by Sean Wilentz
(New York: W. W. Norton, 2005), 992 pp., $35
by Sean Wilentz
(New York: Times Books, 2005), 224 pp., $20
Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times
by H.W. Brands
(New York: Doubleday, 2005), 640 pp., $35
It is a rare and welcome event when three serious books dedicated to the study of American history between Thomas Jefferson’s return to Monticello and the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln appear in one season. Two of these books, The Rise of American Democracy and a short life of Andrew Jackson, are the work of Sean Wilentz, head of the American studies program at Princeton. The third, a larger and more substantial biography of Andrew Jackson, is by noted historian H. W. Brands.
Of the three books, Wilentz’s massive Rise of American Democracy is the most impressive display of high quality scholarship, and Brands’ life of Jackson is the most readable and engaging. Together with Michael Holt’s The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party (Oxford, 2006), Wilentz’s more comprehensive volume will give readers the best available look at mid-19th-century American political life. The star of this era, of course, is Andrew Jackson.
As the last American president to have fought in the Revolution, Jackson deserves to be numbered among the Founding Fathers of the Republic, and of that august company he is by no means the least. As a politician, he transformed the limited, republican government created in the Constitution into a much more direct and unmediated democratic system that endures to this day. As president, he first enunciated the theory of the Union that would guide Abraham Lincoln in the Civil War, and he built a political consensus behind the use of force to compel South Carolina to accept Federal supremacy.
Yet despite these accomplishments, few presidents were as controversial during their administrations or in subsequent historiography. For many years after the Civil War, the dominance of the Republican Party (which traced its roots to Jackson’s enemies, the Whigs) led to Jackson’s portrayal as a demagogue whose politically motivated destruction of the Second Bank of the United States led the nation into depression and monetary chaos. Yet Jackson remained a major hero among Democrats, as illustrated by the multitude of local Jackson Day celebrations well into the 20th century. With the triumph of the New Deal a new generation of historians including Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. hailed Jackson as a populist precursor of Franklin D. Roosevelt, anxious to protect ordinary Americans from grasping corporations and selfish business leaders.
In recent years the tide has turned once more against the seventh president, with race most often emphasized as his heel of Achilles. Jackson’s record as not only a slave owner but a slave trader who accepted the peculiar institution without much sign of inner struggle, his hard and often cruelly fought victories in the Indian wars, and his role in engineering the removal of the Cherokee and other tribes across the Mississippi have made Jackson an impossibly difficult hero for the American Left. A neo-Whig historiography has emerged which notes that Jackson’s opponents over the Bank were also generally opposed to his racial and expansionist policies.
Wilentz and Brands take different approaches to these controversies, but both come out with balanced assessments of this pivotal figure. Wilentz stresses Jackson’s economic radicalism and attempts to blunt the neo-Whig attack both by pointing to the hypocrisies and shortcomings in Whig racial policies and by providing a context, if not a justification, for Jackson’s Indian policy. The attempt to allow significant Indian populations to form “states within states” in places like Georgia and Tennessee, Jackson believed, was utopian and doomed. In the first half of the 19th century no government in Washington could have won the requisite political support to undertake complex, expensive and politically unpopular efforts to protect the Indian populations from their white neighbors and their elected state governments. The alternatives for the Indian nations were stark. Jackson can, Wilentz writes, be fairly faulted for the cruelly and even criminally careless and haphazard plans he made to carry out his removal policies, but the alternatives the Indians faced—assimilation and extinction of tribal identity, literal extermination or removal to the trans-Mississippi West—were not created by Jackson, and there were no new alternatives he could add to the list.
Brands steers largely clear of these controversies and simply recounts the events of Jackson’s life and career, keeping commentary to a minimum. Drawing on a wide range of contemporary documents and sources, he allows the major characters in Jackson’s life to speak to us in their own words and, in Jackson’s case, sometimes with his own unique and impressive spelling. Brands’ treatment is more portrait than scholarly biography, and this choice both makes for a good read and facilitates a clear look at Jackson’s compelling personality.
