The Young America Movement and the Crisis of Household Politics

Mark Power Smith

Homicide of P. Barton Key by Hon. Daniel E. Sickles, at Washington, on Sunday, Feb. 27, 1859 in Harper’s Weekly, Mar. 12, 1859, 169. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

In the mid-nineteenth-century United States, one of the most popular sources of national pride was antipathy to the monarchical regimes of Europe, particularly the British Empire. Although the nation had achieved political independence, Americans of all kinds still wrestled with Britain’s control over the international order, as well as her hold over intellectual, cultural, and economic life. To achieve true independence, supporters of the Democratic Party, in particular, tried to develop new political theories and cultural forms, and to forge a larger role for the Union within the international system. But, as time marched on, this rage to transform the nation faltered in the face of social breakdown, and reproduced old hierarchies in novel—and more destructive—forms.

During the 1840s, the Democratic Party was home to the most strident Anglophobes in the United States. One such man was New York Democrat Daniel Sickles. Although born into wealth, Sickles quickly gravitated toward the seedy and violent sides of political life in nineteenth-century America. Early on in his political career, Sickles earned a reputation for violence, hard drinking, and womanizing. Debonair and well-liked, he was also mired in some of the scandals that defined urban politics in the period before the Civil War. In 1852, Sickles married an intelligent and worldly girl half his age—Teresa Bagioli, who at just fifteen had mastered five languages. And a year later, he won the most prestigious position of his political life thus far. In 1853, the incoming Democratic President, Franklin Pierce, selected Sickles to be secretary of the U.S. legation in London.

This appointment was part of a wider push on the part of the Democratic administration to send political figures and writers to Europe in the diplomatic service. After the Revolutions of 1848 broke out on the continent, the Democrats increasingly defined their party as the best vehicle to promote self-government across the Atlantic. A faction within the party called Young America capitalized on this sentiment, pushing the administration toward an ever more assertive foreign policy; one that culminated in diplomatic disputes, such as the Koszta Affair of 1853, which I discuss in my recent article for the JER. Taking its very name from the revolutionary societies that stalked Europe, the Young America movement also argued that strong-willed diplomats, who embodied the “national spirit,” could spread American values on the continent. But in reality, Young America’s diplomatic corps caused a great deal of trouble. The former French revolutionary, Pierre Soulé, got into a series of duels and was barred from traveling through his home country, while the Senate refused to confirm the appointment of editor and firebrand George Sanders, because of his fraternization with European revolutionary figures. In the end, President Franklin Pierce got more than he bargained for with Daniel Sickles. In England, he introduced a well-known prostitute from New York City, Fanny White, to Queen Victoria – probably not the opposition to monarchy the president had in mind.

When his foreign appointment ended, Sickles was elected as a Democrat to the 35th Congress. During his tenure, both chambers were consumed by ferocious debates over slavery: namely, northerners and southerners butted heads about whether the institution should be allowed to take root in the territories. As a northern Democrat, Sickles cut something of a middle path between these two positions. He supported the leader of the Young America movement, Stephen Douglas, in arguing the decision should be left to white male settlers to adjudicate for themselves through a popular vote. However exclusionary, this compromise was nonetheless consistent with Young America’s earlier propagation of self-government in Europe. At its core, the movement wanted to protect the political sovereignty of white men from federal encroachment within the Union—just as they had against imperial authority across the Atlantic. But, as the crisis over slavery drew on, antislavery “agitators” and a host of new radical groups threatened this program; wielding the power of the state to emancipate marginalized groups, instead of allowing white communities to exercise political control over “dependent” populations. In this context, the darker side to mid-nineteenth-century liberalism became more apparent. Increasingly, the threats to Young America’s political program came from below—in the form of radical groups who utilized government power to upset “natural” hierarchies—rather than above—in the form of monarchical regimes that suppressed the political rights of white men.

As the Union became, in Abraham Lincoln’s famous phrase, a house divided against itself, Sickles faced a crisis within his own household. In September, he discovered that his young wife was having an affair with Philip Barton Key II—the son of Francis Scott Key, who composed “The Star Spangled Banner.” The affair had been going on for quite some time, and rumors swirled in the political and social circles of Washington DC. One night, after he returned home from a party, Sickles received an anonymous tip-off about his wife’s behavior. Later, he spotted Key in Lafayette Park, signaling to Bagioli through the window of the mansion that she shared with her husband in the capital. Sickles flew into a rage and chased his assailant down, shooting him twice—once in the chest and once in the groin. Key did not survive the altercation. What followed was an outpouring of public support for Sickles. None other than Democratic President James Buchanan wrote a public statement vindicating his heavy-handed response. In court, Sickles was represented by Democrat, and future Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. In the end, he was acquitted—to great delight in the courtroom—on the grounds that he had been rendered “temporarily insane,” unable to control his mind and body on account of his wife’s treachery. This was the first defense of its kind, and was subsequently used as a precedent to excuse “crimes of passion.”

