← Back to October 2015

Selected Key Figures who Shaped 19th Century America

links image

Vincent Valentine, MD
University of Texas Medical Branch
Galveston, TX, USA

John Marshall was a veteran of the Revolutionary War, a congressman and Secretary of State. Above all, he was the "Great Chief Justice." From 1801-1835, his vision and leadership established the Supreme Court as the defender of the Constitution. Marshall was appointed Chief Justice by President John Adams. Up to that time, the Court had been a weak collection of political appointees. Each judge issued an individual opinion on cases brought before him. Determined to forge a strong Court, Marshall established a new policy called "the opinion of the Court." Under this policy, a forceful majority ruling was issued in each case. One of the Marshall Court's most important rulings dealt with the 1803 case Marbury vs Madison. Marshall ruled that the constitution was the highest law of the land, and that the Supreme Court could strike down any law made by Congress that violated the Constitution. This concept, called "judicial review," became a central feature of the American system of government. Unlike Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall did not believe in a strict interpretation of the words of the Constitution. He believed that its underlying ideas should be "adapted to various crises of human affairs."

John C Calhoun held many high government posts in the years before the Civil War. He represented South Carolina in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. He was President James Monroe's Secretary of War and President John Tyler's Secretary of State. He was Vice President under Presidents John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. But he is best remembered as the South's leading spokesman for slavery, which he regarded as "a positive good," and for the right of states to override national law. When Calhoun first entered Congress in 1811, he joined the "War Hawks," a group that helped bring about the War of 1812 with Britain. At that time, Calhoun supported a strong government. But later he changed his mind and began arguing that states did not have to obey federal laws they considered unconstitutional. He believed that states could cancel, or "nullify" laws they disliked. His final, most vigorous fight was against the Compromise of 1850, which admitted California as a free state and outlawed the slave trade in the District of Columbia. Just before his death on March 31, 1850, Calhoun sighed, "The South, the poor South! God knows what will become of her."

Take note, in 1832, Calhoun resigned as Vice President to take a Senate seat. The only other Vice President to resign was Spiro Agnew, who left office in 1973 over charges of tax evasion.

Daniel Webster, a brilliant orator and a passionate defender of the federal government delivered these famous words in 1830, "Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable." A graduate of Dartmouth, Webster won fame as a lawyer. In several cases argued before the Supreme Court, Webster spoke in favor of a strong national government and a free interpretation of the Constitution. Elected to Congress in 1813 from New Hampshire, and later from Massachusetts, he became a leader of the Whig Party and one of the most influential figures in Washington. He forcefully argued against the Southern belief that states had the right to nullify federal laws they did not agree with. Although he despised slavery, he supported compromises that he hoped would keep the Union together and avert civil war. Twice, he served as Secretary of State. In that office, he helped put a stop to the African slave trade. Daniel Webster never achieved his goal to be President. But his contributions to the nation was enormous. "You have manifested powers of intellect of the highest order and in all things, a true American heart." President John Tyler said to Webster. In 1957, a Senate committee headed by John F Kennedy chose Webster as one of the five outstanding senators of the past.

Henry Clay was a slave owner, but he urged the elimination of slavery. In the turbulent years before the Civil War, when the issue of slavery threatened to split the U.S. apart, Henry Clay did more than any other leader to keep the country together. For his efforts to save the Union, Clay became known as the "the Great Compromiser." During his long career, Clay served as a congressman and senator from Kentucky, as Speaker of the House, and as Secretary of State. He ran for the presidency three times but was never elected. Told once that a speech he had given had hurt his chances for presidency, he replied, "I would rather be right than president." As a young congressman, Clay developed an economic program called the American System, which called for federally financed roads and canals, a national bank, and high tariffs. Later, when slavery threatened to divide the country, he worked for solutions that North and South could accept. In 1829, he helped pass the Missouri Compromise. It kept the number of slave and free states equal, admitting Maine as a free state and Missouri as a slave state. In 1832, when South Carolina threatened to secede over a tariff dispute, Clay devised a compromise that ended the crisis. And in 1850, when California asked to enter as a free state, Clay drew up the Compromise of 1850, a group of bills with provisions that both North and South wanted. But Clay's compromise kept the Union together for only 10 more years.