Irascible and acutely sensitive to slights on his character, Jackson was far too thin-skinned for a happy career in politics. Fiercely devoted to his plump and poorly educated wife, he passed his happiest times at the domestic hearth with Rachel Jackson puffing industriously on her favorite pipe. Patriotism was the other animating passion of Jackson’s life. He had a deep and abiding emotional attachment to his country and a high view of the duty owed to it. The sincerity of this lifelong passion, and the obvious way in which he identified America with the ordinary (white) people rather than with elites, abstract ideals or institutions, gave him a bond with voters that carried him through every political storm.
Brands’ portrait gives readers a fair idea of Jackson’s strengths as well as his weaknesses; the narration of his life and political career shows how Jackson’s character helped determine his fate and that of the nation he loved and led. For those who do not know Andrew Jackson, this is an excellent place to start, and those familiar with other treatments will enjoy Brands’ easy style and wide use of sources.
The rarity of this moment, when two biographies of Jackson and a full-scale study of his era appear in one publishing season, poses an important question about the uneven way Americans relate to their history. American history in the public consciousness is a series of shining mountaintops separated by shadowed valleys. The glorious summits of the revolutionary and federalist periods fall away into the gray obscurity of the decades before the Civil War; and almost immediately following that war the darkness closes in again. The Roosevelt and Wilson Administrations, separated only by the valley of the shadow of William Howard Taft, next rise above the plain, to be followed by the last age of darkness under Harding, Coolidge and Hoover until Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal dispel the gloom and the brightness of contemporary history begins—and the fortunes of the publishing industry generally follow this terrain.
This popular profile no doubt owes its origin to the fact that the eras which have entered general historical memory, that serve as reference points for public discussion and debate about the meaning of American history, are those like the Civil War, the New Deal and the Federalist era where a mix of compelling story lines, larger than life characters and a concentration of political authority into a relatively small number of hands make for good storytelling. And that is why Andrew Jackson is something of an historiographic paradox.
Jackson himself was compelling—he was and remains his own story line. But it was Jackson above all others who brought mass politics into power, after which American politics became much harder to follow or to explain in simple story lines. To tell the story of New York politics, for example, Wilentz must introduce and explain more than half a dozen Democratic political factions: the Bucktails, Locofocos, Silver Greys, Barnburners, Hunkers, Tammany Hall and the Albany Regency. And that’s for only one party in only one state. Minor groups like the Know Nothings and the Anti-Masonic party rose and fell like skyrockets on the Fourth of July. Rhode Island fought something like a small civil war in these antebellum years; South Carolina politics pursued a uniquely eccentric course; Alabama and Mississippi moved toward what Wilentz calls Herrenvolk or Master Race democracy, and so on. Especially in the pre-17th Amendment era when members of the U.S. Senate were elected by state legislatures, the arcane twists and turns of state politics defined and determined the main questions of American politics.
The economic issues of the day, too—the nature of the banking system and the tariff—demand a solid grounding not only in general economic principles, but in the specific conditions and practices of the early industrial economy of the time. And once Jackson introduced what he and his friends called “rotation in office”—in other words, the “spoils system”—both Federal and state politics revolved increasingly around the distribution of post office directorships, customs inspectorates and the like.
To trace the tangled stories of the intrigues, betrayals, delicate power balances and tradeoffs that arose from the quadrennial scramble for office would tax the patience of any reader, and test the ability of any historian to decipher the story from a partial and often deliberately deceptive paper trail. With access to patronage necessary to build and maintain a politician’s support network, these fights often drove the party politics and the policy fights of the period. Readers are generally fatigued by the amount of exposition and back story required to make sense of these complex events, which is why both Wilentz’s The Rise of American Democracy and Holt’s The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party resemble doorstoppers threatening to grow into hassocks.