Sickles was, of course, embedded in political networks at the national and state level. Stanton and Buchanan proved important contacts in getting him off the hook. But the defense of Sickles in the court and the press was also overtly political. Many papers tied the breakdown of Sickles’s marriage to those radical movements that threatened to unravel the nation. This time, however, the most obvious target was women’s rights and free love, rather than abolitionism. Many Americans alleged that the women’s movement conjured up the specter of female agency, luring figures like Bagioli to commit all manner of sins. In the nation at large, the breakdown of the household supposedly threatened the stability of the Union—and with it the best hope for republican government abroad. As was the case with antislavery agitation, the women’s rights movement was frequently presented as a European import, which undermined “natural” hierarchies with the help of federal interference.

One writer in Harper’s Weekly made an explicitly nationalist argument that Sickles had defended the sanctity of his family in the “American way.”[1] Faced with marital betrayal, a Frenchman might “challenge his enemy” and an Englishman sue for damages, but only the American would hunt his assailant down in the streets. “Terrible as homicide is,” the magazine concluded, it was the “most natural revenge of an outraged husband.”[2] Significantly, the revenge for this crime was not just on behalf of the woman whom the seducer “misleads” or the man he “dishonors,” but also the society which he “disorganizes.”[3] Likewise, the Bellows Falls Times connected Key’s behavior to a wider malaise wreaking havoc in America. The paper proclaimed that sympathy for Sickles was laudable. “If any man deserves to be shot down without judge or jury,” the writer argued, “it is he who invades the sanctity of home and domestic relations.”[4]The tragedy was a result of “that miserable state of looseness in society,” which included the doctrine of “free love.”[5]The results were obvious as “the consequences are before us” in the nation at large.[6] The Day Book was more explicit: “the prevalence of the detestable doctrines of ‘women’s rights,’ which tend to absolve the wife from allegiance to her husband, is the source of ten thousand domestic sorrows, which culminate in divorce suits or domestic tragedies, to the shame and disgrace of the age in which we live.”[7]

In court, Sickles’s legal defense also related this particular case to social forces convulsing the American nation. Lawyer John Graham argued that Sickles had acted according to nothing less than divine justice. Society’s laws might have been silent on whether a man could take revenge on his wife’s lover. But, the “natural law” was not. Graham explained: “as to those wrongs entering into, or affecting radically and deeply the security or defense of ourselves and our natural rights,” “we are entitled in all proper cases, to stand upon the great Law of Nature.”[8] The legal defense of Sickles, then, drew on the same idea of natural rights that Young Americans used to justify other elements of their political program. Across the world, popular sovereignty and political independence were natural rights for white men written in the great volume of nature—rather than positive law or historical precedent. But, in this case, Graham claimed that Sickles had a “natural right” to fidelity from his wife.

The Young America movement was, therefore, liberal insofar as white men could exercise political rights as “sovereigns,” rather than surrendering this authority to central, or imperial power—as was the case in Europe. But, this sovereignty also gave the same men control over their wives in the home. Because political hierarchies were based on the “inherent” attributes of race and gender, and thereby carved into humanity itself, distinctions between private and political life broke down. The methods of exclusion in politics applied with equal force to the household. As such, women could be given a status less than fully human. “The person or body of the wife is, in a measure,” claimed Graham, “the property of the husband.”[9] At times, then, Sickles and his fellow northern Democrats used the same arguments to justify their control over women as supporters of herrenvolk democracy in the South applied to enslaved people.

Indeed, in the minds of many Democrats, the women’s movement posed the same sort of threat as abolitionism and socialism. All these groups used the federal government to empower “dependent” populations, undermining the integrity of the home and the relations between the sexes and races. Thus, an “artificial” centralized authority was being used not to compromise the “natural” rights of white men—as it had been in Europe—but the “natural” hierarchies of family and herrenvolk democracy. Thus, the same people who rallied against European monarchs now contended with the radical groups that had emerged in the wake of the crisis over slavery and the 1848 uprisings in Europe. As political conflict brought the nation to the brink of collapse, some northern and southern Democrats shared a sense that their status as heads of the household was under existential threat. Across the nation, they were convinced that dangers to the Union not only came from “agitation” over slavery: Rather, a plethora of radical groups now posed the same threat to the American nation—and the individual households that comprised it—as the monarchs of the Old World.


[1] “The Sickles Tragedy at Washington,” Harper’s Weekly, Mar. 12, 1859.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “The Last Tragedy,” Bellows Falls Times, Bellows Falls, Vt., Mar. 4, 1859.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Day Book, quoted in Daily Dispatch, Richmond Va., Mar. 3, 1859.

[8] Opening speech of John Graham to the jury, on the part of the defence, on the trial of Daniel E. Sickles, Apr. 9 and 11, 1859 (New York, 1859), 51.

[9] Ibid.

7 July 2021

About the Author

Mark Power Smith is a Junior Research Fellow at Mansfield College, Oxford.

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