?” – is the question many a times asked during the intervals of a storm, by those who sleep securely in their reliance on the vigilance of the humble but faithful guardian of the public tranquility; — and happy is it when the answer is returned, that “the storm is over and the day is breaking.” Such is the answer we can return, from our watchtower of observation, to our friends who would ask how fares the cause of the Democracy, through the season of night and the storm through which it had had to pass. The storm is over and the day is breaking,- a day of triumph and rejoicing; — and though it is yet to be marked by an arduous contest, yet we have at least the light prayed for by the Grecian hero; and with so righteous a cause, under a banner that we are so well assured to be invincible, we can have no misgivings as to the issue with which it is to be closed and crowned.
There is every thing, in the present aspect of the great contest that is in progress throughout the country, to cheer and encourage the friends of the Democratic cause, — every thing to cause their bosoms to swell high with patriotic hope and an honorable pride. All the signs of the times which are exhibiting themselves over the surface in every direction, confirm the view we have before taken of this important Political Crisis, in the pages of the Democratic Review, that it is one of those periodical “castings of the skin” which are equally unavoidable, to a strong democratic majority long in the ascendant, is indispensable to preserve it in perpetual health, youth, and vigor. This process, though always painful and critical, is now in progress with the most favorable circumstances and auspices that we could desire; and our confidence in its result, which has never wavered an instant, is receiving every day a new and clearer confirmation. Such will continue to be the history of the democratic party in this country, from time to time, so long as our government, both Federal and State, is administered on the principles that have heretofore directed it, of legislating upon the private and partial interests of individuals and classes; especially if its connection with the great moneyed interests of the country – now so happily loosened, to a considerable extent – should be resumed. In that case the experience of the future will most assuredly confirm, again and again, that of the past, viz. that the power of the majority will constantly tend more or less to abuse, to favor the interests of a certain influential class of political leaders, who, deriving their prominence originally from the generous zeal of their Republican opinions and sentiments, in early life, become insensibly warped from the great and broad abstract principles of that faith, by the too long possession both of political power and personal influence, — so as in truth to be no longer fit and worthy leaders for a party whose animating spirit must always be a generous enthusiasm in behalf of those great principles. Democracy is bold and energetic, unresting in its perpetual striving after a better good, a higher perfection of social institutions. None can be unconscious that our whole scheme of political institutions, under both the Federal and State Constitutions, is very far from being purely democratic. Though democracy is their prevalent principle, and their original root and basis, yet in all it is more or less combined with so many checks upon its freedom of development, and so large an infusion of elements of the opposite character, that they are far indeed from perfection; and far indeed from producing all those glorious and beneficial results, of general social well‐being, towards which the imagination of the political enthusiast so earnestly aspire, and of which he is so profoundly convinced that, in their simple natural purity, the great principles of his faith do contain the germs. Democracy, then, among us must always be a restless, progressive, reforming principle. The utmost extent to which it can ever be deemed possible by any one to carry forward the great mission of democratic amelioration in the condition of society, in any present generation, must still fall very short of that ideal standard which must exist in the mind, and in the prophetic hope, of every democratic thinker, truly imbued with the spirit of his noble and sublimely simple faith. But it must be perpetually tending forward towards such amelioration, — perpetually engaged in some new reform, some new simplification, or the extirpation of some element in our institutions of which time had practically developed the evil character and influence. Such being the inherent character of democracy, it is impossible for such a class of men as referred to above, the old influential leaders and managers of the party organization, who gradually form themselves like a crust over its surface, always to retain that relation to the broad mass of their party, which they originally owed to the enthusiasm and devotion now chilled by the torpor and natural timidity of age, and too often corrupted by the acquisition of wealth, — favored and facilitated by the direction which their own political influence may have given to the course of public events. We entertain the most profound respect for the venerable dignity and wisdom of gray hairs; and are conscious of the importance of the influence of the countless sound sterling old Republicans who at the moment confer honor on our party, by the conspicuous positions they still delight to retain in the great contest incessantly waging, for the principles of which they derived their first lessons from the fountain‐head of the Jeffersonian era…
In the late convulsion, it is not to be denied, that the Democratic party was shaken to its center. Had a Presidential election fallen upon that period, it would probably have been overthrown. No party could ever successfully, in a general election, faced such a tempest as then swept, raging and howling, over the land. This admission in no respect impugns the cardinal democratic doctrine of confidence in the popular judgment, for which it is never intended to claim either an absolute infallibility, or an exemption from temporary influences of excitement and panic. As a body it may be said to have been disorganized, — demoralized to speak in the military phrase…The process of reorganization has been steadily going forward, in spite of the herculean exertions of open foes from without, and false friends within, to impede and distract it; and though not yet entirely consummated, has reached a stage that is quite satisfactory to us, as placing its ultimate complete success beyond fear of danger. The democracy has recovered from its paralysis of panic, and is beginning to put forth again the energies of its renewed youth. In no other contest has it ever evinced a finer or nobler spirit. This is signally shewn in the primary assemblies of the people, which have of late appeared every where animated by the most generous zeal and the highest confidence, — that zeal and confidence which, springing from a deep sense of the righteousness of the democratic side of the great issue now joined, are both the strongest incentives to exertion, and the surest harbingers of success.