Sojourner Truth was an illiterate and tall African-American woman who when she spoke out against slavery, she held everyone spellbound. She would begin every speech..."Children, I talk to God and God talks to me." Born a slave named Isabella on a farm in New York, she earned her freedom around age 30 after New York abolished slavery. She believed God had wanted her to "travel up and down the land" to preach his word. Therefore, she took the name Sojourner (which means wanderer) Truth and spoke wherever there was an audience. Her eloquence made her so famous that in 1864 President Lincoln invited her to the White House and appointed her counselor to freedmen in the capital. Following the Civil War she helped newly free slaves and improved the lives of women.

William H. Seward was a lawyer from upstate New York who served as governor of New York and was elected to the U.S. Senate. He was a staunch opponent of slavery. He lost the Republican nomination for President in 1860 to Abraham Lincoln. He would later support Lincoln and thus was rewarded the post of Secretary of State under Lincoln's administration. During the Civil War, Seward carefully negotiated and dissuaded France and England from supporting the South. When Lincoln was assassinated, Seward was shot by a co-conspirator. He recovered and remained in his position under Andrew Johnson. With Johnson's support he purchased Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million, roughly two cents an acre. His critics called this purchase "Seward's Folly, however he predicted that this vast northern area would bring great wealth. Decades later, with the discovery of gold, oil and natural gas in Alaska he was proven correct.

The bright and eager Dorothea Dix established a girls' school in Boston at the age of 14. She taught for 14 years but gave it up after several bouts of tuberculosis. She visited a Cambridge jail in 1841 to teach Sunday School and instead became horrified to find mentally ill patients imprisoned like criminals. She then began a lifetime of service for those who could not speak for themselves. During her tours of other Massachusetts jails and poorhouses she found the mentally ill chained, beaten and locked unclothed in closets or cellars. IN 1843 she began a campaign to establish separate hospitals for the mentally ill where they could be humanely treated. Because of her efforts, the care and facilities for the mentally ill improved not only in the U.S. but also in Canada and England. She did serve as superintendent of women nurse in the Union army.

The idea of woman doctor was shocking in the 1840's. However, Elizabeth Blackwell from England moved with her family to the United States when she was 11 in 1832. She was determined to practice medicine and succeeded against all odds. She grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio and started teaching school to support her family after her father died. She applied to and was rejected by 29 medical schools. In 1847, she was accepted by Geneva Medical College in western New York. She graduated two years later and after further study in Europe, moved to New York City to begin medical practice. She found closed doors everywhere she went and no hospital accepted a woman doctor. In 1857 she founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, a hospital run almost entirely by women including her sister Emily who also was a doctor. She founded the Women's Medical College in New York and the London School of Medicine for Women in England.

The "Moses of her people," Harriet Tubman led enslaved people to freedom. She was born into slavery on a Maryland plantation where two of her sisters were sold and she, brutally beaten. In 1849, she escaped and headed for the city of brotherly love, Philadelphia. She dedicated her life to helping other African-Americans escape from bondage. Tubman became the most famous "conductors" on the Underground Railroad, a secret network of safe houses providing refuge for escaped slaves. She made many dangerous trips to the South and helped more than 300 slaves to freedom in the North. Tubman hid during the day and led slaves to freedom by night guided by the North Star. Angry slaveholders offered a $40,000 reward for her capture, but she was never caught. She served as a cook, nurse, scout and spy for the Union army during the Civil War. After the war, she continued to work for her people, raised money, set up schools and established homes for former slaves and their families. At her death in 1913, she was buried with full military honors.

Clara Barton was the "angel of the battlefield." She helped wounded and dying soldiers during the Civil War which made her a national heroine. A strong-minded woman, she devoted her life to helping others. At the outset of the Civil War in 1861, Barton was the first female clerk to work in the Patent Office in Washington, D.C. Reports of suffering soldiers motivated her to action. She nursed the wounded and carried supplies and medicines to the battlefield. Her war efforts exhausted and sickened her. In 1869, she went to Switzerland to recover. While in Switzerland, she learned about the International Red Cross, an organization devoted to the relief of suffering resulting from war. She took part in Red Cross activities during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-1871. In 1873, she returned home and created the American Red Cross. She served as the organization's first president for 22 years and expanded the Red Cross to include helping victims of peacetime disasters, including floods and hurricanes. ■

Disclosure Statement: The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.

Share via:

links image    links image    links image    links image