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The Nation Expanding

The Nation Expanding

Four of the objects in this section—an Indian peace medal and three bank notes—are from the National Numismatic Collection at the National Museum of American History. The bank notes were issued in the so-called Free Banking Era, which began with President Andrew Jackson’s dissolution of the Second National Bank in 1830s and ended with the Civil War. Thousands of state-chartered banks and businesses printed their own paper money during this time. According to Smithsonian numismatics curator Richard Doty, the highly detailed artwork on the notes is “our best, most easily obtainable visual representation of the American nineteenth century—not in terms of what it actually was, but in terms of what those who lived through it thought it was.”

This money was the fuel of a boom in land speculation and railroad and canal building. The most common themes on the notes, not surprisingly, are transportation, agriculture, and industry. If the images on today’s money convey the strength of our history, the many steamboats, canal barges, and trains on these notes show the vitality of a new nation that could see its future lying before it, out to the west.

Two great trends emerge in any overview of this period in American history: the expansion of the nation westward and the deepening division of the nation between the North and the South. These trends were not coincidental. The struggles between proslavery and antislavery forces in Congress had less to do with the existence of slavery in the South than with the question of whether it would spread to the new territories.

While the South held on to its cotton-and-slave economy, the Northeast transformed itself into an industrial power. In the 1820s and 1830s, New England towns—most notably, Lowell and Waltham, Massachusetts—grew into centers of textile manufacturing. Before then, American textiles were produced in small workshops and in the homes of farm families. A few entrepreneurs had tried to establish mass-production factories of the kind operating in England, but the United States was a rural country without a large working class. As emigrants began to cultivate the endless flatland beyond the Appalachians, the farm economy of rocky New England began to decline. There were now free hands to run factory machines.

One of the bank notes in this collection commemorates the importance of the Massachusetts mills. Like most of the objects here, it reveals a degree of self-consciousness among Americans—an awareness that they were living in historic times and an effort to define history through art.

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