The Ages of Jackson

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.”1

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.”2

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 Forrest, the sculptors Horatio Greenough and Hiram Powers—ardent Jacksonians? And if the frontier was the force driving the Jacksonian upheaval, how to account for the preoccupation in the pamphlet literature by Jackson’s supporters with problems of a commercial society—with monopoly, with banking, with the business cycle, with the unequal distribution of the fruits of labor, with workingmen, with trade unions, with class conflict? How to account for the hatred the business community showed for Jackson and his works?

The Age of Jackson sought to combine narrative and analysis in a fresh look at the Jacksonian revolution. Historians had nearly all agreed that Jacksonian democracy was a frontier phenomenon, but they had vigorously disagreed on whether this was a good or bad thing. Judgment on the merits had varied according to the political climate. When Jackson was in the White House, respectable opinion had seen him as a rude and violent westerner who introduced the spoils system, wrecked the banking system, invited the unwashed mob to Washington, and hastened the degradation of the democratic dogma. This was the view expounded more genially by James Parton a quarter century later in his delightful and still valuable three-volume biography of Jackson (1860–1861). It was reaffirmed in the long conservative interlude after the Civil War by the sociologist William Graham Sumner in the incisive biography he wrote for the American Statesmen series in 1882.

The Populist revolt in the 1890s followed by the Progressive movement in the early twentieth century generated new perspectives. Frederick Jackson Turner argued the decisive significance of the western frontier in the rise of American democracy. Charles A. Beard offered an economic interpretation of the Constitution and analyzed the economic origins of Jeffersonian democracy. A new school of Progressive historians, seeking precedents for Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, ironically found more to praise in Jackson than TR and Wilson had done in their own days as historians. John Spencer Bassett in his excellent scholarly biography (1911), while expressing reservations about some of Jackson’s actions and policies, was typical in saluting “his brave, frank, masterly leadership of the democratic movement which then established itself in our life.”3 Writing a quarter century later under the shadow of the second Roosevelt, Marquis James in his vivid and detailed biography (1933, 1937) was almost unreserved in commendation.

Still, the Progressive historians mostly agreed with their conservative predecessors in seeing Jacksonian politics as essentially a conflict of sections rather than of classes and the Jacksonian victory as a triumph of western ideals. Beard in his Rise of American Civilization described the Jacksonian movement as “a triumphant farmer-labor party,”4 but even Beard held to the Turner thesis of the frontier origins of Jacksonian democracy.

The Age of Jackson took a different tack. It argued that more could be understood about Jacksonian democracy if it were regarded as a problem not of sections but of classes. As Jacksonian policies evolved, I contended, they were increasingly shaped not by the needs and demands of the frontier but by the needs and demands of workingmen, small farmers, and intellectuals in the East. Class conflict, for example, was hardly a feature of the far frontier, yet it was a favorite Jacksonian theme. Frontiers breed equality and individualism. Class resentments arise in a developed and stratified economic order. It was the East, not the frontier, that had the bitter experience of shrinking opportunity, growing inequality, and hardening class lines. The Age of Jackson further contended that Jacksonian democracy constituted the second phase, Jeffersonianism having been the first, of the perennial struggle between the business community and the rest of society for control of the state, a struggle I saw as the basic meaning of American liberalism and as the guarantee of freedom in a capitalist democracy.

Like historians before me, I too was reflecting the politics of my time. Growing up in the 1930s, I was conditioned politically by the passions of the New Deal era. J. Franklin Jameson said of George Bancroft that his history voted for Jackson. Some have said of me that my history votes for FDR, and I guess there is something to that.5

Conservatives in the angry 1930s used to fulminate against the New Deal as “un-American.” I wanted to show that, far from importing foreign ideas, FDR was acting in a robustly American spirit and tradition. Jackson’s war against Nicholas Biddle and the Second Bank of the United States as the instrumentality of the concentrated money power seemed an earlier and simpler version of the battles waged by Roosevelt against the “economic royalists” of my own day for control of national policy. The two presidents, it appeared, had much the same array of supporters and much the same array of enemies. (Years later I came upon a letter FDR had written to Colonel Edward M. House, Woodrow Wilson’s homme de confiance, in November 1933. “The real truth of the matter,” Roosevelt told House, “is, as you and I know, that a financial element in the larger centers has owned the Government ever since the days of Andrew Jackson—and I am not wholly excepting the Administration of W. W. The country is going through a repetition of Jackson’s fight with the Bank of the United States—only on a far bigger and broader basis.”6 )

The Age of Jackson was published in September 1945 while I was still in the army in Europe. The first reviews appeared two weeks after the surrender of Japan. Victory had vindicated the cause of liberal democracy. Now the question of democracy’s capacity to manage an uncertain future was much in people’s minds.

