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Calvin Colton and the New Nation

by Michael Gelinas, Board member- Longmeadow Historical Society- February 2007 Issue

In the first half of the 19th century, the young United States went from a rural agrarian and barely united nation to a pre-modern industrializing one, but it was still only a somewhat united nation-state. The population increased five-fold; the land area expanded from the Mississippi to the Pacific; the Northeast was laying the foundation of a powerful industrial giant; and members of various ethnic groups, religions, classes, regions, educational levels and political ideas were struggling with just what this new country was about and what it should be.

The middle decades of this era are frequently called either the “Age of Jackson” because of the dominant political leader of the time, or the “Era of the Common Man” because of the belief that an average man could, with hard work, get ahead and also could participate in civic life. Calvin Colton of Longmeadow played an important role in three aspects of the developing young nation: emigration to the United States, the political party system as a major figure in the Whig party, and a articulator of a common ideology for the new nation.


Calvin Colton, born in Longmeadow on September 74, 1789, was a fifth generation member of a prominent family in colonial Springfield. George Colton had been one of the original settlers of “Agawam Plantation” and had received larger than average land grants in the Masaksic (“longe Meddowe”) section of Springfield. George Colton’s skills as a “quartermaster” in the fur business with Springfield’s founder, William Pynchon, and his large number of sons and their land grants, enabled the rise of a dynasty that came to dominate the meadows and later the independent town (1783). Calvin's great-grandfather, Captain John Colton, was married to the sister of Connecticut Governor Roger Wolcott. His grandfather Simon was an officer in the French and Indian War. Calvin’s father, Major Luther Colton, served in the American Revolution.

Calvin attended Monson Academy and graduated from Yale in 1812; he then completed the three-year course of study at Andover Theological Seminary in two years. His ministry included various locations in western New York. After the death of his wife, Abbey North Raymond, as well as a weakening voice, he became an Episcopal clergyman and was rector of the Church of the Messiah in New York City. During the 1830’s he wrote and published a variety of books on religion and American life. These books are of limited value for their historic and theological content and as manuals of style. But it was also during this time that Calvin began a new career as a traveler and journalist. From 1831 to 1835 he was in England as a correspondent for the New York Observer. The resulting descriptive travel narratives are of real value in understanding the time period, and also in how potential emigrants from Europe were encouraged to migrate to the new nation. The most important works were a Manual for Emigrants to America and Tour of the American Lakes. Upon his return to America, Colton became involved in the politics of the era as a pamphleteer for the Whig Party.

In the meantime, especially in the 1820s and early 1830s, the number of potential voters had dramatically increased, as individual states had moved from minimum wealth requirements (real and,/or personal) to universal white male suffrage. By the mid-1830s a vigorous and lively participatory national political culture had emerged. New electioneering styles and techniques—barbecues, parades, newspapers, cartoons, posters, music—and very importantly, newspapers and pamphlets, had developed. The over 80% turnout in the 1840 presidential election indicates the importance of these “popular” campaign methods. It was in this area of political propaganda, under the pen name “Junius,” that Colton wrote for the winning Whig campaign for the presidency in 1840. He continued this new career as political journalist when he became editor of the “True Whig” in Washington, 1842-1843. In this role he helped define and articulate what it meant to be a true Whig: in favor of national expansion, federal help for the economy through internal improvements, and reforming American society.

In 1844 Colton was summoned to Ashland, Kentucky, the home of one of the great leaders of pre-Civil War America: Henry Clay. He was commissioned to write the official biography of Clay and to edit his papers. The edited papers are still considered standard and useful to study Clay, but the biography, a classic panegyric, provides no critical analysis and has been replaced by far more useful biographies that do justice to one of the most qualified leaders never elected president.

Clay had been a young Congressman from the “West” (Kentucky) in 1812 and was a leading “War Hawk,” who forced President Madison to go to war with Great Britain over trade, maritime rights, and land known as British Canada. This early expression of nationalism by Clay would be a benchmark of his career. It was the core of his national economic policies (the “American System”) that would protect young American industries with high protective tariffs, and federally funded improvements like canals and roads (and later railroads) that would create a national economy. As a political leader in the House and in the Senate, Clay played a major role in keeping the union together when slavery became an issue.

"in the United States... real intrinsic worth and practical talents for usefulness are most honored..."   - Calvin Colton       

He played a pivotal role in arranging the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Compromise of 1850, both of which tried to deal with the explosive issue of the expansion of slavery into new western lands.

Calvin Colton and Henry Clay were in agreement on most major issues of the day, especially the belief in protective tariffs. Colton became a leading advocate, and in 1848 published “Public Economy for the United States.” The work was favorably received and led to the establishment of a chair of public Economy at Trinity College, Hartford CT. This professorship was offered to Colton in 1852, and he held it until his death in 1857. In 1850 he gave a lecture at the Smithsonian in Washington, where he advocated the building of a transcontinental railroad: The Pacific Coast had just become the western border of the United States. And just two years  before his death he returned to Longmeadow and gave a public lecture on “The Future of American Empire.”

There were no guarantees that the new United States would survive and prosper. The Constitution of 1787 had laid out a broad plan of union and a revised national government. But there had been no provisions for political parties-in fact the Founders heartily disliked the idea. The vicious and bitter political battles of the early decades between Federalists and Jeffersonians suggested an end to the experiment in self-government, and the succeeding “Era of Good Feelings” only papered over many of the problems facing Americans.

However, by the late 1830's, the two political parties—Democratic and Whig—although still having many policy differences, would, in the words of Calvin Colton, “. ... always remain nearly equal to match each other, and every few years there must be a change.” Colton, as “Junius,” argued that the parties were a legitimate and necessary part of the political culture. This reflected the achievement of a larger and common belief in American culture, that all men should have the chance to get ahead, that they should not be impeded by government actions. For the first time since independence from England, Americans were developing the sense that politics had a close relation to their welfare, and that through voting and involvement in political parties, they had some control over their own futures. As Calvin Colton put it, “...this is a country of self-made men. . ..


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