- Where to Go
- The Best of Vermont
- Rumblings of Revolution
- New, New England Dining
- Boston’s Artistic Expression
- Vermont Leaf Peeping
- Into the Wild
- Vermont Skiing at Its Best
- Visit Vermont’s Maple Sugar Shacks
- Connecticut for Kids
- Vermont’s Covered Bridges
- A Shore Thing
- Vermont with Kids
- Portland Maine Art Galleries
- Small-Town Flavor
- Connecticut’s Wine Trails
- New Hampshire’s Farmers Markets
- A Weekend of Vermont Art
- Family Matters
- Maine Wilderness Camps
- Vermont Cheddar Houses
- Connecticut Spas
The Federal Period
No longer hampered by British strictures on trade, this new class of bourgeoisie was soon sending ships to the far ports of the world in search of trading goods. For a time, the city of Salem was the richest in the world from its cornering of the trade in pepper with the East Indies. Whaling ships from Nantucket and New Bedford sailed the South Seas in search of whales, growing rich themselves off the trade in spermaceti oil and whalebone corsets, which were all the rage on the Continent. Boston, meanwhile, remained the largest port in the United States, vying for supremacy with Philadelphia and New York City in the years after the Revolution. All over the region, signs of the new wealth appeared in the form of stunning brick mansions and elm-lined streets.
Politically, New England also vied with the other colonial powerhouses, Pennsylvania, New York, and Virginia, to determine the path of the new country. Many prominent Bostonians, including John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and John Adams were part of the founding fathers at the Constitutional Convention in 1789, where they pushed for a stronger federal government to raise armies, tax the populace, and set trade policies. The Federalists, as they came to be known, had their strongholds in New England and New York and reached their apogee when John Adams was elected president in 1796. A national backlash, however, soon found the southern agrarians in power under Virginian Thomas Jefferson and the influence of the Federalists waned. Many New England states opposed the War of 1812 with Britain and abstained from sending troops (thankfully, a push to secede and form the New England Confederacy around this time failed). Over the ensuing decades, the Federalists competed with the more agrarian southern states to push policies that would benefit the manufacturers that became the underpinning of the northern economy.
The “dark satanic mills” (as English Romantic poet William Blake called them) sprouted throughout England in the 18th century, transforming Europe into an industrialized economy. North America was slow to follow suit until after the war. In 1790, a British engineer named Samuel Slater was called in to rebuild the machinery at Moses Brown’s textile mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. The innovations he put in place transformed the factory and began a trend that would blanket New England with mills at a record pace over the next few decades. In many ways the region was ideally suited for manufacturing, with many fast-running rivers to generate power, a steady supply of raw materials thanks to the shipping trade, and poor soil for the competing industry of farming. In short order, cities were transformed into mill towns with sturdy brick factories and blocks of rowhouses for low-wage workers who toiled endlessly spinning and weaving textiles. Along with the textile mills, other cities in the region won fame for production of consumer goods including shoes, paper, and clocks. A Scottish visitor to New England in the 1830s declared Niagara Falls and the mill town of Lowell, Massachusetts, the two greatest wonders of America.
As the New England factories churned out the goods, a new class of aristocrats emerged on Beacon Hill and in the seaport and manufacturing towns. Called Brahmins, they were known as much for their wealth as for their enlightened sense of noblesse oblige. Many were educated at universities such as Harvard, Yale, and Brown, which became national centers of learning and spawned scholars and researchers in natural science. Espousing Yankee values of thrift and modesty, many of the Brahmins eschewed more garish forms of wealth for the prestige of philanthropy and the arts. After all, many of their fortunes were one generation removed from rum-running and opium trading. Many Brahmins never forgot how they came by their wealth and took measures to redeem themselves, founding the first public library in Boston, and museums such as the Museum of Fine Arts.
Abolitionists and Transcendentalists
When Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. declared in 1858 that Boston was the “hub of the solar system,” he was referring not only to its wealth and financial influence, but also its intellectual influence. Over the two centuries since the Puritans arrived, Bostonians had gradually shed their strict morals and small-minded prejudices to develop a new, more all-embracing religious philosophy. The austerity of Puritanism—which taught that people were either elected to be saved or they were destined to be damned—may have commanded fear and respect in the days of the colonies, but post-Revolutionary New England was a prosperous, urbane culture, proud of its status as a national center of ideas.
Called Unitarianism, the new religion taught that God’s salvation was available to anyone, not just those chosen few who were predestined for heaven. One by one, the New England Congregational churches “went Unitarian” and embraced this new philosophy, which emphasized an intellectual approach to the divine. And along with it came a new national conscience. Although early Unitarians were socially conservative, on political issues they were emphatically liberal. Congregants such as suffragist Susan B. Anthony were instrumental in organizing the women’s movement. And prodded by ministers like William Ellery Channing and firebrand Theodore Parker, Boston stood at the forefront of the abolitionist movement.
Ever since the end of the Revolutionary War, the nation had faced a growing tension over slavery. Vermont and Maine, in fact, were admitted to the union only in compromises that also admitted southern, slave-owning states (Kentucky and Missouri, respectively). It was inevitable that it would eventually come to a boil. Once again, Rhode Island led the way, passing a law in 1784 for emancipation of all children born into slavery. No one, however, would have more effect on the abolitionist movement than William Lloyd Garrison, a preacher from Newburyport, Massachusetts, who tirelessly advocated for emancipation in his newspaper The Liberator. Forming the Anti-Slavery Society, Garrison was instrumental in making New England a center for abolitionist sentiment—which was championed in Washington by Massachusetts congressman John Quincy Adams. He was aided by Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave who settled on Beacon Hill and spoke tirelessly in support of emancipation throughout New England.
At the same time that Unitarianism was spreading across the country, it spawned a rebellion against itself in the form of a new philosophy, transcendentalism. In many ways, transcendentalism took the fundamental tenet of Unitarianism, that anyone could be saved, and took it a step father, declaring that churches themselves were unnecessary since people could experience a direct connection to the divine. Transcendentalists found this in a mystical communion with the natural world. Buoyed by a mystical communion with nature, its adherents called for a radical individualism that would break free from the tired conventions of Europe. From their home base in Concord, its two chief adherents, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, laid down its philosophy and formed a nucleus of writers, including Bronson Alcott (and his daughter Louisa May) and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who would begin the flowering in American literature.
New England in the Civil War
No amount of philosophizing, however, could prevent the inevitable political clash of the Civil War. While none of the actual fighting of the war took place in New England, it could be argued that it was a New Englander who fired the first shot. Outraged by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, which demanded that captured slaves be returned to southern masters, Brunswick, Maine, resident Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which galvanized public support in favor of the war. Tens of thousands of New Englanders enlisted in the fight, forming regiments from all six New England states. Among the most acclaimed was the Massachusetts 54th, the nation’s first all-Black regiment, which was led by Bostonian Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, and suffered tremendous casualties in the heroic but tragic assault on Fort Wagner in July 1863. That same month, another New Englander, Joshua Chamberlain, won renown for his role in the Battle of Gettysburg. A professor at Bowdoin College, also in Brunswick, Maine, Chamberlain led the heroic defense of Little Round Top, saving the Union line through a dramatic flanking maneuver that caught the enemy by surprise. Two years later, in 1865, he received the flag of truce from the Confederate Army. Thus it’s said in Maine that Brunswick both started and ended the war.
© Michael Blanding and Alexandra Hall from Moon New England, 2nd Edition