It was a propitious moment for a book about the American democratic tradition. Some families sent it to sons or husbands overseas who, like the author, were awaiting redeployment to the United States and demobilization. Over the years people have told me how they read The Age of Jackson in the South Pacific or the Aleutians or on transports on the way home.

Among historians The Age of Jackson has had its ups and downs. Its great value was that it helped reawaken professional interest in a complex and abundant period of American history. It stirred controversy, and controversy is always fruitful for historians. The initial reception was friendly. But soon objections were filed against one or another aspect of the book’s argument. By the early 1950s, the New Deal impulse was running its course. The nation was tired of wrangling and eager for healing. The onset of the cold war increased the felt need to affirm national cohesion and unity. President Eisenhower embodied the new mood. Progressive history, with its emphasis on conflict, began to give way to the delineation and, for some historians, celebration of the American consensus.7

Consensus historians contended that the beliefs that united Americans—private property, free enterprise, individual opportunity, limited government—were far more significant than the arguments that occasionally divided them. Those notorious confrontations beloved of progressive historians—between Jefferson and Hamilton, or Jackson and Nicholas Biddle, or FDR and Herbert Hoover—were dismissed as no more than family quarrels. Unlike the great revolutions of Europe, American political conflicts, the Civil War always excepted, were over nuances, not over basic shifts in ideas and power.

Scrutinized through the lenses of consensus history, the fierce political and ideological battles of the age of Jackson evaporated into inconsequence. Jacksonian Democrats and their Whig opponents, Richard Hofstadter and Bray Hammond explained, were all entrepreneurs together, all expectant capitalists, all plunged in the acquisitive scramble, all men on the make fighting sham battles to advance individual fortunes. Or, in Lee Benson’s version, ethnicity and religion were far more powerful determinants of voting than economic interests or political ideas. As for the drastic ideologies and the fusillades of apocalyptic denunciation, this alarmist rhetoric, as Benson put it in a major tract of the ethnocultural school, was no more than “campaign claptrap.”8 The consensus interpretation was eventually pressed to the point where it almost obliterated the differences between the Jacksonians and the Whigs and left the bitter political tone of the age of Jackson a mystery.

Now, as The Age of Jackson makes clear, there were indeed entrepreneurial hustlers in the Jacksonian coalition of the 1830s. There were state banking interests, southern planters, western inflationists, eastern businessmen on the way up. As a movement, Jacksonian democracy included opportunists out for a fast buck as well as radical democrats committed to pure doctrine. The same thing, mutatis mutandis, could be said of the Roosevelt coalition of the 1930s. Yet it seems to me hard to argue that Jacksonianism, or the New Deal for that matter, was essentially the philosophy of acquisitive enterprise. To identify Jackson with Biddle (or Herbert Hoover with FDR) would be to drain meaning from American political conflict. Analysis depends on the capacity to draw distinctions.

If the Jacksonians were a rabble of grasping entrepreneurs, who were the Whigs? If Jacksonian democracy served the interests of liberated capitalism, why were so many capitalists so ferociously against it? If many of the self-styled “workingmen” of Jackson’s day were not, in fact, workers at all but small proprietors on their way up, why should they define themselves as members of the working class and carry on so about the rich? If Americans of the 1830s were all dedicated to the same capitalist ends, what in the world were the rhetoric of Orestes Brownson and George Bancroft and the savage political conflict of the Jackson era all about?

These were questions the entrepreneurial thesis failed to answer. I have no doubt that historians writing, as I did, in the 1930s and early 1940s, with New Deal struggles reverberating in our minds, tended to exaggerate conflict in the American past. But I have no doubt either that historians writing in the 1950s tended to exaggerate consensus in the American past. However much they may have had in common, Jackson and Nicholas Biddle and their respective followers disagreed vehemently on something.

The consensus interpretation foundered eventually on its “campaign claptrap” assumption, that is that the Jacksonians and Whigs of the 1830s did not know, or mean, what they were talking about when they claimed that great differences divided them—that their words misrepresented their real thoughts and motives and that what they said about why they were doing what they were doing was either self-deceived or cynical; in any case, historically worthless.

