My involvement with the age of Jackson began more than half a century ago. Seeking a subject for an honors essay as an undergraduate at Harvard College in the autumn of 1937, I chose the formidable nineteenth-century American intellectual Orestes A. Brownson. Brownson was a man of many careers—preacher, editor, Transcendentalist fellow traveler, Jacksonian reformer, Catholic convert—and an episode in his Jacksonian phase struck me as of curious interest.
In 1838 Brownson’s services in the Jacksonian cause had been rewarded by his appointment as inspector of a government hospital. The arrangement permitted him to continue editing a magazine; and when Jackson’s friend and successor President Martin Van Buren ran for reelection in the picturesque “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” contest of 1840, Brownson created considerable embarrassment for his fellow Democrats by writing an inflammatory essay entitled “The Laboring Classes.” After describing the exploitation of the workers, Brownson raised the specter of “that most dreaded of all wars, the war of the poor against the rich, a war which, however long it may be delayed, will come, and come with all its horrors.” To avert that war, he said, the age must recognize its historic responsibility. “Our business is to emancipate the proletaries, as the past has emancipated the slaves.”
Reading “The Laboring Classes” a century later, I was struck by Brownson’s drastic class analysis. How had it come about that, eight years before Marx and Engels produced The Communist Manifesto, a Jacksonian Democrat in far-off America expressed such “Marxist” views in such “Marxist” language? Brownson, moreover, had received his government job from the historian George Bancroft, who, as collector of the port of Boston, was Van Buren’s man in Massachusetts, and Bancroft evidently thought along similar lines. “The feud between the capitalist and laborer, the house of Have and the house of Want,” Bancroft had written, “is as old as social union…. It is now for the yeomanry and the mechanics to march at the head of civilization. The merchants and the lawyers, that is, the moneyed interest broke up feudalism. The day for the multitude has now dawned.”
Jackson had conventionally been seen as a champion of the frontier; his presidency as the eruption of the backwoods west into national power. Yet it appeared that eastern intellectuals like Brownson and Bancroft had their own stake in the Jacksonian uprising. Moreover, was not someone like Henry Clay of Kentucky quite as representative of the frontier as Andrew Jackson of Tennessee? And Clay, as the champion of the American System of national development, based on the protective tariff, the United States Bank, and federal aid for internal improvement, was Jackson’s mortal political antagonist.
If Jacksonianism meant no more than the surge of uncouth backwoodsmen onto the national scene, why were so many leading writers and artists of the day—not only Bancroft and Brownson but James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Cullen Bryant, Washington Irving, Walt Whitman, James Kirke Paulding, the actor Edwin …