This same fine spirit breathes, in a still more striking manner, from the Democratic Press…The friends of the Administration have a distinct and specific policy to pursue and defend. It is boldly put forward, and held on high, as being itself its best recommendation, if only suffered to be fairly carried out in practice. It is simple and transparent. All can readily understand it, and it is impossible long to attempt to misrepresent and mystify it. Its friends write their principles on their foreheads; embody them in the most clear and full expositions of them; and even have recourse to unusual forms to put forth the most authentic declarations of them. They are all, moreover, of an unequivocal democratic character. They go to disconnect the Federal Government from an alliance with the great moneyed interests which may readily be a fruitful source of corrupt political influence; — to place commerce and currency on a secure basis of reliance on the natural laws of trade, and of independence of the perpetual agitations of our political contests; — to guard against a danger which, having occurred, may occur again, of the government being thrown, by a power extraneous from itself, upon a state of temporary bankruptcy in the midst of the profusion of a large surplus revenue; — to introduce a safe and stable uniformity in the fiscal operations of the Government, which can never be affected by the fluctuations to which all paper‐money systems must always be, confessedly, liable; — to obviate the possibility of the future accumulation of a redundant revenue, with all the evils and abuses inseparable from such a fiscal plethora as that with which we were lately afflicted; — to surrender a branch of Executive influence so potent and dangerous that, but a few years back, no eloquence could exhaust the language of denunciation with which it was assailed by those who are now most strenuous in opposition to its proposed reform; — to curtail and simplify the Federal action, in a very material and salutary degree, in its influence upon the institutions and legislation of the States; — to place itself in an attitude of strict neutrality between the two parties whose opposition of views on the general subject of banks and paper‐money is now only beginning to agitate the country; so as neither to extend an artificial support to those institutions by the loan of its credit or revenue, nor on the other hand to attack or injure them in the least degree, — at the same time as it places itself aloof, in safe exemption from the dangers which it has already experienced in its connection with them, and to which, from their nature, they must always continue more or less liable. These are the leading features of the system of policy on which the Administration has planted itself, to stand or fall with the popular ratification or condemnation of these principles, as involved in its great measure of the Independent Treasury.
As accessory and subordinate to this its central idea, the Democratic puts forth bold and distinct avowals of opinion on all the other important subjects naturally connected with the general politics of the Union; marking out in strong lines the limits within which it restricts its own action by its own pledges and declarations of doctrine. It is for freedom of trade, and opposed to all monopoly legislation, and unequal distribution of public burthens, whether in the form of tariffs or otherwise. It is for the strictest construction of the Constitution, and for the restriction of the action of the federal center within the narrowest limits consistent with its plainly declared functions and objects. It is opposed to the interference of the General Government, directly or indirectly, whether with the local interests of the States, by means of internal improvements, or with their private municipal and social institutions, of whatever nature they may be, — connecting itself neither with the one side nor the other of the different questions arising, as purely domestic questions, out of them.