Now our vanity as historians is to suppose that we understand better than the people who were there what the shouting was about. It is true enough that scholars looking back can know some things better than contemporary participants did. But 20-20 hindsight can be carried too far. Too often we suggest that those poor chaps in the past may have thought they were acting for one set of reasons; but we, so much wiser, know they were acting for quite other reasons. This reductionism denies historical figures the validity of their own judgments and thereby denies their human dignity—and of course invites future historians to practice the same reductionism on us. When participants explain in urgent words why they lived, fought, and bled, is it not intellectual arrogance for historians to reject their testimony?

What then was the source of the intense sense of conflict? My surmise is that it had to do with the basic question of a democratic polity: Who is to control the state? The clarity of this point is obscured, however, by confusion with a separate question: What is the proper role of the state?

On the second question, Jackson regarded himself as a Jeffersonian who believed—or believed he believed—that that government was best which governed least. His purpose, he said, was

to persuade my countrymen, so far as I may, that it is not in a splendid government supported by powerful monopolies and aristocratical establishments that they will find happiness, but in a plain system, void of pomp, protecting all and granting favors to none, dispensing its blessings, like the dews of Heaven, unseen and unfelt save in the freshness and bounty they contribute to produce.9

This was what I call “the Jeffersonian myth” in the last chapter of The Age of Jackson. As Marvin Meyers showed in his book The Jacksonian Persuasion (1957), the Jeffersonian myth was an essential part of the Jacksonian appeal—a potent appeal, in a time of wrenching economic change, to the frugal virtues of the old republic against the rising luxury, corruption, and concentrated money power.

In doctrine the Jacksonians were indisputably antistatist. On this level, my critics have a point when they claim the Whigs, and not the Jacksonians, as the real forerunners of the New Deal. The tradition of affirmative government was the tradition of Hamilton, not of Jefferson. Hamilton’s faith in the dynamics of individual acquisition was always tempered by an expectation of government control. Americans, he wrote, had “a certain fermentation of mind, a certain activity of speculation and enterprise which, if properly directed, may be made subservient to useful purposes but which, if left entirely to itself, may be attended with pernicious effect.”10 Subsequent statesmen in this tradition, especially John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, elaborated the Hamiltonian vision into what Clay called the American System—a great dream of economic development under the leadership of the national state.

When I wrote The Age of Jackson, “economic development” was not the issue that it became in the postwar years. The end of colonialism after the war and the emergence of independent states in the third world created new scholarly interest in the way a nation establishes its identity, evolves its political institutions, and achieves its economic growth. Analysis of this process gave historians new perspectives and insights.

Looking back, I think I did Hamilton, Adams, and Clay a good deal less than justice in The Age of Jackson. It is true that the American System, with its program of internal improvements, a protective tariff, and Biddle’s Bank of the United States, was designed to benefit the business classes; but this was not the whole truth. The Whig program was also designed to benefit the nation and to accelerate the pace of economic growth. In retrospect the Hamiltonians had a sounder conception of the role of government and a more constructive policy of economic development than the antistatist Jacksonians.

While I am confessing error, I must say a word too for Jackson’s allies in the war against the Bank, the wildcat bankers and their poorly secured paper notes. As Bray Hammond acidly pointed out in his able if misleading book Banks and Politics in America from the Revolution to the Civil War (1957), I knew very little about money when I wrote The Age of Jackson. My bias was rather in favor of the hard-money policy—that is, the maintenance of a stable ratio between paper and specie—and certainly against the unrestrained issue of paper notes by banks. As I now reflect on the Jacksonian period, having been enlightened in the years between by kindly instruction from John Kenneth Galbraith and the late Seymour Harris, I am less distressed by wildcat banking. The hard-money policy, systematically pursued, would have held back development. Wildcat banking enlarged the means of payment and stimulated growth. And as Peter Temin demonstrated in his admirable The Jacksonian Economy (1969), the inflation and subsequent depression of the 1830s were caused not by Jackson’s termination of the Bank of the United States and consequent uncontrolled overissue of notes by wildcat bankers, but by international monetary factors beyond Jackson’s control.

Saying that the Jacksonian doctrine was antistatist does not dispose, however, of the question: Who is to control the state? It does not even dispose of the other question: What is the proper role of the state?