The complexity and variety of post-Jacksonian American political life will always make American history a difficult subject to execute well, but not all the opacity in which these dark ages lie is due to the sheer complexity of the story. Much of it is due to the stubborn refusal of American history to confirm the prejudices or reflect the values of contemporary thought. This is not entirely or even largely a matter of vulgar political correctness. Wilentz’s courageous attempt to contextualize Jackson’s Indian policies shows him to be a scholar whose vision and range cannot be bounded by the neo-bluestocking enforcers of the latest incarnation of the genteel tradition in American letters. But there seems nevertheless to be a kind of disappointment among scholars and intellectuals on both the Left and the Right with the actual course of American history, and especially the history of American democracy.
Whatever the shortcomings of universal adult white male suffrage in the light of 21st-century democratic ideals, the United States in the first six decades of the 19th century represents the irruption into history of a new kind of social order and a new kind of freedom. The United States truly became a New World in those years; culture and politics finally escaped the boundaries and precedents of Europe. Yet to the chagrin of many, the story of this democratic society is no straight-line narrative about overcoming racism, classism and superstition. American democracy flirted with economic quackery (pardon me, radicalism) in the 1830s as Andrew Jackson fought Nicholas Biddle and the Second Bank of the United States. But by the late 1850s the mass of American democratic opinion had solidified around the hard money and free market (plus high tariff) principles that underpinned an era of Republican dominance which ended only with the Great Depression. Abraham Lincoln was one of the most pro-business chief executives ever to reach the presidential chair; his successors have largely followed in his footsteps. The mass of working Americans got the vote—and then used it to keep unabashed capitalists in power, even as American democracy scrupulously respected the rights of property.
There were, in Jackson’s time and later, labor organizers, socialists, anarchists and utopians—figures that most university nestled historians need not strain to admire. Operating under many fewer restrictions than their colleagues in Europe, these dedicated idealists and activists struggled for decades to shift the United States onto another track of development. They were not without influence, but American democracy never brought them anywhere close to power.
The last state religious establishments were dismantled in the Jacksonian era, too, and Americans enjoyed their freedom of religion to the fullest; but this mass democracy with no external restraints quickly showed its preference for conventionally Christian mores. Mormon polygamy, Free Love permissiveness and other such movements existed and even flourished in their smaller spheres, and women’s rights agitators spoke out with courage; but the overall movement of American political society continued to favor the codification of morals along staid traditional lines. Indeed, movements to establish prohibition, regulate obscenity, limit divorce and prohibit abortion were among the prominent public crusades of the era.
The story on race, too, is a bleakly conventional one for the times. There were individual figures and, at times, serious if small political movements that embraced something like what we today would recognize as racial equality; but the general tendency of the nascent American democracy was to confirm and strengthen racial divisions. The years following the Civil War did not see the flowering of radical abolitionism and its commitment to equality; instead they witnessed the last of the great sectional compromises—the Compromise of 1876—in which the South conceded in principle on slavery and secession but received the right to treat African-Americans as something less than full citizens. Most of the North not only acquiesced in a southern system that rested ultimately on lynch law and mob rule, but northern states and localities—to say nothing of civil society—developed their own laws and practices to limit the democratic rights of African-Americans.
A history of the period from Jefferson to Lincoln should tell us how these foundations of the Compromise of 1876 and the party system associated with it were laid. After all, that compromise and that party system dominated American politics and social life until the 1960s. Yet that, it seems, is the last thing anybody—Right or Left—wants to do. As director Roger Elizabeth Debris hisses in The Producers about the original version of “Springtime for Hitler”, “That whole second act has to go… It’s too damn depressing.”