On the other hand, with what is it opposed? The cardinal idea of the Opposition is, undeniably, a National Bank, though even this it does not venture to avow unequivocally and manfully. It is still kept partially in the background. A shadowy vagueness of non‐comittalism overspreads all its expositions of its doctrines and future policy; or rather it puts forth no such expositions. They cannot be distinctly extorted, in unequivocal terms. It issues no other manifestos, than calls for conventions to select “the most available candidates” for the Presidential contest. Though it is undeniable that the great question at issue is this, National Bank or Independent Treasury, a considerable proportion of its supporters, in certain sections of the Union, profess to disavow the advocacy of a bank, while most strenuous in their efforts to overthrow the Administration which they cannot deny to be the only bulwark between the country and such an institution; and to bring into power the men and the party whose first act cannot be any other than the immediate establishment of such a one, on a yet grander scale of power and capital than either of the two former. All shades of political complexion are united in their ranks. The professing States‐Rights representative of Southern and Western Republicanism is foremost in the orgies of a Faneuil Hall. A great deal is said about “Whig principles;” but what they are, save a general purpose to “heal the wounds of a bleeding Constitution,” or some such beautiful figurative design or other, — to “drive out the Philistines,” and enter themselves upon the enjoyment of the milk and honey of the Promised Land, — it is impossible to ascertain, and difficult to guess…
What has become of all these, and a host of similar ‘arguments’ and charges, which, while they lasted, afforded such rich topics of declamation to Whig fluent speakers and ready writers? Have they curled upwards into impalpable and invisible ether, like the morning mists of our mountains, before the slow but irresistible power of the God of Light? Have they been laid, like unquiet ghosts, at the bottom of the Red Sea, by the stern exorcism of the voice of reason and truth, never more to revisit the pale glimpses of the moon? Have they been floated away and dispersed, by the ebb of the tide of panic excitement, out of sight of land, on the boundless ocean of the absurd, never more to be re‐assembled, in all the imposing array in which they were once so gallantly decked out? Or have they betaken themselves, as congenial to their moon‐shiny natures, to that Limbo said to be the receptacle of all things lost on the earth? Where are they? It is very certain that they are no longer to be seen or heard of on “this dark terrestrial ball;” and that the homes that once knew them, in the columns and paragraphs of the Whig press, now know them no more. It is said that, whatever processes of transformation all creatures and substances undergo from time to time – from a “godlike” statesman down to a silkworms egg – nothing actually perishes. But confessing ourselves utterly unable to answer so puzzling a query, as the present where‐about of all those shadowy ghosts of arguments, that used to come trooping up from the vast deep of the imagination at the magic call of Whig eloquence, we can only refer the reader, desirous of laying his finger on them, for information to our friends of the Whig press. Where are they, then? “Where are they all, so sweet, so many?”
Gentle shepherd, tell me where!
The contrast, then, exhibited by the press on the one side and on the other, in the vigor and effect with which they carry on the great party contest of argument, notwithstanding all the adventitious advantages possessed by the Whig press, cannot excite surprise. Thus must it always be in the struggle between truth and error. The one possesses within itself inexhaustible resources of an immortal energy, which are only to he fully drawn out by the opposition of falsehood; and under whatever disadvantages of circumstance it sets out, it never goes backward, hut still moves onward, ever gathering strength as it goes. The other must depend for any hope of success, in a contest with the adversary “armed so strong in honesty,” upon the effect of its first dashing onset. If that can be but parried, or staunchly withstood for a time, it speedily exhausts itself, and leaves to the other the possession of the field, with that noblest and surest of triumphs,
The victory of endurance borne.
Thus is it, in a most signal manner, in the present case. Up to the present period the Opposition has had the Democratic party at great disadvantage. But the ground has been gradually and insensibly slipping away from under their feet. The tests of time and truth have been successively exploding their arguments, and refuting their charges, one after the other, until really little or nothing remains to them. The cause of the Administration rests on a basis of right and truth, on the great questions at issue, broad and firm as the everlasting hills. The glittering spray of oratory, the vexed foam of declamation, the dashing waves of personal abuse, can avail nothing against this rock. And here our cardinal democratic principle, of confidence in the eventual sober judgment of the People, stands us in good stead. We know that when we have the whole field of the argument open before us, no panics, no excitements, no delusions, can long mislead the popular judgment; and no intelligent and reflecting democrat can entertain a doubt that, before the close of this great struggle, the People, in their broad mass, will obey the deep and strong instinct of their natural democratic tendency, and rally to the support of the Administration, in its present position and policy, in numbers not less overwhelming than those which bore the late Administration in triumph through its death‐struggle with the same power now foremost in the field in opposition to the present.