The Jacksonians objected to the state because, as the radical editor William Leggett wrote at the time, the power of the state was “always” exercised “for the exclusive benefit of wealth. It was never wielded on behalf of the community.”11 Governmental power in support of special privilege had to be stopped: hence Jackson’s war against the Bank and the Maysville veto, his veto of a bill providing for federal purchase of stock in a Kentucky turnpike corporation. But government power wielded on behalf of the community would be another matter. Here the second question merges with the first: Who is to control the state? The Jacksonians were hostile to government intervention in the interests of the rich, not to government intervention per se. Where the Jeffersonians had supposed that governments would infallibly abuse power, Jackson in his Farewell Address on March 4, 1837, relegated such abuse to the category of “extreme cases, which we have no reason to apprehend in a Government where the power is in the hands of a patriotic people.”

Coming to the White House as a proclaimed foe of strong national government, Jackson, for all his Jeffersonian professions, left the national government stronger than ever before when he departed eight years later. In effect, he reinvented the presidency, changing the office from a rather passive and distant magistracy to an active agency of energy, initiative, and leadership. Executive deference to Congress was over, at least for a while. “The President,” Jackson said, “is the direct representative of the American people”12—more so, by implication, than the Congress. In this conviction, he appealed over the heads of Congress to the people, as in his veto message refusing to recharter the Bank of the US—“a manifesto of anarchy,” Biddle called it, “such as Marat or Robespierre might have issued to the mob of the Faubourg St. Antoine.”13 Indeed, he vetoed more bills than all his predecessors put together and did so on grounds of policy and not solely, as they had done, on presumptions of unconstitutionality. Though scholarship has shown that his exploits as a spoilsman were considerably exaggerated,14 he established the principle that the executive branch should be responsive to the purposes of the president. And he effectively took away control of national politics from Congress and delivered it to the mass political party. Presidential candidates hereafter were chosen not by congressional caucuses but by national conventions.

Even more important, Jackson took two decisive steps to affirm the supremacy of the national government—one against a rebellious state, South Carolina, the other against the most powerful private corporation in the country. I mean, of course, Jackson’s proclamation condemning South Carolina’s attempt to nullify the Tariff Act of 1832 and the Bank veto. Had South Carolina got away with nullification, had Biddle shown that the Bank of the United States was more powerful than the government of the United States, the implications for the future of the republic would have been considerable. “The Bank of the United States,” Jackson told his cabinet in words that might also have applied to the state of South Carolina, “is in itself a Government which has gradually increased its strength from the day of its establishment. The question between it and the people has become one of power.”15 Jackson, in mastering these two profound challenges to federal authority, established that authority more firmly than ever.

That is why Henry Clay, in calling on the Senate to censure Jackson for the removal of federal funds from the US Bank, made his passionate cry in 1833, “We are in the midst of a revolution, hitherto bloodless, but rapidly tending toward a total change of the pure republican character of the government, and to the concentration of all power in the hands of one man.”16 Even a Jacksonian like Brownson exclaimed with alarm at Jackson’s “tendency to Centralization and his evident leaning to Bureaucraticy“; Jackson had made more rapid strides toward “Centralization and to the Bureaucratic system than even the most sensitive nullifier has yet suspected.”17 Another young Jacksonian, that intelligent rogue Ben Butler of Massachusetts, wrote in his memoirs that, while he had been “dazzled with the brilliancy of Jackson’s administration…I early had sense enough to see that it conflicted, in a very considerable degree, with the teachings of Jefferson.”18

In the years since The Age of Jackson such scholars as J. G. A. Pocock and Gordon Wood have given new clarity to the competing visions of “republicanism” and “liberalism” in the first generation of independence. Republicanism called on citizens to subordinate their individual interests to public virtue and the common good. Liberalism argued that citizens in pursuing their individual interests promoted the common good. Historians disagree about the proportions in which republicanism and liberalism were mingled in the revolutionary mind and about the time when liberalism drove republicanism out. In any event, as Jackson once told James K. Polk, “My political creed…was formed in the old republican school.”19