Wilentz, despite the superficially radical aura he sometimes projects, is essentially a mainstream progressive and even Whig historian—he is writing, after all, a book titled The Rise of American Democracy. This stance sometimes leads him to poor judgments. The worst, perhaps, is his lack of attention to the increasingly corrupt, immigrant-based big city machines and their increasing weight in the American party system—although this was undoubtedly one of the most important political developments of the era. This is part of a larger failure to deal with the rise of parties as organizations rather than as factions or collections of opinions. Wilentz lovingly highlights the economic radicalism of the 1830s, but is largely silent on the methods and processes by which this approach was gradually jettisoned until, by 1860, the hero of Yankee small “d” democracy was a convinced capitalist railroad lawyer (Abe Lincoln) who—like the majority Republican Party of the new North—firmly and resolutely poured scorn on the unorthodox economics of the Jackson years. Sometimes it seems as if every intellectual or activist who gets anywhere near the kind of integrated feminist anti-racism now de rigueur in American academic life gets some space and a pat on the head. The trouble is that most of these groupings and movements were utterly marginal. The space they take up in the Wilentz text both deprives the reader of the opportunity to understand more consequential movements—like the rise of big city machines, the growing popularity in the North of policies excluding free blacks from the West, and the prohibitionist and missionary movements—and creates false narrative expectations.
There are three objections to this type of reverse-projection history. One concerns accuracy. The modern historian who searches the past for examples of people and movements “we” would agree with today turns history into a funhouse mirror. If we gaze into the past mainly to discover our own resplendent image, we are guaranteed a distorted reflection. Wilentz is by no means a captive to this kind of historical narcissism, but there is just enough of it here to impair the usefulness of this nevertheless admirable work of judicious scholarship.
Second, there is a comprehension problem. If, when we turn to a complex and difficult era like Jackson’s we get confusing narrative signals—a lot of guns scattered about in the first act that don’t go off later in the play—the history is even harder to follow. One finds no historical roots for the Gilded Age if historians studying the preceding decades dwell largely on economic radicalism and the rise of genuinely non-racial abolitionism. It is a little bit like reading a history of the Weimar Republic that leaves out the Stalinists and the Nazis; interesting vignettes of well-established Jewish professionals, daring artists, radical feminists and gay rights groups somehow leave one unprepared for the next chapter, called “1933-39.”
Finally, the systematic misreading of the American past confounds one’s ability to assess the American present. No less a master of American politics than Franklin D. Roosevelt repeatedly overestimated the openness of the solidly Democratic white South to liberal politics, most disastrously during his failed “purge” of the anti-New Deal southern Democrats in 1938. A great many progressive politicians have come to grief in the last sixty years because they saw the Democratic Party through the spectacles of progressivism and populist resistance to capitalism. They failed to see the actually existing Democratic Party as an uneasy mix of urban big city machines—almost always deeply corrupt and invested far more in revenue than ideology—racist southern whites, a dwindling number of marginal family farmers and a large group of socially and religiously conservative industrial workers eager to assimilate into rather than overturn the basic structures of American political and economic life. During the Kennedy era it was conventional wisdom in enlightened Democratic circles that there were two natural ideological parties in the United States, one conservative and one liberal. Split and reassemble the existing ideologically mixed parties based on the Compromise of 1876 into more homogeneous liberal and conservative parties and the result would be a permanent majority for the liberal side. Well, the split came; but the permanent liberal majority did not.
The preference of American voters for explicitly Christian values in politics and policy, their skepticism about the value of unorthodox and left-wing economic ideas, respect for the military and a fear of foreign enemies, a tendency to rally around a president during elections in wartime, a tolerance for wide disparities in income and a propensity for identity—rather than interest-based politics—these are the normal attitudes of most voters throughout most of American history.
And that is why, though we should be grateful for Wilentz’s diligence and, in many cases, his judgment, we still need a good new history of the rise of American democracy. To be most effective, such a book would probably start with Andrew Jackson’s first, failed presidential campaign in 1824 and end with the Compromise of 1876. It would not neglect dissidents and minorities, but it would examine candidly, warts and all, the movements, practices, people and institutions that dominated the era, show how and why the winners defeated the losers, and leave readers understanding better than they do now how American democracy actually took shape. We need a history to inform the present, not to flatter it.