Another of the signs of the times which we regard with great satisfaction is this – the manifest progress that democratic principles are making among the young men of the Whig party itself. The youth of this country must, of necessity, incline with a strong natural bias towards the generous and glorious truths of the democratic faith, — notwithstanding the numerous powerful influences always in operation upon them, especially in our cities, our literary institutions, and the learned professions, to warp them to the opposite direction. In fact it is from this class that the democratic party is constantly recruiting the losses it has from time to time to sustain, of those of its numbers who, as they proceed in life waxing fat and proud, are gradually weaned from the attachments of their more ardent and liberal youth. Thus for the corrupt and diseased portions of the one party, which always gather over the surface till they fall off and attach themselves naturally to the other, the former is receiving a constant compensation, in the sounder portions of the latter which, from their natural bias of congeniality, pass over to fill up the desertions thus periodically dropping off. The main bulk of the Whig party itself – that is to say, of its voters, not of its politicians or leaders – is at heart democratic, though kept, from a variety of causes and in a variety of modes, in a constant state of delusion and mystification. The peculiar combination of circumstances which has lately borne so severely upon the democratic party, throwing its cause and candidates into an apparent temporary minority in so many quarters where it has been long accustomed to prevail, has been seen so far to intoxicate the Opposition with triumph, as to cause them to reverse the true relations and names of parties, — to believe themselves to have gained over the “democracy of numbers” they were so long wont to despise and abuse, — and even to crown the climax of the long array of names they have from time to time assumed with the singularly facetious title of “Democratic Whigs!” This is the unkindest cut of all. Thus to ‘filch from us our good name’ is indeed too bad, — though we are vastly mistaken if it will prove in the end to have greatly enriched the unblushing wearers. It is utterly vain for that party to attempt to maintain such an assumption. Their more intelligent and liberal men, in private, freely ridicule it as a bold electioneering trick. Anti-democracy is the principle of their party organization now, as it has always been, from its first infusion under the auspices of the high Federalism of the olden time. By affecting the name of democracy they only impair their own unity and cohesion, such as it is, and weaken their own principle of life. The effect is only to introduce a fatal dissension, the proud and stout‐hearted old heads of their party having been already seen to be prompt in repudiating the offensive term, and all the abominable associations of Jeffersonianism which it implies; while at the same time it only attracts attention the more conspicuously to that which it is their first interest to keep in the shade, the real anti‐democratic character of their entire political faith. The movement was pregnant with much significance, which was made in the late Whig Young Men’s Convention at Utica, to arrest the abuse of the memory and principles of Jefferson which the excitements of the present contest had naturally drawn forth from the Federal press; and even to attempt to blazon that noble name on the banner of a cause, and a party, in all respects the most repugnant to the principles of which that name is the condensed expression. It was a strong symptom of a healthy spirit at work in the more generous youth of that party, — a spirit which cannot but result in bringing over a large proportion of them to the true Democratic cause…
And what can the Opposition do at the next session – what position assume? It is impossible to prevent the gradual ripening of these great public questions. They cannot again rest on the policy of “prevention.” The panic is over, and Othello’s occupation gone. They must come down, fully and fairly, into the plain, and meet the simple issue, pro, or con – the Independent Treasury, or a National Bank…
What may be the general issue of the elections of this fall, it is impossible for us, at the date of the present Article, to anticipate. We are by no means sanguine of all the successes confidently expected by many of our friends. But though they should still go decidedly against the Democratic party, our confidence in our cause and our position would not be shaken in the least degree. We can ‘bide our time;’ and even though the Administration should, possibly, be embarrassed during the latter half of the present term by an adverse majority in the House of Representatives, it can never arrest or materially impede the operation of those deeply seated and widely diffused causes, which cannot fail to secure to it an overwhelming support before the next Presidential struggle, when the last and decisive battle is to be fought upon its principles and policy.