The old republican creed, as Robert V. Remini persuasively shows in his fine recent biography of Jackson, nourished Jackson’s commitment to public virtue and sanctioned government action to secure the common good. Roger B. Taney, who served Jackson as attorney general and as secretary of the treasury and whom Jackson thereafter made chief justice, summed up the point when the Supreme Court vindicated the right of the state of Massachusetts to construct a free bridge over the Charles River at the expense of a privately owned toll bridge. “The object and end of all government,” Taney wrote for the Court, “is to promote the happiness and prosperity of the community…and it can never be assumed, that the government intended to diminish its power of accomplishing the end for which it was created.”20

Under the banner of antistatism, the Jacksonians carried on an aggressive program of government intervention and regulation. Intervention was required to dismantle existing structures of privilege, starting of course with the Bank of the United States. “A good deal of positive government,” wrote John L. O’Sullivan, the editor of the Democratic Review, “may be yet wanted to undo the manifold mischiefs of past misgovernment.”21 Regulation was required to prevent banks and corporations from erecting a new structure of privilege. “It is the duty of every government,” Jackson said, “so to regulate its currency as to protect this numerous [laboring] class as far as practicable from the impositions of avarice and fraud” and to prevent the use of “the paper money system…as an engine to undermine your free institutions.”22

In practice, the answer to the question of the proper role of the state depended for the Jacksonians on the answer to the question who controlled the state; and this is what the fight in the age of Jackson was all about.

If one supposed that the Jacksonians and Whigs meant what they said about each other at the time, it was hard to accept the consensus thesis in either its entrepreneurial or ethnocultural variants. Changes in the political weather once more encouraged changes in historical interpretation. The tumult and violence of the 1960s intensified doubts about the famous American consensus. If there were real disagreements in the 1960s, might not there also have been real disagreements in the 1830s?

James Roger Sharp in The Jacksonians versus the Bank (1970), John M. McFaul in The Politics of Jacksonian Finance (1972), and William G. Shade in Banks or No Banks: The Money Question in Western Politics (1972) soon demonstrated that the Jacksonians were determined to regulate and reform the banking system. The denial of recharter to the Bank of the United States did not mean, as the entrepreneurial school had contended, a license for unrestrained state banking. Federal funds were now deposited in state banks; but, as Professor McFaul showed, Secretary of the Treasury Taney moved quickly to issue new regulations, to assume central banking functions, and to reward “financial stability rather than political fidelity” in the allocation of government deposits.23 Deposit banking itself, Professor Remini had noted, “represented an enormous extension of executive power.”24

It behooves you,” Jackson said in his Farewell Address, “…to be watchful in your States as well as in the Federal Government.”25 When Jackson’s program of national control of the deposit bank system failed, the battle to regulate banking shifted to the states, where Jacksonians called for governmental inspection and audit of bank records, amendment of bank charters, elimination of small notes and of limited liability, requirements of a specie reserve for circulation and discount. Van Buren’s proposal that government funds be placed in federal subtreasuries, finally enacted in 1840, sought to give regulatory provisions, especially control over state bank notes, federal status. These reforms, Professor Sharp wrote,

were aimed at one objective—the restriction or elimination of the virtually unlimited power that antebellum bankers had over prices, the money supply, and the economic cycle. By insisting upon a currency with a larger specie base…the Democrats hoped to establish specie as a kind of internal regulating device in the American banking system. The relatively stable and more responsible conduct of the country’s banks from the early 1840s to the Civil War was due in large part to Democratic sponsored bank reforms and the vigorous hard-money critique.26

Most scholars today, I believe, would agree with the Jacksonians and Whigs of the 1830s that the two parties represented very different attitudes toward business and, to a degree, different classes. “The entrepreneurial thesis, as it applies to Jacksonian democracy,” Professor McFaul concluded, “requires severe modification if not abandonment.”27 “The Democratic party,” Professor Sharp wrote, “did not engage in the battle over banks and currency as the party of the entrepreneur…. The Whigs were the champions of the banks against the ‘radicalism’ of the Jacksonians. Despite internal feuding, the main body of the Democratic party supported radical reform of the banks.”28 “In the ideological universe of Jacksonian America,” Dr. John Ashworth wrote in “Agrarians” and “Aristocrats”: Party Political Ideology in the United States, 1837–1846,

democracy and capitalism were in conflict. Unless this fundamental truth is recognized the politics of the age will remain ultimately incomprehensible…. More obviously anti-entrepreneurial than entrepreneurial, more nearly anti-capitalist than pro-capitalist, and more overtly radical than conservative, Jacksonian Democracy was an avowedly egalitarian movement which sought to utilize the power that democracy gave to the individual in order to resist those social and political forces which took it away.”29

The evidence of the radical period,” Professor Cole said of New Hampshire, “…suggests that Arthur Schlesinger’s interpretation of Jacksonian democracy is more accurate than that of the entrepreneurial historians.”30 It seems, after all, that there was a struggle between the business community and the rest of society over who should control the state.

Every generation produces its own portrait of Jackson: Parton in the 1860s, Sumner in 1882, Bassett in 1911, James in the 1930s. This generation has been splendidly served by Robert V. Remini’s three volumes published between 1977 and 1984 and followed in 1988 by the author’s one-volume abridgment. Professor Remini used the concept of “republicanism” most effectively to illuminate Jackson’s character and policies and saw Jackson’s presidency as a vindication of the right of the majority to govern the nation.31 While critical of Jackson in many respects, he concluded that the entrepreneurial school was “wrong about the Jacksonian movement and wrong about Jackson’s place in American history.” Bray Hammond was “totally wrong respecting Jackson’s role and involvement in the Bank War.” When Jackson talked about workers, he did not mean entrepreneurs or rising capitalists; he “referred to urban workers to a very large extent.” Jackson’s public statements were not “claptrap.” Professor Remini affirmed “Jackson’s right to many of the claims advanced for him by the Progressive and New Deal historians.”32

I do not suggest that the reaction against the consensus interpretation of Jacksonian democracy represents a total vindication of The Age of Jackson. I well know the infirmities of the work. History reflects the age. As new preoccupations seize historians in the present, we discern new possibilities in the past. In this sense, the present persistently re-creates the past. When I wrote The Age of Jackson, the predicament of women, of blacks, of Indians was shamefully out of mind.33 The perspective of 1990 is bound to be different from that of 1940. So, one may be sure, will be the perspective of 2040.

The Jacksonian era, moreover, is filled with ambiguities that invite perpetual debate. The ideological situation was deeply confused. As the business community was dimly retreating from the Hamiltonian faith in affirmative government, so those who sought to limit business power were dimly retreating from the Jeffersonian faith in negative government. Neither side was prepared to redefine its principles and policies. It is this very complexity and obscurity, along with the fierceness of the polemics and the brilliance of the protagonists, that make the age of Jackson so endlessly fascinating for the historian—and insure that each generation will continue to reach back into this rich and exciting time to fashion its own image of Jacksonian democracy.

  1. 1

    Orestes A. Brownson, “The Laboring Classes,” Boston Quarterly Review (July 1840).

  2. 2

    Bancroft to the Workingmen of Northampton, October 1, 1834, Boston Courier, October 22, 1834; Bancroft to Brownson, September 21, 1836, H. F. Brownson, Orestes A. Brownson’s Early Life (H. F. Brownson, 1898), pp. 179–181.

  3. 3

    J. S. Bassett, The Life of Andrew Jackson (Macmillan, 1911), p. 750.

  4. 4

    Charles A. and Mary Beard, The Rise of American Civilization, Volume I (1927; revised edition, 1933), p. 542. Beard had at one point planned to carry his study of Jeffersonian democracy into the Jacksonian era, and he very kindly lent me his notes on this period. While admiring their tidiness and legibility, I did not in fact find them especially useful for my purposes.

  5. 5

    J. Franklin Jameson, The History of Historical Writing in America (Houghton Mifflin, 1891), p. 107; Alfred A. Cave, Jacksonian Democracy and the Historians (University of Florida Press, 1964), p. 52.

  6. 6

    Roosevelt to House, November 21, 1933; reprinted in F. D. R.: His Personal Letters, 1928–1945, Elliott Roosevelt, ed., Volume I (Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1950), p. 373.

  7. 7

    Two historians who made notable contributions to the consensus interpretation of Jacksonian democracy—Richard Hofstadter in his influential essay on Jackson in The American Political Tradition (Knopf, 1948) and Edward Pessen in his voluminous and useful writings on the Jackson era—defined the consensus from a critical perspective and deplored it.

  8. 8

    Lee Benson, The Concept of Jacksonian Democracy (Princeton University Press, 1961), p. 81. This book oddly based its analysis of Jacksonian democracy not on the election of 1832 but on the election of 1844, after the ideological passions had subsided. It was as if someone had based a book called The Concept of the New Deal on the politics of the 1950s rather than on the politics of the 1930s. It is when class and interest politics recede that cultural politics—ethnicity, religion, social status, morality—come to the fore.

  9. 9

    Jackson’s “Protest to the Senate” (April 15, 1834). The protest was occasioned by the passage by the Senate of resolutions censuring Jackson for removal of government deposits from the Bank of the United States and thereby assuming “upon himself authority and power not conferred by the Constitution and laws, but in derogation of both.”

  10. 10

    Report on Manufactures (1791).

  11. 11

    William Leggett, “True Functions of Government,” New York Evening Post (November 21, 1834); reprinted in Social Theories of Jacksonian Democracy, ed. Joseph L. Blau (Hafner, 1947), p. 77.

  12. 12

    Protest to the Senate.”

  13. 13

    Biddle to Henry Clay, August 1, 1832; reprinted in Clay, Private Correspondence, Calvin Colton, ed. (Frederick Parker, 1856), p. 341.

  14. 14

    See Leonard D. White, The Jacksonians (Macmillan, 1954), and Sidney H. Aronson, Status and Kinship in the Higher Civil Service (Harvard University Press, 1964).

  15. 15

    Jackson, paper read to the Cabinet, (September 18, 1833), quoted in Robert V. Remini, Andrew Jackson and the Bank War (Norton, 1967), p. 119.

  16. 16

    The Age of Jackson (1945; reprinted by Little, Brown, 1988), pp. 106–107.

  17. 17

    Brownson in the Boston Reformer, (August 4, 1837). Could Brownson have invented the word that was soon shortened to “bureaucracy”? The Oxford English Dictionary‘s first citation of “bureaucracy” is to John Stuart Mill in 1848.

  18. 18

    Benjamin F. Butler, Butler’s Book (A. M. Thayer, 1892), p. 85.

  19. 19

    Jackson to Polk (December 4, 1826); quoted in Robert V. Remini, Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Freedom, 1822–1832 (Harper and Row, 1981), p. 32.

  20. 20

    Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge, 11 Peters 457. For an extended discussion of the Jacksonian attitude toward government, see “Affirmative Government and the American Economy” in Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., The Cycles of American History (Houghton Mifflin, 1986), especially pages 219–231.

  21. 21

    John L. O’Sullivan, “Note,” Democratic Review (May 1843).

  22. 22

    Farewell Address.”

  23. 23

    John M. McFaul, The Politics of Jacksonian Finance (Cornell University Press, 1972), p. 61.

  24. 24

    Remini, Andrew Jackson and the Bank War, p. 125.

  25. 25

    Farewell Address.”

  26. 26

    James R. Sharp, The Jacksonians versus the Bank (Columbia University Press, 1970), p. 328. For a similar conclusion, see Charles Sellers, introduction to Andrew Jackson: A Profile (Hill and Wang, 1971), p. xvi.

  27. 27

    McFaul, The Politics of Jacksonian Finance, p. 10.

  28. 28

    Sharp, The Jacksonians versus the Banks, p. 321.

  29. 29

    John Ashworth, “Agrarians” and “Aristocrats”: Party Political Ideology in the United States, 1837–1846 (Longwood Publishing Group, 1983), pp. 269, 51.

  30. 30

    Donald B. Cole, Jacksonian Democracy in New Hampshire: 1800–1851 (Harvard University Press, 1970), p. 214.

  31. 31

    Professor Remini sees Jackson’s emphasis on majority rule as a subversion of “the entire concept of ‘republicanism’ as it had come down from the Founding Fathers” (Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Freedom, p. 323). This formulation may carry the argument too far. The Founding Fathers were not against majority rule so long as it was mediated through representative institutions. “The fundamental maxim of republican government,” Hamilton wrote in the 22nd Federalist, “…requires that the sense of the majority should prevail.” The antidote to the mischiefs of faction, Madison wrote in the 10th Federalist, “is supplied by the republican principle which enables the majority to defeat [the minority’s] sinister views by regular vote.”

  32. 32

    Robert V. Remini, Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Democracy, 1833–1845 (Harper and Row, 1984), pp. xv–xvi, 340–341, 615.

  33. 33

    Those who condemn Jackson and his works out of hand because of his Indian removal policy should, before rushing to judgment, read Francis Paul Prucha, “Andrew Jackson’s Indian Policy: A Reassessment,” Journal of American History (December 1969).